A good friend, let’s call him Sam, described a situation and asked my perspective on it. Sam said that he is a very careful user of alcohol. Due to his job he never drinks around the time when he works or nights before he has to work. His job requires lots of attention and is quite stressful. When he has down time (not often) he goes out with friends to relax and finds himself drinking to excess. He doesn’t intend to get drunk or drink excessively but he ends up drinking more than he wants and the next day feels awful. How does he get clear on the issue?
There are two questions that immediately come to mind.
1) What is Sam’s desired outcome? In this context what does he want to ‘accomplish’ by drinking with his friends?
2) Does he want to understand his behavior or change it?
We have this obsession with understanding everything. People spend years in therapy trying to understand. Sometimes this leads to change but often it makes the client feel better (or worse) and leads to no change in behavior.
If Sam wants to change his behavior then he must answer the first question i.e. what does he expect from a night out with his friends? Due to his job (which I am not going to explain) Sam has a lot of stress in his life. The work stress never goes away. So if changing his behavior is his desired outcome he needs to do it without increasing his stress levels. This is not a trivial exercise. Change can cause stress so you want to persuade your internal self to gently change.
So one option is when he goes out with his friends is to make it the top priority to have fun with them and feel relaxed and in control. He could do this by saying something like “I will have only 2(or 3; some limit) drinks tonight and then I’ll switch to tea (or hot chocolate or coffee) for the rest of the night”. He could give himself some challenges for the evening such as trying to remember every thing said for a set period of time, let’s say 20 minutes. Or he could attempt making a single drink last at least 30 minutes. He could make a mental note of how he feels with each sip of his drink. Before he takes one sip of his first drink he could try to describe how he is feeling of the 6 primary feelings; apathy, grief, fear, lust, anger and pride. Does this change at some point as he is drinking?
When he describes what his desired outcome is for the evening what is the desired feeling he wants? Any of the six mentioned above or one of the higher emotions such as courageousness, acceptance or peace. Does he ever feel any of those after drinking?
These are just a few suggestions. The most important thing needed for change or to walk a different path is to answer the first question. What is your desired outcome for any action you take? Why are you doing it? Will your life be better for the action or worse? If worse why are you doing it?
Stress reduction is often in the West associated with forgetting or repressing emotions. In the Eastern traditions emotions are not repressed. One opens up to them, identifies them, welcomes them and then lets them go. They are ephemeral unless you hold on to them by repression or acting out.
So what did I tell Sam? I told Sam to get out his notebook or recording device and record what he wants. Talk or write until he is clear about what he wants. It will take more than one session. Acknowledge the feelings that come up by letting them flow through and let them go. Work at this until he is clear enough to write a two or three sentence description of what he desires. Then come back to me and I’ll show him how to use desire to illuminate who he is.