Why Are People Sober-Curious?

Written by: the Editors of goop


Updated: January 9, 2020

Why Are People Sober-Curious?

A drink after a long day to take the edge off before bed, then a few more on the weekends to loosen up when she went out with friends: Ruby Warrington’s alcohol use was seemingly normal compared to most people’s. “I was going through a period in my life when everything looked perfect on the outside, but I was experiencing some of the worst anxiety of my life,” Warrington says. “I felt constantly overwhelmed at work and unable to keep up with the pressure. And I began to notice that when I drank, it was to unwind and escape from these feelings of dis-ease.”

She wasn’t drinking every day; she wasn’t addicted to alcohol. She began to question the role it played in her well-being anyway, drinking less and less often. And then she stopped almost completely. With that came relief from hangovers, sleepless nights, and anxiety, plus a new sense of self-confidence and a stronger ability to cope with daily life. She calls her approach to drinking sober-curious, which she describes in her book Sober Curious.

Being sober-curious starts with asking yourself why you choose to pick up a drink. As Warrington says, these questions become deep really quickly. And despite the overwhelming pressure to feel otherwise, there is no “normal”—there is just you and your body and what feels right.

A Q&A with Ruby Warrington

Why did you start questioning your relationship to alcohol?

In 2010 I asked myself: What is the actual impact of drinking on my overall well-being, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually? I was going through a period in my life when everything looked perfect on the outside, but I was experiencing some of the worst anxiety of my life. I felt constantly overwhelmed at work and unable to keep up with the pressure. And I began to notice that when I drank, it was to unwind and escape from these feelings of dis-ease.

Questioning my drinking began as a very internal process, and it wasn’t something I felt I could talk to anybody about, partly because I was worried that it meant I was an alcoholic. But everything I knew about somebody with a drinking problem did not look like my life. I wasn’t drinking every day or during the day. I was drinking probably two or three nights a week with dinner and bingeing a bit on the weekends.

I consulted a nutritionist about my anxiety and trouble sleeping, and he thought I had adrenal fatigue and recommended I stop drinking coffee and eating sugar. But he never questioned my drinking. I was the one who started to notice that there was a correlation. My hangovers were getting worse, and there was this existential dread that came with them.

“We drink out of habit and partly because we’re not presented with many of the tools that promise the same things that alcohol does: social ease, a quick fix to relax at the end of a hard day, a way to alleviate social anxiety, a way to forget our problems and spark our creativity, or a way to feel like it’s safe to be vulnerable in our close relationships.”

When I moved to New York from the UK in 2012, I was able to get a lot more space from my drinking and begin to answer some of those questions that had come up. Then I began speaking to some other people in my life about it, and I realized that a lot of people have this similarly conflicted relationship with alcohol that we don’t speak about.

Drinking is something that many of us do without questioning it, even though we know it’s causing us pain. We drink out of habit and partly because we’re not presented with many of the tools that promise the same things that alcohol does: social ease, a quick fix to relax at the end of a hard day, a way to alleviate social anxiety, a way to forget our problems and spark our creativity, or a way to feel like it’s safe to be vulnerable in our close relationships. Alcohol promises all of these things on the surface level.

What does it mean to be sober-curious?

The word “sober” has such strong connotations of abstinence-based recovery programs and recovery from alcoholism. Even though “sober” isn’t synonymous with complete abstinence from alcohol, we think of it that way. If you say, “I’m sober,” people will automatically make assumptions about the way you were drinking before you were sober and about the reason you became sober. (And of course, abstinence from alcohol is a journey that some find immeasurably helpful for their own healing.)

Being sober-curious means questioning everything about your relationship with alcohol—including the way that we as a society view and consume alcohol. It means becoming curious about what it means to live a sober life—all the benefits and the challenges. The only way you can answer that question is to not drink alcohol.

What are some good questions to ask yourself about your relationship with alcohol?

1. Why am I choosing to pick up this drink? It could be for a seemingly good reason, like wanting to bond with friends, or it could be for a less comfortable reason, like to alleviate anxiety or get your mind off something. Underneath those reasons, there are always more questions, like: Why do I feel like I need alcohol to bond with my friend? What would it be like if I were in this social situation without alcohol? Would we still have much to talk about? Would I still enjoy hanging out with these people?

2. Why is it expected of me to drink? You may be experiencing a lot of social pressure to drink. You might ask, Why is it a problem for other people if I don’t drink in this situation?

3. How is this drink going to impact my well-being? This is not just about how hungover you may feel tomorrow; it’s about how drinking now will impact you in the days that follow, too. Ask: How productive will I be? How much clarity am I going to have? How much self-doubt might I have when the alcohol wears off?

How do you navigate social situations that involve alcohol when you’re sober-curious?

I am a big fan of all the alcohol-free drinks that are now coming onto the market. There are great options, so if you’re going to a social gathering where you can bring your own drink, you can bring yourself something tasty as an alternative. This helps so you don’t feel like you’ve just got to drink boring old club soda or water.

It’s also important to not focus on what you’re cutting out. Instead, focus on everything that you’re cultivating or creating space for in your life by looking beyond drinking. You can even write down all the reasons you’re not drinking—on a sticky note or in your phone—to remind yourself why you’re doing this when you’re going into those situations. It can be especially helpful when the pressure gets intense.

If people question you, it may sometimes be easier to have an excuse. For example, “I’m just not drinking this month” or “I’m driving.” Sometimes it’s easier to shut down the question, depending on who’s asking and whether you are comfortable sharing. But there’s no shame in letting people know. Even if it’s just, “I felt like I was drinking too much, and I’m taking a break to see how it feels.” If someone makes you feel bad about that choice, then you can leave that situation.

In certain situations, you may want to say, “I know we normally get wine, but would you mind if we did something different tonight? I’d really like to feel fresh tomorrow.” Or you can share something like: “I’m trying this cool thing, and it actually feels really good. How about next time we hang out we go for a hike instead of going to a bar?”

People might experience a slight reshuffling in their friend group, especially if that group relies heavily on alcohol. There’s nothing to feel bad about if that happens—it’s a very natural process. As we change and evolve as individuals, the people that we draw into our circle and the people that we get nourished by and relate to will shift and change, too. It happens when we change jobs, move on from college, and move to a different town. We’ve all been conditioned to use alcohol socially, and it can take a lot of focus and undoing of that conditioning to move away from it. It’s challenging and some people may not be ready for it, or find that it’s right for them. And that’s okay, too.

Is there room for mindfully choosing to have a drink in a certain context—like for a special occasion?

Absolutely. As I went further down this path, those decisions became like an experiment. I’d decide to have a drink, bringing everything I had learned to the table. And even while drinking that drink, I’d ask myself, How is this drink actually making me feel compared to how I thought it would make me feel? I began to notice that alcohol actually just made me feel tired and groggy and didn’t give me the lift or the release I was looking for, and these experiences made it easier to choose not to drink on future occasions. On the occasions when I drank more than I had intended to, I also chose to see these as “reminders” of why I was moving away from alcohol, rather than mistakes or relapses.

What other tools have you found useful in this journey?

Meditation is my number one tool for changing behaviors and breaking bad habits. I had a guest on my podcast recently who used to drink a lot socially and then had a nervous breakdown and was advised to quit drinking. She took up meditation during that period and told me that it’s very hard to continue drinking once you become more aware of the thoughts in your head and notice the moments when you’re reaching toward something to medicate stress and anxiety. Once you start to become really aware of the thinking that is behind those actions, it becomes much harder to justify those choices to yourself.

What resources or communities are there for people who are sober-curious?

I have the Sober Curious podcast, which features different people talking about their experience being sober-curious. It’s really helpful to hear other people’s stories, particularly if they’re not typical addiction and recovery stories. In the UK, there’s a sober community called Club Soda, which has a huge reach and is beginning to do work in the US.

Often, becoming sober-curious can be a stepping-stone for people finding their way to AA or other kinds of recovery groups. There’s one called SHE RECOVERS, which is specifically for women recovering from different addiction behaviors. Tempest is a sobriety school from The Temper, which is a great online magazine and resource.

There are a lot of sober bars opening up, like the Sans Bar in Austin, Texas. In New York, there are Getaway Bar and Listen Bar. These are completely alcohol-free bars where you can socialize and have a night out; there’s no alcohol on the menu.

For those who are looking to redefine their relationship with alcohol or don’t want to drink for a variety of reasons, we’ve rounded up additional resources to explore.

Sober Curious by Ruby Warrington
Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol by Holly Whitaker
The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray
This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life by Annie Grace

Communities and Schools:
The Temper, an online sobriety publication
Tempest, an eight-week online sobriety school
Club Soda, a sober community that hosts events in the UK
SHE RECOVERS, a global community of sober women that hosts events, retreats, a podcast, coaching, sharing circles, and online programs
Soberocity, an online community that hosts community events around the US

Relevant Reading and Podcasts:
The goop Podcast episode about addiction and recovery with Bill Clegg
Sober Curious podcast
Seltzer Squad podcast
This Naked Mind podcast

Sobergrid, a free app that connects you with others in the sober community for support and offers peer coaching
Daybreak, an alcohol support app with health coaches and skills to practice

Mocktail Recipes:
Hibiscus and Yuzu Tonic
Kombucha Mimosa
Agua de Sandia
Ginger Limeade

If you or someone you know has a substance abuse problem, call the Addiction Resource Center for free, confidential twenty-four-hour treatment information and referral help at 833.301.HELP or visit the website.

Ruby Warrington is a lifestyle writer and the author of Sober Curious, which sparked a movement of people questioning their relationship with alcohol. She hosts a podcast by the same name; has a website called The Numinous, where she writes about spiritual living; and hosts consciousness retreats and workshops.

This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.