I have recently read psychotherapist Dr Allen Berger’s latest book ‘12 Essential Insights for Emotional Sobriety’, which offers a comprehensive interpretation of the various characteristics that comprise the concept of emotional sobriety. According to Dr Berger, the phrase emotional sobriety was first coined by Bill Wilson, one of the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Berger highlights the appearance of the phrase in Step Twelve of the book the ‘Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions’ (1952).
“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.” (p.106)
In his book, Dr Berger suggests that Bill Wilson concluded that the ultimate purpose of practicing the 12 Steps was to achieve emotional sobriety. (2021, p.23)
Wilson wrote about the concept of emotional sobriety, or more accurately – the lack of it, in his Grapevine article ‘The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety’, which was published in January 1958 (Wilson’s original letter was written in 1956). In the article, Wilson identifies his difficulties with emotional sobriety and resulting depressions as stemming from his unhealthy [emotional] dependencies upon people and external circumstances to meet his unhealthy demands for prestige and security. Anyone who’s read Susan Cheever’s biography (1) about Bill Wilson will be aware that he was deeply insecure beneath the surface of his character and would be classed as a traumatised person by today’s psychological standards due to adverse childhood experiences.
The foundation of Dr Berger’s book is based upon Wilson’s 1958 article in relation to emotional sobriety. He also applies modern psychotherapeutic concepts mainly taken from the humanistic tradition e.g., ‘self-actualizing tendency’ and the concepts of the ‘true self’ and ‘false self’. In addition to his training in clinical psychology Dr Berger is also a practicing gestalt psychotherapist and describes this approach in his work with clients. An example being his use of the ‘empty chair’ technique which is a gestalt method to help therapy clients access repressed emotions and connect to their ‘organic self’. In his book Dr Berger uses client case studies to effectively demonstrate the principles and characteristics of emotional sobriety and its opposite ‘emotional dependency.’ I found these case studies to be really engaging, insightful and educational.
Dr Berger outlines emotional sobriety in essence to be emotional balance, emotional autonomy, and emotional maturity. He expands upon these attributes with a definition of emotional sobriety:
“Emotional sobriety is a mental state in which we know longer react to our changing emotions as though they were the governing facts of our lives. This mental state is made possible by the emotional and spiritual maturity that come with humility. In this state, we have an appropriate balance and coordination of all that we are.” (2021, Chapter 2, p.49)
Dr Berger implies that emotional dependency results from a lack of the psychological and emotional resources to be emotionally independent. It’s being excessively dependent upon others or external circumstances for emotional wellbeing. To be emotionally autonomous an adult must have the self-awareness to regulate their emotions and self-soothe their distress. Dr Berger emphasizes the fundamental importance of developing conscious self-awareness in becoming emotionally sober. Emotional sobriety is a way of being that we can practice and develop through adopting and utilizing the insights, attitudes, and tools outlined in Dr Berger’s book. The 12 insights are:
1. Waking up from our sleepwalking.
2. Living life consciously.
3. Discerning our emotional dependency.
4. Knowing that it’s not personal.
5. Realizing that no one is coming.
6. Accepting what is.
7. Living life on life’s terms.
8. Discovering Novel Solutions.
9. Breaking the Bonds of Perfectionism.
10. Healing Through Forgiveness.
11. Living a purposeful Life.
12. Holding on to Ourselves in Relationships.
These are all capacities that can be practiced and developed over time whether we are in recovery from addiction or not – they are applicable to all human beings in our efforts to become fully functioning, integrated and whole. It’s clear from Dr Berger’s work that many of us require therapeutic help along the way to emotional sobriety. Gaining freedom from the unreasonable expectations, demands and immature dependencies that prevent emotional autonomy, maturity and balance is the aim of Dr Berger’s insights.
Chapter 5 in his book (insight no.3) describes these expectations and demands and how they are created by our false self-concept. The false self, created by the anxiety-based need for approval, acceptance, and emotional security is the basis for emotional dependency upon others and external circumstances. Dr Berger outlines an emotional dependency inventory (comparable to AA’s Step 4 inventory process) to help identify its unhealthy expectations and ‘unenforceable rules’. He then encourages taking responsibility for meeting our own emotional needs and connecting with the ‘organismic self’, which inherently knows what it needs to flourish. The rest of the book explores how to let go of our ‘toxic rules’ and develop autonomy and self-support.