Staying sober when your friends drink

Sober Time - Beach

No matter how old we are, pure pressure can still have a major effect on us. It can be pressure to have a slice of cake when we are trying to eat better, pressure to stay out that extra hour even though you have work the next day and pressure to drink alcohol when you are trying to stay sober.

Our friends and family can be our greatest support system and also our worst. When you make a major life changing decision to quit alcohol, you quickly find out who is who.

Why is everyone trying to get you to drink?

Before you dismiss your friends as unsupportive, there is a reason that they are giving you the old, “oh, just one glass!” Maybe it is because they are unsupportive, but it can also be because humans are tribal beings. We are evolutionarily programmed to support group cohesion by conforming to group norms and shunning non-conformity.

When we do something major like stop drinking, an activity that has generally bonded the group, we’ve essentially violated previously established social norms. Whether they’re conscious of it or not, this could be a little threatening to the other members of the group.

Some studies also suggest that by announcing that we’re no longer drinking, we’re subconsciously signaling to the group that there is something wrong with their drinking. It can sometimes feel like judgment and can be met with hostility and defensiveness.

Understanding why your friends are putting the pressure on you can help you diffuse it. Here are a few tips for how to handle pushy friends who still drink without compromising your sobriety.

Be honest and straightforward with your friends

If you feel like those around you are being pushy with you, even if it’s passive aggressive, talk to them. It may not be that your friends are shoving drinks in your face at dinner, but maybe you’re getting a lot of sarcastic comments or “jokes” at your expense.

Are your friends sending you lame sobriety memes about how your life is going to be boring forever? Is someone cracking jokes at dinner while the wine bottle gets passed around? These are usually big red flags.

Call them out and have a serious conversation about what’s going on with the group. Find a time when everyone is coherent and calm.

Let them know you understand it’s a little different with you not drinking and you’re not trying to make anyone feel like their drinking is wrong, but the jokes at your expense aren’t helping you. Reinforce that what you’re doing is important to you and you need them to be more supportive.

People who are supportive and healthy for you to be around are going to apologize. They’re going to make a conscious effort to no longer behave that way.

What if my friends aren’t being receptive?

If your talk with your friends or family didn’t go as planned and you’re getting met with eye rolls, calls to lighten up, and advice that you should learn to take a joke, you might be in the wrong crowd.

Sit them down again and let them know that you’re being very serious and they need to be more supportive and if not, you won’t be able to spend time with them any longer.  As difficult as it is, you can’t keep people around you who don’t support your sobriety. You’re not being unreasonable for wanting a good support system. If the people around you aren't on board with your choice to remain sober - you need to re-evaluate your support circle.

Don’t let these alleged friends of yours pressure you into thinking that you’re being dramatic or silly for asking them to stop doing things that threaten your sobriety. You are your biggest priority and if someone is not on the same page, unfortunately you need to distance yourself. 

Have a response ready to the drinking question

At several points during early sobriety, you’re probably going to get asked why you’re not drinking. Have a response ready, such as, “I just find I feel better if I don’t drink.’’ If that doesn’t work, or if you feel under pressure from friends to drink, this is the point where you have to question those relationships.

Be more selective about when you hang out together

Sobriety is an adjustment for everyone involved. In the early days, it’s important to focus on social activities that don’t center around alcohol. Even if your friends are not directly pressuring you to drink, just being around everyone as they’re drinking can spark internal pressure to cave.

Politely decline invites to activities that you are not 100% confident you can handle sober. Avoid bars and pubs. I, too, can order a salad of a menu that has nachos and feel good about it at the time. But I also know that at some point, I’m probably going to cave and get the nachos which I will strongly regret later. 

Avoiding the boozy scenes may mean that you’re doing some earlier-in-the-day small group or one-on-one meetups with your friends, and that’s okay. There is no law that says your social life is only valid if it’s happening at night. If all else fails, just stay home. Keep the focus on yourself. 

Always have an escape plan

Dinner, work parties, and any explicitly alcohol-related events can be a challenge to newly sober people so you need a plan if you are going to attend these.

Make sure you have a plan for how to handle anything tricky. Let your friends know that if you start to feel too tempted or if it gets past (whatever time) in the evening, you’ll need to leave. Also, the sober version of your friends may understand this. The intoxicated version of your friends, however, can be a little fuzzy with the boundaries.

If it looks like your friends might be venturing into the land of the drunk, it’s probably your cue to head home. If you can, try to take a sober friend with you for moral support. 

Planning ahead is crucial, and if a situation is likely to be high risk, it’s absolutely fine for the plan be to simply opt out. If you’re feeling more than a little tempted, leave. Why take the chance and test your willpower?

Let them come to you

If things have gotten awkward since you stopped drinking, it’s fine to put a little space between you and your friends, especially if yours was a boozy bunch.

Remember – first things first. Before anything and everything, your sobriety. Today, you’re not going to drink and if that means that TODAY, you don’t hang out with your friends, then that’s all it means. You don’t need to assign any more meaning to it than that. Your friends may end up surprising you. Perhaps they’ll call you to grab a coffee and chat and it will be like nothing’s changed at all. 

Either they will seek you out and you’ll navigate your new, sober relationship OR time will do what it always does and you’ll all move on. Trust your friends to be there. Your real ones, at least. Sobriety can have a great impact on friendships. Use the time you previously spent drinking to form new friendships. You’ll meet new people through yoga, swimming, going to the gym or your local support groups. You’ll be entering a new social world where drinking is not the only function of the gathering.

Sobriety can feel lonely, you're not alone 

If you’re feeling sad because your entire social circle seems to have abandoned you, please know that you are not alone.

There are great online supportive communities such as Talking Sober, as well as other online spaces. There is always your local AA or other recovery programs you can turn to. Whenever you find yourself questioning if you made the right choice by giving up drinking, remember your reasons for choosing sobriety in the first place.

You’re doing an incredible thing for yourself and that’s going to attract like-minded people. If your social group is built around drinking it can be hard to gain acceptance for a behavior not practiced by the group. 

For people contemplating a sober lifestyle they will likely need to develop new peer groups and activities. They are there - all you need to do is find them.


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