How to Tell the Difference Between Fun-Messy Drinking and Bad-Messy Drinking

Is it always a problem when two drinks becomes four or more drinks?
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
Woman enjoying a drink while on date with boyfriend in night club - stock photo
Thomas Barwick via Getty
Practical advice from experts to help you, personally, with living.

Moderation, when it comes to drinking, means almost nothing. The CDC has a strict limit, but is anything more considered “misuse?” What about those occasional nights of having three to four beers and Negronis with friends, after which you wake up with a mild hangover, being like, haha, oops?

There’s no term for this; the extant drinking lingo covers only the ends of the spectrum. We have definitions for sobriety and for addiction, but the rest is “moderation,” a vague, could-mean-anything space that the CDC defines as one or fewer drinks per day (or two, for men) and everyone else defines their own way. 


But here, though, I’m talking about the point on the moderation spectrum that involves ordering that final beer or margarita, even though you’re already buzzing and probably could’ve skipped it, but the vibes were just too good and everyone else was ordering one, too. Why do we do that, when we commonly live to mildly regret it the next morning? And does it—or our obsessive thoughts about whether it’s a problem—rise to the level of actually being a problem?

As Arielle Sokoll-Ward, a therapist in Austin, Texas, told VICE, there are two main motivational categories that drive people to have one or two too many: negative and positive reinforcement. “With negative reinforcement, people have a tendency to use drinking for escape or avoidance, or regulating unpleasant emotions,” Sokoll-Ward said. “So you might go to happy hour and feel like you need to drink after work to deal with stress, and for a bit of escape.”

Negative reinforcement, basically, is what you feel when you’re like, Shit, that was a tough day, I can’t wait for happy hour later, and happy hour beer turns into happy hour beers, and then you’re suddenly regaling your boss with the story of how you used to do epic—nay, legendary—keg stands in undergrad. 

Positive reinforcement is the opposite of that. Sokoll-Ward said positive reinforcement overlaps with social motives, or psychological processes that drive people’s feelings and behavior in group settings, with the ultimate goal of fitting in. “With positive reinforcement, it’s generally more about drinking to be sociable, or maybe we want to celebrate and have a good time with others,” Sokoll-Ward said, adding that this is most common when alcohol is just sort of “around” (think: open bar tab, beer on tap at the office, booze table at a party, etc.). 


That’s kind of vague, but truly, positive reinforcement is probably what you immediately think of when you think of fun, social drinking. It could look like anything from going out on a Tuesday for drinks because Victoria got a new job to getting another cocktail because the drinks are all free at this party and alcohol makes you feel social and relaxed. Essentially, it’s a psychological theory that explains all the “just good vibes” reasons why you feel compelled to get a little carried away. 

There’s also an element of positive reinforcement that imbues confidence. Something we know about alcohol is that, in the first stage of drinking, it depresses the part of your brain that controls inhibition. Or, in other words, drinking makes you feel chattier than normal, and so you may drink to the point of feeling sufficiently chatty. Which certainly helps in semi-awkward social settings, like work parties or estranged-friend weddings. The thinking behind this would sound something like, I’ll have one more and then I’ll be normal and fun! 

Ignoring the CDC’s moderation guidelines, it can certainly feel like moderation to have one or two somewhat-messy nights per week, messy meaning, you wake up the next morning, run back everything you said (so not a blackout), and land somewhere in the space of, shouldn’t have said that, but oh well! But is getting stuck in that cycle a “problem” worth addressing with a recovery counselor? 


While many substance use experts recommend against using alcohol as a tool to mitigate stress (alcohol is a depressant, but use of it can still lead to increased anxiety and panic attacks), there’s nothing inherently “bad” about the negative or positive reinforcement motivators. It’s not a bad thing to occasionally unwind from a particularly long day with a few beers, and it’s not necessarily awful that you like the loosey-goosey feeling that comes from that fourth margarita among friends. 

As Sokoll-Ward said, merely thinking about your drinking habits and recognizing any pattern is a nod toward self-awareness, a crucial aspect of maintaining control. Sokoll-Ward recommended looking at your drinking pattern with curiosity, rather than judgement. So instead of being like, ah, I’m such an idiot, why do I do this, ask yourself, legitimately, why do I do this? Were you nervous around your new boss and looking for a tool (alcohol) to help you escape your own self-conscious thoughts? Were you having such a blast at trivia that another drink felt only like it’d add to the fun?

If you’re routinely waking up from these messy-ish nights out with pangs of regret, Sokoll-Ward suggested starting with a bit of self-compassion, and then setting gentle boundaries. “If you notice this and you don’t want to feel this way, maybe ask your friend, before the next birthday party or party barge, to help you make sure you don’t have more than four drinks,” she said. 

Being able to recognize the pattern and do something about it is key; if you ever find yourself no longer in control, there are resources out there to help you. Moderation is vague; getting carried away a few times here and there is normal. As long as you’re playing it safe (by not driving) and don’t routinely find yourself fucking up your entire life in the course of an evening out, party on. (But maybe stop telling your boss embarrassing personal stories!)

If you’re struggling with addiction, you can visit the official website of SAMHSA’s National Helpline for treatment information.

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