In January 1958, Bill Wilson wrote an article to the Grapevine entitled, “The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety.” This article is the substance of a letter Bill wrote to a close friend (in 1956) who also had troublesome depressions. Before I start sharing my experience, strength, and hope on this topic, I thought it best to share Bill’s words on the subject with you first…
“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.
Those 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.
Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops in all these areas 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.
How to translate a right mental conviction into a right emotional result, and so into easy, happy, and good living—well, that’s not only the neurotic’s problem, it’s the problem of life itself for all of us who have got to the point of real willingness to hew to right principles in all our affairs.
Even then, as we hew away, peace and joy may still elude us. That’s the place so many of us AA oldsters have come to. And it’s a hell of a spot, literally. How shall our unconscious—from which so many of our fears, compulsions and phony aspirations still stream—be brought into line with what we actually believe, know and want! How to convince our dumb, raging and hidden “Mr. Hyde” becomes our main task.
I’ve recently come to believe that this can be achieved. I believe so because I begin to see many benighted ones—folks like you and me—commencing to get results. Last autumn [several years back – ed.] depression, having no really rational cause at all, almost took me to the cleaners. I began to be scared that I was in for another long chronic spell. Considering the grief I’ve had with depressions; it wasn’t a bright prospect.
I kept asking myself, “Why can’t the Twelve Steps work to release depression?” By the hour, I stared at the St. Francis Prayer…”It’s better to comfort than to be the comforted.” Here was the formula, all right. But why didn’t it work?
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 perfectionist dreams and specifications, I had fought for them. And when defeat came, so did my depression.
There wasn’t a chance of making the outgoing love of St. Francis a workable and joyous way of life until these fatal and almost absolute dependencies were cut away.
Because I had over the years undergone a little spiritual development, the absolute quality of these frightful dependencies had never before been so starkly revealed. Reinforced by what Grace I could secure in prayer, I found I had to exert every ounce of will and action to cut off these faulty emotional dependencies upon people, upon AA, indeed, upon any set of circumstances whatsoever.
Then only could I be free to love as Francis had. Emotional and instinctual satisfactions, I saw, were really the extra dividends of having love, offering love, and expressing a love appropriate to each relation of life.
Plainly, I could not avail myself of God’s love until I was able to offer it back to Him by loving others as He would have me. And I couldn’t possibly do that so long as I was victimized by false dependencies.
For my dependency meant demand—a demand for the possession and control of the people and the conditions surrounding me.
While those words “absolute demand” may look like a gimmick, they were the ones that helped to trigger my release into my present degree of stability and quietness of mind, qualities which I am now trying to consolidate by offering love to others regardless of the return to me.
This seems to be the primary healing circuit: an outgoing love of God’s creation and His people, by means of which we avail ourselves of His love for us. It is most clear that the current can’t flow until our paralyzing dependencies are broken and broken at depth. Only then can we possibly have a glimmer of what adult love really is.
Spiritual calculus, you say? Not a bit of it. Watch any AA of six months working with a new Twelfth Step case. If the case says, “To the devil with you,” the Twelfth Stepper only smiles and turns to another case. He doesn’t feel frustrated or rejected. If his next case responds, and in turn starts to give love and attention to other alcoholics, yet gives none back to him, the sponsor is happy about it anyway. He still doesn’t feel rejected; instead, he rejoices that his one-time prospect is sober and happy. And if his next following case turns out in later time to be his best friend (or romance) then the sponsor is most joyful. But he well knows that his happiness is a by-product—the extra dividend of giving without any demand for a return.
The really stabilizing thing for him was having and offering love to that strange drunk on his doorstep. That was Francis at work, powerful and practical, minus dependency and minus demand.
In the first six months of my own sobriety, I worked hard with many alcoholics. Not a one responded. Yet this work kept me sober. It wasn’t a question of those alcoholics giving me anything. My stability came out of trying to give, not out of demanding that I receive.
Thus, I think it can work out with emotional sobriety. If we examine every disturbance we have, great or small, we will find at the root of it some unhealthy dependency and its consequent unhealthy demand. Let us, with God’s help, continually surrender these hobbling demands. Then we can be set free to live and love; we may then be able to Twelfth Step ourselves and others into emotional sobriety.
Of course, I haven’t offered you a really new idea—only a gimmick that has started to unhook several of my own “hexes” at depth. Nowadays my brain no longer races compulsively in either elation, grandiosity or depression. I have been given a quiet place in bright sunshine.”
I’ve read this article many times in my 34 years, shared it with sponsees (especially when we get to Steps 6 & 7), and cannot tell you how much it’s impacted my recovery over the years. It always seems that when I need to read it the most, it’s right in front of me (is it odd or is it God?). It’s helped me re-center myself on so many occasions and I will be forever indebted to Bill for sharing it with the world.
Emotional sobriety is a term coined within the 12-step community. While physical sobriety is the act of not using addictive substances, emotional sobriety is the skill set that aids a person not to feel the need to utilize addictive substances. Without emotional sobriety, a person will have a very difficult time with physical sobriety.
Another Legacy Left for Us (a 4th Legacy?)
Some time ago, Allen Berger, Ph.D. shared some beautiful thoughts on the topic of emotional sobriety. I’m not 100% on board yet with his writing below, but I was interested enough that I thought it was worth including in this blog post. He shared that Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob left us three remarkable legacies. Their first legacy was the 12 Steps. The 12 Steps have helped millions of people find freedom from their addiction to alcohol and other drugs. Their second legacy was the 12 Traditions. The 12 Traditions do for the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous what the 12 Steps do for the individual. We can think of the 12 Steps as a design for daily living that promotes emotional well-being and peace of mind while the 12 Traditions provide guidelines for the healthy functioning of the AA Fellowship as a whole. Their third legacy was the formation and structure of the General Service structure which lie in the 12 Concepts for World Service. These three legacies formed the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous as we know it today.
Dr. Berger went on to write that he had recently realized there is possibly another legacy that Bill Wilson might have left us. A legacy that has not been fully recognized for its value and role in recovery and posits the question, “Was Bill Wilson’s fourth legacy to us emotional sobriety?”
He writes, “Bill originally wrote about emotional sobriety in a letter he sent to a depressed friend in 1956. I feel quite certain that this must have been something Bill shared about in meetings but didn’t write about it until he wrote the letter. This letter [as stated above] was eventually published in The Grapevine in 1958 titled “Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier.”
I [Dr. Berger] personally have found the contents of this letter very helpful. This is one of Bill’s most important contributions to recovery. In it he unravels the source of his basic flaws and emotional deformities: issues necessary to understand and address if he was going to finally tackle his depression and realize all the wonderful benefits of recovery.
In this letter Bill shared the insights he gained while understanding and unpacking the emotional causes of his depression. Bill worked hard on his recovery. He also received psychological help from Dr. Harry Tiebout, the first psychiatrist to recognize the importance of AA. Dr. Tiebout befriended Bill and the fellowship and left us with many important insights into the process of recovery. You can learn more about his work in a Hazelden publication of his collected works. Bill also received spiritual direction from some very prominent spiritual leaders of his time, such as Sam Shoemaker.
Bill sought the truth about himself and about life. From these efforts he developed the ability to be honest with himself and identify emotional and behavioral patterns that were causing him much distress and anxiety. The letter that Bill wrote is a synthesis of what he had learned about himself and his dilemma after being sober 21 years.
At this point in Bill’s recovery he was working on what we now call Stage II Recovery. This second stage of recovery was appropriately labeled by Earnie Larsen. Stage II Recovery is concerned with healthy human relations. This is something that has eluded us throughout our lives because of our emotional immaturity. The 12 Steps help us grow up by identifying our emotional deformities and identifying patterns in our human relations that help us see our basic flaws. So let’s take a closer look at the issues Bill discovered.”
Dr. Berger continued by stating, “Do you ever find yourself overreacting to a comment someone important makes to you and then find yourself silently wondering, “Why did I react so strongly? What makes their opinion of me more important than what I know to be true?” This situation and others like it have much to teach us about our emotional deformities.
Reflecting on what caused him to be upset and how he reacted helped Bill figure out some very important things about himself. In a way, we can say that he took an emotional inventory. As a result of the insights he gained from these self-reflections, Bill realized that his depression was a result of how he responded when things didn’t go his way.
Bill discovered that he imposed unenforceable rules on others and demanded that they accommodate his nonsense. When they didn’t, he fought them and when they didn’t cave in, he felt deflated and defeated. When he felt defeated he became depressed. But don’t think for a minute that Bill is the only one of us who acts this way. I must confess that I do too. Less today after more than 41 years of recovery, but it’s definitely still a part of my reaction at times. I’d bet if you are honest with yourself, you will see evidence of this kind of behavior in your reactions too.
Bill realized that his emotional state was dependent on the outcome of his interaction with others, that he was emotionally dependent on how other people behaved toward him for his self-esteem, for his emotional well-being. Bill described his epiphany this way:
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 specifications, I had fought for them. And when defeat came so did my depression.
I believe we are all emotionally dependent to one degree or another, and that’s why we relate to Bill’s struggle. Emotional dependency is the result of being emotionally undifferentiated. The more differentiated we are, the less reactive we are to others and the better we can soothe ourselves.”
Dr. Berger wrapped up his writing with, “If you want to achieve emotional sobriety, then you need to get honest with yourself about your current level of emotional maturity. Your level of emotional maturity relates to your level of differentiation. The more mature you are, the more differentiated you are. But none of us are perfectly differentiated. We all exist somewhere along a spectrum of undifferentiated to differentiated.
Emotional sobriety is the result of learning to soothe ourselves rather than manipulating other people to comfort us. Emotional sobriety is the movement away from manipulating others for validation toward supporting and validating ourselves. If we require other people to act and behave a certain way for us to feel safe, then the world will never be a safe place. When I learn to stand on my own two feet and support and validate myself, then what others did or didn’t do becomes less important. Emotional sobriety means that we stop taking what other people do personally and we stop letting their limited perceptions define us.”
Overall, I like the sentiment that Dr. Berger offers, but the only thing I would add to the statements in the last paragraph is that in an of myself, I don’t have the skill sets to do this (“soothe myself”). In Step 1, I recognized my powerlessness. In Step 2, I came to believe in a new power. In Step 3, I made a decision to turn my will and life over to that power (trust). It even says in the big book in Step 3 that a new power has flowed in. If anything is going to “soothe me,” it is God.
Alright – so, that’s a whole lot of information on it that might still be a little overwhelming. Let’s break it down a little bit and unpack it…
What Does Emotional Sobriety Look Like?
Being emotionally sober simply means that I am comfortable being present with all of my feelings without any one of them defining or controlling me. Developing emotional sobriety often involves being adept at processing life’s emotional ups and downs as they happen. One important, but often overlooked, part of the recovery journey is the need for emotional sobriety. Since it’s common for alcoholics to turn to alcohol to self-medicate their emotional distress, learning to process emotions in a healthy way is an essential step in preventing relapse. Since no two people are alike, everyone experiences recovery a bit differently. However, emotional sobriety generally means:
- Building a healthy, emotionally balanced life
- Accepting the present as it is
- Seeing struggle and grief as natural parts of life that offer an opportunity for personal growth
- Refusing to dwell on the past
- Not letting other people’s limited perceptions or expectations define your self-esteem or negatively impact your behavior
How Can I Practice Emotional Sobriety?
- Practice Mindfulness. Through daily meditation, I learn to recognize thoughts that lead to unwanted behaviors. …
- Exercise Regularly. Regular exercise offers countless health benefits, including those related to mental health. …
- Join a Reliable Support Network (thank God I have that in A.A.).
What Does the Big Book Say About Emotional Sobriety?
By looking at myself instead of others (taking my own inventory), I am well on my way to living the 3 words that they big book describes as the key to emotional sobriety – sober, considerate, and helpful, no matter what anyone else says or does.
The Link Between Emotions and Alcoholism
People who are actively abusing alcohol often struggle to manage their emotional lives. This, of course, can also be the plight of those of us who come into the rooms and don’t do the work. They may exhibit the following traits:
- Trouble regulating intense negative emotions such as anger
- Acting out in impulsive or dangerous ways when faced with emotionally challenging situations
- Struggling to maintain intimate connections with others
- Being unable to “roll with the punches” when encountering obstacles at work or home
- Having a generally pessimistic world view
Developing Emotional Sobriety
Achieving emotional sobriety doesn’t mean that an individual must be happy and upbeat 24/7. In fact, A.A. often refers to people with an unrealistic expectation of happiness in recovery as riding the pink cloud. It’s completely natural to feel a wide range of emotions on any given day and to allow ourselves to be kidnapped by unhealthy dependencies and their consequent unhealthy demands. Being emotionally sober simply means that I am comfortable being present with all of my feelings without any one of them defining or controlling me.
In the end, what I’ve learned about emotional sobriety is that with each and every day, there is work to do to get it and maintain it. I’ve found though that as time passes and the more I practice it, it becomes easier and easier. I must never forget though that it is not something I can do on my own willpower. I must have God’s help.
Bill said it best when he said, “Let us, with God’s help, continually surrender these hobbling demands. Then we can be set free to live and love; we may then be able to Twelfth Step ourselves and others into emotional sobriety.”