Increasing Your Motivation to Abstain


Where does motivation come from?


         Studies of self-remission (people who quit on their own) show that there is no single source of motivation. People are not consistent about when, how, or why they choose to change unhealthy behaviors.

What motivates others?

á      Medical, legal, or work issues.

á      Family pressure.

á      Financial constraints.

á      One too many sick mornings.

Some people have a sudden realization of all the different alcohol is messing up their lives; sort of an epiphany. For others the awareness builds gradually.


         Do it for others? This can be a useful short term approach. Certainly the concerns of my children sustained my decision for abstinence early in my sobriety. It was simple to think about how they would react if they learned I had been drinking. IÕm guessing that your drinking is not a secret, and that there are folks around you who are concerned about it. In the long run, this may not be sustainable as motivation because it can be easy to get to a point of discouragement where we donÕt feel that folks care. ItÕs important not to place responsibility for our behavior on others. But helping them avoid stress can be an important goal.


         Do it because itÕs the ÔrightÕ thing to do: a rational or ethical approach. When you drink you endanger yourself and others. You help to fund a huge amoral industry. You damage your health. You allow your thinking to be manipulated by shrewd advertising campaigns. Many of the same arguments that reinforce a decision for vegetarianism, for shopping locally, for supporting certain causes, can be made in favor of abstinence. It is a virtuous thing to choose.


         Do it for yourself: this is really the most important reason, in my opinion, but it may take some serious work on self acceptance. Valuing who you are, recognizing self-defeating thinking, and working towards fulfillment and happiness – these are learned life skills. One of the saddest sentences I have ever seen posted on a forum read simply ÔI donÕt feel I deserve sobriety.Õ IÕve often thought of that personÕs anguish, of how that discouraging belief was acting as a barrier to change.


         Do it for peace of mind. Talk to people with long term sobriety about how they feel about abstinence. Ask them why they quit, and what they like about it.  I think youÕll find this at the core of their decision. We were tired of daily anxiety and stress about alcohol. We knew it was causing us problems. We didnÕt know if quitting drinking would cure everything. But I can say from my own experience that when I made a firm decision for abstinence, it was like a huge load off my mind. Much of my anxiety fell away.

It wasnÕt a miracle: there were many emotional things to deal with. But quitting drinking increased my peace of mind. IÕm sorry to say you wonÕt know until you quit, and the results are not immediate or guaranteed! But I think most people find it makes their lives easier in many ways.


The most common thing people using CBT approaches start with is the cost-benefit analysis (CBA), because it is a systematic way of addressing these issues. It isnÕt just a list of what is going wrong, how much itÕs all costing, and what you think youÕll miss. It has two purposes: to enhance motivation (carry it around with you, and refer to it often!), and to start developing better coping skills.


Over time your CBA becomes a basis for setting goals and enacting change. The same issue may arise in different ways. For example:

--Loss of work hours is a cost of drinking.

--Better clarity of thinking enhancing your work would be a benefit of quitting.

--Advancement or a career change may be a medium-range goal of yours.

Reminding ourselves of our goals helps strengthen our motivation. How is drinking holding you back? How will quitting help you move forward?


One of the most important, and often neglected, parts of the CBA is identifying the benefits of drinking. We tend to gloss over this because by the time weÕve gotten here, we donÕt want to admit there were any reasons for alcohol in our lives. Or the behavior has become so established that weÕve forgotten why we started in the first place. But if drinking

--helps us overcome social anxiety,

--temporarily lifts our depression,

--allows us to forget about issues,

--we find it exhilarating

ÉweÕre likely to miss those things. It will be difficult to stay motivated if anxiety, stress, depression, boredom, or emotional distress start crowding our suddenly less-foggy brains.


Overcoming ambivalence is one of the steps that gets us from contemplation to action.

         The key obstacles to firm decision making are fear, uncertainty, and discomfort. That really applies to any decisions we have to make in life. So why would it be any different for changing long-entrenched behaviors? Very few people like change. We donÕt know how our friends and family will react. We immediately feel antsy, our digestion is upset, we canÕt sleep.


         Overcoming fear can be a process of rationally disputing the specific beliefs that are holding us back. The common REBT tool, the ABC, is used for this. ItÕs a pen and paper exercise, but over time it can become nearly automatic. Even simpler is to get in the habit, once you recognize fearful thinking, of asking yourself some simple questions about those thoughts: is it really so awful? What is the worst that can happen? Am I exaggerating this situation?


         Overcoming uncertainty is usually best done by seeking support and information. Peer support can be very useful in dealing with the Ôwhat ifÕ questions (ÔWhat about the holidays? What will my sister think? Should I go to this wedding?Õ). Planning for those situations, brainstorming with others, and just feeling less alone can work wonders. Personally I found forum boards very useful; others prefer online meetings or face-to-face meetings. Reach out for help and encouragement. ItÕs free, useful, and easy.


         The same goes for the discomfort. There are common physical symptoms when we quit alcohol. Your doctor can discuss management of those symptoms, or whether you might want to be supervised. A lot of it is just common sense stuff: eat a healthy diet, manage your blood sugar, drink plenty of fluids, take vitamins, start exercising.


         One of the most common issues is peer pressure. People who achieve longterm sobriety make some lifestyle changes. Hanging out in bars, going out partying, going to the afternoon barbecue where ÔeveryoneÕ will be drinking—thatÕs lifestyle. If you donÕt want to be a stoner, you have to avoid the stoner mentality, and probably quit hanging out with stoners. ThatÕs a lifestyle. It may be necessary to shake things up a bit.


Staying on course: maintaining motivation.

         Just as we all had different motives in choosing abstinence, we all find different things keep it going. It's your plan; find what works best for you.

--Making that public pronouncement is helpful to many people, whether here on a forum board, to selected friends, or to family members.

--Continuing to make those lifestyle changes: expanding new activities, new friendships, developing or resuming old hobbies.

--Celebrating your achievements in reducing the harm drinking has done, whether by counting days or by spending a little of the extra cash youÕre noticing in your pockets.

--Making times – weekly, monthly, seasonally -- to review your short, medium, and long term goals.

--Recognizing how abstinence is helping you achieve those—especially long term -- goals.


Achieving balance in your life is a condition to actively pursue. (SMART Recovery refers to Ôlifestyle balanceÕ as the 4th Point of their program). It's time to get away from the stoner/drinker mentality of passive living.  

Lifestyle balance is a combination of finding

--joy in the newfound clarity of our daily lives,

--satisfaction in making, pursuing, and achieving goals.

As we learn to value our selves, enact change in our lives, and see and feel more clearly, we realize that happiness is a planned condition.