Many people in recovery from alcohol or drug abuse, compulsive overeating, gambling, or other addictive behaviors eventually realize that while quitting the behavior is crucial, it’s not sufficient to live a happy, serene, healthy, and useful life.
The next step in recovery is emotional sobriety, or learning to deal with the uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that the addictive behaviors attempted to cover up or avoid. It entails confronting and managing our emotions in healthy and constructive ways, rather than resorting to methods that harm ourselves or other people.
First of all, if we don’t develop some level of emotional sobriety, it’s quite possible that we will harbor many of the problematic feelings and attitudes that contributed to our developing addictions in the first place, which can make for a miserable existence.
Secondly, we run an increased risk of falling back into familiar addictive patterns.
Thirdly, we may “transfer” addictions. For instance, instead of abusing alcohol, we might find ourselves compulsively shopping or becoming a workaholic.
Being emotionally sober doesn’t mean that we experience “positive” emotions all of the time. Far from it.
In fact, often when we put down an addiction or frequent habit and begin implementing more constructive approaches towards life, we may initially feel worse for awhile. Change can feel uncomfortable and scary.
And life will include unpleasant times, no matter what we do. It’s best to accept this reality and to turn our attention to what we can do something about, namely how we respond.
We can do good while feeling lousy, which is what emotional sobriety and recovery sometimes require. We can experience feelings without fusing with them, accepting feelings as they come, without letting them override our inner wisdom. We can become willing to take appropriate action even if we don’t particularly want to.
Allen Berger, PhD, psychotherapist and leader in the field of addiction recovery, defines emotional sobriety as being attained when “what we do becomes the determining force in our emotional well-being rather than allowing our emotional well-being to be overly influenced by external events or by what others are doing or are not doing”. In other words, we focus on where we have agency, namely ourselves and our choices. We know how to be self-supportive rather than relying on others for our source of self-esteem and security.
As psychotherapist Thom Rutledge puts it, “we are not in control, but we are in charge”, meaning that while we are not in control of the results, we’re responsible for our responses to our environment. We have been given a role to play in this theater of life, and we are the only ones who can determine how we will play our part. We have an internal emotional center of gravity and power.
Other signs of emotional sobriety:
- We live the majority of our lives in the present moment, attending to what is, rather than getting caught up in thoughts about the past or the future. We don’t beat ourselves up for past mistakes. Instead, we learn from the past while devoting the majority of our energy to living today well. We recognize that each day is a new opportunity to do so.
- We are able to regulate our behavior, rather than being at the mercy of compulsive urges or other self-destructive patterns. We don’t engage in any substance use or behaviors to the point of self-harm. Instead, we make conscious and mindful decisions regarding how to respond to the situation at hand.
- We effectively balance our “shoulds” and “want tos” lists. We use our time and energy appropriately, so we aren’t maxed out at the end of the day. We prioritize our activities and are able to say no to certain things, so as to say yes to the most important things.
- We can cope effectively with life’s ups and downs. When life throws us a curve, we handle the challenge with integrity and grace, rather than allowing intense feelings to drive us to dysfunctional behavior. We can step back and see the big picture.
- We have close, fulfilling, and healthy relationships with other people. We can speak honestly with others. Our relationships are mutually and consistently supportive, encouraging, and uplifting. We shift from blaming others to looking at our own part in conflicts.
- We have an optimistic yet realistic view of life, ourselves, and the future, even in tough times. We live based on our values and believe that we can make a positive difference in the world, in both small and large ways, and we strive to do so every day.
- We know our limitations. We steer clear of situations and people that might lure us into indulging in addictive behavior. We don’t tempt fate.
Methods by which to foster emotional sobriety:
Mindfulness. By developing a consistent practice of mindfulness nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment, we hone the skill of noticing, accepting, and tolerating reality without giving into an impulsive need to “fix” how we feel. There’s a reason why using drugs is called a “fix”, after all. Instead, through mindfulness we acknowledge what’s going on within and around us, and we cultivate the wisdom to tolerate discomfort, if need be, and to take appropriate action at the right time (which may not be immediately).
Journaling. Through writing down our thoughts and feelings, we can experience both an emotional release and gain some insight as to our beliefs regarding our reality. For instance, we can look at where we might feel threatened, what our expectations might be of a situation or a person, and if these are realistic expectations.
Active participation in a support group. By interacting with other people who are also in recovery from addiction, we learn that we’re not the only ones who have faced hardship, we share what we’ve learned from our experiences, and we benefit from hearing how others have coped with similar challenges. We gain encouragement by seeing how others are living more meaningful and serene lives, and we help those who are struggling.
Personal psychotherapy. In therapy, we can learn skills to deal with problematic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We have a safe place to express scary emotions. We can explore what our deepest values are for our lives and how to live these out from day to day. If our therapist has done their own internal work, we can learn from their example how to live effectively, gracefully, and with positive self-regard.
Achieving emotional sobriety is never a done deal, since we cannot ever attain this perfectly – and that’s fine. We’re only human, after all. Rather, it’s a balancing act and a way of life – and a chance to be self-compassionate when we falter.
Actually, the very fact that we’re bound to falter offers a valuable opportunity for self-compassion, which is part of emotional sobriety. By confronting and accepting ourselves as we are, we begin to recover our true and best selves. Far from being just about “not using” something, which is a bit of a deprivation mindset, recovery becomes a process of discovering new possibilities in ourselves and in the world.