By Steve K.
I have recently read psychotherapist Dr Allen Berger’s latest book ‘12 Essential Insights for Emotional Sobriety’, which offers a comprehensive interpretation of the various characteristics that comprise the concept of emotional sobriety. According to Dr Berger, the phrase emotional sobriety was first coined by Bill Wilson, one of the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Berger highlights the appearance of the phrase in Step Twelve of the book the ‘Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions’ (1952).
“Here we begin to practice all Twelve Steps of the program in our daily lives so that we and those about us may find emotional sobriety.” (p.106)
In his book, Dr Berger suggests that Bill Wilson concluded that the ultimate purpose of practicing the 12 Steps was to achieve emotional sobriety. (2021, p.23)
Wilson wrote about the concept of emotional sobriety, or more accurately – the lack of it, in his Grapevine article ‘The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety’, which was published in January 1958 (Wilson’s original letter was written in 1956). In the article, Wilson identifies his difficulties with emotional sobriety and resulting depressions as stemming from his unhealthy [emotional] dependencies upon people and external circumstances to meet his unhealthy demands for prestige and security. Anyone who’s read Susan Cheever’s biography (1) about Bill Wilson will be aware that he was deeply insecure beneath the surface of his character and would be classed as a traumatised person by today’s psychological standards due to adverse childhood experiences.
The foundation of Dr Berger’s book is based upon Wilson’s 1958 article in relation to emotional sobriety. He also applies modern psychotherapeutic concepts mainly taken from the humanistic tradition e.g., ‘self-actualizing tendency’ and the concepts of the ‘true self’ and ‘false self’. In addition to his training in clinical psychology Dr Berger is also a practicing gestalt psychotherapist and describes this approach in his work with clients. An example being his use of the ‘empty chair’ technique which is a gestalt method to help therapy clients access repressed emotions and connect to their ‘organic self’. In his book Dr Berger uses client case studies to effectively demonstrate the principles and characteristics of emotional sobriety and its opposite ‘emotional dependency.’ I found these case studies to be really engaging, insightful and educational.
Dr Berger outlines emotional sobriety in essence to be emotional balance, emotional autonomy, and emotional maturity. He expands upon these attributes with a definition of emotional sobriety:
“Emotional sobriety is a mental state in which we know longer react to our changing emotions as though they were the governing facts of our lives. This mental state is made possible by the emotional and spiritual maturity that come with humility. In this state, we have an appropriate balance and coordination of all that we are.” (2021, Chapter 2, p.49)
Dr Berger implies that emotional dependency results from a lack of the psychological and emotional resources to be emotionally independent. It’s being excessively dependent upon others or external circumstances for emotional wellbeing. To be emotionally autonomous an adult must have the self-awareness to regulate their emotions and self-soothe their distress. Dr Berger emphasizes the fundamental importance of developing conscious self-awareness in becoming emotionally sober. Emotional sobriety is a way of being that we can practice and develop through adopting and utilizing the insights, attitudes, and tools outlined in Dr Berger’s book. The 12 insights are:
1. Waking up from our sleepwalking.
2. Living life consciously.
3. Discerning our emotional dependency.
4. Knowing that it’s not personal.
5. Realizing that no one is coming.
6. Accepting what is.
7. Living life on life’s terms.
8. Discovering Novel Solutions.
9. Breaking the Bonds of Perfectionism.
10. Healing Through Forgiveness.
11. Living a purposeful Life.
12. Holding on to Ourselves in Relationships.
These are all capacities that can be practiced and developed over time whether we are in recovery from addiction or not – they are applicable to all human beings in our efforts to become fully functioning, integrated and whole. It’s clear from Dr Berger’s work that many of us require therapeutic help along the way to emotional sobriety. Gaining freedom from the unreasonable expectations, demands and immature dependencies that prevent emotional autonomy, maturity and balance is the aim of Dr Berger’s insights.
Chapter 5 in his book (insight no.3) describes these expectations and demands and how they are created by our false self-concept. The false self, created by the anxiety-based need for approval, acceptance, and emotional security is the basis for emotional dependency upon others and external circumstances. Dr Berger outlines an emotional dependency inventory (comparable to AA’s Step 4 inventory process) to help identify its unhealthy expectations and ‘unenforceable rules’. He then encourages taking responsibility for meeting our own emotional needs and connecting with the ‘organismic self’, which inherently knows what it needs to flourish. The rest of the book explores how to let go of our ‘toxic rules’ and develop autonomy and self-support.
I particularly identified with chapter’s 6 & 7of the book, ‘Knowing That It’s Not Personal’ and ‘Realizing That No One Is Coming’. Dr Berger suggests that low self-esteem is the basis of taking things personally and this accords with my own personal experience.
“Taking things personally is a function of low self-esteem. Our low self-esteem makes us very focused on and concerned with the approval or disapproval of others. If we don’t love ourselves, then we will do all kinds of things to make ourselves lovable to other people. This is what creates emotional dependency.” (2021, pp. 109-110)
Dr Berger clearly indicates that to develop emotional sobriety we need to recognise that what people say and do is about them rather than us. We need to develop a high level of ‘differentiation’ where others are concerned. He also suggests learning to listen to our wise self which understands that what others think, say, and do is their stuff and advocates that we practice empathizing with other people by asking ourselves, “What am I learning about this person?”
Chapter 7, ‘Realizing That No One Is Coming’ (insight no.5) suggests that the healing process is an inside job. The case study in the chapter shows that essentially, we all have the inherent resources necessary to heal ourselves and warns against the ‘toxic idea’ that another person or external system can ‘fix’ us. The humanistic idea of an instinctual self-actualizing biological and psychological drive to wholeness is strongly promoted in this part of the book. Although Dr Berger encourages self-responsibility throughout his work, he acknowledges that we often need help from others to access our inherent healing capacity.
Chapters 8 and 9 in the book focus upon ‘Accepting What Is’ and ‘Living Life on Life’s Terms’. They emphasize the importance of surrendering expectations and our ‘should demands’ in relation to ourselves, others, and life. Dr Berger suggests that our beliefs about fairness are often a barrier in relation to acceptance. He advocates reframing this idea to a more realistic one and suggests the term ‘unfortunate’. Life is often not fair, and things regularly happen that are unfortunate to lots of people. That’s the reality of life and a viewpoint that’s easier to accept than the unrealistic expectation of fairness.
There is a particularly powerful case study in chapter 8 involving the death of a child, which demonstrates the natural process of working through resistance to life and its traumatic events, on the way to the relative peace of acceptance. Connecting to and processing our rage, sadness, grief, and darker feelings is generally necessary when facing unfortunate, abusive, painful, and tragic life circumstances. Dr Berger suggests that trying to transcend this process is an example of ‘spiritual bypass’ and an avoidance of thoughts and feelings that don’t match stoic and spiritual ideals such as acceptance and forgiveness. Spiritual literature can often encourage spiritual bypass and Dr Berger highlights an example of this in the book ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ (aka, the Big Book, p.417).
‘Discovering Novel Solutions’ (insight no.8) is the topic of chapter 10. This chapter suggests that ‘the problem is never the problem’, it’s how we cope with events that causes distress. While I appreciate the ‘Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy’ (REBT) principles behind this assertion and accept the inherent wisdom that we are responsible for how we respond to life, I would advise realism and sensitivity in terms of its application as it can be used to encourage the emotional or spiritual bypass highlighted by Dr Berger earlier in his book. Life can be incredibly tragic and painful and it’s natural to feel distress in response to it – there’s nothing wrong with feeling disturbed by disturbing circumstances. They are a reality we need to come to terms with in our own time.
The importance of how we consider the events in life goes back to the Greek and Roman Stoics, and I’m reminded of the well-known quote by Epictetus.. “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.”
Dr Berger offers a quote by the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (2021, Chapter 8, p.161) in relation to acceptance which suggests something similar, where Frankl asserts that.. “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.” (2)
Chapter 10 encourages integrated and holistic thinking in relation to problems and life events. The chapter describes left and right brain functions – left brain being associated with logic, language, and specific detail, and right brain functions being linked to emotion, intuition, creativity, and seeing the bigger picture. Dr Berger promotes the use of both types of thinking in finding ‘novel solutions’ to problems. He advocates pausing between an event stimulus and our response and explains that it’s the space between where emotional freedom lives. He’s basically encouraging being mindful in response to life. In this way we use all our brain’s functions and our bilateral thinking capacity.
Dr Berger’s encouragement to use both types of thinking accords with modern brain research, which clearly shows that the left and right hemispheres of the brain communicate constantly and cooperate to fulfil the left and right attributes mentioned. The simplistic picture often promoted by popular psychology of left and right brained personality types is largely a myth. Recent research has shown that people use both hemispheres of the brain equally. (3) We have the capacity to strengthen both types of thinking in relation to problems and life.
The theme of chapter 11 is ‘Breaking the Bonds of Perfectionism’. The expectation of perfection in oneself and others is the cause of much distress, anxiety, depression, frustration, and conflict. It’s a barrier to emotional sobriety and a cause of excessive emotional dependency.
My interpretation of the perspective put forward in this section of the book is that perfectionism primarily originates during the developmental years of life. We internalise various ‘conditions of worth’ from our parents, caregivers, teachers, peers, media, social media, and cultural norms. These tell us we need to be a certain way to be ok and worthy of approval. These conditions of worth distort our self-concept (creating a false self) as we adopt them to be acceptable to others and society. The false self then creates various expectations, demands, and ‘unenforceable rules’ for us and others to adhere to. When our expectations are not met we suffer from the emotional fallout.. anger, shame, frustration and often despair.
Dr Berger describes the inner critic of perfectionism as the “top dog bully.” Our ‘conditions of worth’ bully us and others with dogmatic ‘should demands’. The top dog bully “is righteous, absolute in its thinking, authoritarian, and punitive.” (2021, p.211) Perfectionism feeds off our conditioned fear of not being lovable. It also feeds off our instinctual social fear of rejection.
The chapter on perfectionism concludes with an example of a client named Maria relinquishing her unrealistic demands and adopting an attitude of humility. She accepts that herself, other people, and life are imperfect. I would like to add that being imperfect is normal and that a good attitude to adopt is the Transactional Analysis (TA) position towards self and others of “I’m OK, you’re OK”, regardless of imperfection. Self-acceptance is an essential aspect of emotional autonomy, balance, and maturity. When we accept ourselves and our many imperfections, we are also accepting of others as they are without the need to change them.
Chapter 12, ‘Healing Through Forgiveness’ (insight no.10), is a really great reflection on the transformative power of this challenging virtue. Yet again, Dr Berger identifies that at the heart of forgiveness is the letting go of our expectations and unenforceable rules. He explains that forgiveness is a skill we can practice, although we need to be psychologically ready to do so.
“Hurt and betrayal create anger and rage, along with a narrative of what happened that justifies our anger and rage.” (2021, p.230)
Our anger and resentment towards another can be diminished by adopting a particular mindset which includes developing humility, empathy, and compassion towards the offending person etc. To fully release feelings of resentment it is also necessary to unpack our grievance and envision a new story in relation to it. Dr Berger outlines a four-step process in this respect identified by Dr Fred Luskin. Luskin ‘found that a grievance was the result of four experiences.’ 1. Taking things too personally. 2. Blaming another for our feelings of distress, hurt and anger. 3. A ‘grievance story’. 4. A perceived violation of our unenforceable rules.
Releasing a grievance requires that we not take an offense personally. We must learn to separate the subjective experience of an offense from the objective behaviour of the offender. Even though the offense happened to you (subjective) it is not about you, it’s about the offender (objective).
The second step in releasing a grievance requires us to own our feelings and to surrender blaming other people for them. Ultimately, we are responsible for our feelings despite the harmful behaviour of another. Our feelings belong to us. The reality that different people respond in different ways to the same stimulus is the basis for this assertion and the cognitive-behavioural theory that underpins it. Our response to situations and events is the result of our expectations and beliefs about what happens to us. While I largely agree with this perspective, I would again advise sensitivity in its application – particularly in relation to individuals who’ve been grievously abused and wounded by others.
The third step in relinquishing a grievance is the creation of a ‘new story’ about what has happened to us. Narratives such as ‘life is unfair’ can lead to a victim mindset which creates self-pity and a sense of disempowerment. It is possible to reframe our victim story creating an accepting and philosophical attitude towards the ‘unfortunate’ or harmful events.
The fourth step in letting go of a grievance is the realisation that life and people cannot be forced to adhere to our demands and expectations. We become aware of the egocentric nature and futility of our ‘unenforceable rules’.
Chapter 13 is my personal favourite in Dr Allen Berger’s book. He connects ‘Living a Purposeful Life’ to Step Twelve of the AA program of recovery. Dr Berger shows how practicing recovery principles, in particular the principle of service to others, brings purpose and meaning into our lives and connects us to our true nature. The 12 Steps return us to our true self and inspire self-actualization, integration, and wholeness. We become awake to the various aspects of ourselves and harmonize them so that we flourish in relation to life.
In relation to Step Twelve, Dr Berger ‘interprets “carry this message” as an urge to be of loving service, to have a purpose beyond self-serving aims, and to help others achieve emotional sobriety… To do this, we must find our gifts and cultivate them – a process that happens naturally as we integrate our parts – and then give our gifts away…. Paradoxically, the more we give away, the more we grow and the stronger our practice of emotional sobriety.’ (2021, pp. 243-244)
Dr Berger demonstrates this insight through the life story of Tom his sponsor. This is an inspirational account of recovery from despair and hopelessness to a life of meaning and purpose through service to others. Tom’s story shows how recovery and service creates honesty, integrity, authenticity, purpose, and personal growth. It’s the story of a ‘wounded healer’ moving from darkness to light.
Chapter 14, and the 12th insight for emotional sobriety, is ‘Holding on to Ourselves in Relationships’. Relationships are the primary testing ground for emotional sobriety and is where our emotional dependency is exposed. As social animals we desire close relationships which help us to meet our social and emotional needs. However, Dr Berger rightly suggests that the closer we are to others the harder it is to hold on to ourselves and our authenticity. Healthy relationships require us to be interdependent with each other. To be healthily dependent upon others we need the capacity to be healthily independent too. We need to be able to retain our integrity within relationships and be true to our authentic self.
Excessive emotional dependency is born of an inability to meet one’s own needs and not being able to self-regulate emotions adequately. This results in an over reliance upon those close to us. This excessive dependency is manifested through our unhealthy demands and expectations of others to meet our emotional needs. According to Dr Berger (my interpretation), the process of developing emotional sobriety enables the development of a ‘mature’ kind of love. Through increasing our emotional autonomy, balance, and maturity we become able to love and take care of ourselves, which is fundamental in being able to offer a non-possessive love to others. This is a love that encourages the self-actualization of the beloved regardless of one’s own needs.
Chapter 14 concludes with a set of eight healthy rules for emotional sobriety within relationships. These amount to allowing the other person in the relationship to be true to themselves and to accept differences and work with them. These eight rules realise what Bill Wilson did in his letter in relation to emotional sobriety, the need to surrender unhealthy expectations and dependencies absolutely.
I would like to end this book summary, which is in part also my own reflections upon the concepts and principles within the text, by expressing that Dr Berger’s book is a brilliant account of the various aspects of emotional sobriety, and the barriers to it created by emotional dependency. His book is a valuable resource for those interested in maintaining and developing their recovery from addiction, whether they favour a secular or more traditional approach to recovery. It’s also a great resource for those not in recovery from addiction but who are interested in developing their capacity for emotional sobriety.
‘12 Essential Insights for Emotional Sobriety’, By Dr Allen Berger, Ph.D.
- ‘My Name Is Bill’, By Susan Cheever.
- ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’, By Viktor Frankl.
- Left Brain vs. Right Brain Dominance – True or False?
Dr. Allen Berger Ph.D. is a top-selling author of five previous titles, 12 Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery, 12 More Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery, 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs are Gone, 12 Hidden Rewards of Making Amends, and Love Secrets Revealed. He is a well-regarded gestalt therapist working in private practice in Southern California, as well as a highly sought speaker and presents his concepts regularly at the most notable institutions in the US.
- The above book summary has been endorsed by the author of ’12 Essential Insights for Emotional Sobriety’, Dr Allen Berger, Ph.D.