Having Trouble Reducing Your Alcohol Use? Ask Yourself This Question

reducing your alcohol useEver wonder why it’s so damn hard to quit drinking? Or using?


I drank alcohol almost daily for most of my adult life. I lost count of the times I tried to cut back or quit. I was having about 5 to 6 drinks per day, which I now know isn’t enough to create physiological dependence. That is, I didn’t need to keep drinking just so my body could function. And yet, cutting back or reducing my drinking filled me with dread.


Like so many who struggle with alcohol and substance use, the thought of stopping or even reducing my drinking made me really anxious. At the time, I wasn’t sure why. Then I learned that substances can be helpful and take on important and even life-sustaining functions in one’s life.


When I opened myself to how my drinking might be serving important functions in my life, I wasn’t so hard on myself and I could consider my alcohol use with compassionate curiosity. Learning to consider your habit with self-compassion is critical to recovering from any addiction, whether it’s substance use, sex addiction, or porn addiction.


If you’re having trouble reducing your alcohol use, maybe it’s time to ask yourself the same question: How is your alcohol or substance use helpful to you? What functions might it be serving for you? Or more colloquially, what’s it doing for you? Here’s a few possibilities:

  • Self-medication: People often use substances because they want to experience feelings that they would have great difficultly feeling without the use of substances. In other words, they want to modify feelings that are difficult for them to change, often to feel more alive. For example, the anxiety-prone person might use alcohol to calm himself. A person susceptible to feeling depressed might use cocaine to combat her depressive funks and feel what to her is happier.
  • Coping with negative emotions: If self-medication is using substances to move toward a desired feeling, sometimes you might use to help you move away from a feeling you don’t want to feel. Maybe you want drink, watch TV mindlessly, watch pornography, or whatever your habit is to numb out. Knowing this and reflecting on what feelings you are trying to cope with or numb yourself is can help create change.
  • Defense against feelings: Sometimes people use substances to neither feel desired feelings or numb themselves to undesirable emotions. They just don’t want to feel anything at all. There are many reasons one might do this: coping with trauma, dealing with loss, or fear of encountering one’s feelings at all, which is very common in addicted minds.
  • Sense of identity: In part, I drank because I was in rebellion. I grew up the good boy and I was going to drink as much as I wanted to and do what I wanted, thank you very much. Sometimes a person might drink or use substances because over time, it’s become an important part of who they are (rebel, non-conformist, the “bad boy,” etc.). If this resonates with you, it makes sense, then, that reducing your alcohol might fill you with anxiety; after all, no one likes letting go of an important part of their sense of identity.
  • Access to split-off parts of the self: When we’re growing up, we all learn to hide parts of ourselves that others don’t like, especially our parents. These parts of ourselves can sometimes be accessed only by ingesting mood-altering substances. For instance, I had a philosophy teacher in college who would sometimes drink just to get access to his feelings, so that he could feel his feelings more fully.
  • Unleashing creativity: In the same vein, drinking or substance use can free creative aspects of the self. I’ve heard about artists using cocaine to induce manic states during which they create their art for hours and hours at a time.
  • Source of pleasure: There’s no shame in admitting that substance use or habitual sexual behaviors are often very enjoyable. After all, if they weren’t pleasurable, our brain’s reward system wouldn’t kick in and they wouldn’t be habit-forming or addictive, right?


Maybe your motivations are within your awareness. Maybe you have no idea what your reasons for your substance use are. Whatever the case, getting to know the often multiple meanings that substance use has for you is key to reducing your alcohol use. You’ll need to find other ways to perform the same functions, to meet the same needs, if you’re wanting to make lasting change to your substance use.


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Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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