What is Emotional Sobriety?

by Renee W.

My first stretch of sobriety lasted for three years and (almost) four months. 1,231 days, to be exact, and I only know that because I Googled the dates.

During those three-plus years, I stopped drinking, threw myself into AA meetings, worked with a sponsor, lost weight, got fit, left a toxic marriage, and moved into my own house.

I did all the healthy things and checked off every box, and not once drank a sip of alcohol. I worked hard in my career and spent every spare moment doing recovery activities like writing in journals, reading sobriety literature, talking to recovery buddies, attending meetings, and of course, eating healthy and exercising religiously.

By all appearances, I looked like I was doing well, and the truth is, I made great progress in my mental and emotional life. I learned skills I should have learned as a kid, like how to stop saying yes to everybody when inside, I was screaming, “NO!” And how to stop letting others influence how I felt about, well, pretty much everything.

Then, the thoughts started.

I haven’t drank for over three years.

I have been doing so well.

I’m not the same person I was over three years ago.

And the most convincing:

I probably drank because of the toxic relationship I was in. I bet I’m not really an alcoholic.

The thoughts came and went, but then stormed in like a full-blown hurricane, and soon, I obsessed over them. I did not call anyone to tell them what was going on in my head. I stopped going to meetings. I increased my exercise for stress relief.

Then, one day, on my drive home from work, I said this out loud to myself: “I am not an alcoholic. I never even gave alcohol a fair chance.”

Without another thought, I drove to the store, and just like that, a huge bottle of wine appeared in my hands. I barely made it into the house before it was open and flowing down my throat.

I will spare you all the gory details, but it didn’t end well. It took another year and a half of trying to stop drinking again, which included a detox facility and a rehabilitation centre to achieve what I have today that I didn’t have before: emotional sobriety. And, that has made all the difference.

So, what is Emotional Sobriety?

First of all, emotional sobriety is often misunderstood.

One of the common sayings in 12-step meetings, taken from AA literature, is “happy, joyous, and free.” This saying means that if you work hard to maintain your recovery, you will feel these positive emotions.

Let’s be honest: what about when this is simply not the case? What if you are doing your best to stay sober, but you find yourself feeling anxious, sad, angry, and restless? To make matters worse, you may feel as though you have to fake it. Does this mean you have no hope of gaining emotional sobriety?

what is emotional sobriety

Many people will take negative feelings they have in recovery and use prayer, meditation, and service to others to “spiritually distract” themselves.

Psychologist and author John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypass” in his book Toward a Psychology of Awakening as “using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘un-finished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks, all in the name of enlightenment.”

In other words, spiritual bypass causes us to hide ourselves, often through spirituality or religion, which in turn, suppresses our true selves and feelings to avoid emotional business that we are avoiding. Even though this process may be unconscious, it will backfire.

Emotional sobriety starts with being honest with yourself.

I discovered what I was missing, and it came gradually. It started with going through the motions. I would wake up early to read and write before I got my day going.

This realization hit me hard one morning while I was writing.  Suddenly the words, “STOP LYING TO YOURSELF” appeared on the page.

What? What was I doing wrong?

 I wasn’t authentic. I wasn’t sharing my struggles. I was holding onto past resentments and ruminating about how so-and-so hurt me and how I felt lonely and anxious more often than not.

While I was physically sober, I tended to fake my feelings. I didn’t mean to do it; in all honesty, it was the most natural thing in the world for me. I would act like all was great because I was unconsciously trying to meet expectations of others who were rooting me on in my sobriety. I didn’t want to let anyone down, and in the process, I was hurting myself deeply.

When I realized the truth, I felt a sense of complete euphoric freedom. I then wrote out, “YOU ARE FREE! LIVE LIKE IT!”

My emotional sobriety became my recovery gamechanger. Sure, I could be physically sober, but if I was still miserable, what’s the point? The difference lies in honesty, and that means with yourself first.

Emotional sobriety means healing and relearning everything you thought you knew.

Keep in mind that addiction impairs emotional development. George Joseph, a licensed chemical dependency counsellor for the Dr. Oz site says, “Emotional sobriety is a crucial part of the addict’s growth – necessary not only to stay sober but also to catch up on emotional development.”

camino recovery

Early in recovery, you may find yourself completely clueless as to who you are and what you want in life. That’s a good place to start because you can build from there. This gives you the space and freedom to unknow everything you thought you knew and start from scratch.

I had to unlearn every single thing I thought I knew about pretty much everything –from relationships, to beliefs, to values, to even what I liked to eat. I had to erase it all mentally and decide who I was and where would I go from this point forward.

The root of becoming emotionally sober is healing. It means taking care of the baggage you are holding onto. It means letting go of some things and holding on to others. It means realizing that when you walk away from something, you walk toward something else.

How to Achieve Emotional Sobriety

Emotional sobriety is a state of being, but it is linear. Once you are there, you won’t ever want to lose it, but it always takes conscious maintenance.

So, what’s the solution? Feel your feelings. Give yourself permission to deal with hard emotions and experiences you have. Negative feelings can be triggers for relapse, so being able to get these out is vital. Be authentic with others, but most of all, with yourself.

PsychCental published an article on achieving emotional sobriety that includes some great ways to get there:


Honing in on the present moment can be difficult, but it is a tool to help you focus on reality. What is going on around you? What are you feeling at this very moment? What are you thinking about? Through mindfulness, we can accept what is going on around us and within us, which allows us to be honest with ourselves.


Journaling has long been a wonderful recovery resource because of the benefits. Through writing down thoughts and feelings, we can not only experience an emotional release, but we can understand our feelings when we read back over what we have written.

Support Groups

Interacting with others in recovery lets us know we are not alone. We share the same experiences with others, and how refreshing that is to know. We benefit from hearing others share, and we feel a sense of safeness and oneness when we feel free to share.


I like this definition of emotional sobriety: Emotional sobriety can be defined as resiliency, wisdom, and balance.

I can’t just be physically sober. I must be sober in my head and heart, too. Through emotional sobriety, I will achieve the resilience to cope with any circumstance or feeling that comes my way, wisdom to intuitively know how to handle situations, and finally, the one quality that I have lacked all my life until now: balance.


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