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What is Emotional Sobriety?

Updated on September 24, 2013
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Mighty Mom is a keen observer of life. She shares her personal experiences and opinions in helpful and often amusing ways.

Emotional sobriety helps overcome anger, superiority and defensiveness, among other things.
Emotional sobriety helps overcome anger, superiority and defensiveness, among other things. | Source

Sobriety: physical comes first, then emotional

For an alcoholic, emotional sobriety is like phase II. It cannot exist on its own.Physical sobriety must come first.

You've got to detoxify (aka "detox"). For some, this requires medical assistance, because it would be dangerous (possibly lethal) to try to stop cold turkey on your own.

Once you stop putting alcohol into your body, your body gradually adjusts to being without its elixir of life (although the elixir is poison to alcoholics, so it's more like the elixir of death).

At some point, a miracle occurs that is completely contrary to your alcoholic nature. Your body stops craving alcohol. Your brain stops obsessing about it night and day, worrying about your next "drink fix.

Your foggy brain clears out and your body starts functioning -- much better -- without its usual toxic crutch.

Congratulations! You have achieved physical sobriety. Now you're ready to start working on your emotional sobriety.

Treating the "ic" in Alcoholic

Getting past the physical cravings and mental obsession is a giant feat. Learning to live life without drinking alcohol takes work and constant vigilance. Left to its own devices, your alcoholic self will revert back to its natural condition of drinking. I don't say that to scare you. I say it because that is a known fact.

The thing is, alcoholism is a disease. But it's a puzzling and rather complext disease. You see, it's more than physical. It's a disease of the mind, body and spirit. The treatment for alcoholism begins with the body. You must get all traces of that toxic substance out so the body can heal.

Unfortunately, when you take the alcohol out of the alcoholic, you're left with the "ic."

You don't want to be a "dry drunk"

Alcoholism is as much about warped thinking and emotional reactions as it is about drinking.

The goal of 'emotional sobriety' is to retrain ourselves to not continue acting like an alcoholic now that we're physically sober.

It is entirely possible to stop at physical sobriety. Just remove alcohol and go on about your life. You can do that. You will not be happy, and the people around you will not either. In fact, some family members have been known to say, "You're so miserable. You're making us all miserable. Why don't you just go back to drinking?"

Alcoholics who stop drinking but do nothing to treat their disease are known as "dry drunks."

Dry drunks are flirting with disaster every day, putting themselves at tremendous risk for relapse. They are suffering from what we call "untreated alcoholism." It's not pretty. I do not recommend it.

Untreated alcoholism can be dangerous or fatal. Even if you don't pick up a drink, you will be bat sh$t crazy. You might well attempt suicide. When I say crazy, I mean c-r-a-a-a-z-y!

Put on your big boy panties

As active alcoholics, we behave like "King Baby." We are selfish and self-centered. We are unreasonable in our demands of the world. We are overly sensitive. We are overly judgmental. We may well be high achievers in our academic, professional and social lives. But at our emotional core, we're infantile. We're like Peter Pan, refusing to grow up.

They say our emotions get stunted at the age we first pick up. So an alcoholic could be chronologically 38, 48 or 58 when he enters recovery. But emotionally, he's only12, because that's the age he first starting drinking.

Emotional sobriety is the sustainted attempt to close that gap. No matter age you come into AA (my preferred model for recovery), it's never to late to grow up. I like to say they hand you your big boy (or big girl) panties when you come into the rooms.

Finally, we get to learn how to control our out-of-control thinking, feelings and reactions. This is a big job, but also a huge relief.

As active drunks, we:

  • Don't know how to "do life" without running roughshod over other people's. We learn how to interact with others in a civilized way.
  • Make messes (relationships, jobs, finances) that often have harsh consequences. We learn how to clean those up.
  • Are prisoners to our racing thoughts and repeated self-descructive behavior patterns that lock us into insanity. In sobriety, we learn to stop the madness.

Mostly, though, achieving emotional sobriety allows us to feel some inner peace and calm. We are not inherently peaceful or "serene" people.

Happiness replaces worry

My Top 5 Emotional Sobriety Tools

I'm not going to cite you chapter and verse of the "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous. But I do encourage you to read it and follow its suggestions.

I'm just going to share with you my favorite emotional sobriety tools. Emotional sobriety requires daily maintenance. You never know what today is going to bring, so it's good to have a full tool set to draw from.

1. Pause when agitated. Alcoholics are inherently agitated. We can spin out over the smallest perceived wrong or slight. When things don't go immediately our way, our first (overwhelming) reaction is to retaliate. Emotional sobriety teaches us to self-calm. We can de-escalate any situation by stopping in our tracks, taking a deep breath, and just stalling ourselves for time.

2. See your part. Alcoholics are victims. We feel wronged by others and by life.We point fingers at everyone but ourselves. We have a hard time accepting responsibility for our own actions. Emotional sobriety gets us out of our self-pity and other-blaming. We learn to see our part in any situation. You may not want to see it, but it's there. Own up.e

3. Make amends. Amends are more than apologies. We are usually "apologied" out by the time we get sober. Our word means nothing. I'm sorry just doesn't cut it anymore. An amends goes beyond "I'm sorry I hurt you." It also means "And I am working on becoming a better person so I will not do that again." It's about changing your behavior to reflect your sobriety.

4. Lower your expectations. Expectations are a resentment waiting to happen. Alcholics expect so much that we are very often disappointed. Our image of what "should be" rarely matches "what is." In emotional sobriety we learn to be more realistic about life, about others' behavior, and our own. We are all human. We're all doing the best we can, given the tools we have.

5. Get out of self. This tool is my favorite. When we are frustrated, frightened or angry, we tend to make a big deal out of our feelings. They can easily become all-consuming.

Not everything that we stress over is minor, by any stretch. We do deal with major losses and challenges in sobriety.

It has been my experience that the best way to handle any negative situations or feelings is to help someone else. It's amazing how quickly and thoroughly it works, too. All I have to do is stop dwelling on "me" and concentrate on someone other than me. I open my eyes, ears and heart to someone else's needs. If possible, I offer support or help.

it's amazing how quickly -- and completely -- this little trick works.

Less Emotion = More Happiness

The disease of alcoholism is very treatable.

But .. if you think "sobrieyt" is simply not drinking, you're in for a rough ride that will very likely lead you back to the bottle.

True sobriety requires treating the whole alcoholic. That includes working toward both physical and emotional sobriety.

Once you understand that and are willing to learn the tools, life of sober happiness awaits.

Do you know any emotionally sober alcoholics?

See results

Do you know any "dry drunks" (physically but not emotionally sober)?

See results


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Pamela August 25, 2011 I've mseisd rediang your blog! I was on vacation! I definitely want to try the oats in a jar.. what a way to anticipate the end of a peanut butter jar! LOLIn response to your question, I always make my own concoctions.. that's the most fun thing to do in the kitchen! And I was thinking, when you were listing out your ingredients (which, your breakfast burrito sounds like something totally yummy and very familiar to something I would make) I was thinking of Migas . You should try it sometime, I think it's Mexican, and you use up leftover tortillas or even tortilla chips with eggs and other ingredients for breakfast.. it's really good!

    • Mighty Mom profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Reid 

      5 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Thanks, BB. The whole emotional sobriety thing is what they mean by "practice these principles in all our affairs." Also the road gets narrower!

      Cheaptrick/Dean. Wet brain is like the bogeyman of AA. It does sound like the worst thing that can happen, doesn't it? It means your brain is literally saturated with alcohol, you've killed off so many brain cells from drinking that your brain no longer functions.

      But wet brain is only one of many lovely medical consequences of drinking too much. More often (at least in my experience) people's livers give out. Or, because many alcoholics also smoke, there is COPD and lung cancer. Alcohol is brutal on the heart, too. And hep C is a big one in our circles, too. Oh, and cancer. LOTS of cancer...

      I'm not saying the brain is the last organ to fail. Just that I've never met anyone with wet brain or anyone who has said they know anyone with wet brain. I have known people whose livers failed. I've known people whose livers recovered. And people who had liver transplants.

      Most important thing is the turnaround that occurs -- in body and in behavior -- when we come into AA. Every sober alcoholic is a MIRACLE!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Right on as always, telling it like it is. "Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts. " Love the message!

    • cheaptrick profile image


      5 years ago from the bridge of sighs

      Hello MM,been a while.I have friends in AA who amazed me at their turn around point.I've heard a term thrown around that I'm unfamiliar with;wet brain.It's used as though it is the worst thing that can happen...please explain what wet brain is...thanks and rated up.



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