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  • Why Can’t I Just Quit? – Why Stop Drinking Can Be So Hard

    “Why can’t I just quit even when I know that alcohol is ruining my life?” Here is an answer to your million-dollar question. 

    Key Points: 

    • Humans are motivated to resolve any inconsistency between their actions and beliefs, and an inability to do so creates psychological discomfort. 

    • Many people have conflicting beliefs about the harm and benefit of alcohol and are caught between these contradictory beliefs and cannot decide their actions. 

    • They may attempt to resolve the conflict by undermining their beliefs about the harm of alcohol, but that often stops working after a while. 

    • Acquiring new information to outweigh the beliefs about alcohol may offer a path to restoring internal consistency. 

    “Why can’t I just quit even when I know that alcohol is ruining my life?” This is the million-dollar question that boggles so many daily drinkers’ minds. Many theories have attempted to offer an answer – some say maybe it’s genetic, others speculate it’s personality, and again others, call it a disease – but I have a different theory. 

    I believe the real answer lies in how human brains are wired, specifically, the human need to resolve internal conflicts, or what psychologists call Cognitive Dissonance. In other words, if you have a hard time stopping drinking, not only is there nothing wrong with you, quite the contrary, your brain is functioning the way it is designed to. 

    Cognitive Dissonance: A Internal Conflict That Leads To Psychological Discomfort

    Cognitive dissonance is when a person’s attitude, beliefs, or behaviors are not aligned. As humans, we strive for internal psychological consistency, and any internal conflict could cause a person significant amounts of psychological discomfort. 

    For example, you would experience cognitive dissonance if you are a daily drinker and, at the same time, believe that alcohol is bad for your health and you should stop drinking. In such a situation, your belief and action are not aligned with each other, and every time after a heavy drinking session, you would experience psychological discomfort due to the conflict between your action and belief. Anyone who experiences such internal inconsistency, or cognitive dissonance, would be motivated to resolve the internal conflict and reduce the discomfort through one of the three ways below.

    First option: Change one or more beliefs, behavior, or attitude 

    The first option is to change one or more conflicting attitudes, behavior, or beliefs. For example, you could simply match your behavior with your belief by stopping drinking. But with alcohol, things can get complicated quickly, as people often have conflicted beliefs about alcohol. For instance, you may believe alcohol is bad for your health, but at the same time, you believe alcohol is the source of your happiness. Now you face a painful dilemma. If you drink, your action will conflict with the belief that alcohol is bad for your health, but if you don’t drink, your action will disagree with your belief that alcohol makes you happy. Whether you choose to drink or not, your action will inevitably conflict with one of your beliefs. 

    This unresolvable dilemma is why quitting drinking can be so hard. The person gets caught in between their conflicting beliefs and is unable to restore internal consistency no matter what they do. In vain attempts to restore internal peace, they go back and forth between the only two options they know – stop, drink, stop, then repeat. 

    Second Option: Undermine one or more beliefs or attitudes. 

    When the first option doesn’t work, people tend to move on to the second option, which reduces the importance of one or more beliefs or attitudes. For example, you could attempt to undermine the importance of the belief “alcohol harms my health” with arguments such as “living in the moment,” “just one drink won’t hurt,” or “everyone drinks, it must not be that bad.”

    This approach can work for a while. However, sooner or later, you may find that the overwhelming evidence of the harm alcohol has on your life no longer allows you to undermine such beliefs. Then you are back to the original dilemma.

    Third Option: Acquire New Information to outweigh the dissonant beliefs.

    We are left with the last option: acquiring new information to outweigh the dissonant beliefs. In this option, one may inquire about their beliefs about alcohol, such as “alcohol makes me happy.” They may collect new information about alcohol and happiness and test out whether unlimited alcohol consumption in fact, leads to true happiness.

    At first glance, this option can feel quite threatening. After all, many people developed their beliefs about alcohol from a very young age. Many people watch their family consume alcohol and have a joyous time, and others spend college years having the time of their life with friends at parties getting drunk. The belief “alcohol makes me happy” could feel like an unchallengeable fact. Luckily, a belief is a belief, and as it’s true for any belief, there is always room for challenge and expansion. 

    As scary as challenging these beliefs seems at first, it offers a path to restoring internal peace in one’s relationship with alcohol. If you are curious to uncover some of your misbeliefs about alcohol, I created this FREE checklist about the 12 Common Misbeliefs About Alcohol to get you started. The first step in shifting your beliefs is to become aware of them. May you find peace, joy, and true freedom in your journey. 


    McLeod, S. A. (2018, Febuary 05). Cognitive dissonance. Simply Psychology.

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