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Learning to Say “No” to Alcohol: Practical Tips for Turning Down a Drink in a Social Setting

Sobriety gets easier

If you are not drinking alcohol for any reason, be it weight loss, a decision not to drink, or a medical issue, a challenge you will face is the prevalence of alcohol in our society, both the number of places where it is sold or served and the number of people who choose to drink and think that everybody else should too. It is difficult to find a restaurant that doesn’t serve alcohol–not even fast food restaurants are exempt. There is actually a Taco Bell in Newport Beach, California, that serves alcohol. Alcohol is served at social events, from weddings to wakes and everything in between. Mothers of small children are even encouraged to drink–consider the popular “Mommy Needs Vodka” memes.

The prevalence of alcohol can pose an extra challenge to people who are in recovery, particularly if they are fairly new to a sober lifestyle. However, with a little practice, turning down a drink gets easier.

Alternatives to Alcohol

If you have recently chosen a sober lifestyle or been through recovery, you probably don’t spend much time in bars. There are situations, however, where going to a bar is difficult to avoid. Perhaps you are at a conference, traveling for work, or entertaining clients. Someone suggests that you all meet at the bar before going to dinner. What do you do? It can be helpful to think of a few non-alcoholic beverages that you enjoy before you get into the situation. For example, you might have tonic water with lime, club soda with a splash of cranberry juice, or sparkling water. In addition, with the “sober curious” movement, many bars and restaurants are serving “mocktails,” delicious (hopefully) non-alcoholic concoctions served in attractive glassware. If you arrive before the rest of your group, you can order before other people arrive. Most bartenders are happy to serve your non-alcoholic drink in glassware that isn’t a water tumbler. Your group arrives, you already have a drink, no one thinks anything about it.

If you are at a cocktail party or reception, one strategy that works well is to arm yourself with your nonalcoholic beverage of choice very shortly after arriving. No one will offer to get you a drink if you already have one! Also, you can be the one to offer to get someone else a refill. Get a refill of your favorite non-alcoholic beverage, get them whatever they are having, and graciously hand them their drink. It’s a nice gesture and can help smooth over any potential awkwardness.

If you are at a smaller gathering, like a party in someone’s home perhaps, you could let the host or hostess know that you aren’t drinking if you feel comfortable doing that. You can also offer to help the host or hostess by making sure that everyone else has a drink, moving empty plates to the kitchen, or passing appetizers. There are a couple of benefits to this strategy.  Your hands are full, so no one will offer you a drink, and you will get to circulate and visit with lots of other guests.

To Explain or Not to Explain

Usually, if someone offers you a drink and you don’t want one for whatever reason, a simple “No, thank you” should suffice. Occasionally, someone will make a comment or ask a question. If you feel like it, you could reply that you are in recovery or that you have given up alcohol. Bear in mind, however, that you don’t owe anyone an explanation. There are many responses you can give, and it may help you to navigate social situations like this more comfortably if you have prepared a response ahead of time. A response that can work well is something along the lines of “not right now, thank you,” or “maybe later.” Some people follow that up with a change of subject. You could plead exhaustion, or that you have an early meeting, work-out, flight, or something similar in the morning. You could explain that you are taking medication that doesn’t mix well with alcohol and that your doctor told you not to drink. You can say that you have started a weight loss plan that is fairly restrictive and every calorie counts and you don’t want to use them on alcohol. Some people use humor to deflect the situation: “Trust me, it’s not pretty when I drink!” Bottom line, you only need to tell people what you are comfortable telling them.

Be the Designated Driver

One strategy that can work well for you and your friends is to volunteer to be the designated driver. One woman in recovery said that she still would go out with her friends and offer to be the driver. Her friends were glad to spend time with her and grateful to have safe transportation. Also, there aren’t many people who would try to talk you out of being a safe driver. In fact, some bars, if the bartender knows you are the designated driver, will give you free non-alcoholic drinks all night! On a serious note, offering to be the designated driver could save someone from the legal problems of a drunk driving charge, injury, or even death.

Choose Your Strategy

There are many ways to turn down an unwanted drink. Be the designated driver. Carry a “decoy” drink in your hand. Decide how you are going to answer questions about why you aren’t drinking: a truthful answer, a medical reason, or humor. Whatever you decide to do, be confident. Look the person in the eye and smile. Be firm but kind. Whatever you choose, when you leave the event having stuck to your plan, you will feel good about yourself.

You don’t have to stay home just because you no longer drink. Part of choosing a sober lifestyle is about developing strategies to turn down alcohol while still enjoying social events and spending time with friends and colleagues. Time spent with loved ones helps to avoid feelings of loneliness, isolation, and boredom–all of which could trigger a relapse. Part of recovery is learning not to project your situation with alcohol onto other people–use does not equal abuse. Meeting people where they are in terms of their alcohol use is important to fostering and maintaining healthy relationships. A good recovery program will give you the skills you need to navigate social situations involving alcohol with ease and confidence. At Enlightened Solutions, we can help you with every aspect of your path to recovery through our traditional and alternative therapies. If you or a loved one has questions or concerns about their alcohol consumption, call (833) 801-5483.