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The Other Sobriety: Becoming Emotionally Sober

“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.” ~ Oscar Wilde Emotions are part of being human. We get sad, angry, frustrated or happy depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in and the experiences we have. However, experiencing emotions as men and women does not mean that we must be mastered by our emotions. Instead, we must learn to master our own emotions and not let them dictate our words, our actions, or our life. Giving up alcohol, drugs or other addictions is just the first step on the road to recovery. If becoming physically sober is a process, so is learning to overcome our emotions. This is known as emotional sobriety and can be just as important as physical sobriety.

What is Emotional Sobriety?

As mentioned above, experiencing emotional highs and lows is an integral part of being human. However, negative emotions can be one of the most detrimental and dangerous aspects of recovery. Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, was able to overcome his addiction but still suffered from depression throughout his life. Emotional sobriety, then, does not mean overcoming all negative emotions in favor of good feelings. Emotional sobriety does not mean only experiencing happy, joyful and free emotions all of the time. Instead, emotional sobriety is simply about being able to feel your feelings in a healthy way. Ingrid Mathieu, a clinical psychologist, states that emotional sobriety “is about tolerating what you are feeling. It is about staying sober no matter what you are feeling. It means that you don’t have to blame yourself or your program because life can be challenging. It means that you don’t necessarily need to do something to make the feeling go away.” In other words, emotional sobriety is as much about learning to fully experience emotions as it is about not letting those emotions control your life, your relationships, or your addiction. The benefit of reaching and maintaining emotional sobriety is personal, relational, and even physical. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous makes a list of promises for what members can look to, and many of them are applicable to those who are emotionally sober:

  • An end to feelings of self-pity
  • Intuition to handle almost any situation
  • No regrets about the past
  • No more fear of people, places, and things
  • The ability to be of benefit to other people
  • An end to the tyranny of self-obsession
  • Development of serenity

Managing Emotions While Sober

But what does managing personal emotions while sober actually look like? While developing emotional intelligence is not an exact science, following certain personal development goals can encourage emotional sobriety:

  1. Be willing to change. Like physical sobriety, emotional sobriety is dependent on recognizing you have a problem
  2. Be willing to work. Attaining emotional sobriety cannot be achieved overnight but in a continued effort.
  3. Be willing to talk. Processing your emotions, or lack of feeling altogether, with a counselor or in group sessions is a great start to developing emotional sobriety.
  4. Be willing to control. Emotional intelligence requires managing not only feelings but impulses and behaviors. Be aware of your emotions, but don’t let them control you.