Sobriety Is Personal, but Talking About It Can Be Incredibly Healing—Here’s How To Get the Conversation Started With Loved Ones

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The constant flow of alcohol through social settings both public and private has begun to ebb in recent years, thanks to the sober-curious movement. A 2024 survey of 1,000 people conducted by advertising firm NC Solutions found that 41 percent of Americans planned to drink less this year (up from 34 percent in 2023), and Gallup data collected over the past decade has found that young Americans (ages 18 to 34) have become increasingly less likely to drink or to drink often—all of which can make it easier to navigate an alcohol-free lifestyle if you're in recovery from alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Experts In This Article

But even if you're less likely to feel like the odd person out these days when not drinking, figuring out how to talk about your sobriety can feel very challenging.

Choosing not to drink is certainly a distinct thing from managing long-term recovery from alcohol misuse, and where the former may be looked down upon in certain settings, the latter is steeped in deep-rooted stigma and taboo. It's only natural to fear judgment, scrutiny, rejection, or just a lack of understanding and acceptance should you speak up about sobriety. "It can be nerve-wracking not knowing how a loved one may react to this information," says Sarah Elder, LCSW, CADC, a certified alcohol and drug counselor at Cook County Health.

Having kept secret your alcohol or other substance misuse from loved ones thus far can also leave you feeling ashamed and anxious, as can the behavioral changes that happen with intoxication—all of which may further isolate you and, unfortunately, make it tougher to reconnect openly and honestly with the people in your life who love and support you.

But learning how to talk about your sobriety with friends and loved ones (and knowing exactly whom in your circle you can trust with this information) is an important skill that can not only reduce shame but can also support your sobriety. having an accountability partner or gaining a stronger sense of trust with friends and family.

“Conversations around sobriety can be incredibly healing and can oftentimes work toward normalizing the topic,” says Keanu Jackson, LCSW, a staff therapist at The Expansive Group. “Open dialogues on sobriety can lead folks to build a broader sense of compassion and empathy, while at the same time reducing the pressure on sober folks to explain their reasoning for their sobriety.”

If you're eager to open up about your sobriety but aren't sure where to start, read on to find some helpful tips from mental health professionals. Plus, learn why it can be so beneficial for your own recovery journey to share your story.

The benefits of talking about your sobriety

“Being open with loved ones about your challenges with substance misuse and attempts at recovery gives opportunities to reconnect, increase support, relieve the anxiety of being 'found out,' and reduce any shame or stigma,” says Elder. Sharing struggles with alcohol and drug use with loved ones can create opportunities to improve relationships and gain support in the recovery process,” she adds.

That's to say, your loved ones can't help you if they don't know what you're dealing with and how you could use support. "Asking a loved one to be an accountability partner, going with you to meetings, sending supportive messages, or refraining from alcohol in front you are great ways that they can support you during this journey," says Elder. That said, "it's also okay to not know what support you need or would like from loved ones, or what you need changing. Checking in with a recovery support specialist, therapist, or counselor can help you explore what you need and how to ask for it," she adds.

Aside from these tangible measures of support, however, the effects of a conversation about sobriety may be immediate, as many people feel a deep sense of relief, says Marsha Stone, a licensed chemical dependency counselor and co-author of Rewired Workbook: A Manual for Addiction Recovery. “To not have to worry about telling one person one thing, and another person another thing, just clears up so much of the guilt and shame that comes along with constantly hiding something.”

Beyond relief, you may also feel some mental clarity, emotional peace, and even a sense of pride for outwardly embracing your recovery, Stone adds.

How to talk about sobriety with your loved ones

There are many routes you can take in starting up the sobriety conversation with those closest to you. While some discussions may happen organically and in the moment (say, you're out to eat with a group of friends and the waiter asks for drink orders), others can be more planned-out, helping you gain control of what's said and how the conversation goes. Below are a few tips for getting started from our mental health experts.

1. Choose whom you open up to wisely

Not everyone in your circle will necessarily be understanding of your situation. “The benefit of disclosing to loved ones is determined by the sober person and informed by their specific circumstances,” says Jackson.

For example, it's likely more harmful than helpful to disclose your substance journey with a loved one who lashes out, belittles you, or shuts you down. This means it’s important to think carefully about whom you will approach, and how you can best create a safe, beneficial environment for the conversation. These loved ones should have the capacity and willingness to support your humanity, agency, and journey, says Jackson. Otherwise, it may be best to avoid the conversation altogether.

If you’re unsure of whom to approach, pod mapping is a great tool to help figure out relationship safety. Originally developed by the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (BATJC), pod mapping is a technique where you get an “opportunity to look at everyone whom you consider to be part of your larger support network, reflect on those relationships, and see where and how they can continue to show up for you,” says Jackson.

To try pod mapping, start by asking yourself some practical questions about your relationships. Jackson recommends the following:

  • Is there someone close to me to whom I could disclose my sobriety first?
  • With whom can I spend time if I receive negative reactions from my loved ones?
  • Do I need someone to physically be with me as I disclose my sobriety to others? If so, who could that person be?
  • Who is the person that could offer monetary support, refuge, logistical support, etc., if my home environment becomes unsafe?
  • Is there someone out of my network who is more equipped for emotional support and guidance?

To help keep track of your answers, you can use this pod mapping worksheet on the BATJC website, or you can simply write them down in a journal.

2. Prep what you want to say (and how much you wish to disclose) in advance

Once you have solid answers on whom you want to talk to, it's time to consider the actual convo itself. There are no hard-and-fast rules for this particular step—only you know the context and history of your relationships and your sobriety journey.

For example, you may prefer to have a short, casual conversation (à la life update) or a more formal talk, depending on the person. And if you're sharing with more than one person, conversations will likely vary in length, formality, content, and level of intimacy. You may even ask a trusted friend, partner, or recovery ally to facilitate or join you for the chat.

No matter what, knowing how you're going to approach the conversation beforehand is the important part. Elder recommends first understanding your relationship to alcohol or substances (as a coping mechanism, for example) and getting comfortable giving others a sense of your journey.

Next, consider what you are comfortable disclosing. “Deciding what to disclose really comes down to your own preferences and what feels important to you,” says Jackson. “You're not obligated to give anyone the full rundown of your sobriety.” To check-in with yourself and your own privacy needs, Jackson advises you start with the following questions:

  • What aspects of my sobriety journey feel easier to discuss?
  • What aspects of my sobriety journey feel more difficult to discuss?
  • What aspects of my sobriety journey do I feel okay about repeating to or re-sharing with others?
  • With whom am I sharing this information? Can I trust them?

3. Find a literal safe space

“Creating a safe emotional space often starts with creating a safe physical space,” says Elder. Plan to find a time and place that is comfortable, quiet, and free from distractions. According to Elders, it's also important to consider with whom you're speaking and whether the environment is conducive for your relationship.

This could mean walking to a nearby park to chat, visiting your favorite café, or staying in the comfort of your home. Maybe you feel more comfortable having the chat in the morning, so you have the rest of the day to decompress, or at night after you've finished your work day.

Ultimately, picking an ideal time and comfortable physical environment can help you feel relaxed enough to share.

4. Know (and stick to) your boundaries

Boundaries are an important part of the conversation because they let your loved ones know what to expect from you moving forward. “By establishing and communicating boundaries, you are actively paving the way for deeper levels of connection,” says Jackson. “Boundaries are an invitation for others to learn how to care for you... not a means to restrict or push away those closest to you.”

Some of your boundaries may revolve around social settings and behaviors—like declining after-work drinks or maintaining a substance-free home—while others might be particular to conversations on your sobriety. For example, boundaries may come into play if a loved one asks follow-up questions about your recovery journey or wants more information on a specific topic. An in-conversation boundary might sound something like, “That question was personal, and I won’t be able to answer it.”

Remember: Inviting a loved one into a personal conversation is also different from taking on the responsibility of educating them about sobriety in general. “Just because discussions and information-gathering can be helpful, that doesn't mean sober folks are obligated to be educators on the matter,” says Jackson. “Consent is huge here, so if a sober person isn't interested in discussing their views or additional details on their sobriety journey, non-sober folks should be respectful of that.”

Though it may take some time for a loved one to adapt to your new boundaries around sobriety, repeated disrespect or disregard of your boundaries may mean it’s time to reconsider how (and whether) you'll show up in this relationship.

The bottom line

Everyone has their own personal relationship to alcohol and certain substances. It's important to remember these relationships can change, and if you're in long-term recovery from substance misuse, you deserve support that honors your decision to abstain. "The decision to be sober is very personal," says Jackson. "Whether a person's sobriety journey is easy or challenging doesn't take away from the fact that they are deserving of respect and joy."

Stay close to the loved ones who accept you (wherever you may be in your recovery journey), help you when you're feeling down, and offer to spend time doing non-alcohol-centric things (or even make tasty mocktails when the time is right).

And if you're looking for more resources on how to share your sobriety journey or start the recovery process, Stone recommends the following:

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