Emotional Sobriety: The Next Step in Recovery

Very little has been written about emotional sobriety. In fact the first reference to emotional sobriety appeared in the AA Grapevine back in 1958. In the opening paragraph of a letter that Bill Wilson wrote to a depressed friend he stated,

The only other references to emotional sobriety can be found in the work of Earnie Larsen when he discussed Stage II Recovery and in the work of Tian Dayton who discussed emotional sobriety as it relates to recovery from traumas. While I applaud the efforts of both of these authors, they missed the essence of the problem that was so insightfully identified by Bill Wilson when he wrote, “Suddenly I realized what the matter was. My basic flaw had always been dependence – almost absolute dependence – on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security and the like. Failing to get these things according to my perfectionistic dreams and specifications, I fought for them. And when defeat came, so did my depression.”

It is impossible to have real maturity and balance when you suffer from “absolute dependency” or what I refer to as “emotional dependency.” When we are emotionally dependent upon others for our self-esteem we become highly reactive to the slightest shifts in their feelings or behavior. We develop what has been referred to as “other validated self-esteem.” Another way of saying this is that we place our emotional center of gravity in others, rather than in ourselves. This is how we give away our power.

In my new book, 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs are Gone (Hazelden, 2010), I tackle the problem of emotional dependency in recovery and suggest 12 different ways of getting a handle on this demon. A couple of the paragraphs from the last chapter in my book will give you a pretty good idea of what I am encouraging people to do to develop emotional sobriety.

“As you have learned, the problem is never the problem. The problem is our inability to cope with our feelings. Accepting this reality can help us get on with growing up. This is the insight Bill Wilson shared with us in his remarkable letter. Instead of blaming others, he decided to take a hard look at himself to see what he was doing that was causing him problems. He couldn’t accomplish this alone. He asked for help. He didn’t judge himself, he faced his immaturity head on and learned from it. His personal courage, integrity and honesty inspired me to follow his lead. I hope Bill inspires you too.

Self-regulation leads to emotional resilience. The more we areable to master our feelings, the more confidence we will have in dealing with life on life’s terms. The more resilient we will be when we are knocked off balance. The quicker we will regain our balance too. Self-mastery shouldn’t be confused with self-control. Selfmastery is not about controlling ourselves. It is about maintaining a healthy relationship with ourselves. Self-mastery is about coping with our feelings, regulating our reactions, and repairing ourselves. It’s about following our true north and letting the best parts of ourselves respond. It’s about listening to ourselves and respecting our integrity. It’s about accepting and attending to our true-selves rather than trying to control others or circumstances. It’s about maintaining our autonomy when we are feeling pressured to give ourselves up. Emotional sobriety is the by-product of learning more effective ways of coping with our feelings.”

I hope you will take the time to read my new book. I truly believe it will be well worth your time and effort.


By Allen Berger, Ph.D.

Berger, A. (2010). 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs are Gone. Hazelden: MN.
Datyton, T. (2007). Emotional Sobriety: From relationship trauma to resilience and balance. HCI Books: FL.
Larsen, E. (1985). Stage II Recovery: Life beyond addiction. Harper Collins Publishers: NY.
Wilson, B. (1958, 1988). The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety. In The Language of the Heart: Bill W.’S Grapevine Writings (p. 236-
238). The AA Grapevine, Inc: NY.