Emotional Sobriety in Recovery

three sistersA friend passed along a link to Tom B. speaking on emotional sobriety.  I preface this post by saying that I am also a big fan of the “take what you like and leave the rest” approach of AA.  In fact, on first listen I was rather put-off by the speaker’s good old boy, old-timer name dropping, somewhat sexist approach.  But about three-quarters of the way through I stopped listening because I realized I would need to come back and listen to the entire presentation again after putting my biases on the shelf.

Tom B. defines emotional sobriety as when my feelings and beliefs about myself match the facts about me.  Emotional unsobriety is when my feelings and beliefs about myself do not match the facts about me.  Instead I always look for an outside source of approval.  This emotional unsobriety approach allows others tell me about how I should feel about me.

Tom B also talked about the lingering feeling of uneasiness and self-hatred over which some people relapse on alcohol. Although I have remained alcohol sober, I have instead relapsed with food through compulsive overeating.  For me addiction is addiction is addiction and I can practice whatever addiction to avoid dealing with life on life’s terms. Although I have been in recovery from alcoholism for over 30 years, perhaps, in some respects for me food/sugar is the primary addiction and alcohol/sugar, more of a secondary. In fact, I used refined sugar to escape years before picking up the first drink.  I well recall as a five-year old, pushing the step stool to the kitchen counter, climbing onto the counter to get to the storage canister and shoveling scoops of sugar into my mouth.

Tom B. states that self hate is a primary cause of emotional unsobriety.  He suggests that self hate comes from perfectionism instilled early on.  This point was quite revealing to me. A couple of examples come to mind that I never would have thought of in this way before. In the past I would have only remembered them as examples of unreasonable paternal or academic expectations.  First, I struggled with basic writing and mathematical skills in elementary school. My difficulty in part was not understanding the relevance in practical application and I was also acting out in all sorts of ways. I recall well in the 5th grade when we had to diagram sentences for an exam. I did not understand the process at all. But I studied very hard for the exam, in part because I liked the teacher, and in part perhaps to prove that I was not stupid. I ended up getting a 99.5% on the exam and was thrilled. My father criticized me for making the one mistake and not being good enough.

I must admit that the same “not good enough” uneasiness plagued me for years.  I was tracked into general education in high school as not having the aptitude for college.  Although ultimately earning a PhD in Anthropology, in that process, I was intimidated and resentful of being dismissed by professors in favor of students from more prestigious backgrounds. At the same time, I did not believe my 4.0 GPA or professors who were very complimentary and supportive of my work were meaningful.  I was the highest funded student in the history of my graduate cohort at two different universities, but still filled with a sense of self-loathing for my academic abilities.

I have always had a very difficult time taking compliments, but also tend to have a knee-jerk reaction against any criticism. I will say that in the past five years, I have recognized and made tremendous strides in this area.

Tom B.’s noting that having a negative image of a higher power goes along with having a negative image of myself makes complete sense. If we conceptually believe we are made in the image of God, then that negativity is obviously shared.

The solutions posed by Tom B. include:

  • surrender to my condition of powerlessness and my need to address my character defects
  • sacrifice to my higher power my needs to escape, be right, and self-centered
  • examine our behavior patterns based on false beliefs and fears that are contrary to the self observation of facts.

Tom B.’s presentation was extremely insightful to me.  He talks about a path I started to venture down for the past few years.  I found his confirmation and elaboration of that process affirming.  He argues that purity of the heart is the goal of sobriety.  For me this takes on the challenge noted in the OA 12 and 12 that “First we grasp this knowledge intellectually, and then finally we come to believe it in our hearts.  When this happens, we have taken the first step and are ready to move ahead in our program of recovery” (p.6-7).

2 thoughts on “Emotional Sobriety in Recovery

  1. Robert you are hitting me so hard between the eyes with your posts lately, it’s like we are the same person! I suppose I need to listen to Tom B.’s presentation myself, although I’m already put off by that “old timer”stuff… it drives me crazy as well! The reason I haven’t been around so much in the past 6 months or so is that I’ve been working on many of the same issues of which you write… more or less self-directed, and not in the realm of 12-step work. And yet, the answer I keep finding in my readings is the same: true self-acceptance, which sounds an awful lot like Tom’s B.’s definition of emotional sobriety.

    I will be on the edge of my seat to read what new discoveries you make next!

    • Josie, I have found over the years that just being willing is the important first step on any process. This food issue has been hanging over my head for so long, and I am finding that I am now willing to go to any lengths to get some recovery in that realm – including listening to the bleeding deacons. I will say that Tom B.’s message is one that is very on target and helpful to me. Hope your new year is starting off well.

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