Emotional Sobriety: What it Is and Why It’s Important in Recovery and In Life

We give much attention to getting sober from drugs and alcohol but emotional sobriety is something that, in alcoholic or dysfunctional families, everyone loses. And everyone needs to get back.

The essence of emotional sobriety is good self-regulation. It means that we have mastered those mind/body skills that allow us to balance our moods. The emotional part of our brain actually sends more inputs to the thinking part of our brain than the opposite says Antonio Damassio in his book The Feeling of What Happens. In other words, when our emotions are out of control, so is our thinking, and when we can’t bring our feeling and thinking into some sort of balance, our life and our relationships feel out of balance too. The ability to self-regulate, to bring ourselves into balance, is key to emotional sobriety.

Where it Goes Wrong

Living with or growing up with addiction is a bit like inhaling second smoke. We inhale the thinking, feeling and behavior of the addict emotionally, psychologically and behaviorally; we take who they are while using, into our own inner world.

Many of the clients that I treat have never had a problem with substance abuse.

But they still act drunk.

They think in distorted ways and their emotions alternate between being overly intense or shut down, they have trouble regulating their inner world once they get triggered.

It was Bill Wilson the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous who named emotional sobriety as the “next horizon” to be met once addicts became physically sober. I would extend that need for emotional sobriety to anyone who has grown up around addiction or been the spouse of an active addict.

Emotional sobriety is a necessary next step in recovery, if you want to get over addictive/compulsive behaviors and stay over them. Alanon, the twelve step program for family members of addicts, used to refer to its members as co-addicts intuitively recognizing this second hand phenomenon. That designation morphed, in the 1980’s into co-dependent. Codependency became a movement almost overnight with people literally coming out of the woodwork to self identify. Twelve step rooms brimmed over with people who connected with the experience of being from a dysfunctional family, books were written, conferences filled up and for nearly a decade codependency was a buzz word that meant anything from a traumatized child from a pain-filled family to one who had first hand experience with addiction. Simultaneous with this movement came the adult children of alcoholics (ACoA) one. Eventually the psychiatric community came forward with the concept of dual-diagnosis which more or less meant addiction plus another diagnosis, for example anxiety, depression or PTSD. This brought forward the notion that many addicts were in fact “self medicating” underlying disorders, they were using drugs, alcohol, food, sex etc to “manage” or “medicate” the pain that they were in, that arose from untreated disorders including the trauma of growing up with addiction.

WE CAN FEEL BEFORE WE CAN THINK ABOUT WHAT WE’RE FEELING

Emotions predate reason. Our emotional wiring, that is, our limbic system, is in place from birth, but our thinking wiring isn’t in place until we’re around twelve, and even then, we’re only beginning to learn how to use it. Because of this discrepancy in development, young children cannot use their thinking to make sense of and to regulate their emotional responses to life.

We learn the skills of self-regulating, initially, through being in the presence of an adequate “external regulator,” say a mother, father or an attuned caregiver. We depend on them not only to actually calm us down when we’re upset but to show us how to do that through their own behavior. When we get out of balance, they woo us back into a state of balance. They hold us, physically and emotionally, until we restore our own calm, until our nervous system settles. Gradually we absorb the ability until we can do that for ourselves. We internalize their regulation and make it our own. Through a successful attachment, we gradually build these skills into our own self system and make them portable.

When our skills of self-regulation are well learned during childhood, they feel as if they come naturally, as if we always had them. When they are not well learned, we may reach to sources outside of ourselves to provide the sense of calm and good feeling that we cannot achieve on our own, or to recapture that sense of calm that we remember having as a small child in someone’s arms. Some of our society’s common self-medicators are drugs, alcohol, food, sex, work, technology and money. It is not these substances or behaviors in and of themselves that create problems, but our relationship to them, how we use or abuse them.

But Recovery is Possible

While emotional dis-regulation is a hallmark of trauma, emotional regulation is core to emotional sobriety. Living in the 4,5,6 range, rather than shooting from 1 to 10 and 10 to 1 emotionally, allows life to be lived in present time. It gives us the inner space to experience what we’re feeling AS we observe and think about it. It allows emotion to be translated into words and elevated to a conscious level so that we can think about what we feel as it’s happening or at least shortly afterwards.

Part of emotional sobriety lies in learning how to live with and manage a certain amount of stress, ambivalence, fear, anxiety, and disappointment, and how to temper those emotions and feelings with love, acceptance, productivity, excercise, healthy living and community.Emotional Sobriety is for people who are trying to live a balanced life.

If you have become disregulated through living with addiction or disfunction, if your emotional sobriety is not in place, it may require an active process of therapy and twelve step programs to deal with the kind of unresolved trauma that may be fueling emotional dis-regulation. There is no need to live with emotional disregulation and the shortest path to resolving it is the path through.The main thing we fear when entering a healing process is what might arise from within is. But becoming friends with our inner world opens the door to happy living, the time and work it takes to achieve this, is one of the most worthwhile endeavours of life, and the path itself is relieving and even exiting. Emotional sobriety is a gift that we give ourselves and anyone we’re close to. It is an investment in ourselves that pays dividends throughout life, not only in that it allows us to live more happily, but it helps us to avoid creating circumstances that undermine our own happiness and the happiness those we’re close to.

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