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Emotional Sobriety: What It Means and How to Achieve It

It’s one thing to be physically sober (abstaining from drinking), but quite another to be emotionally sober. Emotional sobriety gets right to the core issue that drinking is our solution. We drink because we cannot handle life or its problems. The drink or drug is a fix for our inability to cope, not the root problem.

Quitting Drinking is Only the Start

So when we stop drinking, we are with ourselves, our thoughts, and our feelings without the numbing effects of alcohol or drugs. Yeah, a nightmare, I know! The 12-steps are tools for how we deal with the unnatural state of being sober. 

Emotional sobriety is homeostasis with ourselves: It is a state where we can handle our inner feelings and thoughts without lashing out against other people or engage in self-destructive behavior.

Emotional sobriety is a lofty ideal that takes a lifetime. As always, heed this suggestion: progress, not perfection.

What Emotional Sobriety Looks Like

Emotional sobriety is the ability to handle life skillfully. For most of us, this translates to being able to manage our emotions and thoughts. We learn how emotions operate and new methods to sit with them and not act in negative ways.

Here’s one of the best talks about Emotional Sobriety:

Example: Handling the office A-Hole

For example, when we have an arrogant coworker who is annoying us at our job, we call someone in recovery instead of lashing out with cruel words. Before, we might have let that person take up headspace and stewed for hours over how much we hate them until it boils over to an outright verbal attack. Temporarily we might feel better, but soon we have to deal with remorse and face consequences, such as a reprimand from our manager.

That phone call saves us from ourselves. Here’s how:

  1. First, it brings the needs of someone else to the forefront of our thoughts. We learn how their day is going and any problems they face.
  2. Second, we explain what is in our heads to someone else and verbalize some rather poorly designed plans.
  3. Third, the person may suggest to us gently that our plan to get back at our coworker doesn’t benefit us much in the long term.
  4. Ultimately, as a result of the phone call, we get feedback on ways to deal with that person in a more constructive manner that maintains peace of mind.

This example highlights the application of what we learn in the program on real-life problems. Applying these newfound skills helps us stay emotionally balanced because we’re not spending our days stewing over others’ behaviors or acting in ways that lead to guilt and remorse.

What Emotional Sobriety Means Long Term

Emotional sobriety could change for you over time. Habits and behaviors you were comfortable with early on may start to bother you later.

There’s no “emotional sobriety” vocabulary in the original Alcoholics Anonymous big book. However, you can see that this modern phrase describes the general ideas that the big book aimed for with the 12 steps.

Sobriety won’t last long if you are engaging in the same problematic behaviors, making you feel like crap all the time. We have to learn different ways of acting to think better and feel better.

How to Achieve Emotional Sobriety

Emotional sobriety depends on our ability to apply what we learn through the steps over the long term. Understanding the steps takes a competent sponsor and network who use them in their own lives. They can share their experience of managing similar issues as ours or recommending other people who have shared our experience.

There’s no easy route to get to emotional stability overnight. It is the day-by-day slog over experiencing problems and getting through them sober. Some prerequisites are:

  1. Stay in contact with a network of individuals in recovery.
  2. Attend meetings and help out.
  3. Work the Steps with a sponsor.

The support and reminders when life is going well are essential when things start going sour. That’s because we already surrounded ourselves with the resources that help us navigate through rough patches.

Sobriety asks us to live an entirely new way than our former selves. It will not be sudden, and it takes a lifetime to achieve. We strive to make progress little by little rather than beating ourselves up.

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