The Riddle of Emotional Sobriety

What is emotional sobriety anyway?

It depends on whom one asks.  Definitions abound.  When I asked, interviewees offered sundry descriptions, revealing much about their ideals, goals, and values.  Specifically, they laid bare degrees of perfectionism they suffer from and measures of spirituality and psychology they integrate into their personal recoveries.  Conversely, there was consistency in descriptions of what emotional sobriety does not look like.  This isn’t surprising- everyone in recovery has abundant experience with emotional instability, it’s part of qualifying for a twelve-step program.  Unfortunately, many have more theoretical than actual experience with emotional maturity, even in long-term sobriety.

Disagreement about terms and concepts in recovery communities is hardly uncommon. Heck, twelve steppers can’t even agree on what sobriety means.  Some insist on denotations from 1938-9, when AA’s ‘Big Book’ was penned, while others state that sober simply refers to abstinence from alcohol or their ‘drug of choice’.  Still others describe sobriety in ways where mental and spiritual fitness are intrinsic to the unmodified word.

Emotional sobriety entered the AA lexicon in 1958, when co-founder Bill Wilson wrote a piece for AA’s Grapevine magazine titled “The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety.”  He described the concept generally as “(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.”[1]  In summary, Wilson stated that he believed his years of sober clinical depression were caused by an “…almost absolute dependence on people and circumstances to supply me prestige, security, and the like”.[2]

To Bill Wilson, emotional sobriety was a state produced by exertion to eliminate unhealthy dependencies through dependence on God and helping others.  This definition minimizes the entire ‘emotional’ half of the term by following the AA trope that emotions must be controlled by actions and attitudes.  I found this predictable, as feelings mostly get a bad rap in AA, where banalities like “feelings are not facts” abound.  In AA meetings, members share liberally about thoughts and actions, while discussion of emotions is viewed as somewhat off-message, dismissed as psyche jargon.  Most descriptions of emotional sobriety I heard from AAs focused almost entirely on behavior and thoughts.

The concept means something slightly different to a growing minority in AA. In her article What Is Emotional Sobriety, Ingrid Mathieu suggests that tolerating bad feelings is more mature than trying to make them go away through prayer and service.  Refuting the notion that quality sobriety is characterized by a perpetually “happy, joyous, and free” experience, she rather suggests that “…emotional sobriety is less about the quality of … feeling (“good” or “bad”) and more about the general ability to feel one’s feelings.”[3]  She states that praying, meditating, and servicing to distract from bad feelings are often acts of avoidance rather than acceptance.  In this view, these erstwhile life-saving habits can be exercises in denial and repression.  John Welwood calls this practice spiritual bypass, which he defines as the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”[4]

Personally, I have much experience with spiritual bypass. I retreat to it from time to time when I don’t wish to deal with negative emotions.  It’s now an occasional technique I use to tread water and do ‘damage control’ until I become willing to fully experience difficult moments and grow.  Spiritual bypass was my go-to tool in my middle years of recovery.  It was my hammer and all things were nails.  A bout of depression arrived and stayed.  Such episodes had visited in early sobriety, but they were mitigated by dedication to fundamental AA suggestions.  Come year five, these practices ceased making me “happily and usefully whole.”  I stayed dry and miserable.  The clouds would not break, no matter how rigorously I worked AA’s Steps.  It seemed the harder I tried, the worse I became. I was heartbroken.

There was not a causal relation between my depression and unhealthy dependencies or lack of prayer and service.  Dependencies were addressed in my daily inventories and improvements were made toward their resolution.  Prayer and service were frequent and sincere.  Nonetheless, the condition persisted.  It became abundantly clear- I needed to try something new.  My path was not going to be one where sustained freedom from ‘crippling depression’ would come solely through the same actions that Bill Wilson described.  I had to seek what many AAs call ‘outside help’.

I found that counseling and medication in conjunction with AA was the pathway for me to move forward.  I’m an alcoholic of ‘the depressive variety’, what AA’s ‘Big Book’ describes as a “what’s the use anyhow” drinker.  My depression preceded drinking. It followed it, too.  For a time, alcohol anesthetized this.  In early sobriety, working AA’s Twelve Steps alone seemed to expel it.  Until they didn’t.

Today, treating depression must be a part of my recovery. The wisdom to distinguish self-obsession from depression comes largely through therapy.  I’m comfortable with myself only when I no longer frame persistent negative feelings as ‘ingratitude’ and ‘self-pity’.  Praying and servicing away unpleasant emotions is not always the most mature and effective tact for me.  I’ve discovered that the flawed belief that I must be doing something wrong or have a lousy program whenever I’m sad causes me more pain than sadness itself ever did.  A mature acceptance of myself in each moment is critical if I wish to learn what emotions are teaching me.  Simply banishing them via spiritual bypass stunts my growth.  I don’t find much utility today in Wilson’s description of how he overcame clinical depression, or his broad-brushed description of its causes.

Why did I discuss myself here?  Because emotional sobriety is a deeply personal matter.  It’s a subjective concept, a matter of opinion and not fact.  Inquiring and reading didn’t produce what I consider a one-size-fits-all definition of the term.  It did motivate self-reflection.  The process of cobbling this piece together was instructive.  Asking others what this term means to them and really getting under the hood showed me a great deal about who I am, and what my own ideals, values, and goals are.  How I integrate the spiritual and psychological was illuminated, and the lines I wish to grow along were refined and reinforced.



[1] Wilson, B. (1958, January).  The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety.  Retrieved from

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mathieu, I. (2011, July 21).  What Is Emotional Sobriety? Retrieved from

[4] Castle Craig Blog. (2017, July 26). The Problem of Spiritual Bypassing When Spirituality is Part of Your Recovery. Retrieved from