Emotional Sobriety

“I think that many oldsters who have put our AA “booze cure” to severe but successful tests still find they often lack emotional sobriety. Perhaps they will be the spearhead for the next major development in AA, the development of much more real maturity and balance (which is to say, humility) in our relations with ourselves, with our fellows, and with God.

… Since AA began, I´ve taken immense wallops … because of my failure to grow up emotionally and spiritually. My God, how painful it is to keep demanding the impossible, and how very painful to discover, finally, that all along we have had the cart before the horse. Then comes the final agony of seeing how awfully wrong we have been, but still finding ourselves unable to get off the emotional merry-go-round.”
— Bill Wilson

These words by Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA, were written in 1958, in a letter. I find it quite interesting to reflect on the fact that Bill W. wrote these words in 1958, after around 23 years of recovery. He is basically admitting that the traditional, orthodox recovery process as laid out in the Big Book of AA, had resulted in only partial success. Bill alludes to the apparent fact that many of the old-timers were still prey to serious emotional “wallops” – or periods of extreme emotional pain and distress. By calling emotional sobriety the “next frontier,” he is basically admitting that some or many of the original members of AA had not attained emotional sobriety, and that it still was out there as a goal to be attained sometime in the future.

So what is emotional sobriety? Let me start out by saying, paradoxically, that it is NOT a state of complete freedom from painful or uncomfortable feelings. Emotional sobriety is NOT unending bliss. It is NOT about being continuously “happy, joyous and free.” To be honest, I have observed a sizeable contingent of Twelve Step group members who put it out there that this kind of nirvana is indeed the goal, and is indeed the product of having worked an “excellent program.” I beg to differ. This is an unattainable goal. It does not take account of our humanness, our imperfection, our essential “brokenness.” This sort of perfectionism is just another pose, and a mask that certain people wear in order to distance themselves from others, and to appear as though they have their act together – completely. They are terrified of their own internal darkness, and don’t want to hear about it in others.

But it is also NOT about living in a state of constant whiplash, swinging violently between happiness and deep pain (wallops), which reflects an out-of-control emotional process.

Emotional sobriety is basically emotional and spiritual maturity and balance. It is the result of a long-term process of emotional and spiritual recovery and growth.  It is the result of our having faced and dealt with our deepest core issues, which often stem from having grown up in an alcoholic, or violent, or otherwise dysfunctional and abusive home. The Big Book of AA does not directly deal with this issue. It was written in the late 1930’s, and we didn’t know then what we know now about the long-term effects of growing up in such pain-filled, damaging environments.

Emotional sobriety is about learning to 1) identify our emotions; 2) actually feeling those emotions; 3) learning to deal appropriately with those emotions; and 4) letting those feelings pass through us. It is about not acting out inappropriately when we are experiencing strong, difficult emotions; it is NOT about somehow blocking or sidestepping those emotions. It is NOT about hunting for the perfect recovery “tool” that will somehow, magically, cause those feelings to disappear. It is not about attaining perfect control of our emotional life. It is more along the lines of acceptance and surrender, all the while behaving in an appropriate, mature manner that is more about responding instead of reacting.

It is about taking responsibility for ourselves and our feelings and taking ownership of our feelings, rather than lashing out or blaming others. It is about remaining vulnerable, which allows us to attain and maintain emotional closeness and intimacy with others.

I think I’ll stop here. I may pick up this thread and work with it again, somewhere down the road. But for now, this may hopefully give you some food for thought.

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