How Social Norms, the Media & Gender can make Sobriety Difficult

If you’ve never heard of ‘Sober October’, this is when people stop drinking for a month, just to make sure they can, as a sort of prevention against alcoholism. The word ‘alcoholic’ is a very stigmatized term. People are very concerned about not being one, or being seen as one.

For me, the term “Alcoholic” seems to get in the way of people addressing their relationship issues with alcohol. As long as they do not reach what is often a nebulous definition of alcoholic (“someone who drinks more than I do”). Then they feel like they can convince themselves (most of the time) that they are doing okay. If they do hear that term or start to believe that it might apply to them, the shame is sometimes so great that they do whatever it takes to avoid acknowledging it, and look for ways to prove that it’s untrue (for example, participating in Sober October). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that not drinking is going to cause anyone any harm, no matter why they’re doing it, but quitting for a month, may not necessary address all issues present in your relationship with alcohol.

Once people determine that they want a change in their relationship with alcohol, they often utilize one of the following strategies :

  • Some people try to avoid over-indulging, by making up rules for various situations. For example: “I will only drink after ___ o’clock.” “I will only drink when with others.” “I only drink beer, not whiskey,”, etc. For some people, this might be enough to get them back on track, for many others, it’s like perpetual dieting. It never works, they are constantly failing and revising the rules.
  • Some people try and avoid situations with alcohol. For some, they are able to find new hobbies, meet new people and no longer struggle. Others feel isolated and struggle to maintain sobriety due to the difficulty they have finding places to connect with others, without it.
  • A few decide to name the problem, admit their powerlessness over it, get support and do their best to stay sober. This might mean attending AA, getting a sponsor, going to rehab, etc. They might claim the title of alcoholic and care for themselves accordingly. For many this is exactly what is needed to keep alcohol from taking over and destroying their lives. For others, this model does not fit and they feel as if they are constantly failing if they are unable to avoid alcohol.
  • Some people simply grow out of their toxic relationship with alcohol. They might have drank to excess in their teens and early 20’s but they, and many of their friends move on, get jobs, start families and things change and they use alcohol in significantly more moderate ways. Others do not, and alcohol keeps a hold on them, causing issues in their relationships and interfere’s with life goals.

I believe that any of these approaches are the right approach, if it works to ensure that you are able keep your priorities in order, stay healthy and behave in ways that match your values.

But there are barriers to any of these paths, things that make it very difficult to stay sober that might get in the way of being able to achieve the relationship you want to have with alcohol.

When discussing the following barriers to sobriety, many people are nervous about acknowledging the things that impact their ability to stay sober, believing that this is simply making excuses for their behaviour, or avoiding responsibility for their choices.

I believe that it is very difficult to make a change in behaviour if you don’t know what forces influence that behaviour. You can’t take responsibility for addressing things that you cannot or will not name.

Of course not all things that can make sobriety difficult are within your control but you can acknowledge them and then better evaluate how to address these influences more effectively than if you ignore or minimize their role in your life. Acknowledging them does not take away your responsibility for your actions, it simply helps you to better direct your actions to areas where you do have control.

Social Norms

The truth is that North American society has a fairly unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Of course this relationship might vary to some degree from place to place, but in the big picture, it is not uncommon to be challenged by others if you choose not to drink at an event where others are drinking. This challenge can vary from joking comments to outright hostility, as if your lack of participation is somehow a threat to others.

Moralizing others’ drinking falls at the other end of this spectrum. In this way, our relationship to alcohol is similar to our relationship to sex where we shame those who engage too often and then hyperbolize it in other venues.

(Check out 12 Ways to Increase Your Sex Positivity).

With alcohol, there is the shame we put on those “who can’t handle their alcohol” while, at the same time, shaming those who don’t drink at all when we want to. We also minimize the risks in binge drinking culture. It’s all or nothing and you get shamed either way. This is called a toxic culture.

We are not having open conversations about when alcohol is a problem and how to address it without judgement.  Like sex, I would say that a healthy relationship to alcohol may very greatly from person to person. However, we also need to  acknowledging that aside from addiction, and issues alcohol can cause in relationships, it is essentially junk food and the human body can only take so much before it starts to get sick from it.

The Media

In the media (both mainstream and social media) alcohol is promoted as a solution to all of life stressors AND as a celebratory treat for the good times.  In her book, “Drink- The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol”,  author, Ann Dowsett Johnston speaks about her own relationship with alcohol. She speaks about growing up with a mother who was an alcoholic and how, later in life, she, herself began using alcohol as a way to wind down at the end of her day. Eventually, drinks at dinner, before dinner, over lunch, started to take over until she decided to check herself into a rehab facility. Woven through her personal memoir is her research about the impact of alcohol on our society. She states that the alcohol industry is in a similar place to the tobacco industry 30 years ago, unmonitored, free to market in any way they please with no accountability for the massive costs to society that result from the misuse of alcohol.


In his book, “Narrative Means to Sober Ends,” Jonathan Diamond speaks about the gender divide when it comes to addressing issues with alcohol. He notes that when men admit their problem and get together in places like AA, the mood can be celebratory, at times. He suggests that this is because, if a man overcomes this addiction he is seen as strong (at least in AA circles, and possibly elsewhere) but for women, it is difficult to ever live down the fact that you’ve struggled with alcohol. This is true, particularly, if you are a mother.

I’ve personally seen a backlash against this shaming in social media posts which glorify “Mommy Juice.” While I think it is important not to shame mothers any more than we already do for the things mother’s do to cope, it can also be very unhelpful to ignore the problems caused by relying primarily on alcohol as a coping strategy. For those struggling to keep alcohol in it’s place, this glorification further adds to confusion and shame. It makes people who are struggling feel that they cannot find support from others when alcohol is causing problems in their life. If we can just acknowledge the difficulties of adult life, parenting, etc. acknowledge that no one is managing perfectly and that even some of our ‘solutions’ can be problematic, then we will be able to reach out to each other for genuine support without fear of shame, condemnation or mockery.

For men, the idea that you are supposed to be able to handle your liquor means that if anyone brings up the idea that alcohol might be causing problems in a man’s life, it can be met with extreme hostility and defensiveness. I often hear men talk about “EVERYONE’ in their circles drinking to excess and being mocked if they don’t participate to the extreme. Though, when pressed, they are also often able to think of some people who are no longer a part of that group and guess that this might be because this type of drinking culture does not actually work for everyone.


These are just some of the things that can make sobriety difficult. Aside from the above list, childhood experiences can also influence our relationship with alcohol. I will talk more about this in next weeks’ post

The following chart is for your information and reference when determining if your drinking habits may be putting your health at risk, even if you are experiencing no other problems related to your drinking:

Recommended Drinking Limits (ages 25+):

10 drinks a week for women, with no more than 2 drinks a day most days

15 drinks a week for men, with no more than 3 drinks a day most days


Recommended Drinking Limits (teens-age 24)

Teens should speak with their parents about drinking. If they choose to drink, they should do so under parental guidance; never more than1–2 drinks at a time, and never more than 1–2 times per week. They should plan ahead and follow local alcohol laws.

Youth in their late teens to age
24 years should never exceed the daily and weekly limits recommended for ages 25+.


For more on addictions check out Addiction, Your Best Frenemy?

Also check out Re-negotiating Our Relationship with Food

And Do You Have A Sex Addiction?

*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.

2 thoughts on “How Social Norms, the Media & Gender can make Sobriety Difficult

  1. Pingback: Childhood and its influence on Adult Alcohol Consumption | It's Not Just You

  2. Pingback: The Shadow Side of the Wellness/Self Help/Mental Health Industry | It's Not Just You

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