Recently a group of my online mom friends had a discussion of how much alcohol they drink each day and how much is “too much.” No one was anywhere near out-of-control alcoholic territory, but as a non-drinker married to a mostly-non-drinker, I was a little shocked to learn the role alcohol plays in many people’s lives.
The discussion left me uncomfortable. At first I couldn’t put my finger on why, except that it was weird to think how my everyday experience differs from the experiences of so many others. (Certainly explains part of why I’ve always felt like such a dud at parties!) And my shocked reaction left me feeling like a prude, which was hard to mesh with my usual open-minded self-image.
Over the next few hours, I started to piece together what made me uncomfortable about the discussion itself: As much as everyone sang the praises of drinking to relax at the end of the day, to have more patience with the kids, to cut loose at parties, much of the subtext was “Alcohol helps me feel less like stressed-out, awkward me” and “Alcohol makes me feel less, period.”
I wondered to my friends whether there was something … inauthentic … about spending life in that altered state.
My friends said, basically, that I don’t know anything. Some said I was making an everyday occurrence into something bigger than it needs to be. Others pointed out that they actually feel more authentic once they’ve relaxed beyond their day-to-day anxieties, their shyness, or whatever. I took their word on the subject. They have more experience than I do. Plus, my authenticity theory was put together out of vague intuition at best. Authenticity seems like a good goal, but who says it’s necessary all the time? I’ve taken antidepressants and had an epidural during pregnancy — does that mean I avoided being “authentically” depressed or “authentically” in pain? (Some people say yes on both fronts, but I strongly beg to differ.) That ended the conversation, and I haven’t thought about it since.
But then last night I was reading another Brene Brown book and came to a passage that makes the same point on authenticity, alcohol, and all our other addictions and distractions. She says it much better than I ever could, so thought I’d share:
I’ve had a couple of friends respond to my “I’m a take-the-edge-off-aholic” with concern about their own habits: “I drink a couple of glasses of wine every night — is that bad?” “I always shop when I’m stressed or depressed.” “I come out of my skin if I’m not always going and staying busy.”
Again, after years of research, I’m convinced that we all numb and take the edge off. The question is, does our _________ (eating, drinking, spending, gambling, saving the world, incessant gossiping, perfectionism, sixty-hour workweek) get in the way of our authenticity? Does it stop us from being emotionally honest and setting boundaries and feeling like we’re enough? Does it keep us from staying out of judgment and from feeling connected? Are we using ________ to hide or escape from the reality of our lives?
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection*
I feel like the bolded (by me) bits lay out the key distinction. What does it mean to be authentic or inauthentic? When does a few drinks after work, or an hour playing computer games, or a little time on the smartphone while your kid is playing, stop being a way to decompress and start becoming a problem? Brown’s answer is to ask whether the relaxation method brings you closer to connection with others or just numbs and distracts. Does it stop you from feeling your full emotions? Do you use it to escape from the reality of your life? If yes, it might be time to reconsider that choice.
I plan to use this framework in the coming days to take a look at my biggest problem area — killing time on phone and computer. For all the times that my phone and computer are necessary tools or a harmless means of downtime entertainment, there are plenty of other times when they stand in the way of being fully present with Vera or provide convenient means for procrastinating my life away. I love the subtlety of Brown’s questions for trying to tease out that distinction.
(*Ps, Since I recommended Brown’s previous book so highly, thought I’d note that I didn’t enjoy this one all that much. Her psychological theories still ring absolutely true and her writing is strong, but Imperfection is light on content compared to her other books.)