Emotional Sobriety

The Next Step in Our Recovery

Emotional sobriety has recently come into focus as a critical element of a solid and stable foundation for recovery—and for very good reasons. In fact, I consider it to be the missing link in treatment.

We are finding that many people who seemed to be doing well in their recovery end up relapsing because they don't know how to deal with disappointment, rejection, fear, boredom, resentment, emotional pain or anxiety. In fact, there is a deadly myth that sobriety will be the answer to all of our problems. The reality is that once we "put the plug in the jug" the real work begins. Getting clean and sober gets us out of a bad place but as Earnie Larsen warned us, getting out of a bad place is not the same as getting into a better place. Emotional sobriety is the key to getting into a better place.

Emotional sobriety is attained when what we do determines our emotional well-being rather than allowing our emotional well-being to be overly influenced by others. To realize this state of mind we need to learn how to keep our emotional center of gravity balanced over our true self. Our physical center of gravity provides an excellent analogy that will help us better understand this concept. When our weight is equally balanced over both of our feet and our feet are spaced a shoulder width apart, then gravity passes through the center of our physical being and connects us to the center of the earth. In this stance, we are balanced and can quickly move in any direction and best respond to the demands of any situations we encounter. When we are in a solid athletic stance, we can realize our full potential as an athlete. This has implications emotionally as well.

When our emotional center of gravity is firmly balanced over our true self, then just like when we are physically balanced, we are well grounded and can realize our potential as a human being and mature.

When we mature and become an adult, we go beyond or transcend environmental support to self-support. We hold on to our individuality and don't lose ourselves in the situation. As we learn to support ourselves, we become more emotionally resilient and response-able. We are now free to respond to whatever challenging conditions or disturbing interactions that confronts us in a way that honors our integrity. Another way of saying this is that we can support ourselves through our own contributions. We can soothe ourselves when upset. We can comfort ourselves when disappointed. We can lick our wounds when we are hurt. We don't let other people's limited perceptions of us define us. We don't let other people edit our sense of reality. Our sense of self is solid and yet flexible. We can cooperate with others without losing ourselves in the connection.

But similar to what happens when we are not physically grounded, we are knocked off balance when reality does not conform to our expectations or when we do not get the validation or approval we seek from others.

Emotional sobriety cannot be attained as long as we are emotionally dependent. Why? Because emotional dependency makes our emotional well being contingent upon the people and conditions that surround us.

Since we need people to behave a certain way for us to be okay and for circumstances to unfold a certain way for us to feel all right, we become control freaks. We generate unenforceable rules to possess and control the people and circumstances in our lives. These rules turn into claims and demands that we place on other people and how they should act and behave, and how life should be. We expect life to conform to our expectations.

These demands are an outgrowth of our unhealthy emotional dependency and our emotional immaturity. For the most part, they are unconscious. We don't realize that we are immature and emotionally dependent, and that we have so many invisible rules. We think our expectations are normal. But they are not.

Bill Wilson made this point clear in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. When discussing Step Ten, he said: "It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, there's something wrong with us." So his insight was that when things don't go our way and we get upset it's our problem, not theirs.

From his insight, we learned that at the root of every emotional disturbance we have is an unhealthy emotional dependency and its corresponding set of unenforceable rule. Emotional recovery is about identifying these rules and the claims they generate, and then surrendering them. It's about unhooking people from our expectations and putting ourselves on the hook for growing up. This is extremely important for our maturity. We need to understand ourselves and grow ourselves. It's our job, not anyone else's.

Emotional recovery is the path to our emotional sobriety. What are we recovering? We are recovering the ability to determine our own emotional well-being. When we lost our true selves during our addiction we lost the ability to be the determining force in our own lives. Now that we have "put the plug in the jug," so to speak, we can begin our emotional recovery and recover the ability to determine our emotional well-being.

Allen Berger 100x115Allen Berger, PhD, is a psychotherapist who has written extensively about the experience of recovery, emotional sobriety, and the psychological forces operating within the Twelve Steps. A nationally recognized expert on the science of recovery, he has, for more than 30 years, been on his own journey in recovery while helping thousands of others discover a way of life free from addiction. He is author of 12 Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery, 12 Hidden Rewards of Making Amends, 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs Are Gone and 12 More Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery.
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