If you are sober from drugs or alcohol you may wonder what emotional sobriety is and why you need it, especially since you quit your addiction? Any good recovery program helps clients move toward emotional sobriety through the 12 Steps, counseling, or the sponsor/sponsee relationship.

We have all heard about the need to get to the root of our addictions. The reason this is imperative is because not doing so will inevitably cause us to relapse back into our addiction, substitute it with another addiction, or cause continued maladaptive behaviors. By maladaptive behaviors I mean emotionally immature or erratic behaviors that are generally an over-reaction to a thing or situation. Anger, throwing things, or fits of rage in response to stressors can be considered maladaptive when they are habitual. For instance, I used to experience terrible fits of rage, anger, and even road rage before I got sober. Slowly these behaviors decreased when I stopped drinking and started digging into the root of my addictions. By this I mean I started examining why I was acting this way. Understanding some of the ‘why’s and ‘wherefores’ was healing and therapeutic. This knowledge led to healing which naturally brought about tools to help me deal with my emotions in healthier ways.

Getting to the root of our addiction can be a lifelong process. Some important first steps to take while we work on the root causes are to remove the addiction (drugs, alcohol, pornography etc.) and begin developing healthier emotional coping skills. Here is the thing, addiction prevents emotional growth and development. You might wonder ‘what came first the horse or the cart?’ Is our addiction from emotional trauma or is the emotional trauma from our addiction? In most cases it can be a little (or a lot) of both.

However, I surmise that an inability to handle, feel, or understand difficult emotions is the reason many of us fall into addiction in the first place. If we grew up in a dysfunctional family system, we could not have possibly learned to handle trauma or painful emotions as a child. Thus, we developed unhealthy coping skills to survive that environment. The addiction became an escape from the confusion, anger, pain, or depression we felt. This escapism further stunts our emotional growth.

This is why in recovery, the goal is to achieve emotional sobriety. That is, the ability to deal soberly with difficult things that come our way without being completely overcome by our own emotions. You could say emotional sobriety is the ability to handle our emotions in a healthy rational way, and without turning to a substance to cope. Again, this is a process. One that often starts with just allowing ourselves to feel the emotions in the first place without immediately reacting, judging, or trying to make the feelings go away. Hence the term ‘sit with your pain,’ or ‘sit with your emotions.’ I’ve often given people a sheet of paper with dozens of emotions listed. It is amazing how often people in recovery (including myself) struggle to identify basic emotions, let alone what they feel like.

So, removing the addiction is the very first step in achieving emotional sobriety. It is possible to quit our addiction and still be a slave to our emotions. The term they often use in Alcoholics Anonymous is ‘dry drunk.’ This is when a person gets sober, but inside they are still miserable, and their behavior is almost as bad (if not worse) as when they were using.

Looking back, I would say I was a dry drunk the first 8 to 10 years of my sobriety. My self-esteem was terribly low. This and other issues led to anger, rage, fear, panic attacks, and extreme mood swings. I realized I had deep issues with co-dependency and lack of self-worth. I began to dig into the root of the fear, anger and self-esteem issues while simultaneously praying for God to heal my self-esteem. Sixteen sober years later I continue to ‘peel back the layers of the onion’ as God continues to heal and reveal.

When we humbly seek Him, He will show us the way: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). Perhaps one of the best illustrations of the journey toward emotional sobriety is the “12 Promises of A.A.” which are read before each meeting. These are the end result of doing the hard work in the recovery process:

  • Promise One: We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
  • Promise Two: We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
  • Promise Three: We will comprehend the word serenity.
  • Promise Four: We will know peace.
  • Promise Five: No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.
  • Promise Six: That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
  • Promise Seven: We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
  • Promise Eight: Self-seeking will slip away.
  • Promise Nine: Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
  • Promise Ten: Fear of people and economic insecurity will leave us.
  • Promise Eleven: We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
  • Promise Twelve: We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 12 Promises of AA: What Are They and How Do They Help? (alcoholicsanonymous.com)

Personally, I relate to number eleven the most. Weekly and sometimes daily I handle situations that used to baffle me. That is emotional sobriety.

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