The Unconscious Mind & Alcohol Addiction. Part 4. Is Alcohol Really Liquid Courage?
Liminal Thinking – Is Alcohol Really Liquid Courage?
“The secret to happiness is freedom. The secret to freedom is courage.”
– Carrie Jones
You have observed alcohol being used as liquid courage in popular media your whole life. The Cowboy who takes a few shots before the high-noon gunfight. James Bond with his martinis and even soldiers sipping from their flasks before battle. You assumed that alcohol did provide liquid courage. You tried it and your experience taking a shot to rid yourself of your nerves confirmed that your butterflies subsided. You’ve easily concluded that yes, alcohol provides courage helping you to take on life with an extra dose of bravery.
Let’s consider reality:
I get nervous every time I speak in public. Lately I have needed to speak more in front of more senior colleagues. I can’t recall exactly when but somewhere along the line I figured that since alcohol relaxed me it would be helpful to have a quick drink before a speech. I would stop at the hotel bar, or buy a 4-pack of single serving wine bottles, keeping a few in my purse.
Why did I think this would help ease my nerves, allowing me to give a more confident and relaxed, presentation? I had been brainwashed to believe that alcohol is liquid courage. I was convinced that drinking gave me both courage and confidence. I now realize neither is true. Alcohol actually chipped away at my confidence and could not possibly have given me courage. Let me explain.
At this day in age, and especially in western society most of the true danger has been eliminated from our daily lives. We are living longer than ever before. We are not under attack from neighboring tribes or wild animals. We go to the grocery store rather than hunting for food. As a result we regard fear as weakness when in reality fear can be seen as the opposite of weakness. Fear allows us to exercise caution, to make better decisions. It is a key element of how we protect ourselves. Considering that fear is key to our survival it is not much of a compliment to call someone fearless. It is good for us to feel fear; it prevents us from taking unnecessary risks. With adrenaline pumping through our bodies we are more alert, more responsive and can make faster decisions. Our survival depends on us knowing when to turn and fight and when to run away. Alcohol numbs your senses and prevents you from feeling natural fear. It is not possible for alcohol to give you courage because by definition, if you’ve numbed feelings of fear you cannot be courageous. Courage is bravery, doing what is right or just, despite your fear. Instead of liquid courage booze is liquid stupidity. Ignoring, or disregarding, your fear goes against your instincts, which ensure your survival.
If you are out hiking alone and you see a mountain lion cub would it be smart get close for a photo? Of course not. The mother lion, despite her natural fear of humans, will kill you to protect her cubs. She is protecting her young, which is actually courageous.
So what’s wrong with numbing my fear before a presentation? It was my natural nerves that spurred me to prepare. They ensured I wasn’t complacent and drove me to rehearse and plan. When I began to rely on alcohol as a crutch, my fear was deadened, and soon I was no longer preparing. Instead I would stay up late, drinking the night before and putting off the preparation I would have done in the past. It was this preparation that made me a good public speaker. Then, since I knew I wasn’t prepared my nervousness drastically increased. I had actually increased my fear because of drinking and as a result felt I needed a few swigs before I got on stage. As you can guess my speeches got worse. Thankfully it never reached a point where I was visibly drunk on stage. Though if I hadn’t found This Naked Mind I have no doubt that was the direction I was heading.
In our society, we have so many ways we protect ourselves that we actually start to look for activities to demonstrate our bravery and courage. I think drinking is one of those things. We know drinking has dangers, yet we brag about our ability to hold our liquor. Similar to a warrior demonstrating strength through his scars, we demonstrate strength by beating our bodies up and rallying the next morning. It is a favorite topic of conversation, after a long night out with colleagues, comparing how much was drunk, who no longer remembers the evening and who is feeling the best or the worst. It’s become a badge of courage to have a hangover.
In our teenage years; things that our parents have cautioned us against become available to try. We learn that some of the stuff our parents warned us about can be fun. We start to wonder if everything they have cautioned us against will be enjoyable. We further our perception that danger means excitement.
Do we believe that telling our kids that ‘it’s an adult drink’ does anything to caution them? Quite the opposite; it enhances the allure. According to SAMHSA; Substance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration more than half or Americans aged 12 or older report being current drinkers of alcohol. And 30% of adolescents report drinking by the 8th grade. Our children do what we do, not what we say. Kids want to be brave, courageous, and grown up. They emulate their parents; it’s how they are programmed. When they see us playing with fire, whether it’s on the double-black ski runs, or by regularly drinking poison, they also want to play with fire and prove they are brave. And there is no way we can deny that drinking alcohol is playing with fire. While illegal drug overdoses kill 327 per week, and prescription drug overdoses kill 442 people per week, alcohol kills 1,692 people per week. We are unintentionally conditioning our children. We are programming them to believe that their lives will not be complete without a drink in their hand.
We use our brains to make choices and choices often come down to fear. We choose what we are less afraid of. Our decisions change once the fear scales tip. For example, a woman in an abusive relationship may not leave the abuser because she fears living without him. If she has a child, the fear scales tip. She now fears for her child more than she fears being without a partner. Children can be the catalyst for women leaving abusive relationships. The fear scales tipped for cigarettes when new research came out proving that smoking causes lung cancer and takes 30 years off your life. Many people quit because their fear of dying from lung cancer outweighed their fear of a life without cigarettes.
The decisions we make change in light of more information, which makes them rational decisions. Imagine you are a short, somewhat scrawny man. You’ve managed to piss off some guy who is 6’4” and 250lbs. He is coming after you and wants blood. You run. You arrive at a wall and are trapped. Without any other option you turn around to fight. Your odds have not improved, your attacker is still much stronger than you, but your situation has changed. Running is no longer an option. It is not cowardly to run away, nor is it brave to turn around and fight.
I have two small dogs, Yorkie Terriers. They are what you would call ankle biters, smaller than the average housecat and forever yipping. The older one is harmless; his bark worse than his bite but the younger one, Minni, is deadly. We have had all sorts of presents from her, in fact once I heard a scuffle and came upstairs to find a decapitated rabbit head in the middle of the floor. She probably thought her bloody gift was sweet. So what does this have to do with courage? Let’s imagine you are the poor rabbit that Minni is chasing. Are you showing cowardice by running away? Or say you are cornered and suddenly have nowhere to run to. Are you then showing bravery by turning to fight?
While in this instance Minni went in for the kill she chases all sorts of animals and since she is well fed we have seen her run away when the fight gets serious, when the animal is cornered and forced to fight. Why would Minni risk even a scratch on her nose for what she thinks of as a game? I guess, by our definitions when Minni – the bully in this instance – runs away she is indeed being a coward. She knows she wants to kill the animal, and knows she can but won’t risk physical harm. The rabbit however is in a life or death situation. The point is that we can’t clearly see either bravery or cowardice in this scenario. They are not relevant. They are human concepts.
Let’s say you are the same scrawny guy as above but now you’ve been drinking. Drinking does nothing to improve your position; in fact it makes it worse. You feel a false sense of bravado and you decide to fight before you are cornered. Further, when you are fighting, your reactions are delayed and your senses are dulled. You don’t feel pain to the same extent and instead of backing down you are severely injured. Alcohol does not make you brave because there is no such thing as bravery when it comes to the instincts, which keep us alive. In this instance alcohol just makes you less aware of your instincts. In this instance alcohol makes you stupid rather than brave.
True bravery does exist. But it’s when you make a decision, which overrides your natural fear brain in order to do what is morally right. It is not when you remove fear by deadening your senses. Jumping onto the subway tracks, in order to try to save a child is irrational yet brave. You demonstrate true bravery, overcoming cowardice, when you choose the greater of your fears in order to do something you feel to be right. Your fear of dying is surely greater than the fear watching someone else die. Yet, you can overcome that fear in order to help another person. You cannot be brave without fear. If alcohol removes your fear, it makes it impossible for you to be truly brave. And being a coward? Cowardice is when you do not act according to your moral compass, according to what you know is right, because of your fear. In my experience I would say that drinking, to shut out life and refuse to face things that were actual issues when I knew they needed to be dealt with was, without a doubt, the act of a coward.
We fear ridicule as much as bodily harm. Say you are pressured into trying a drug for the first time. The fear of looking weak, cowardly and stupid, in front of your friends outweighs your fear of the drug. You ignore your instincts in order to avoid scorn. This is cowardice not bravery. It is much harder to make the right decision, the better decision and endure the blow to your ego. It is much harder to go against the grain, not having a drink, but showing your children a different way than it is to be swept along in our drinking culture. That is bravery, courage. Drinking because everyone else is doing, or because you are worried about being left out is not. It takes great courage to stand up for what is right, to stand up to the majority, even silently by ordering an iced tea rather than a beer. There is no bravery in using alcohol to rid you of fear.
Getting rid of my butterflies by drinking some wine before speaking, never made me feel truly brave. You may be asking, so what difference does it make if in the moment alcohol allowed me to get up and speak because it eliminated my butterflies? Isn’t the end result the same? Yet, true bravery would have been overcoming my nerves, being strong and prepared. Which is why drinking made me feel weak, because I needed a crutch to do something that others did all the time. This led me to drink more to drown out my shame. The cycle continued. Over time, by turning off my anxiety – similar to putting tape over the check engine light – I made my problem worse. I became more dependent on the perception of ‘liquid courage’ and with each speech I was less prepared. Instead of doing the work to grow as a speaker, I covered the symptom and my speaking abilities deteriorated. What I thought was liquid courage was actually liquid cowardice.
And let us not ignore the fact that alcohol actually makes us more vulnerable. My husband is training to be a pilot. When he is flying he depends on instruction and information from the ground crew. They let him know when it is clear to land and where other planes are to ensure they don’t collide. If the communication between my husband and the ground crew is cut off he will immediately feel vulnerable. He will have less information about his surroundings and feel less in control. This is not a pleasant experience yet it is what we do to ourselves when we drink. Alcohol deadens the information from our mind and our senses. This actually increases our fear, as we realize that we can no longer clearly hear instruction from the ground crew. We realize, similar to flying an airplane without feedback from the ground, we are less prepared to deal with whatever situation we find ourselves in because the natural feedback our senses provide us with has been obscured or even switched off entirely. Drinking during times of danger, because you know you are removing your defenses, makes you more fearful.
But wait, if you believe that alcohol provides courage, relaxation and enjoyment, isn’t that almost the same as it actually providing those things? Are you better off believing you had a crutch to get you through this life, even if it was a placebo, an illusion? The problem, again, is deep down you know the truth. You know that an alcoholic is not someone who valiantly faces up to the hardships and suffering of life. Somewhere buried inside me I knew that drinking was not actually brave but weak. I knew that I had allowed myself to become someone who could not face life on its own terms. I knew that by needing a crutch I had no true courage.
For many the alcohol trap can happen at such a slow pace that it’s imperceptible. The changes are subtle. You come to depend on alcohol, feeling it gives you the courage to face the day, when in reality it steals courage from you. When you are free you will be amazed at how much courage and confidence you actually possess.
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