Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier for People Recovering from Addictions By Robb Hicks, MD

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Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier for People Recovering from Addictions By Robb Hicks, MD

Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier for People Recovering from Addictions By Robb Hicks, MD

Recovery is oftentimes misunderstood only as abstaining from addictive substances and/or activities, when in fact it is our life-long journey to restoring relationships with our inner self, God and others. In the first of the 12 steps, we admit we are powerless over our addiction(s), and acknowledge our lives have become unmanageable.1 This is all well and good, except breaking free of an addiction is not the same as getting to a good place of recovery. We must be committed to ongoing spiritual and mental awakening to rebuild the life that was saved in Stage One Recovery, as noted by Dr. Earnie Larsen, a prolific author and the writer of Stage II Recovery.2 Fellowships and relationships with others are at the core of our recovery, as we get “sick” and get well in the company of others.

The process of establishing healthy connections begins when we are able to honestly evaluate ourselves and stop seeking validation from external sources. This is the definition of ‘emotional sobriety’, considered to be the fourth legacy of Dr. Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Emotional sobriety relates to the quality and stability of our recovery. Bill believed his failures to “grow up” spiritually and emotionally were due to allowing his self-esteem to be decided by what others thought of him; in other words, his “selfesteem” was actually other esteem. When people or events did not align with Bill W.’s expectations and stipulations he would become frustrated and angry. He expounded more on these feelings in a letter he wrote to a depressed friend in 1956, later published in the January 1958 edition of The Grapevine, as an article entitled “Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier”, by noting:

“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.”3

An emotionally immature, unbalanced individual will demand the impossible of themselves, others and life itself. We become more susceptible to feelings of depression and anxiety -- and possible relapse -- when we abandon our true self for an idealized image of top approval, perfect security and faultless romance.4 The moment we allow an external source to determine if we are unbalanced or not, rather than ourselves, we are emotionally dependent.

On the other hand, an emotionally mature individual is accountable for their actions, and external sources do not determine their overall well-being. Or as renowned psychiatrist and psychotherapist Fritz Perls wrote, “Emotional maturation is the shift from environmental support to self-support”.5 We are able to stand on our own two feet, while simultaneously remaining able to recognize when it is necessary to reach out to our support system for help. Self-support is a matter of honoring what is occurring at this very moment and taking care of ourselves and resolving our issue(s). Our fears, compulsions and phony aspirations then are aligned with what we actually believe, know and want. Now let’s take a closer look at the cellular biology concept of differentiation to further explore how emotional sobriety is synonymous with developing emotional maturity.

Review of Emotional Differentiation as it Relates to Emotional Sobriety

Similarly to how cells grow in various stages throughout gestation -- from unspecialized functions to more specialized ones -- Dr. Murray Bowen, a highly-respected American psychiatrist, believed people develop in the same way. We all begin life undifferentiated, and the basic building blocks of "self" are naturally present at birth. As we evolve over the course of childhood and adolescence years, our relationships primarily determine how much "self" we develop. If we are encouraged to develop according to our true self, we differentiate into the person we were meant to be. Once established, the level of "self" rarely changes, unless a person makes a regimented and long-term commitment to change it.6

While none of us is perfectly differentiated, our level of emotional maturity relates to our level of differentiation. The more differentiated we become, the more mature we are, and we are thereby less likely to be overly-influenced by external sources. This does not mean we will not allow ourselves to be influenced. Instead, it means we have the ability to choose to be influenced, without feeling like we are losing ourselves or being controlled. Distinguished psychoanalyst Erich Fromm described this level of emotional maturation as “union with the preservation of integrity”.7

In contrast, if we do not develop along these lines, then we will have poor differentiation and a fragile sense of “self”. Emotional dependency is the result of being emotionally immature or undifferentiated. We create a false self to manage difficult situations due to a lack of coping skills to soothe ourselves. This typically manifests in one of three behaviors: Trying to control or “fix” people, places, or things; submitting to the will of others or to the nature of our circumstances; or emotionally withdrawing.8

Dependency creates demand. It is not until we purposefully assess our inner self that we begin taking responsibility and break free of blaming others.

Call to Action: Emotional Freedom is Attainable for Recovering Alcoholics and Addicts

Within the scope of emotional differentiation, we have a better understanding of how to strengthen our own defenses against relapse, as well as empowering our patients who are recovering from drug and alcohol dependencies. Addiction has profound effects on the amygdala and other parts of the brain which regulate emotions, decision-making, response inhibition, planning and memory.9 Therefore, if we are able to expand our overall intrinsic coping skill set, we can be better prepared to manage difficult situations. Environmental cues and/or painful memories can trigger a host of feelings, including depression, anger and anxiety. It then can be challenging for an emotionally immature individual to navigate through life’s most difficult moments.

Emotional sobriety is attainable for everyone; yet, it is subjective and specific to our unique needs and circumstances. Although there are many personal characteristics related to our well-being, the four qualities of resiliency, self-control, balance, and wisdom are particularly necessary to maintain emotional freedom. With direction and practice, meditation can be a helpful tool in building resiliency and self-control. It teaches us how to respond rather than react to external distractions. Balance can be achieved when we equally focus on all five areas of recovery: work, relationships, mental health, physical health and spirituality. Lastly, wisdom only can be acquired as we experience life’s toughest lessons, with God as we know him serving as our guiding force.

Bill Wilson advised us through his legacy of emotional sobriety to mirror the words of the prayer of Saint Francis (of Assisi). We are to no longer be victimized by our dependencies on others and circumstances. Instead, we offer and express love as is appropriate to each relationship in our lives, without any rules or conditions. Only then will we be truly awakened to a new life of abundant possibilities through loving our inner self, God and others.


Robb Hicks, MD, is an urgent care physician, sobriety coach and founder of Intentional Sobriety (IntentionalSobriety.com). Dr. Hicks recently released the Magic Wand Technique Training Guide (http://downloadgift.healyourcareer.com/magic-wandtechnique- training-guide/) and Video (http://downloadgift.healyourcareer.com/magic-wand-technique/). Through Intentional Sobriety, Robb helps recovering professionals stop chronically relapsing, so they stay sober forever, face life successfully, and become happy, joyous & free.


  • 1. Alcoholics Anonymous. The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Retrieved from http://www.aa.org/en_pdfs/
  • smf-121_en.pdf. Accessed on February 23, 2014
  • 2. Larsen, E. (1986). Stage II Recovery. New York: Harper Collins.
  • 3. Wison, B. (1958, January). The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety. The Alcoholics Anonymous Grapevine.
  • 4, Berger, A. (2010). Twelve smart things to do when the booze and drugs are gone. Minnesota: Hazelden.
  • 5. Berger Ph.D., A., (2013, July 31-August 4). Recovery and Social Factors. International Doctors in Alcoholics Anonymous (IDAA) Annual Meeting. Lecture conducted from Keystone, Colorado.
  • 6. The Bowen Center. Bowen Theory: Differentiation of Self. Retrieved from http://www.thebowencenter.org/pages/ conceptds.html. Accessed on February 23, 2014
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. American Psychological Association. Cognition is Central to Drug Addiction. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ monitor/jun01/cogcentral.aspx. Accessed on February 23, 2014.