How to Turn “I Should Drink Less” to “I Want to Drink Less”

4 min read
Films42 / Pixabay

Source: Films42 / Pixabay

“You should just drink less.”

It’s advice that many drinkers have received as they advance in their drinking careers. As alcohol starts to cause more and more issues in one’s life, well-intentioned family and friends begin to suggest that one should work on “cutting down.”

The advice seems sound and logical, and after some initial resistance, many drinkers eventually try it. They set different versions of the goal aimed at the same end—drink less.

If you want to change how you drink, you may even have set a few of these goals yourself. They may sound like: “I will stop after two drinks,” “I will only drink over the weekend,” or “I will never drink again.”

Behavior-Based Goals

I call these behavior-based goals, which aim to achieve certain behavioral outcomes. For example, staying abstinent is about not drinking, stopping after two drinks is about not drinking more than a certain amount, and only drinking over the weekend means not drinking on certain days. They’re all about regulating what you do or don’t do.

Behavior-based goals are specific and easy to measure, two important factors in goal setting. Moreover, they’re intuitive. They directly address the issue causing concerns in a person’s life.

No wonder, when I ask new clients about their goals, nine out of 10 times, their answer is behavior-based, such as moderation, abstinence, or anything in between.

Behavior-Based Goal Issues

However, there’s one problem with behavior-based goals: they often feel like imposed rules. You know you should do it, but you don’t always want to do it.

It’s like a kid who is told to clean their bedroom. You may get them to do it by telling them they’ll lose their TV privileges if they don’t. But they would do it reluctantly and slack whenever they got a chance.

Humans are emotionally driven creatures. We go to work each morning to feel secure, exercise regularly to feel strong, and plan vacations every year to feel relaxed. Behind each behavior is an emotional drive, a feeling we wish to achieve.

Yet, goals that focus on behavioral outcomes often lack emotional elements. A kid doesn’t know why they want to clean their room except “my mom said I can’t watch TV if I don’t.” External rules enforce the behavior. Similarly, when a person is told, either by others or themselves, “drink less or you will (some kind of negative consequence),” the choice to “drink less” is imposed by external force rather than driven by internal desires.

From Behavioral to Emotional

On the other hand, once you help a kid discover their internal desire for a clean space, they will clean the room because they want to rather than because they were told to. You may achieve this by tapping into the beam of joy they’d feel when others praise the tidiness of their sock drawer or the at-ease feeling of knowing that they’ll never again lose their favorite toy soldier. That way, you have a much better chance of helping them make cleaning their room a lifelong habit.

The internal drive stems from a desirable emotional state. Similarly, when a person can tap into an emotionally driven motivation to drink less, the act of not drinking will come much more naturally and with ease.

Like many of my clients, I was once an excessive drinker. I, too, had set many behavior-based goals. Despite successfully achieving periods of abstinence with willpower, I often felt exhausted and deprived. I thought life would be a forever white-knuckling battle before discovering the power of emotional-based goals.

Once I could tap into my emotional desire, a shift happened. I replaced the old goal of “staying abstinent” with the new goal of “feeling free and in control.” The dreadful feeling of “I can’t drink” was soon replaced by the anticipation of “I want to be free.” The decision to turn down a drink in the evening no longer comes from the rulebook but directly from my heart.

The Power of Emotional-Based Goals

As a therapist and a sober curiosity guide, I help my clients shift from behavior-based goals to emotional-based goals. While a behavior-based goal focuses on what you need to do, an emotional-based goal emphasizes how you want to feel.

Many of my clients were initially skeptical when I asked them to forget their “drinking less” goal for a second; it almost felt like permission to slack. But here’s the thing: When you finally get in touch with the internal state of being you truly desire, behavioral change follows.

Real, long-lasting change starts from within. With an emotional-based goal, not drinking becomes a heartfelt choice rather than an imposed obligation.

To learn more, visit Sober Curiosity.

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