The technical definition of emotional sobriety is hard to come by. This could be because emotional sobriety, like many aspects of the addiction treatment process, is fiercely individual and means different things for different people. It’s true that emotional sobriety certainly embodies a number of different concepts. In fact, according to Dr. Allen Berger, emotional sobriety includes “keeping our emotional center of gravity within, learning to hold on to ourselves without letting other people’s limited perceptions of us or our addiction define us or impact our behavior, pressuring ourselves to change, and seeing struggle as beneficial and grief as necessary.” While this definition of emotional sobriety covers a lot of different concepts, it’s Dr. Ingrid Clayton’s significantly more vague definition of emotional sobriety that actually digs deeper still: “I believe that emotional sobriety is less about the quality of the feeling… and more about the general ability to feel one’s feelings,” she says. “Being restored to sanity isn’t about getting the brass ring—or cash and prizes—or being “happy, joyous, and free” all the time, but it is about being in the present moment, whatever it happens to look like.
Emotional sobriety can take many forms, and be defined many ways. Whichever way it is defined though, achieving and maintaining emotional sobriety is a very important part of the addiction recovery experience.
Why is emotional sobriety so important?
The Big Book mentions emotional sobriety in Step Twelve as an outcome of practicing all steps of the program and applying them to our daily lives: “Here we begin to practice all Twelve Steps of the program in our daily lives so that we and those about us may find emotional sobriety.”
Emotional sobriety is important in addiction treatment because it is, in essence, self-regulation. As introduced by the Alcoholics Anonymous community, emotional sobriety allows us to “experience, confront, and accept” all of our emotions– even the not so good ones. As Bill W. and the AA community realized early on, recovery is about substantially more than simply not using a substance and avoiding relapse. Just as addiction is spiritual, mental, and physical, so, too, is the recovery process. While we can train our bodies to accept the physical aspects of no longer using, it is emotional sobriety that helps us gain control of the spiritual and emotional. When we can appraise and manage our emotions, we no longer have to live at their mercy. Of course, we will still have times when we’re sad, angry, or upset, but these emotions will no longer define us, because we’ll understand how to balance them out and cope.
As Clayton says, “sometimes 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.”
How do I achieve emotional sobriety in addiction treatment?
There are several ways we work to achieve emotional sobriety in treatment. The first and perhaps most common means of achieving emotional sobriety is through a modality like cognitive behavioral therapy. Praised for years for their effectiveness, cognitive behavioral therapy and other therapy methods that borrow from its practices help us become aware of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, so that we can change the self-defeating behaviors that stem from them. Through cognitive behavioral therapy, we learn to make sense of the thoughts and perceptions that may have contributed to our addiction, and we’re able to see how those thoughts and perceptions could have contributed to our behavior.
We also work to achieve emotional sobriety in treatment by practicing mindfulness. Becoming aware of our feelings and emotions is the first step to accepting them, and mindfulness is the perfect way to achieve that first step. The technical definition of mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” In layman’s terms, mindfulness means living in the present. When we narrow our view to only what’s in front of us at this present moment, we allow ourselves to become aware of thoughts and feelings we may never have listened to otherwise.
Finally, we achieve emotional sobriety by building a strong social network of peers and mentors in our recovery community. Having a social network that we can talk to about how we’re feeling, and that we can trust will have our best interests at heart no matter what we share is key to being comfortable with our feelings. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have to have a plethora of social connections, but the ones we do have ought to be deep and beneficial. These connections can serve as an outlet when we want to share troubling feelings and emotions. The social support fostered by a loving and caring addiction recovery community can help us build our confidence and not be ashamed to assess and share how we’re feeling in the future.
Thrive Treatment is an outpatient addiction treatment center in Santa Monica, California that’s committed to helping our clients achieve and maintain emotional sobriety through modalities that encourage them to stop, acknowledge, and accept their feelings. We believe that our emotions play a very big role in the addiction treatment process, and that being able to balance our emotions is one part of a successful recovery experience. Call us at (888) 975-8474 to see how we can help you today.