Understanding Emotional Sobriety: John’s Anxiety is Caused by Lack of Emotional Sobriety

An excerpt from
12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs are Gone

by Allen Berger, PhD., Hazelden Publishing

John’s Anxiety is Caused by Lack of Emotional Sobriety

The concept of emotional sobriety is not easy to grasp. Let’s start with an example. I want you to meet John. He has been clean and sober for ten years. In the past year, he has been struggling with bouts of anxiety. For a long time he believed he was suffering from an undiagnosed medical problem that was causing his anxiety. First, he thought he was having a heart attack because of irregular heartbeats. After he received a thorough cardiac exam, including a treadmill stress test that showed his heart to be quite healthy, he next thought it might be a brain tumor. But after his MRI was normal, he finally accepted that his anxiety was psychological in nature, not physiological. His sweaty palms, headaches, stomachaches, heart palpitations, slight tremors, and feelings of dread and impending doom were all symptoms of anxiety.

He decided to seek therapy because working the Steps wasn’t giving him enough relief. He needed professional help and so came to see me as a therapist. In the first session, I noted how John seemed to want everything to live up to his expectations. For example, he wanted to start our session by telling me about his past. I was more concerned about what was currently happening in John’s life that was giving him trouble. I told him this, and it threw him off balance. It took a considerable amount of time for him to regain his balance. You see, what John expected when he came to therapy was that we were going to delve into his past.

John was very rigid. He had many expectations about how things were supposed to be, and when these expectations weren’t met, he didn’t know what to do. He became upset and lost his emotional balance. As we explored this pattern to his behavior, he began to see how his need to control everything and everyone in his life was the precursor to his anxiety attacks. Once he started to learn how to live more in the here and now, John’s anxiety disappeared.

John was sober, but he didn’t have emotional sobriety. Most of us think of sobriety as being free of alcohol and other drugs, and this is true. Emotional sobriety is not about being free of emotions—that is impossible. You will always have your emotions. Rather, it’s about freeing ourselves from bondage to our emotional states. Emotional sobriety is a state in which we experience our emotions and respect them, but we respond to them the way we would respond to other kinds of information.

So, we don’t act out in a knee-jerk response to every passing emotional state as if it were our life’s rule—or our drug. Nor do we blame our emotional responses on other people. We take full responsibility for our emotions and our choice to act—or not—on the information they feed us.

When you achieve emotional sobriety, you will be able to cope with life on life’s terms. You will hold on to yourself in relationships, be emotionally balanced, and maintain a healthy perspective on things that are upsetting keep the locus of your emotional center of gravity within you and stay grounded during turbulent times focus on the things that you can change, and accept and let go of what you can’t accept your imperfections, and have faith in the “process of recovery” know a new level of emotional freedom and peace of mind; you will look at life with a sense of wonderment have an illuminated gaze and vision.

Very little has been written on this subject. Most of the recovery literature focuses on getting clean and sober and staying clean and sober—and for good reason. We need to put the plug in the jug, and keep it there, before we can work on other issues. Bill Wilson clearly recommended this approach. He said, first the “booze cure” and then on to “the development of much more real maturity and balance” (1958). Breaking the shackles of addiction is necessarily the first step in recovery. But once that obsession and compulsion to drink or use has been lifted, we are faced with living clean and sober.

More and more of us are realizing that we haven’t truly matured, that our emotional development is arrested. We don’t like how we react when things don’t go our way. We are aware of the difficulty we have in comforting ourselves and staying balanced when we are disappointed or hurt. We secretly know that we need to grow up emotionally—that there is something wrong with how we react when circumstances or people don’t meet our expectations. And because we have developed some degree of insight over the years, we know that our problem is of our own making.

But what can we do about it? Some of us may have trouble accepting this fact. It’s hard to admit that we are still immature, especially now that we are clean and sober. But if we are honest with ourselves, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see that we are immature. If you have any doubt, just ask a few people who are close to you. Give them permission to give you honest feedback about your reaction when you don’t get your way. You might be surprised at what they tell you. We all have trouble dealing with life on life’s terms.

I still struggle with this issue, and this past summer I celebrated thirty-eight years of being clean and sober. This is a common problem for all of us who are trying to live clean and sober. That’s why this topic is so popular in meetings.

So here’s our dilemma: The quality of our recovery is determined by how we respond to the problems or challenges in our lives. But because we don’t know how best to respond to these issues, we end up stuck and frustrated. This is at the core of our problem. Over and over again, we expect life to live up to our expectations or specifications. When it doesn’t, we try to force the square peg into the round hole. We demand the impossible from ourselves, others, and life itself. And then we get frustrated or angry when things don’t go our way. Sometimes we end up feeling depressed or anxious, as well. Many times, these reactions lead to a relapse or a dry drunk.

How do we overcome our emotional handicap—our immaturity—and develop real emotional sobriety? How do we learn how to respond, in a healthier way, to what life expects from us? How do we learn to respond with grace and humility when things don’t go our way? Well, that is exactly what this book is about. My goal is to help you become aware of what you are doing that is keeping you immature, and to help you grow up. I want you to become aware of what is interfering with your emotional growth and preventing you from achieving emotional sobriety.