Emotional Sobriety Might Be The Self-Growth Tool You're Missing In Your Life

·7 min read
Photo credit: Nine OK - Getty Images
Photo credit: Nine OK - Getty Images


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A quick scroll through self-help Instagram and you’re bound to see several posts touting the importance of being in touch with your emotions and allowing yourself to marinate in them.

This kind of pro-feelings inspo is heartening, but it’s possible there’s been a bit of an overfocus on this front. “It’s important to honor your feelings,” says Kelley Kitley, LCSW, author of My Self: An Autobiography of Survival. “But if you keep replaying those thoughts, you may stay in an anxious state.”

Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself: being drawn to ruminate on and analyze emotions, particularly negative ones. It’s totally natural, yet also detrimental—your emotions shouldn’t be the only tool you’re using to decide how you want to act. So how do you honor feelings without letting them run the show? Enter: a practice called “emotional sobriety.”

The concept first appeared in Alcoholics Anonymous to help people manage their emotions without turning to substances. But the idea has resurfaced in 12-step programs outside of AA as well.

And it can be a tool for anyone. Case in point: Emotional sobriety has been an important self-growth strategy for Olive G., a member of Adult Children of Alcoholics (not affiliated with AA).

“We’re taught that children who grew up in these homes have a primary ‘addiction’ to pain—it’s what feels familiar. So when something bad happens, we access an ‘inner drugstore’ of fear, trauma, and shame, just as someone with alcohol addiction would pick up a drink,” she says.

Practicing emotional sobriety helps Olive avoid going down that road—and it can help others process feelings in a healthy way, so they don’t get trapped in a spiral. Read on to learn how you can apply this method of moderation in your life.

Find your emotional neutral.

The first step is getting in touch with your baseline mindset when you feel most like yourself. If strong emotions pop up throughout the day—say, anger that leads you to yell or curse, or feelings so overwhelming that you need to step away from what you’re doing—jot down in a journal a few notes about them and what you think brought them on.

“Being emotionally sober feels like true power and freedom. I don’t act out in romantic relationships anymore, and I’m able to be in complete service to my clients—I coach other people to uncover the fear, trauma, and shame that lives in their bodies. My ego no longer runs the show.” —Po-Hong Yu, who began her practice while reading about the techniques of Byron Katie


When you look back, you’ll be able to see patterns in your emotional reactions to stimuli. Once you’re more aware of these, it’s easier to recognize when something is off—like when you’re in a heightened state because you’re stressed, or you’re dealing with physical/hormonal changes, or a past trauma is being triggered.

Knowing you’re not in neutral can be valuable information. So the goal with the following steps is to get you back to that natural equilibrium where you’re responding, not reacting.

Choose a healthy distraction

When you feel an intense rush of an emotion like frustration or sadness, it can be difficult to sit with it. And that’s okay. While you don’t want to ignore that emotion or the source of it forever, redirecting your energy in the moment can allow you to process it later with a clearer head.

“When crying feels overwhelming, try to trigger the opposite behavior by tuning into something humorous,” says Desreen Dudley, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Teledoc. A couple of good memes could give you a momentary lift, or you might need something more, like a chat with a friend you trust, some feel-good music, a walk, a HIIT workout, or a hot shower. Ideally, these activities will help move you back toward neutral.

Allow yourself to surrender

If you’ve tried a distraction and are still feeling overwhelmed or low, the next step is to let yourself hang out in the emotion without judgment. When you’re experiencing the loss of a loved one, a layoff at work, a breakup, or other stressful life event, this is absolutely necessary.

Sometimes the only way out is through, and it can help to accept that you are going through something tough and won’t be close to stasis for a while. The important thing here is that while you accept how your feelings are making you want to react, you also have a timeline for trying some healthy distractions again, says Kitley.

“I define emotional sobriety as ‘thinking thoughts, feeling feelings, and taking actions that make you feel good about yourself.’ With every decision I make—from what I say in chats with friends when we don’t see eye to eye to how I spend my money—and especially with decisions I’m uncertain about, I play out my options all the way through. If I swipe on a guy on a dating app who’s not looking for a relationship, I ask: What will happen if I move forward, and how will I feel about myself—better or worse? ” —Katie Grimes, who became acquainted with the idea through her 12-step sponsor

Quietly and thoughtfully sitting with uncomfortable emotions, without turning to not-so-great coping mechanisms like drugs, alcohol, oversleeping, or toxic relationships, is a component of this kind of sobriety. Commit to the idea that you won’t feel like this forever and that there are productive ways you can get closer to neutral when you’re ready.

Reframe your View

As you continue to strengthen your ability to process emotions and practice coping skills, you can tap into cognitive restructuring, or looking at an experience from an outsider’s perspective to access a different way of thinking, or for a minor, or even a major, takeaway.

Try this method from Kitley: Draw a horizontal line across a piece of paper. Point A, on the left side of the line, can be a thought dump of everything you’re feeling in regard to that life event.

On the right side, “Imagine you were trying to talk this through with your younger self,” she says. By writing out what you might say in coaching the younger you through a difficult patch, you may gain a point of view more compassionate to your present self. Maybe you won’t believe your older self’s advice at first, but with repetition, it’ll become easier to see how you’ve managed to grow.

Real Work Takes Time

If done incorrectly, emotional sobriety can sometimes resemble what’s called “spiritual bypassing.” Basically, this is using “spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks, all in the name of enlightenment,” wrote John Welwood, the psychotherapist who coined the term.

This could show up as advice like “all you need is love” or “yoga changed my life; you just need a consistent practice.” “There’s this marketing idea that if you meditate long enough, go to yoga, take this green juice, you will overcome the human condition,” says psychologist Ingrid Clayton, author (as Ingrid Mathieu) of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. You have to “do the emotional work while also having a spiritual experience and support,” says Shari Hampton, a recovery and life coach. “But you can’t skirt around the work.” If your gut feels like what you’re doing or what someone is advising is oversimplifying the matter, then that’s probably spiritual bypassing, not sobriety. Good to know!

This story is part of Women's Health's coverage of Mental Illness Awareness Week, which takes place from October 3rd through October 9th. If you feel like you're struggling with your mental health, don't hesitate to reach out for help. You can get support and information from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) by calling 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). Volunteers are available to speak with you Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. EST. If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, where help is available 24/7.

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