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Failing our way to success

breaking chains of alcohol and flying free

The other week I was speaking with a client about the non-arrival of learning materials and working out a contingency plan to begin our coaching sessions. As we concluded and rang off, with a chuckle, he said “we shall fail our way to success”

“Yes”, I laughed, “we shall.”

Quite an insightful way to look at it I thought later. After all it’s really the way we humans have evolved over many thousands of years. Through trial and error, hit and miss, test and learn, we have learned how to survive and thrive in our world.  Our ability to conceptualise a problem, come up with a plan or work around, execute, evaluate, discard or improve is key to making progress in so many areas of our lives. From the big things to the small things, the process is similar.

The lessons of our evolution appear to be forgotten though when it comes to trying to moderate or control a habit. We believe that all we have to do is just stop the behaviour. Stop it and even though it will be difficult everything will be sweet. However, a habit that involves a substance that is addictive in nature requires a process of learning and adapting to bring about desired change.

If stopping the behaviour at all costs is the one and only goal, any slip ups are seen as a failure. Even if they are inevitable. Drink and be damned. Failure is not an option for some, even though it is more in our nature than we acknowledge. We humans are wired to punish ourselves into submission, its part of the shame and blame show and fits into the narrative that if we cannot control our habit, we have failed. Failure becomes a dirty word. We believe that we are weak or defective, lacking in some way and that we just need to get a grip and white knuckle it harder. By telling ourselves these things, that we failed miserably, we believe that if we punish ourselves enough, we will change our ways. Its exhausting, and I haven’t mentioned FOMO or the fear of missing out when we are trying to stop doing something everyone else is still doing carte blanche. Adopting the “a drink is a fail” attitude makes us feel bad if it happens, and it affects us in how we show up in the world.

If I stop for a moment, take a couple of deep breaths, and think back to a time when I “failed” a test at school. The teacher is handing out the test papers and tells each student their result as the paper is handed over. “B” here, “A” there.. My turn, “An ‘F’ Richardson”. I can feel my shoulders drop and my head bow, I feel a sinking feeling deep in my gut. It makes me want to shrink away from the smirks and stares. I feel small and defeated, I retreat inwardly, I just want to escape. Perhaps you have felt a similar moment in your life, how did it make you feel and behave?

I felt the same way when I was trying to moderate and couldn’t keep to rules I had made for myself prior to drinking. On the many occasions I decided I would only have limited drinks in the pub, usually two, I almost always ended up drinking more and made sure to pick up extra beer on the way home. I had failed to meet a simple rule and drank way more than I wanted to leaving me hungover the next day. I felt stupid, weak and a complete failure because I couldn’t stick to a simple rule. The way I dealt with those feelings was to escape with more drinking. So the cycle continues, making rules, breaking rules, drinking, feeling like shit the next day mentally and physically, then repeating a few days later.

An extension of this is the belief that things need to get really bad to make us change our habit. The idea of hitting a “rock bottom”. Something bad enough that leaves us with no choice but to stop drinking. I have heard people literally say, “If X happens, I hope I will be able to stop drinking then”. X being some calamity or tragedy that is so bad, they have no choice but to stop their habit. Losing a job, losing a partner or being outcast from family, or someone they know dying from alcohol abuse. In fact, the opposite is true, throw in a calamity or tragedy on top of someone who is already experiencing guilt, shame, and blame will drive them to repeat the very thing they seek to avoid. Rock bottom is not a rite of passage to freedom!  

So back to evolution, what is the way forward? What if we could play to our strengths that evolution has given us. The ability to learn and grow, to strive and thrive. What if we tried something different and adopted an experimenter mindset of curiosity and opportunity? If something happens that your brain wants to consider it a failure, like drinking more than you want to, what if you got curious about it instead of defaulting to blame and shame?

Asking yourself questions, why did it happen, what were the circumstances, what is it about alcohol that makes us make bad decisions or just lose our resolve after one or two drinks?

If you’ve ever had an opportunity to learn something new, how did that make you feel? Did you feel lighter, brighter, excited even, to learn something new? How did that feel in your body, did you feel energised, keen to get on with it?

Notice how different that feels compared to thinking you failed at something?

When it comes to changing our relationship with alcohol, we can make it an experiment that L.A.S.T.’s, that is Learn Adapt, Strive & Thrive.

  • Learn – Be curious. See opportunity. Learn about the substance, the influence of society, beliefs about self and why they make us do the things we do or not do

  • Adapt – plan, implement, evaluate, improve or discard

  • Strive – to cultivate self-compassion and grace for yourself and realise that even though it’s difficult at times you got through it. Treat everything as an experiment. You can survive hard things.

  • Thrive – revelling in your successes, dismantle link by link the chains of the shackles that once held you fast to becoming and living free. Be open to new things, revisit things that used to bring you joy before drinking.

In coaching I like to use the analogy of a baby learning to walk. From crawling they will pull themselves up on furniture and move along the settee, coffee table, side tables etc. Getting into mischief as things suddenly become within their reach. Standing upright holding onto the furniture, before turning to you with a cheeky grin, letting go and plopping to the floor on a padded bottom. Clambering up again they repeat the process testing their leg strength and growing sense of balance. Before too long they are letting go and making one or two steps towards encouraging parents before a practiced drop onto their bottoms again. It takes many repetitions to build muscle memory and confidence. At any time does the baby stop and have a temper tantrum that they just cannot do it, roll into a foetal position sucking them thumb thinking they are a complete failure because they hit the floor again? No of course not, (unless you moved their new favourite thing out of reach again) with a squeal they will get up again and repeat the process. They are experimenting, testing what works, what doesn’t, slowly gaining strength and confidence. Before long they are toddling around the house getting into more mischief and become adept at running away from parents.

I know it’s a cliché but we crawl before we can walk, and walk before we can run. To change our relationship with alcohol we need to understand it’s a program of trial and error, building muscle memory, experiencing many different situations and scenarios with the intention to not automatically include alcohol.

If we find ourselves taking a drink when our intention was otherwise, then we must have curiosity, grace and self-compassion for ourselves to understand why that might have happened. Rather than view it as a failure of self-control, can we view it as an opportunity to learn something new about ourselves? Beliefs about alcohol have been subconsciously embedded in our brains from an early age, it takes time to work through them and understand what they are and how they affect us.

Adopting our Learn step, what questions can we ask of ourselves? What were we feeling before we drank? Were we unsure of ourselves, anxious in some way, triggered by other people, or the situation we were in at the time? Did we find ourselves in the middle of a craving, what can we learn about that? Remember curiosity and self-compassion are key here. Resist the temptation to label yourself a failure and beat yourself up. It’s an opportunity to progress. Armed with maybe one or two new learnings, can we use those to adapt to the same situation with new information?

Adapt. Preparing ourselves for situations where we used to drink to try and mitigate what we have learned about ourselves in that situation. Visualisation is a tool that can be used here. A common one is visualising being in a bar or a social occasion with your drinking friends and working through the possible responses to a question about your non drinking intention. What will your responses be “I’m not drinking tonight” “I no longer drink” “I have a big day tomorrow” “I’m experimenting with how it feels to wake up tomorrow clear headed”, how does each of those answers feel to you? Do they feel true? I’d avoid untruths, like “I’m on medication”, your friends may pick up on any hesitation in an untruthful answer or become concerned that you are unwell enough to need medication.

What might be answers some follow-up questions your friends could ask after your first response? The beauty of visualisation is that your brain doesn’t know the difference between an imagined conversation and a real one. If you practice questions and answers and test each one for how it feels to you, you will feel comfortable giving your answers when those questions do get asked. I have found thinking about follow-up questions to be useful as the one time I didn’t, I stumbled and mumbled my responses. Practicing gives you confidence in your answers. You don’t have to get super detailed, and think of every scenario you might possibly be presented with. Just a couple will do. Most people won’t subject you to the Spanish Inquisition but may be curious about the new intentions you have about alcohol. If asked if you want an alcoholic drink, a plain “No thanks” of just a “No” is also a complete answer.

Having a plan for what you will do if you get uncomfortable in an environment where others are drinking. Plan to leave early if you need to, have independent transport available rather than rely on your friends to get you home. Do a “Ninja smoke departure”, you know “poof” and vanish. No need to do the rounds for goodbyes, just slip quietly out the door. The drinkers won’t miss you or remember what time you left.

Giving yourself feedback on how you felt you went, what went well, what didn’t. What could you do better next time? Talking through with others who have gone through the same situations can give you fresh information. Online communities like “This Naked Mind Community” are invaluable resources to check in with. People from all walks of life, at various stages of finding their freedom will gladly help you. Test what they say, if it seems incongruent to you, discard it.

As the experimenter, each time you try something and you slip, know that you are still learning. You haven’t failed. The path to success is not a linear thing. Often its one step forward, two back, fall down, climb up, looping through life and experiences. Learning what works, what doesn’t. Even if you go from the “F it switch, I’m having a drink” to the “I’m never drinking again” time and time again on what feels like the same level.

You are not staying on the same level; you are actually ascending each time building your knowledge and experience piece by piece. It might be hard to realise it when you are experiencing the emotional pain of drinking when you don’t really want to. But if you were to look at the data, you would more than likely find that each time you drank your data point lasted less over time than it did before or there was a longer period before the “F it switch” tripped.

Each time you do experience a small win, pat yourself on the back, high five it, jump for joy but make sure you recognise your achievement and celebrate it! Acknowledge yourself, you survived, you can do hard things. Hard things that in hindsight were probably not too hard at all with right knowledge and application. Like baby walking their first steps allow yourself to feel joy at accomplishing another step in your journey to freedom. Link by link you are dismantling the chains that shackled you and held you fast to a life you didn’t want and didn’t deserve, not just surviving but thriving.

What to know more and how to get started? Contact me or better yet, book a no obligation discovery call with me. It's really an informal chat over a Zoom session to talk about where you are at, what your goals are, what coaching with the TNM process is and what support I can provide you in your own journey to find freedom from alcohol, however that looks for you.

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