Emotional Sobriety is about finding and maintaining our emotional equilibrium, our feeling rheostat, the one that helps us to adjust the intensity of our emotional responses to life. Emotional sobriety is tied up in our ability to self regulate on both a mind and body level, to bring ourselves into balance when we fall out of it. Issues with excessive self medication say with food, alcohol or drugs or compulsive approaches to activities like sex, work or spending tend to reflect a lack of ability to comfortable self regulate.
Emotions impact our thinking more than our thinking impacts our emotions. When our emotions are out of control, in other words, so is our thinking. And when we can't bring our feeling and thinking into some sort of balance, our life and our relationships show it.
In order to maintain our emotional equilibrium, we need to be able to use our thinking mind to decode and understand our feeling mind. That is, we need to feel our feelings and then use our thinking to make sense and meaning out of them.
Balance is that place where our thinking, feeling and behavior are reasonably congruent; where we operate in a reasonably integrated flow. We are not “off the wall” and at those moments when we do fly off the wall, as all of us do and probably need to now and then, we can find our way back home again. We can “right” ourselves .
The Limbic System
Emotions are processed by something called the limbic brain system also referred to as our “emotional brain”. Our limbic system, which is where we experience and process emotion, actually sends more inputs to the thinking part of our brain, i.e. the cortex, than the opposite. (Damassio)
Science now can describe in comprehensive detail just what goes on in the body when we experience emotions. To take it one step further, how our body works with our mind to experience, process and create our emotional world.
But how do we achieve this living in balance? Is it something we can train ourselves to do? If we didn't learn adequate skills of self regulation in childhood, can we learn them in adulthood? And how do we fall in and out of balance?
We learn the skills of self regulation primarily from those who surround us when we are young. As children, if we get frightened or hurt, for example, we look to our mothers, fathers and close people to sooth us, to help us to feel better, to bring us back into balance. Gradually we internalize these mind/body skills as our own.
Our cortex, which is our thinking brain, tends to shut down when we get scared but our emotional or limbic brain keeps operating. This means that we lose, momentarily our ability think clearly, to reflect on and make sense out of what we're feeling. The animal brain takes over and our more human, thinking brain shuts down. It's protective, nature's way of keeping us in our survival brain with no distraction. But if we're too scared, for too long, this breakdown between our thinking and feeling selves can interfere with our ability to self regulate, to use our thinking mind to organize what we're getting from our emotional mind. It is for this reason that we want to slowly expand our capacity to feel safe within ourselves, safe feeling what we are actually feeling; so that our thinking brain can stay awake and functional while were feeling. So that we can use our thinking brain to understand our feeling brain.
How We Learn Self Regulation as Kids
As children, we are entirely dependent on adults around us for our survival. Because of this, because they have such power over our well being, what goes on in those primary relationships affects us a deep level, at that survival level. Who am I? Do I please people? Am I loved, safe? Do I have a place in the world? These are the kinds of fundamental issues that are part of early life.
Much of our brain development as children occurs outside the womb. This incomplete brain development of the child makes us vulnerable and dependent for much of our childhoods on the adults that surround us. A barking dog, fireworks, or a thunderstorm can terrify a child. The child is completely dependent on their parent to act as an external regulator because their internal regulators won't be fully developed till they are around twelve or so. The child looks to the parent to learn whether or not they should be scared and how scared they may need to be. This is why the small child is so vulnerable to emotional and psychological damage when the home is chaotic. Not only is what's going on frightening them and throwing them out of balance, but, if the parent is the scary person, the child loses access to their source of comfort and regulation. They're scared and no one is telling them it's ok, cuddling them and reassuring them that life will soon return to normal or that they will not, in any case, be abandoned to manage all by themselves. It is this vulnerability that can put a child at risk if they live in a chaotic home.
An Overview of Emotional Sobriety
What are the Signs of Emotional Sobriety?
● Well developed Skills of self regulation
● Ability to regulate strong emotions
● Ability to regulate mood
● Ability to maintain a perspective on life circumstances
● Ability to regulate potentially harmful substances or behaviors
● Ability to live in the present
● Ability to regulate activity levels
● Ability to live with both social and intimate connection
● Resilience, the ability to roll with the punches
● Ability to regulate personal behavior
What are Symptoms of a Lack of Emotional Sobriety?
● Underdeveloped skills of self regulation
● Inability to regulate strong feelings such as anger, rage, anxiety, sadness
● Lack of ability to regulate mood
● Lack of ability to regulate behavior
● Not being able to put strong emotions into perspective
● Lack of ability to regulate substances or self medicating behaviors
● Inability to live in the present
● Lack of ability to regulate activity level (chronically over or under active)
● Inability to live comfortably in intimate relationships
● Lack of resilience or the ability to roll with the punches
What are the Solutions: How Can I Come Into Balance?
● Learn the skills of mind, body and emotional self regulation
● Resolve childhood wounds so they don't undermine self regulation
● Learn effective and healthy ways of self soothing and incorporate them into daily life
● Learn effective ways to manage stress
● Maintain a healthy body, get daily exercise, rest, proper nutrition
● Process emotional ups and downs as they happen, consciously shift feeling states
● Learn to use the thinking mind to regulate the feeling, limbic mind
● Develop inner resources, quiet, meditation, spiritual pursuits
● Develop outer resources, work, hobbies, social life, community
"The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety" by Bill Wilson
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.
(c) Copyright, AA Grapevine, January 1958