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Alcohol: Truth Serum or False Negative?

Two competing beliefs about alcohol seem to prevail: (1) Alcohol is a truth serum, and what is said or done while under the influence is what the sayer or doer really wants to say or do when sober, but for some reason can’t—i.e., true wishes that are usually suppressed get revealed when under the influence. And (2) Alcohol “changes” people, often for the worse: people end up saying or doing things they not only would never say or do sober, but truly would never want to say or do, period.

Which is true?

Most likely, both are true to some extent, but for what may be surprising reasons. Alcohol functions to suppress our central nervous system, which includes the portion of our brain that acts as our filter. Which is why, when we’ve imbibed, we feel a little looser, lighter, and less concerned about things weighing on our minds.

Simultaneously, we all have a rich and complex inner emotional life, that includes feelings we typically think of as negative or bad: aggression, hate, jealousy, envy, insecurity, and more, all humming around in the background, alongside all the good feelings. A sign of good emotional health is being able to recognize when the “negative” feelings arise, accept them as normal and, if fleeting, move on; or if more significant, to make adjustments to one’s situation. In most cases, these negative emotions that creep up here or there don’t usually reflect how one feels overall. Or, if they are more significant, are typically far outweighed by more positive feelings. (An example is to think about a relationship with a significant other. Even good relationships aren’t perfect, and there are bound to be things about the other that one really dislikes or even hates, but not so much that it outweighs the overall good of the relationship.) We all have a dark side lurking around behind our happy, well-adjusted façades.

What happens, then, when alcohol works its magic on our filter? These background feelings, either fleeting or “longer-lasting-but-not-reflective-of-the-overall” can get unleashed. Things get said or done that never would without the influence of alcohol, that may not reflect how a person really feels overall, even if there may be some grain of truth. Unfortunately for many, mortification sets in upon sobering up and realizing or regretting actions while under the influence. One of the obvious remedies is to watch the alcohol intake. But taking the time to explore the feelings that come charging out while under the influence is also a worthwhile endeavor. Rather than portending life-upending events, exploring conflicted feelings can actually strengthen one’s sense of self and confidence, whether one decides to make any changes or not.