How to Develop Good Refusal Skills for Real-World Recovery 

1Drug and alcohol recovery is challenging for many reasons. The first, but not necessarily most important, are the changes necessary to stay sober and clean. After being addicted so long, the brain and body develop habits and patterns which are now disrupted. The body and mind need room to breathe and rest. Temptations, triggers, and other things can get in the way of feeling successful in recovery. It might even lead to relapse when a person is not prepared. Outside temptations can be a challenge. This makes good refusal skills necessary for better recovery. Find out what they are and how to develop them.


The following situations can become difficult for a person to overcome early in recovery. Even though they seem innocent, the brain and body are wired early on to be triggered for drug and alcohol use. They look for cues to signal this will make the person feel good, so let’s try it. Walking into certain places where drug use happened can do this as well as certain old friends. This is especially true if they still use drugs or drink. Some of the following situations can be triggering for some people:

  • Hunting
  • Camping
  • Going out to dinner
  • Going to work meetings or events
  • Holiday celebrations
  • Sports bars
  • Hobbies with friends
  • Ballgames or hockey matches
  • Being offered beverages while out with family and friends
  • Concerts
  • Vacation

Basically, anywhere a person wanders in their life can trigger thoughts or desires to use drugs. The key is how a person decides to use this time to deal with the struggles they face. Situations and circumstances can trigger a relapse at any time. The development of skills to avoid these situations are important for recovery. 

Planning for Triggers

Just mere anticipation of walking into a triggering situation can bring up stress levels for some people. Early on, most people are triggered when they wake up, go to work, walk the dog, go to yoga, and fall asleep at night. Their brains and bodies are still working through all the chemicals running through them and need time to cope with these triggers. There is no avoiding them. Relapse prevention strategies are the best way to plan ahead, with the support of a community and therapists who understand these challenges. A plan is more important than people think when it comes to setting goals.

Have Backup

A backup plan or person that will be there when triggers become overwhelming is key. If a person is lonely or frustrated, that will be a trigger to use. Load up the phone list with people to call and form a chain. Make sure they are ready to receive calls and texts to support the journey. Decide in advance who to contact when in trouble. Think about:

  • Who will be out in the environment that may be triggering (work, bus, commute, etc)
  • State intentions in advance
  • Be honest and think about what might be too triggering
  • Carry assertive tone and hold boundaries

Boundary Setting

Refusal skills in recovery are part of the experience, but setting boundaries is just as important. Be assertive and say ‘no.’ Mean it and don’t explain why. Someone will not like it, but they don’t have to agree. Don’t try to get them to see why just say ‘no’ and walk away. Bring sober support. Taking someone along who understands the struggle can be protective and helpful. Identify where and with whom temptation might be strongest and work to develop space away from those things that are ‘too much,’ even if it is just temporary. Maybe someday those places will not be (the cinema, neighbor’s house, or other places in the neighborhood) but, for now, keep sobriety top priority. 

Strength Building

Self-confidence will grow the more refusals a person does. This means developing some key areas in recovery to stay strong and focused on the goal:

  • Be assertive: develop the skills that require a person to hold their opinions, protect themselves, and be direct in communication. Passive communication does not always directly tell people what needs to be said so continue working on this to develop barriers against relapse
  • Problem-solving: grow in skills that will help identify, cope, and follow through on solutions to problems that arise. Take on challenges, seek support for creative solutions, and find answers with mentors who can help navigate them
  • Make sobriety a priority: grow in the ability to see what’s coming and do what’s right. Prioritize sobriety and recovery. Build a solid foundation for recovery. It takes time. Commitment levels will be high but don’t be afraid to go to more meetings, find new friends, and work harder than ever at making recovery the key focus

The more a person works on these skills, the stronger they become. When someone offers something that is triggering or the environment is triggering, then a person has the ability and tools to cope better. This does not mean they will not relapse but at least they have been working at using the tools and can give it their best shot.

Forge is a place to come and recover your life from addiction. We help you reimagine what is possible and create the life you’ve been dreaming of.

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