A few years ago, when I decided to quit smoking following a major heart attack, one of the techniques that made it easier was seeing myself as a nonsmoker. I visualized a person with fresh breath, no little holes in his shirt, no nicotine stains on his fingers, and no pack of smokes in his pocket. A person who could answer the phone, read the paper in the morning, have a cup of coffee, deal with stress, and socialize, all without having a cigarette constantly burning nearby. Not just any person either, it had to be myself in a new role.
To some extent, I used the same technique years before when I quit drinking, but not as consciously as I did with smoking. With drinking, I had to first convince myself that there even was a life without alcohol before I could see myself in it. Once I decided there was, I could imagine myself in all sorts of situations, even attending my daughter’s wedding, without a drink.
Let me make something clear at the beginning. I’m not talking about the “Think and Grow Rich,” “Power of Positive Thinking,” or “The Secret” thing here. What I’m talking about has nothing to do with quantum entanglement, spooky action at a distance, collapsing wave functions, or the “energy field” in the universe. If you’re into that kind of thing, you can find plenty of it elsewhere.
Instead, I’m talking about a way to help you change your way of thinking by making it easier to identify and dispute your irrational beliefs. Let me explain.
First, what do I mean by “visualizing yourself as a non-drinker?” Whether we like it or not, we carry around a mental picture of ourselves most of the time. While we are in the early stages of sobriety, we are still picturing ourselves as that confident person at the cocktail party, pouring out witticisms and engaging in scintillating conversations. That might have been true when we first arrived at the party, but it’s a far cry from the person who stumbled out the door when it was over. I don’t know about you, but the guys in our circle of friends when I was drinking, somewhat resented it when I stopped. You see, I was the guy they pointed to when their wives criticized their behavior. “Yeah, but I wasn’t as bad as Pete,” they would say in their own defense.
How about picturing yourself as that confident person at the cocktail party, but with a soft drink, or a club soda, instead of alcohol? How about picturing yourself as a person that people seek-out at a gathering, rather than someone they avoid like the plague. Picture someone who conducts themselves properly, rather than someone who insults the host, spills drinks on the carpet, and hits on the hostess. Picture yourself going through life as the person you are, rather than the person you became when you were drinking. Picture yourself as a person who works through their problems, and deals with stress, rather than one who avoids, postpones, and makes things worse by retreating into an alcoholic haze.
If you can keep that mental picture before you, it makes it easier to dispute some of your irrational beliefs. If you recall, the three questions we use to challenge our beliefs are:
- Is my belief based upon fact – would a camera recording the scene see it the same way my thoughts reflect it?
- Does my belief help me achieve my short and long-term goals?
- Does my belief help me feel the way I want to feel?
If the answer to any of those questions is no, the belief is probably irrational. Now, look at question #2. Whether or not you realize it, by creating a mental picture of yourself as a non-drinker, you have set a goal – something to shoot for, a person you wish to become. If the belief that you are evaluating is one that produces a feeling that leads you to consider drinking, that belief is contrary to the goal you now have in your mind, reinforced by the mental image you have created.
Staying sober is a mind game. You against your learned habit. Your opponent is composed of strongly encoded neural pathways that you can overcome only by encoding new pathways. A strong mental image of yourself as a non-drinker is another tool you can use to help you encode new, healthier pathways, thereby developing new habits. Drinking or using after a period of abstinence is a choice—always. Questioning our belief systems is about making different and healthier choices.