11 Signs You have Emotional Sobriety
Emotional sobriety extends far beyond putting down drugs and alcohol. It’s about digging deep within yourself and doing the inner work needed to create real, lasting change.
Read on to discover what emotional sobriety looks like and the signs that you may or may not be sober emotionally. Then, discover just how you can work on developing your emotional sobriety today.
What is emotional sobriety?
One of the foundations of recovery is developing your sobriety on an emotional level. Aside from no longer engaging in substance use, this is one of the most important factors contributing to long-lasting recovery from addiction.
Emotional sobriety rests on being able to navigate the difficult feelings that can cause cravings and ultimately lead to relapse. Many people believe that sobriety is about not using drugs or alcohol, but that's only the first step. Sobriety is about learning how to navigate the emotions that drugs and alcohol were once either numbing or alleviating.
Emotional sobriety definition
The definition of emotional sobriety is about remaining present, in the here and now, regardless of what that happens to look like, and not seeking an escape through substances or maladaptive behaviours.
It’s not necessarily about feeling good or bad. It is, however, about letting yourself feel. It's about not running away from, pushing down, or distracting yourself from difficult emotions. Rather, it’s about understanding them and working your way through them rather than reacting with harmful behaviour.
The danger of distraction
Early recovery is often considered to be the first 90 days without drug or alcohol use. Interestingly, many in early recovery are encouraged to do whatever is necessary to avoid alcohol or drug use.
Since the primary focus in early recovery is dedicated to doing whatever it takes to not use drugs and alcohol, it can be difficult to reflect inward during this time.
Early recovery for many may be riddled with ways of looking for distractions in order to avoid substances. Although this is helpful early on, continuing to distract yourself will only be counterproductive the farther into recovery you go.
“One day at a time” is a hallmark mantra used by many in recovery. Although it is true, it can also prompt people to disengage from their thoughts and emotions. After the first few months of gaining some solid footing without the use of substances, it’s important to do the deeper work. This requires facing your feelings head-on.
When you distract yourself, you aren’t facing your emotions.
Difficult emotions can lead to psychological cravings for substances, if they are not processed in a healthy way. If you aren’t facing what could have prompted that craving, the craving will grow stronger.
It’s important to bring yourself to a place where you aren’t distracting yourself from the craving. Instead, you feel safe enough to explore what emotion that craving is tied to.
Understanding the emotions that trigger your cravings will help you gain a deeper sense of awareness. It will help those triggers and cravings fade over time. Additionally, understanding what triggers you, will also help you know which areas to focus on in recovery. Therefore, you’ll know which emotions you need to learn how to regulate and navigate.
Difficult emotions are not inherently a bad thing, whether you’re experiencing sadness, anger, or pain. These emotions can act as a guide, informing you of your beliefs and thoughts about an experience.
Having a full range of emotions is just a normal part of being human. It's what you do with those emotions that can dictate the future of your sobriety.
Why is emotional sobriety important?
Negative emotions can lead to relapse if you’re lacking in emotional regulation.
Developing emotional sobriety will allow you to face the negative emotions that would have once consumed you. This will allow you to grow and mature in your recovery.
It’s likely that you engaged in substances to numb or escape from certain feelings. In recovery, these feelings need to be faced, as well as many new ones.
As you come out of drug and alcohol use, you may experience feelings of guilt, shame and remorse. As you move through life day to day, obstacles and challenges will arise, as they do for anyone. There is a need to learn how to face all of these emotions and obstacles without resorting to drugs or alcohol.
Developing emotional sobriety will teach you how to not let your thoughts consume you. It will teach you how to understand and process your emotions, instead of letting them dictate your actions
Developing emotional sobriety will teach you how to grow and thrive in life without being held back whenever challenges present themselves.
When you push down, numb, or distract from emotions, they will always manifest in another way. This is why it's so important to feel your feelings and to process them, so they don't hold you back any longer.
11 signs of emotional sobriety
There are many ways to know if you’ve developed a sense of emotional sobriety.
Emotional sobriety checklist:
- Accepting things as they are
- No longer holding onto the past
- Being able to face your emotions without pushing them down
- Not judging yourself for experiencing difficult emotions
- Being able to reflect on what may have caused you to experience certain emotions
- Having deep, rich connections with other people
- Not blaming others for your actions
- Being able to see the silver lining in difficult times
- Experiencing appreciation and gratitude for what you do have
- You’re able to regulate your actions
- You don’t let strong emotions dictate your behaviour
Signs you may lack emotional sobriety
If you lack emotional sobriety, you may also be “white knuckling” your way through recovery. This phrase, also known as “dry drunk syndrome,” is what happens when someone stops drinking alcohol or using drugs, but doesn’t do the deeper work to experience true change.
Doing the deeper work on yourself is the bridge to becoming emotionally sober, which is why it’s so important to look inward.
Some signs you may be lacking in emotional sobriety:
- You blame others for your problems
- Your irritable and easily angered
- You don’t feel liberated in the present moment and often feel held down by the past
- You try to push down or numb your emotions, even if you’re not using drugs or alcohol to do so
- You’re unable to face life’s challenges
- You view recovery through a negative lens
- You don’t observe your own feelings and thoughts
If any of this sounds like you – don’t worry. Lacking emotional sobriety isn’t something that’s set in stone. There are many things you can do to start developing your emotional sobriety today.
How to develop emotional sobriety
Anyone can develop emotional sobriety, no matter who you are, what you’ve been through, or how long you’ve been in recovery. It’s never too late to do the inner work necessary for deep, lasting change to transpire.
Below are just a few ways to start developing emotional sobriety:
Attending groups such as NA, AA, or SMART Recovery is a great way to work on developing emotional sobriety. In these settings, you’re able to see that you're not alone in your struggles. The difficult emotions you’re facing are shared with others in recovery, too. In a group setting, you’re able to witness firsthand not only that people are going through what you’re going through, but how they're navigating through those challenges. You’ll learn new ways of managing difficult emotions and challenging situations. And, if you’re comfortable enough to share what you’re experiencing, you’ll get a sounding board full of people who really understand you. They’ll be able to offer you the validation and reassurance you need to help you get out of your head and even feel better about whatever it is you’re facing.
Cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, is a powerful way to work on developing emotional sobriety. This is because CBT innately forces you to come face-to-face with your thoughts, and the feelings that have resulted from those thoughts. CBT is a form of one-on-one therapy that rests on the understanding that your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are all interconnected. These thoughts, feelings, and behaviours perpetuate one another, creating patterns in your life that can be healthy or unhealthy. CBT teaches you how to observe your inner world, and acknowledge and shift the cognitive distortions that may be there. This is a great way of developing emotional sobriety because the one-on-one nature of being with a therapist or counsellor provides a safe, guided space to explore difficult or scary memories, thoughts, and feelings.
Accepting your emotions
Accepting your emotions as they are is a major component of developing emotional sobriety. Society has certainly taught us that difficult emotions such as sadness, pain, or anger are bad things. Experiencing a difficult emotion can cause you to then feel guilt or shame about experiencing that emotion in the first place, adding more stress. The truth is, your emotions are a natural part of you, and of every other human being. It’s okay for you to feel sad or angry. It’s okay for you to feel hurt. Accepting these feelings as normal is a major sign of growth and is indicative of emotional sobriety. Whenever you experience a difficult emotion, try to not judge yourself for it, and accept that emotion as a valid part of your human experience.
Engaging in mindfulness practices can help you develop your emotional sobriety. This is because when you aren’t mindful, you are generally being weighed down by the past or worried about something in the future. When you aren’t present, you can’t know how you’re truly feeling in the present moment because your mind is elsewhere. Mindfulness places you back in the here and now. It teaches you how to observe the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing. This is an integral part of developing emotional sobriety. One way you can engage in mindfulness is by trying out a guided mindfulness meditation.
Facing your challenges
Facing your challenges is not only a sign of emotional sobriety, but it's also in itself a way to develop your emotional sobriety, too. Those in recovery likely have a long history of ignoring or pushing down their feelings or trying to numb away their problems with substances. In recovery, you’ll have to learn how to face life’s challenges head-on, without ignoring them, pushing the feelings down that accompany them, or running away. Facing life’s obstacles as they arise will help you grow on a deeper level, help you learn how to build resilience, and help you learn how to regulate your emotions, as well.
Spiritual or personal growth
Developing your spiritual or personal growth goes hand in hand with developing emotional sobriety. This is because spiritual growth and personal growth are both all about looking inward at your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. They’re about understanding your strengths and flaws and knowing yourself well enough to be able to work on your weaker spots. There are many ways to develop spiritual or personal growth, including silent meditation or reading personal development books.
A final word on developing emotional sobriety
When you experience a trauma or begin engaging in substance use, your brain may actually become emotionally stunted from the time that trauma happened or at the age, you started using. If you started using at 15 years old, for instance, and you’re now 30 and beginning recovery, you would still have the emotional development of your 15-year-old self. Developing emotional sobriety will help you not only catch up to an age-appropriate level of emotional development but also offers you the opportunity to grow and thrive beyond that in a deep way.
Keep in mind that developing emotional sobriety isn’t something that happens overnight, as healing isn’t ever linear. If you find moments where you feel afraid to face your emotions or you find yourself trying to numb them, just be easy on yourself and know that this is part of the process. It will take time, and developing emotional sobriety is an ongoing journey. However, it is one that will provide many benefits not only to your sobriety, but also to your relationships, your goals, and your overall well-being.
Author - Thurga
Dry drunk syndrome: When stopping substances isn't enough
- The nuts and bolts of emotional sobriety: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-nuts-and-bolts-of-emotional-sobriety/
- Emotional sobriety: https://alcoholrehabhelp.org/resources/emotional-sobriety/
- Developing emotional sobriety: https://www.soberrecovery.com/recovery/developing-emotional-sobriety/
- How ‘Dry Drunk Syndrome’ Affects Recovery: https://www.healthline.com/health/dry-drunk
- Recovery Model of Mental Illness: A Complementary Approach to Psychiatric Care https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4418239/