NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Overcoming the Temptation to Use "Liquid Courage" to Cope With Social Situations

As a psychotherapist in NYC, I've been seeing more clients these days, as compared to the past, who are experiencing crippling fears in social situations, and many of them are relying on alcohol to give them "liquid courage," which provides a false sense of confidence in these situations (see my article: Overcoming Social Anxiety).

Fear and Shame in Social Situations

Fear and Shame in Social Situations
There have been tons of article written about why people are having such difficulty overcoming their feelings of vulnerability and shame when it comes to socializing and dating (see my articles: Overcoming Loneliness and Social Isolation and Overcoming Shame).

                   Fear and Shame in Social Situations

These articles give many reasons why this phenomenon is especially prevalent these days, including the fact that people are communicating more online than in person, and many people haven't learned the basic skills necessary to interact socially in person without experiencing dread.

Fear and Shame in Social Situations

Fear of Socializing Without "Liquid Courage"
So, I'm not going to focus so much on the reasons for this problem, which have have already been discussed in many other articles.  Instead, I'm going to focus on a social phenomenon that I've seen with people of all ages, which is that they feel they can't socialize without "liquid courage" to get them through.

Overcoming the Temptation to Use "Liquid Courage" to Cope With Social Situations

As I usually do in my articles, I'll give a scenario to highlight the problems and some of the ways these problems can be overcome in therapy.

Although the example that I give is about a man, this issue affects both men and women regardless of age, race or sexual orientation.

As always, this scenario is a composite of many cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality:

Mike, who was in his early 30s, never attended any social event without having at least one drink before he went.

Although, at this point in his life, he very much wanted to be in a relationship, he felt almost paralyzed with fear when he thought about talking to an attractive woman at a party.

Before, he went, he imagined all the things that could go wrong and how embarrassed he would be:  What if there were uncomfortable pauses in the conversation because he couldn't think of anything to say?  What if he looked "stupid" because he didn't understand what she was talking about?  What if she thought he was a bore?  What if he spilled his drink all over himself?  And he ruminated on and on, which escalated his fear.

At times, he felt so emotionally vulnerable when he thought about an upcoming party that he would agonize for days beforehand.

Sometimes, his fear and shame were so great that he would cancel at the last minute rather than deal with facing a situation where he felt sure he would make a fool of himself.

But the immediate relief that Mike felt from avoiding the social situation was often short lived.  Within hours, he regretted not going because his avoidance kept him feeling stuck and lonely for female companionship.

He had plenty of male friends that he hung out with, but socializing with women that he had never met before felt like an insurmountable challenge for him.

Although he felt confident in his career (where he worked mostly with men) and hanging out in a sports bar with his buddies, he lost all confidence in himself when he was in a situation where there were women he didn't know.

On those occasions when he did go to parties, he fortified himself with "liquid courage" (one or two drinks) before he left the house.  Then, he had a few more drinks when he arrived at the party and he was able to loosen up enough to chat with women he didn't know.

Overcoming the Temptation to Use "Liquid Courage"  to Cope With Social Situations

With a few drinks in him, Mike felt less inhibited and he was able to forget about being self conscious.  He was often funny after a few drinks, and women would tell him that he had a great sense of humor.  He also felt more confident about asking women to go out.

The problem was that, by the next day, without alcohol, he still felt the same crippling fear as before, and he was sure that when he called the woman that he met, he would be so socially inept that she wouldn't want to go out with him.

Fear and Shame in Social Situations Without Alcohol

After struggling this way for a couple of years, Mike realized that he had a real problem and he came to therapy.

In therapy, Mike and I worked on the underlying issues, including a childhood with overly critical parents, that were at the core of his problems.  Even though he was an adult, he continued to struggle with these old messages that made him feel worthless in social situations with women he didn't know.

Aside from working through these underlying emotional issues, Mike also needed to practice getting more comfortable approaching these social situations without fortifying himself with alcohol.

On a rational level, Mike knew that he couldn't keep relying on alcohol to get him through because it was only a temporary fix.  And, since his father had problems with alcoholism, Mike also knew that a possible genetic predisposition to alcoholism could create a bigger problem for him if he continued to rely on alcohol.

But, on an emotional level, Mike felt that alcohol had become his reliable "friend" in helping him to get through these situations.  Even though Mike wasn't an alcoholic, he knew that his maladaptive ways of coping with social situations wasn't going to be easy to change.

We worked on Mike's childhood history of emotional abuse using EMDR therapy.  We also used the cognitive behavioral technique of desensitization for his fears related to socializing.

Using a desensitization technique, we set up a hierarchy of Mike's fears and worked on them, step by step, one by one (from low to high) so that he could overcome his fears.

In addition, we used clinical hypnosis (also known as hypnotherapy) to help boost Mike's confidence.

In the meantime, Mike cut back on his drinking.  He practiced going to social events without having a drink beforehand.  He also cut back on the alcohol that he drank while at social events.

Needless to say, it wasn't easy for him.  Initially, he was so afraid that he just hung out with mostly friends that he knew and steered clear of talking to women that he really would have liked to meet.

But as we continued to work together, over time, Mike became more comfortable taking small steps to allow himself to be more emotionally vulnerable in these situations.

As you would expect, some days were better than others.  But what was most important was that Mike was willing to work on these issues in therapy and, even more important, he was willing to put himself out there in ways that were, initially, uncomfortable.

Overcoming the Temptation to Use "Liquid Courage" to Cope With Social Situations

It wasn't easy but, gradually, he overcame the near paralyzing fear and shame that had kept him feeling too vulnerable, and he was able to do it without relying on alcohol as a social lubricant.

At the same time, Mike developed more confidence in himself socially, and he eventually met a woman  he really liked and, a couple of years later, they got married.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're often tempted to use "liquid courage" as a maladaptive way to cope with social situations, you're not alone.

Chances are that you also know a lot of people, possibly even your close friends, who are doing the same thing.  But, whether they admit it to themselves or not, most people who are struggling with this problem realize deep down that relying on alcohol isn't the solution.

Rather than trying to go it alone, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional who has the expertise to help you overcome this problem.

Although there's no quick fix for this issue, by getting help you can give yourself an opportunity to approach social situations with more pose and confidence.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples. 

In addition to being a licensed therapist, I am also a certified Substance Abuse Professional.

I also work adjunctively with clients who want to remain with their primary therapists who might not have expertise in this area.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

If you think you have an alcohol or drug problem, see my article:
Early Recovery: You've Stopped Drinking. Now What?

You can also find an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in your area by clicking on this link:
Alcoholics Anonymous.