When an alcoholic considers his drinking, he tends to focus on what isn’t wrong with it. As in:
- “I’ve never had a drunk driving arrest.”
- Or “I haven’t had a DWI in a very long time.”
- Or “It was just the one arrest, I didn’t get a second.”
And so on and so forth. This is called comparing out, or paying attention to the symptoms of alcoholism that you don’t have, as if that negates the possibility that you have a problem.
It doesn’t, of course, but just try to convince an alcoholic of that.
Most family members respond to this with a string of objections that begin with ‘yes, but’. Example: ‘Yes, but you should have been arrested that night when we drove home from Billy’s party… ‘
This is no doubt true. Still, beginning your statement with ‘yes, but’ means you’re already arguing. And rest assured, the alcoholic is well prepared for argument.
Better to start with ‘yes, and…’. As in “yes, and you also might easily have been arrested on the following occasions…”
You’re acknowledging the facts while adding some additional information that the drinker failed to include. You expanded his awareness. And made your point at the same time.
Much of what happens in the early days and weeks of treatment involves comparing in – that is, identifying signs and symptoms that the drinker might have ignored. Mike, for instance, points to the fact that he doesn’t get visibly drunk as evidence that he’s in control of his drinking. The counselor points out that this could also be evidence of a high tolerance for alcohol — a symptom of alcoholism.
It’s not a dispute about facts. It’s a reinterpretation of their meaning.
Janet is proud that she’s never lost a job due to drinking. She ‘forgets’ the occasions on which she’s been docked for lateness and poor attendance. Janet knows she was hung over, but her psychological defenses allow her to temporarily exclude this information from her awareness.
Motivational counseling emphasizes the importance of developing discrepancy. That means calling attention to the gap between what the alcoholic believes to be true and his own personal goals. Sure, Melvin can boast he’s never been fired. But he’s never been promoted, either, and hasn’t his drinking played a role in that?
The goal isn’t to make the alcoholic wrong. It’s to help him examine and challenge the assumptions that underlie his self-assessment.
Direct confrontation is not much of a help in this process. The more directly we confront, the more defensive the alcoholic is likely to get. Better to avoid argument and look for a ‘side door’ through defenses.
Our friend SoberChrystal nails it in this blog post: Rock Bottom: It’s Just a Story