Emotional Sobriety

By Rich H. 

The last page of the last story in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition contains these words:

…we members of AA may never again have to deal with drinking, but we do have to deal with sobriety every day. How do we do it? By learning – through practicing the Twelve Steps and through sharing at meetings – how to cope with problems that we looked to booze to solve back in our drinking days.

— Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 559

Alcoholics Anonymous has been contributing to the emotional sobriety of drunks and people close to them since the first member finished his inventory and amends. Following an initial period of physical sobriety, many of us former drinkers are confronted, in an unmedicated condition, with long-held emotions, fears, resentments, and past memories. Then, when we worked the Twelve Steps of AA, many of us felt the beginning of emotional sobriety. At the same time many did not; and none of us are ever perfectly healed. We are, to varying degrees, still troubled with resentments, fears, and the trials of daily living.

What is emotional sobriety? Certainly it involves managing emotions in some way other than drinking over them. It is more about coping with events and feelings in rational, mature ways than it is about not having those feelings at all. It is a matter of balance, not complete freedom from calamity, illness, fear, and other emotions.

In 1957, Bill W. wrote about emotional sobriety in a message to a friend regarding his battles with depression. Bill wrote that his “basic flaw had always been dependency – almost complete dependence – on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security and the like. Failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, I had fought for them. And when defeat came, so did my depression.”

His solution was to “exert every ounce of will and action to cut off these faulty emotional dependencies upon people, upon AA, indeed upon any set of circumstances whatsoever.” He concluded, “If we examine every disturbance we have, great or small, we will find at the root of it some unhealthy dependency and its consequent unhealthy demand.”

His strength and hope was rooted in his experience. He wrote: “In the first six months of my own sobriety, I worked hard with many alcoholics. Not a one responded. Yet this work kept me sober. It wasn’t a question of those alcoholics giving me anything. My stability came out of trying to give, not out of demanding that I receive. Thus I think it can work out with emotional sobriety.”

So, for Bill W., emotional sobriety meant not depending on circumstances, things, or the opinions of others to bring him happiness. This is similar to Dr. Paul’s lesson in the Big Book regarding expectations being inversely proportional to serenity. On page 417 are the words ,“When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation – some fact of my life, unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation …” He adds the solution: “I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.” For the record, Bill’s essay on Emotional Sobriety was written long before Dr. Paul’s story appeared in the Third Edition of the Big Book in 1975.

These ideas are similar to Buddhist teachings that our happiness and serenity depends on how we respond to desires, cravings, or circumstances in life. Emotional sobriety comes from our reaction, not from the circumstances, desires, or cravings. Learning to be emotionally sober requires us to first be aware of our emotions, to be mindful. Many of us learned to bury our emotions in a sea of alcohol during our drinking years. Now, we can learn to be aware of them with mindful practice and then, with more practice, we can develop new habits of being able to express those emotions appropriately rather than burying them.

With practice, we learn to respond with equanimity and compassion and kindness for ourselves and others. All of the Steps are valuable in achieving such responses and, together, lead to emotional sobriety. Of course the Steps are meant to be suggestive only so we can adjust them to meet our individual needs in every circumstance. When we recognize, admit, and accept our faults and imperfections, our peace of mind doesn’t depend on being accepted or approved of by others.

And, as Bill said, “we may then be able to Twelfth Step ourselves and others into emotional sobriety.” –Bill W., The Language of the Heart, p. 238.

Twelfth Step ourselves?

Rich-H-Emotional-Sobriety-2 How do we Twelfth Step ourselves? Can we do it the same way we work with others? Can we do it by sharing our experience, strength, and hope with ourselves? The Big Book chapter on “Working with Others” tells us that, because of our own drinking experience, we can be uniquely helpful to others. We can because drunks can relate to drunks. Since we are alcoholics, we can work the Steps of AA and help ourselves.

We learned much about ourselves from writing an inventory of our life experiences in the First, Fourth, and Fifth Steps, with the help of our sponsors. We can also, in our morning meditation, or at any other time, contemplate our lives and what we have done with them, good and bad. What we have learned from the Steps is very useful to us; it helps us avoid mistakes and painful episodes today. Looking back helps us to remember that we are alcoholics and, as the Big Book advises, remember that we have a disease.

We can Twelfth Step ourselves whenever we do a Tenth Step, with an on-the-spot examination of any situation or person disturbing us. We ask ourselves if we have a part in causing the disturbance. Do we owe amends? If so, we try to make them quickly to maintain our emotional sobriety. If not, do we need to forgive someone and move on?

If the disturbance came from an unhealthy dependency or its consequent unhealthy demand, we can stop expecting that other people satisfy our needs or stop seeking the approval of others for our happiness. If, for example, we are angry with our spouse for not waking us early enough to get to work on time, we need to find our part in the disturbance. We need to accept responsibility for setting an alarm to wake ourselves on time and stop depending on others to do it for us. If we are depressed, is it because we expected someone to give us the approval we sought by trying to please them? There are many healthy ways we depend on others to enhance our happiness but we have to watch out for unhealthy dependencies and recognize them when they pop up. Some of us have to seek outside help from groups like Alanon or Co-Dependents Anonymous as part of Twelfth Stepping ourselves in this regard.

Besides learning from every disturbance, we can examine it further to see if we can find its cause. We can go back to Steps Six and Seven and try to determine whether our part was caused by some unhealthy dependency or character defect.

Our emotional sobriety depends not on what happens in our lives, but more on our attitude toward what happens. We can be grateful for every disturbance, good and “bad,” because we can learn from every experience. When presented with life challenges, we can be grateful for those challenges because they are opportunities to learn and will strengthen us to face further challenges.

We can use gratitude as a tool. When something “bad” happens, we can try to conjure up reasons to be grateful for that “bad.” For example: if we are diagnosed with cancer, we can make up a list of five reasons to be grateful we have cancer:

  1. It will make us cherish and appreciate life more
  2. It might wake us up to make efforts to being closer to our family and friends
  3. It can make us want to eat healthier and get more exercise
  4. It points out that we need to pay more attention to our medical condition
  5. People will be nicer to us. 🙂

So, by using the tool of gratitude, we can Twelfth Step ourselves into emotional sobriety. If this tool works for us, we can pass it on to others. Doing Twelfth Step work with others is Twelfth Stepping ourselves as well because it is directly helpful for our own sobriety. We learn more about the Steps each time we take another person through them. Working with others gets us out of ourselves and, as we share our experience with others, we learn to be vulnerable. Vulnerability leads to emotional honesty, another asset in our quest to live authentic lives. Working with people who can’t quit drinking even though they want to requires courage. As we perform courageous acts, we become courageous. Working with newly sober people requires a degree of emotional intimacy and, again, we learn to be emotionally intimate by doing so. We feel good; we feel happy when we can help another person or bring something useful to any situation that needs help.

As Bill W. wrote in his essay, “happiness is a by-product—the extra dividend of giving without any demand for a return.” Emotional sobriety has many more aspects and, as we live the life AA has given us, more will be revealed. Emotional sobriety is not something we either have or don’t have; we all have some and none of us will ever have it all. When we begin to live life on life’s terms with right thinking and equanimity, we act with emotional sobriety. Many people have said it in many similar ways but this is how one of Bill W.’s friends put it: “Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him.” -Aldous Huxley

About the Author, Rich H.

Rich H. lives on the island of Maui where he got sober 12 years ago. He announced that he was an atheist at his first meeting and has been open about it ever since. He sees no reason to hide or be ashamed of it. He is not militant about it, but he never fails to mention it when there is a newcomer present so they don’t have to feel alone or afraid.

He and his friend Joan C. started the We Agnostics meeting on Maui and the group is celebrating its 10th anniversary today, on August 7, 2016. They now have 3 meetings per week and have a 4th meeting called Emotional Sobriety, at which no prayers are said. They both attended the WAAFT Convention in Santa Monica where Joan was one of the speakers. Rich looks forward to seeing you all in Austin!

Photography by Kathryn F

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1 year ago

I’ve been coming 32 years. When a new person brought up “emotional sobriety” today at a meeting, it has me on a run. An older timer at the meeting said she heard of meetings for emotional sobriety in Florida but for people who’ve been through the 12 steps quite a bit and threw with drinking. I hope I get to one since that appears to be me. I hope to see you in Austin Rich and Kathryn if that’s the next convention. Otherwise Aloha.

3 years ago

This is a great post! Emotional sobriety is one of my passions. Do I have your permission to post a copy of this on my blog, emotionalsobrietyandfood.com?  Thank you for your service!

John S
3 years ago
Reply to  Shira

Thank you for visiting and yes all of the content on our site may be shared on social media, blogs, and other websites.

3 years ago
Reply to  John S

Wonderful! Thank you!

3 years ago

Thank you for sharing this 😊, it made it make sense for me

4 years ago

This is a great post, thanks for sharing. I attended an AA Emotional Sobriety meeting in Denver and got a lot out of it. I’d like to start one in Dallas w/ meditation at the beginning. Let me know if you have a meeting format to share.

edward calhoun
5 years ago

In most areas of my life * I have arrived – I consider myself a recovered person (from alcohol, hard drugs ((I loved cocaine)) pot is minor for most – I dont use anything on a regular basis except my high blood pressure meds – – I am a devout born again freethinker agnostic