Emotional sobriety is a term I first heard last November when I was doing Marlee Grace’s writing challenge. They had set up a Discord server for support and discussion and there were some fantastic people sharing ideas, expressing thoughts, and providing feedback for each other. I feel quite lucky to have been part of the space while it was active.
In short, emotional sobriety is a well-being strategy that attempts to feel all emotions with truth and honesty, not shying away from the struggles but embracing them as part of reality. It’s not surprising that this approach was born from addictions recovery; substance abuse, moderate or heavy, is a common approach to masking our negative feelings. A part of recovering from substance abuse addiction is learning how to manage and cope with the highs and lows without masking or avoiding, but facing them head on.
The term actually comes from Bill Wilson who helped create the 12 steps to recovery. He originally wrote about emotional sobriety in a letter to a friend that was struggling with depression, and it’s been published here. (trigger warning for anyone struggling with addiction or depression.) Wilson identifies that his ongoing dependence on emotional support from outside influences often leads to states of depression when others don’t behave in a way that validates his emotional state. His response is to become “differentiated” - more emotionally mature when addressing conflict with others. I would go further to include that emotional sobriety, for me, is also about dealing with negative emotions internally, not just in conflict with others.
At first glance, this approach seems fairly simple. Enjoy the good times, embrace the bad for what they are without condemnation, but in practice - well, it’s been much more in depth than what I would have anticipated.
I don’t think I ever set out to practice emotional sobriety with intention. In fact, I think I originally embraced it as part of my parenting approach with my youngest: rather than trying to push through sadness or frustration, we make a practice of taking time and space to let the feelings be what they are and then move through them with patience. We hold space for all the feelings. (Aside: this video was really inspirational for me. The hug at 1:28 brings me to tears every time….) We have special spaces that we used for tough feelings (including lots of pillows and blankets). The results have been really positive: from a young age, he’s been able to clearly articulate his tough feelings and what he needs in those moments. Almost all the other adults in his life have commented on this emotional resiliency.
I’ve written a fair bit in this space about the low periods that I go through and I’m happy to say that they’ve been few and far between as of late. A key strategy that I stumbled across that I think has helped is being able to clearly identify when depression is creeping up. Being able to name often helps stop or at least slow the downward spiral. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that this sobriety approach has become a logical next step after the naming. Being able to identify, name, and then make space for those lows seems to prevent them from hanging around for too long. Maybe a little level up of my own emotional resilience :)
My experience with this act of making space for sadness, depression, or anger is that it can be quite confusing. It’s not something we’re taught to do and it’s not particularly comfortable. It’s quite natural to try and push it all away as quickly as possible, so holding on to these feelings and finding ways to exist with them can feel very counter-intuitive. Sometimes it’s just about letting the thoughts spin around in my head for an hour or two without trying to quiet them or mask how I’m feeling. Sometimes it’s about blocking out other stimulus or cancelling plans so I really have time to sit with it all. Almost always there is a significant amount of discomfort that I would have previously tried to avoid.
The results, though, have been really positive. Like my son, I’m able to clearly articulate what’s happening in my head; peeling back all that extra junk that tends to come attached to negative emotions like baggage and past trauma; finger pointing and blaming. When other people are involved in the situation, there’s usually really productive discussion that comes afterwards as we move through what caused the hurt or frustration in the first place. It has provided a great amount of clarity in sometimes very murky instances.
Overall, I would say that this approach fosters a strong sense of emotional resilience - something that can be hard to find both in ourselves and in others these days. It can be hard to unpack those hard days to find what’s at the root, and in most cases, the instinct is to avoid that unpacking. In these challenging times, resilience is something that will serve us all regardless of how it’s applied.
Here’s some additional resources that I’m sure will do a better job of explaining the actual practice as well as it’s roots in the addictions recovery space.
This is a great description of the process I’m also working through except I’m following a different model called IFS (internal family systems). But very similar concept of making friends with our parts we try to hide. In IFS they call them “exiles”. That experience though of needing something or someone outside of us to fix our destructive emotions is with me so often. And it’s my biggest hurdle to overcome. I could write at length about this! Thanks again Kel for your time and thoughtful exploration/vulnerability. It’s true, we need emotionally resilient folks in this wave of trials. We need people who are willing to see the complexity of humanness and not jump to polarized places. Big hugs