When we think of sobriety, it’s usually in terms of no longer using alcohol or recreational drugs, but it’s more complicated than that. According to the definition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), sobriety means “not being intoxicated,” then goes on to explain that sobriety is more about the absence of drinking problems, not about total abstinence.
There’s also emotional sobriety, which Rachel Fintzy Woods, a licensed marriage and family therapist says involves “learning to deal with the uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, and behaviours that the addictive behaviours attempted to cover up or avoid. It entails confronting and managing our emotions in healthy and constructive ways, rather than resorting to methods that harm ourselves or other people.” In an article on PsychCentral, Woods discusses emotional sobriety and how to achieve it. Here’s what you need to know.
What is emotional sobriety?
As Woods notes, emotional sobriety requires that we learn how to sit with thoughts and feelings that make us uncomfortable, and then managing emotions in a healthy and effective way. She writes about emotional sobriety as a necessity after reaching a point of sobriety from recreational drugs and/or alcohol, but the concept can be helpful for anyone. Woods says that emotional sobriety doesn’t mean that we experience “positive” emotions all of the time — and that’s not the point, either. It’s more about developing the tools you need to work through the problematic feelings, behaviours and situations as they come up.
How to develop emotional sobriety
First, Woods points out that it’s important to understand that we may not be in control over what happens to us, but we are in control of how we respond to it. Here are her other signs of emotional sobriety:
- We live the majority of our lives in the present moment, attending to what is, rather than getting caught up in thoughts about the past or the future. We don’t beat ourselves up for past mistakes. Instead, we learn from the past while devoting the majority of our energy to living today well. We recognise that each day is a new opportunity to do so.
- We are able to regulate our behaviour, rather than being at the mercy of compulsive urges or other self-destructive patterns. We don’t engage in any substance use or behaviours to the point of self-harm. Instead, we make conscious and mindful decisions regarding how to respond to the situation at hand.
- We effectively balance our “shoulds” and “want tos” lists. We use our time and energy appropriately, so we aren’t maxed out at the end of the day. We prioritise our activities and are able to say no to certain things, so as to say yes to the most important things.
- We cope effectively with life’s ups and downs. When life throws us a curve, we handle the challenge with integrity and grace, rather than allowing intense feelings to drive us to dysfunctional behaviour. We can step back and see the big picture.
- We have close, fulfilling, and healthy relationships with other people. We can speak honestly with others. Our relationships are mutually and consistently supportive, encouraging, and uplifting. We shift from blaming others to looking at our own part in conflicts.
- We have an optimistic yet realistic view of life, ourselves, and the future, even in tough times. We live based on our values and believe that we can make a positive difference in the world, in both small and large ways, and we strive to do so everyday.
- We know our limitations. We steer clear of situations and people that might lure us into indulging in addictive behaviour. We don’t tempt fate.
To help achieve emotional sobriety, Woods recommends practicing mindfulness, journaling, participating in a support group, or going to therapy. But more than anything, it’s about reframing how you think about challenges and how you respond to them.