What Is Emotional Sobriety?

By Steve K.

Emotional Sobriety: a combination of emotional balance, emotional autonomy, and emotional maturity.

Definition of emotional sobriety by Dr Allen Berger…

“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 [being ‘right sized’ – neither an overly inflated view of oneself, or a position of low self-worth]. In this state, we have an appropriate balance and coordination of all that we are.” (1)

Why is Emotional Sobriety Important in Recovery from Addiction?

The opposite of Emotional Sobriety is… emotional insecurity, excessive emotional dependency, and emotional immaturity. These character traits are often the underlying drivers of addiction and other mental health and behavioural disorders.

To put it bluntly.. recovery from addiction involves growing up mentally and emotionally for many with addiction issues. Learning how to be emotionally independent and being able to emotionally self-regulate without over reliance upon others (or addictive behaviours) is key to developing emotional sobriety.

Learning how differentiate oneself from others is important in this process… I am responsible for my emotions and behaviour and other people are responsible for theirs… I have my own wants and needs, other people have their wants and needs. Practicing applying and accepting appropriate boundaries with others is an essential part of developing emotional sobriety.

Emotional sobriety is a way of being that we can practice and develop through adopting and utilizing the following insights, attitudes, and tools…

1. Living life consciously, in the present moment, and mindfully. Becoming aware of and in touch with our feelings, bodily sensations, our environment, true values, and experience. Those who have suffered addiction problems are often cut off from themselves and their experiences due to unhealthy conditioning (conditions of worth) and the development of a false self to gain the approval of others. They are oblivious to their true feelings and experiences.

2. Identifying unhealthy emotional dependencies.. our unreasonable demands, shoulds, musts, needs etc related to our instincts for security, approval, social status, companionship, and sex. See Bill Wilson’s 1958 article.. Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier.

3. Knowing that it’s not personal. We need to recognise that what people say and do is about them rather than us. “Taking things personally is a function of low self-esteem and emotional insecurity. 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.” (2)

4. Realizing that no one is coming to save or fix you. Healing and growing up emotionally is an inside job which we must take fully responsibility for. Recovery must include willingness and self-directed effort, utilizing our own inherent resources and reaching out to other helpful resources that are available to us.

5. Accepting what is (oneself, others, and life). We must surrender our immature demands and expectations of ourselves, other people, and life itself.

6. Breaking the Bonds of Perfectionism. Realising it’s ok and normal to be flawed and imperfect (self-acceptance). Again.. letting go of our unrealistic expectations and demands of ourselves and others. I’m ok, you’re ok, regardless of our imperfections.

7. Healing Through Forgiveness. Dr Fred 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.

8. Living a purposeful Life. The principle of service to others helps bring purpose and meaning into our lives and connects us to our true nature. We are pro-social beings who have the capacity for compassion and a sense of humanitarianism. Living beyond self-serving aims helps us develop humility and emotional maturity.

9. Holding on to Ourselves in Relationships. Relationships are the primary testing ground for emotional sobriety and is where our emotional dependency is exposed. The closer we are to others the harder it is to hold on to ourselves, our integrity, and our authenticity. The greater our self-awareness, self-acceptance, and emotional resilience, the greater our ability to be true to ourselves and practice healthy boundaries with others.

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.. We allow the other person in the relationship to be true to themselves and to accept differences and work with them.

Adapted from the book ‘12 Essential Insights for Emotional Sobriety’, by Dr Allen Berger, Ph.D.

  1. p.49.
  2. pp.109-110.

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