Are you using alcohol as a shield?

I was, but it took me a long time to admit this to myself.

Alcohol was fun. It was a recipe for a good time with friends. It was inexorably tied to my dating life. And it was an easy way to blow off steam from a job that kept me on the road and attached to my email.

But even if I never would’ve admitted it to anyone else, I knew deep down that I wasn’t totally comfortable with my relationship to alcohol. I knew that I relied on it a little too heavily to feel at ease in social situations. I knew that I seemed to need it more than other people to have fun. Still, I struggled to understand why that was.

I learned this coping mechanism without even realizing it. Standing in a darkened room at my very first party in college, feeling totally out of place and wildly insecure, a red cup of “punch” almost instantly quieted my nerves.

What was wrong with me?

Turns out nothing. I was just using alcohol as a shield. A way not to feel uncomfortable emotions or face up to the thoughts that made me want to crawl out of my skin.

I learned this coping mechanism without even realizing it. Standing in a darkened room at my very first party in college, feeling totally out of place and wildly insecure, a red cup of “punch” almost instantly quieted my nerves. When the next party rolled around, I was still the same old insecure me, but now I had a surefire way to manage my social anxiety.

Guess what, everyone uses shields. Yes, everyone. You may not be dealing with social anxiety, and alcohol may not be your shield of choice, but I can guarantee that, whether you know it or not, you have your own go-to methods at the ready to distract yourself from the thoughts that make you want to run and hide.

Thoughts like “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life,” or “Everyone has this figured out but me,” or “I’m a failure.” Thoughts like “Why am I alone,” or “What am I doing in this relationship,” or “What’s wrong with me?”

The thoughts that trigger emotions that you hate feeling. Anxiety, loneliness, shame. Thoughts that send us unconsciously looking for ways to protect ourselves and direct us to our shields of choice.

For some people, the shield is food—escaping form a stressful day by “rewarding” themselves with food (usually too much and too fast). For others, it’s shopping—filling up their lives with stuff they don’t need. Still others focus on keeping busy—overscheduling their lives so as not to have a moment alone with their thoughts.

From the illicit to the innocuous, we find ways to distract, tune out, or numb. Anything to take our mind off what we don’t want to feel.

If you think I’m advocating for a life without comfort, I’m not. Sometimes you just need a break. But there’s a difference between comforting yourself and habitually throwing up a shield to cope with the things you don’t want to feel.

There’s a difference between comforting yourself and habitually throwing up a shield to cope with the things you don’t want to feel.

Real comfort doesn’t trap people in cycles of more, more, more. Real comfort doesn’t trigger an insatiable urge to over-drink, over-eat, over-spend, or over-work. Real comfort isn’t a defense mechanism. It’s a kindness you extend to yourself.

At some point you’re going to have to deal with these thoughts and emotions head on. They don’t go away on their own. Your shields can delay dealing with a problem, but they can’t solve it. And shields have a way of adding their own set of problems to the mix.

So are you using alcohol as a shield?