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Is Abstinence Enough, or Is Emotional Sobriety Necessary in Recovery?

A common adage in recovery circles is that alcoholics and addicts stop maturing when they start using alcohol or drugs. As a result of the truth of this observation, many newcomers find themselves teenagers trapped in adult bodies. A forty-year-old who started drinking at the age of fifteen will often discover herself, in the absence of alcohol, mired in a haze of adolescent feelings and confusion. Many alcoholics—and drug addicts—simply stayed high as a coping tool for the challenges of their teens. The frustrations and anxieties of dating and social intercourse, interacting with authority, and responding to life in general are often smoothed out by substance abuse, and the needed and appropriate growth in these and other areas is stunted.

In 1958, Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote a letter to the A.A. Grapevine called The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety, in which he acknowledged this problem and urged AA members to confront a kind of immaturity that Wilson admitted to in himself.

He writes that the “adolescent urges that so many of us have for top approval, perfect security, and perfect romance—urges quite appropriate to age seventeen—prove to be an impossible way of life when we are at age forty-seven or fifty-seven” and states that the quest for fulfillment in these and other areas—and the inevitable frustration that follows any demand for perfection—is a recipe for pain, unhappiness, and depression.

He then equates emotional sobriety with humility and spiritual development.

In the world of psychology, emotional sobriety is defined by the following qualities:

  • An ability to regulate strong emotions and mood—this begins with the ability to self-monitor and recognize negative emotion or mood (10th-step in recovery mode), and then to shift perspective on the circumstances at hand so that one doesn’t go into reactive mode and exacerbate them
  • An ability to simply allow feelings, and to identify and fully experience them, as opposed to avoidance through self-medication or other destructive behaviors
  • Impulse control and deferred gratification—two areas many in recovery find difficult
  • Acceptance—the relinquishing of control over people and situations, and a commitment to responding with one’s best efforts toward positive change, leaving the results to unfold as they may
  • Honesty (with oneself and others)—the ability to value the truth above a cherished self-image.

These are a few of the components of emotional sobriety. And even though there are some days when it has to be enough to simply have made it through the day without a drink, real recovery requires a willingness to mature. Otherwise, the pain and frustration of an extended “dry drunk”—untreated alcoholism—may eventually lead back to a drink.


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