What is emotional sobriety? Some might think that it means being “happy, joyous, and free,” a common saying in 12-Step meetings (which has always driven me nuts), taken from AA literature. Of course, people like this definition. It means that if they work hard on being a good “AA’er”, they will achieve physical sobriety (abstinence) and become happy in the process.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but this definition puts a lot of recovering people in a tough spot.

Emotional Sobriety

For example, what does it say about a person’s emotional sobriety if they are having a hard time? What if they are afraid, anxious, sad, angry, confused … the list can go on and on. Does this mean that they aren’t emotionally sober?

I believe that emotional sobriety is less about the quality of the feeling (“good” or “bad”) and more about the general ability to feel one’s feelings. 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. What are you experiencing right now? And how about now? Can you be present to all of your feelings without any one of them defining you?

Sometimes emotional sobriety is about tolerating what you are feeling. It is about staying sober no matter what you are feeling.

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