5 Ways to Set Boundaries When You're Newly Sober

Tawny Lara


Nov 06, 2023

A pink and gray geometric background. In the foreground is a white box with black text that says "When someone politely declines an alcoholic drink, don't ask why. Simply offer them a booze-free option—then talk about literally anything else." @TAWNYMLARA

Early sobriety and sober curiosity can be a confusing time. Maybe you’re trying to fill the surplus of hours that you used to spend at the bar by doing a deep dive into Quit Lit, or you’re catching up on some much-needed sleep. The last thing you feel like doing is attempting to explain this complicated time to someone else. 

You’re not a weirdo for being sober or sober curious. Though it may not seem like it, lots of people don’t drink alcohol for tons of different reasons: religious or spiritual beliefs, pregnancy, medical conditions or medication interactions, dietary restrictions, and more. And some people just don’t like alcohol — I know, I'm still digesting that one, too.

In my early sobriety, I remember people being perplexed that I chose to live my life without alcohol. In their defense, I was also confused by sober people during my drinking days. My boozy brain thought that people only gave up alcohol when they hit the proverbial “rock bottom,” leaving them destitute and living under a bridge after losing everything. I couldn’t fathom someone giving up alcohol for any other reason.

My vegan friends and I have bonded over this annoyance. When talking to an herbivore, many people feel the need to explain why they eat meat, just like some drinkers feel the need to justify the drink in their hand while conversing with a teetotaler. 

I quit drinking in 2015, and I’m Extremely Online about it, so everyone in my life knows that I’m booze-free. But I still deal with those annoying, “You don’t drink? What do you do for fun?!” perplexities on occasion. Whether it’s running into an old friend, a previous drinking buddy, or someone I just met at a party, people are often baffled that I don’t partake in group inebriation. 

Sometimes, telling a person why you don’t drink is the “easy” part — especially in comparison to being the only sober person in a bar or channeling the courage to leave a party early. Let’s unpack those scenarios a bit. 

Scenario #1: An old friend pressures you to drink at a wedding.

It’s your first sober wedding. You debated attending but decided you wanted to support your friend on their big day. Then, you run into Gary, your old drinking buddy from college. He greets you with a bear hug and an IPA, the beer you drank together back in the day. You don’t want to be rude. Maybe you even appreciate the sentiment and nostalgia of him bringing you a beer. What to do: You reply, “Hey Gary! Great to see you. I’m sticking to water tonight, but I’d still love to catch up!” If Gary’s supportive of your choice to stay hydrated, he’ll understand, and you two can catch up without the drink. If he insists that you drink with him, simply say, “No thanks!” You can absolutely walk away the moment you feel uncomfortable.

Scenario #2: A work happy hour that you really don’t want to attend.

You didn’t want to go, but the reality of work politics meant you had to make a quick appearance. Strategically avoiding the cocktail waitress with a tray of mojitos, you head to the bar for a seltzer with lime and a splash of cranberry juice. As you turn around, you bump into Britney, the office party girl. Her energy is fun for office morale, but that’s not the vibe you need right now. She tells you the bartender accidentally gave her a vodka cranberry instead of the vodka soda she ordered and offers you the booze-filled drink. 

What to do: Tell her, “I already have a drink. Thanks, though!” Britney doesn’t need to know that your drink is booze-free. And you’re telling the truth: you already have a drink in your hand.

Scenario #3: At a bachelor/bachelorette party, your friend grills you about why you’re sticking to club soda. 

Your sibling is getting married next week, and you’ve been dreading the bachelor party for obvious reasons — especially since learning everyone will be picked up by a limo. The thought of being stuck in a nightclub on wheels scares the hell out of you. But for the sake of your sibling, you decide to give it a shot.  

Once you’re in the limo, everyone’s passing around a bottle of whiskey while you nurse your club soda. Despite your protests, a friend of your sibling’s pours whiskey into your cup, insisting that, “One drink won't hurt.” Your sibling doesn’t notice, and you don’t want to bug them on their special night. 

What to do: Hand the whiskey pourer your now-tainted drink. Tell them, clearly and firmly, “For me, there is no such thing as ‘just have one drink.’ I don’t drink. Ever.” Don’t worry about being “nice” or insulting this person. They poured whiskey into your drink without your consent — this is not a person who is acting with respect. If they continue to question or berate your decision not to drink, it’s time to tell the limo driver to drop you off. Hug your sibling, say a quick goodbye to the group, then catch a ride home in an Uber.

Scenario #4: You want to support your friend for their birthday, but it’s too boozy for your comfort level.

 It’s your friend Zephyr’s birthday party at a karaoke bar. You recently told them that you’re taking a break from alcohol but that you’ll try to stop by to bring them their gift. They’re understanding and remind you that it’s totally OK to leave if you feel uncomfortable. Just before they blow out their birthday candles, Zephyr’s friend buys a round of shots for everyone in the group. You don’t want to leave, but you don’t want to be the only person not taking a shot. Zephyr makes eye contact with you, sensing your uneasiness. They give you a nod, signaling that it’s fine to leave if you feel uncomfortable. You nod back and quietly leave, texting them, “Happy Birthday.”

I share this last scenario with you to remind you that supportive friendships exist. This is how your friends should react to your decision not to drink. Anyone more concerned with you taking a shot than catching up with you is clearly just looking for a drinking buddy. 

What if you’re in a situation that’s not described above? Try these suggested responses. 

1. “‘I’m retired’ or ‘I lost the right to moderation — too fast, too hard’ or ‘you don’t want me to.’” - Paulina Pinsky, co-author of It Doesn’t Have to be Awkward: Dealing with Relationships, Consent, and Other Hard-to-Talk-About Stuff

2. “I lovingly and firmly answer the same way when I’m asked why I still mask up in public, ‘I’m curious as to why my choices are affecting you?’” - Caesar F. Barajas, Navy veteran and spiritual mentor

3. “I tell them all about the tumor in my womb and how drinking triggers pain and inflammation.” - Lola Mendez, Uruguayan-American freelance journalist

4. “It doesn’t mix well with my life.”

5. “I’m focusing on my mental health right now.”

6. “I’ve drunk enough for a lifetime.”

7. “I choose not to.”

8. “It was preventing me from accomplishing my goals” - Amanda White, LPC and author of Not Drinking Tonight: A Guide to Creating a Sober Life You Love

9. “No” (Remember: “No” is a complete sentence.)

You can absolutely socialize without booze!

 You’re decided to ditch alcohol altogether or, at the very least, take a break from it. Either way, abstaining from alcohol, even temporarily, gives you the chance to reconnect with yourself for the first time in a long time. Or possibly, the first time ever. That self-discovery supersedes any jerk’s annoying questions or succumbing to peer pressure. And now you have a few responses to keep in your back pocket!

 Sobriety doesn't exist in a vacuum. Life goes on as it always has — the difference is that you’re now present for it. Being present often means having uncomfortable conversations with people who don't understand the whole sobriety thing.

 It’s OK to take these interactions one conversation at a time, too. Remember: recovery is a process, not a destination. As your sober days increase, you will get better and better at handling these tricky situations. When all else fails, remember: you are entitled to your boundaries, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation for them.

About The Author

Tawny is a New York City-based writer, blogger, public speaker, podcaster, and Webby-Award Winner who’s passionate about smashing stigmas associated with both sexuality and sobriety. Her words have been published in Playboy, Men’s Health, Huffington Post, The Temper, and more. To view more of Tawny's published writing, visit tawnylara.com

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