Sober Curious: How To Break The Cycle Of Drinking Culture

Oh, that margarita you’re holding is zero-proof? Your secret is safe with me.

By Andrea Mew7 min read

How did your dry January go? After I wrote my full guide on how to ace an all-in dry month, I challenged myself to try the trend for a full month of sobriety. Now, full disclosure, I’ve never had true struggles with alcohol and have probably gone extended periods of time without drinking in the past. But after Christmas, I thought back on my habits for the past couple of years and realized that there were probably very few weeks where I didn’t have at least one drink.

January came and went with ease, and once February rolled around, I didn’t even make a concerted effort to break my sobriety until it happened organically, a couple of weeks in. Keeping in mind that someday I’d like to be pregnant, I’m eager to maintain my newly sober-curious headspace and teetotal more often. 

In my own personal experience, that’s no biggie, but if you’ve found yourself controlled by drinking culture in your social life and are having a hard time handling happy hour anymore, let this serve as your motivation to break the cycle of drinking culture.

Wait, Before I Get into It

You’re not in control of everything. You’re in control of your own mind and actions, but there’s only so much you can do to control the world around you. Allowing yourself to get bogged down by small setbacks or naysayers isn’t productive to becoming a more disciplined person. In the face of adversity, you need to stick to your convictions and refuse to budge. The philosopher Epictetus explained this brilliantly in his “dichotomy of control,” which means being mindful of what you have power over and what you don’t. Embracing the fact that certain things are out of your control helps you experience tranquility and improves your own personal discipline.

Embracing the fact that certain things are out of your control helps you experience tranquility and improves your own personal discipline.

This ties into another teaching by philosopher Marcus Aurelius who said to “turn your desire into stone. Quench your appetites. Keep your mind centered on itself.” Breaking the cycle of drinking culture involves defining your purpose and sticking to a practical, actionable plan to achieve your goal. Your goal is to improve your relationship with alcohol, learn how to love the sober you, and reject cultural norms that send your peers spiraling into potentially fatal behaviors. You’ll face a lot of pressure, but there are tried and true ways to cope with situations in which you can’t entirely avoid the presence of alcohol.

Your Foolproof Guide on Politely Refusing Alcohol

A little bit of honesty can go a long way, both with the people you’re surrounding yourself with and yourself. First, if you’re spending time with people who make you feel guilty about a health choice, then it’s not worth spending time with those people. True friends will understand and accept your decision to pass on a drink. Sure, they might make a joke (which you shouldn’t take as offensive), but if you’re starting to feel ostracized by your social circle on the basis of sobriety, then it’s time to reevaluate your friend group.

Your first solid excuse is to decline a drink with grace and gratitude. Try a simple “No, thank you, I’m okay right now,” or even admit that you’ve gone cold turkey. You don’t actually owe anyone an explanation, and chances are, if you just give a polite “no,” then whoever is offering you a drink will understand and leave you alone about it.

In this first line of defense, your most important resistance strategy is to be clear and convincing with your “no, thank you.” The “thank you” is polite, but the firm “no” establishes your feelings. The more you elaborate with vague or convoluted excuses, the more you’re opening yourself up to conversation, potential scrutiny, or even peer pressure to give in to temptation.

If you feel like you need to elaborate but are a bit shy about being sober-curious, there are a lot of police excuses that can efficiently stop someone from pressuring you into imbibing. Perhaps you’re the designated driver for the night, or you’re pacing yourself and want to start with water, or you were recently sick, or you’ve been taking antibiotics. 

Maybe you’re really trying to fly under the radar – been there, done that – and you don’t want to clue anyone into the fact that you’re not drinking. Sometimes, it’s not worth the potential headache being forthcoming about teetotaling for the night! My best advice for you is to grab a drink – a non-alcoholic one. Your decoy drink can look eerily similar to an alcoholic beverage, and no one will think twice. 

Who’s to say that the cup of cola in your hand isn’t a rum and Coke? Or that the club soda in your highball glass isn’t a tequila soda or vodka tonic? If there’s a drink in your hand, there’s far less of a chance that someone will offer you an alcoholic one (unless, of course, someone’s calling for a round of shots). In which case, you can simply say you don't want to mix liquors.

Another easy tactic to avoid alcohol at social functions is to just stay busy. Honestly, take this one as a meaningful challenge, and you’ll really start to experience social gatherings differently. If your current approach to socializing revolves around the bar, this is your chance to figure out how to have fun fully sober. Increase your mindfulness and really embrace living in the moment by meeting more new people, dancing, trying out the delicious tapas, or whatever other activities are going on that night.

Easily one of the best ways to stay sober during a party or social gathering is to confidently be the D.D. This approach has two benefits: You’ve easily got an excuse not to drink because you are the designated driver, and you can figure out if your friends (or whomever the host is) actually have your best interests in mind by not pressuring you to drink. If they don’t take no for an answer, that’s a bad reflection on their character for insisting that you drive intoxicated.

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries: It’s Time To Turn Down an Invite or Two

It may not be the answer that you want to hear, but the best way to avoid temptation is for it to not even be in front of you. Whether you’ve got a really packed social calendar or you only have one event on the horizon, if you know you’re not ready to be confronted with peer pressure to drink while out and about, then you shouldn’t be ashamed to turn down the invite. You don’t need to become a recluse and never go out again, but during a transition time in your life, you may need to give yourself some extra breathing room to get on track so that you can stay on track.

Understandably, you might feel a bit of guilt when turning down an invite to bottomless mimosa brunches or a cocktail party with some friends you haven’t seen in a little while, but avoiding situations where there will be alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to avoid all social situations in general. Stay connected by suggesting a few different activities in lieu of the boozy ones they invited you to. 

This might sound like politely declining, telling them that you’re not able to make it, and then expressing how much you still want to see them, asking if they can get together the following day or weekend for coffee, a group exercise class, a hike, or some window shopping at the mall. There are plenty of other sober activities you can suggest that don’t involve alcohol, like board games, video games, movies, crafting, visiting an amusement park, museum, aquarium, or zoo, spa days, bowling, roller skating, ice skating, and more.

Allowing yourself the personal respect to turn down an invitation might also clue you in to some insights about the people you’ve been hanging around. If your friends don’t want to hang out with you when you’re sober, then are they really asking to hang out with you, or are they asking to hang out with your drunken doppelganger? 

While a couple of drinks might not completely change who you are as a person, and you can certainly still have very meaningful connections with people while imbibing, any friendship worth holding onto is one where you can connect without booze. Breaking the cycle includes potentially breaking off some contact with people who aren’t guiding you in a positive direction. Are your friends enabling impulsive, destructive behaviors? Would you look up to them as role models? If not, it might be time to find a few new friends.

“Zero-Proof” Is Trending for a Good Reason

We’ve all heard of the “mocktail,” aka the non-alcoholic companion to your favorite cocktail. We’ve all seen O’Doul’s 0% beer listed on restaurant menus. Some alcohol-free beverages stand the test of time, while others have seen a trendy rebrand. Low-ABV and zero-proof beverages are easily the hottest trends in sober-curious culture today. Just compare the name “mocktail” or “virgin” to “zero-proof” for a second, and you can understand why marketers are leaning into this updated terminology: Moderate drinkers who are health-conscious don’t want a full-fledged lifestyle change, but also want to still feel excited by their consumer choices. There’s just something arguably sexier about calling a product zero-proof rather than using an older term like mocktail or being too forthcoming and calling it alcohol-free.

Brands like Ritual have created zero-proof spirit alternatives that are either low-calorie or calorie-free alternatives to your favorite liquors. Craving a mojito? Ritual has a low-cal rum alternative. Fancy a spicy marg? Ritual has a zero-calorie tequila alternative. Beer brands have been brewing non-alcoholic beer for quite some time now, but even trendier labels like Lagunitas have hopped on the bandwagon. For craft, you might like Athletic Brewing or HOP WTR. There’s also a wealth of wines that are available for you alcohol-free, including Kylie Minogue’s own sparkling rosé.

Worldwide, the market for zero-proof cocktails is predicted to grow fast, and North America is the top horse in the race. Consumer analysts suggest that this quick growth is mostly due to the demand for a more health-conscious drink. This is similar to how innovative low-cal beverages (like gut-friendly Poppi sodas) and zero-sugar functional drinks are starting to fill grocery shelves. Pretty soon, you’ll start to see bartenders embracing zero-proof over “virgin” drinks, adopting new language that doesn’t marginalize non-drinkers like Hyatt Hotel’s “Zero Proof, Zero Judgement drink list.”

The real question is whether or not the trendy “sober bar” will stand the test of time. One sober dive bar called Hekate Cafe & Elixir Lounge in Manhattan has tried to market its business as an open, community space for people to socialize without needing to get drunk. It hosts book signings, musical performances, art exhibits, and more. 

Remember That Your End Goal Isn’t Absolution, It’s Moderation

Going cold turkey on alcohol is arguably the healthiest choice you can make, but having an all-or-nothing attitude can easily backfire. You might find yourself going overboard when you finally get your hands on a bottle, or you might feel major FOMO in the future when you’re ready to drink again responsibly.

Famous last words: “I’m not allowed to drink.” This mindset of some authority figure beyond you imposing strict rules on you may actually make you feel resentful about the semi-sobriety (or fully sober) process. Give your mind and body a bit of grace by learning how to cut back and appreciating yourself when sober or just a little liquored up.

Interestingly enough, some scholars think that alcohol helped shape human evolution from our early days, theorizing that farmers developed agriculture “driven by a desire for beer, not bread.” Alcohol has been an integral part of human cultures for longer than we once imagined. Just because our current culture has painted a really poor picture of alcohol through destructive behaviors like binge drinking and drunk driving, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should ditch the drinks entirely.

Using dry January, dry December, or dry whatever-month-you’re-anticipating to practice a healthy dose of sobriety is really beneficial for you to develop a good relationship with alcohol. You’re breaking the cycle of drinking by preventing yourself from becoming the stereotypical wine mom. You’re blossoming as a young woman by saying no to the campus staple known as the BORG or “black out rage gallon,” a TikTok-famous gallon-jug binge drink made with vodka, water, caffeine, and electrolytes.

The real reason you should embrace sober curiosity is to learn how to captain your own ship. You’re not just the passenger, you’re steering yourself away from self-destructive emotions on your own terms. Marcus Aurelius taught voluntary hardship as a key method for building self-discipline, saying, “We should discipline ourselves in small things, and from these progress to things of greater value.” In constantly testing ourselves and routinely subjecting ourselves to discomfort, we harden ourselves to learn how to live without. 

Closing Thoughts

Are you feeling sober-curious yet? You might feel a bit apprehensive about isolating yourself from a social scene you previously had fun in, but toxic drinking culture doesn’t discriminate against victims. The National Institutes of Health report that in 2022, nearly 33% of full-time college students regularly binge-drank, and considering that almost 2,000 college students die each year from unintentional injuries relating to alcohol and drinking severely increases a student’s chance of experiencing sexual assault, it’s time to turn a new leaf.

If you’re beyond your college years, you should also consider the fact that America’s heaviest drinkers aren’t actually alcoholics. Problem drinkers among women are actually those who drink more than eight drinks per week but aren’t functionally dependent on it. We know that excessive drinking causes immense health complications and that when we reduce our intake, our skin clears up, our gut functions better, our brains are less foggy, and our body moves better. 

It’s been estimated that 1 in every 5 deaths of adults between the ages of 20 and 49 are drinking-related deaths such as vehicle accidents, alcohol poisoning, and liver disease. You have the power over yourself to not become a part of the statistic, and lucky for you, the free market is answering your prayers with innovative, new options.

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