Help! I Don’t Want to Hang Out with My Friends Who Drink

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I hope you can help me with something. Recently I decided I don’t want to drink anymore. I was never a big drinker to begin with and don’t have an alcohol problem, but when I hung out with my friends, I would often have two or three drinks, which is fairly typical for everyone in our group. But even though it feels good in the moment and makes me more social, I don’t like the way I feel after drinking alcohol, and that’s increasingly true as I get older (I just turned 35). It pretty much ruins the next day for me, as I barely feel like getting out of bed, let alone leaving my apartment.

This is a hard decision for me because I really like my friends and I don’t expect them to not drink around me. But it feels weird sometimes to be the only person who isn’t drinking—almost like I’m the one person who isn’t in on the joke. It’s just not as fun. I also don’t want to feel pressured to drink, even though I know my friends wouldn’t actively try to get me to do something I wasn’t comfortable with. Likewise, I also don’t want my friends to feel pressured to not drink just because I choose to abstain. I’m worried they will think I think they have a problem or that I am judging them.

What do you think I should do? —Sober Thoughts

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Dear Sober,

Congratulations on a mature decision. I guess I have my own sober thought, which is (with all due respect to your friends): are there any social activities to choose from besides imbibing, especially at 35? I can understand this as the focus at 25, but as one’s 30s roll around, the “party” kind of peters out and new responsibilities—work, family, etc.—eke into the foreground. It sounds like this is where you are going with your admirable decision, quite appropriate for someone a few years from 40.

Of course, this is a generalization, and there are some professions—journalism, entertainment, trading, and tech, to name a few—where “getting drinks” can be almost ritualistic. But many folks in those professions are sober, or can have one or two and then head home, in some cases to their partner or kids. The focus becomes less the booze than the socializing. Plus, as you astutely state, as we get older it often gets harder to shake off liquor’s aftereffects.

Are there any alternatives for your group besides drinking? I would think your friends would support your decision, and wonder why you wouldn’t tell them. (More on that in a moment.)

I can understand feeling like the “odd person out” if you are not partaking. Though I can’t imagine that, if they truly are friends, they would mind trying something different now and again, especially if you are in a city. There are plenty of ways to hang out or blow off steam: music, readings, dancing, theater, comedy clubs, etc.

If the main focus of this gang is the liquor, that itself is worth a ponder. Perhaps it’s worth expanding your social circle in any event; try going online and finding a hiking group or even a language, photography, or cooking class (or whatever moves you). Perhaps you could get more involved with local community or, if you’re so inclined, religious or spiritual activities. Familiarity and routine can be comforting, but may also keep our worlds smaller than is needed.

Perhaps you fear feeling rejected or seen as “wimpy” for not drinking. You don’t sound judgmental and your decision is sound; anyone judging you is not much of a friend.

I am intuiting that this group may be a holdover from college, or that you work together? True friendships would have more than only that in common; the underlying anxiety in your question makes me wonder if you are concerned you’ll be alone if you lose this group, though again, if they are not willing to be flexible, how reliable are they? Perhaps you fear feeling rejected or seen as “wimpy” for not drinking. You don’t sound judgmental and your decision is sound; anyone judging you is not much of a friend.

I can share with you some personal experience, which parallels others’ experience, though my situation is slightly different than yours. When I got sober and began recovery, with an alcohol problem that had me at the end of my rope, only two people protested that sobriety was “going overboard”; one smoked marijuana regularly, while the other had a problem (long hidden) with “downers.” The rest of my friends were congratulatory and flexible in joining me in new activities. It was something of a revelation that they were happy to see me and not the bottle.

In fact, I was shocked to discover most people truly don’t care about another’s drinking, and most don’t get smashed at social occasions. The latter was truly revelatory to me. Even now, at intimate dinner parties, it’s rare that anyone comments on (or even notices!) my having juice rather than wine.

I find that as we get older, the time we get to spend with our friends becomes more and more precious as our lives fill up with more responsibilities, especially if we start a family. It’s good to be able to savor it as much as we can. (Is dating a goal or interest of yours, by the way? I am sure any worthy partner would respect your decision.)

Finally, I detect anxiety in your decision about your effect on others. Contrary to many self-help affirmations (such as “I don’t need anyone’s approval”), most of us do care—at least a little—about how others perceive us. But there comes a time when we have to decide what’s best for us … and see who stands by us. It is not always an easy choice, and I wonder if you are beholden to the opinions of the group in a way that limits your choices. If so, it might be worth some non-critical self-reflection as to why. It has taken me quite some time to finally accept that we cannot control how or what others think of us, even when we prefer those thoughts to be positive.

Any friendship worth its salt relies—to some degree, at least—on flexibility and empathy. It sounds like you have good reasons to set aside the booze to improve the quality of your life, and for that you are to be commended. My hope is you find that your friends are more supportive than you think.

Kind regards,

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
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  • Arnie

    Arnie

    December 14th, 2017 at 12:29 PM

    I learned that I don’t have to drink to have a fun time with a bunch of people who are drinking. You get all of the fun and lowered inhibitions of being drunk – who cares if you say something stupid when everyone is half in the bag? You also don’t have to pay for booze or deal with hangovers. Been going to bars stone cold sober for nigh on 20 years now, and cannot recommend it enough.

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