Emotional sobriety is the ability to live a balanced, mature, humility-filled life in relation to ourselves and others.
In the January 1958 issue of AA’s magazine “the Grapevine,” AA founder Bill W. wrote an article about a concept he dubbed “emotional sobriety.” Emotional sobriety, according to Bill W., was the next frontier for alcoholics who had managed to put down the bottle.
I think that many oldsters who have put our AA “booze cure” to severe but successful tests still find they often lack emotional sobriety…Those adolescent urges that so many of us have for top approval, perfect security, and perfect romance — urges quite appropriate to age seventeen — prove to be an impossible way of life when we are at age forty-seven or fifty-seven. — Bill W.
In other words, as functioning adults, we need the ability to regulate our actions and reactions to life’s challenges. Noteworthy is Bill’s list of three particular scourges that afflict us: the need for top approval, perfect security, and perfect romance.
If you’ve kept up with my writing at the end of 2019, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been battling all three of these conflicts. I seek validation through my writing. I’ve desperately wanted a perfect romance in the aftermath of my divorce. And I’m extremely anxious over my present state of living in perfect insecurity.
I haven’t picked up a drink in over 6 years, and this holiday season I was not tempted by alcohol at all. I’m thankful to have that released that albatross. This holiday season, I was able to buy booze, beer, and wine for our guests without a second thought. There was a time that would have seemed impossible.
But, my abstention from alcohol doesn’t mean I’m good at life. Quite the contrary, actually.
My dry status simply means that I put down the crutch of alcohol as a coping mechanism. However, if I don’t prioritize my emotional sobriety, my life can seem just as chaotic as when I was drinking — especially my interior life. This is what’s known as being “dry drunk.” New beverage, same old bullshit
Avoidance v. Rumination
There are two different ways we handle difficult emotions. We either avoid thinking about the problem, or we ruminate. We use different coping mechanisms for problems of different intensity.
A study found that subjects were more likely to want to check out when they saw images that evoked extremely negative emotions, like a woman with an agonizing expression and blood on her face. When faced with minor instances of negativity, such as a disapproving look, people were more like to go into overthinking mode.
For people with addiction, the use of a substance of choice plays a major part in coping with distress. Without alcohol, an alcoholic may be extra avoidant of big problems by withdrawing into depression, and extremely prone to anxious rumination, or what AA members often call “stinkin’ thinkin.”
The goal of emotional sobriety is to give addicts a reprieve from these two terrible choices by building up a tolerance for negative emotions — something addicts struggle with. Living life on life’s terms, no matter what emotions come up, is the touchstone of emotional sobriety.
Mindfulness also helps us reach emotional sobriety
In my experience, mindfulness is also critical in developing emotional sobriety. Learning to sit with emotions and observe them without judgment is a perfect strategy to help us avoid harmful reactions to negative emotions. By living mindfully and concentrating on the present moment, we can better create thoughtful responses to emotion without simply reacting.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
It makes perfect sense that the Serenity Prayer is so beloved in 12-step communities. In one sentence, we seek acceptance of situations that may cause negative emotions, as well as the courage to make changes that will help us live in emotional comfort. In other words, if we can fix it, we should. If we can’t, we should endure. Not by white-knuckling our way through emotional difficulties without the comfort of the bottle — but by equipping ourselves with an emotional aspect to our sobriety that makes it livable.
Alcoholics and addicts may have a lower tolerance for emotional discomfort than others. I believe it’s based on brain chemistry and genetics. But I believe that all people could find emotional sobriety helpful in their lives. Addict or not, we will all encounter bad feelings caused by situations outside of our control. Knowing how to navigate emotions with equanimity is a skill that we all can use.
So this January, if you don’t feel a need to give up your whiskey or wine for the month, consider paying some attention to your emotional sobriety. If you enter the new year with a balanced, healthy mindset regarding the negative emotions you will face, it could be more valuable than any diet or detox ever could.