Emotional Sobriety

Throughout my life I used food, alcohol, drugs, relationships, sex, work, and achievements to fill up a gaping hole inside which never seemed satisfied. I had an insatiable need for recognition from people. I viewed everything through a prism of me, self-obsession to the nth degree.

This microscope on my faults and merits came into recovery with me, along with an almost absolute reliance on other people to give me my sense of self-worth. In my search for validation I jump from one source of recognition to another depending on which is most likely to give me the strongest feeling of personal well-being at that moment. As a result, I find I focus obsessively on either work, family or program to the detriment of the other two and have never been able to get a sound balance among the three.

Nowhere has my dependency and the harm it has caused been more apparent than in my relationship with the mother of my youngest child. Soon after his birth the relationship deteriorated badly, and ten years ago in my mind it was effectively over. My sponsor, however, encouraged me to remain committed to the relationship, even if we never got back together. I thought this was crazy, but decided I’d give it a go one day at a time. Thank God I did, as it forced me to examine the question of emotional sobriety. I have come to believe this is vital to true victory over lust and to happy sobriety.

The term emotional sobriety was coined by Bill W., founder of AA, in a letter he wrote in 1956 to another oldtimer (published in the AA Grapevine in 1958 under the title “The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety”). Then twenty years sober, Bill W. found himself again sinking into depression. In seeking to find a solution, he came to understand that he was plagued by ‘almost absolute dependencies’ on people and circumstances to give him his sense of prestige and self-worth. He realized he should have been getting these from his relationship with his Higher Power.

In his letter, Bill says that many AA oldsters who have worked the 12-step program successfully, are bemused when peace and joy still eludes them. This he says derives from unhealthy dependencies and underlying unhealthy demands, demands to control others to obtain the “… prestige, security, and the like” we crave. Bill knew the solution was in the 11th Step prayer used as a guide for meditation in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. At the heart of the prayer it says, “My Creator … grant that I might seek rather to comfort than to be comforted, to understand than to be understood, and to love than to be loved….” Bill couldn’t seem to get it. Finally, he realized he could never fully receive God’s love until he was able to give unconditional love to others which he saw as necessary to be able to free himself from his crippling dependencies and unhealthy demands for external validation. No small order.

I was desperate to find a solution to seeking external validation. Bill’s letter came to my attention ten years ago. However, I couldn’t comprehend what he meant by ‘absolute dependencies’ and unhealthy demands. Then I heard an AA recording on emotional sobriety. The speaker told how at 26 years of sobriety he was in his worst period and just wanted to die. In this state, he came across Bill’s letter and started to apply it to his own life. In doing so he discerned that his lack of emotional sobriety meant he was pushing away the people he most wanted to keep close. As I listened to him I identified my own, almost absolute, dependency on others for my sense of self-worth.

Praying for freedom from my primary dependency and my demand that any woman in my life give me unconditional recognition was what I needed to do. When I did pray I felt a weight lifting. Then I understood that the 11th Step prayer was indeed a prayer for freedom from the crushing need for external validation. Going forward, I began to wean myself off my insatiable dependency. Living alone and being single had never been part of my recovery plan. I thought a year or two of good Step work would free me of my defects, and our relationship would be healed and hunky dory. That plan was devised more than a dozen years ago and I’m still single. Thank God, the woman I was trying to convince that I was a good bet never relented in refusing to play the role I had assigned her. The result was a painfully slow and immensely valuable process of growth.

First, I found I had to surrender my expectations (also known as premeditated resentments) that a renewed relationship could be secured by only working the Steps. Later I realized I would need to surrender even the hope that the relationship would work out. That hope I could see was a form of demand I myself place on my happiness. I basically play God again by saying I can’t be happy, joyous and free unless I get to have the relationship. My sense of need for a relationship was another form of precondition on my happiness I had to relinquish.

I would also have to give up even the desire for a relationship if I was to be able to fully accept the fact that God may not have it in his plan for me to have one or to have it with the woman I would choose. Scary. When I did so it freed up a whole load of anxiety. There is still that part of me which is prone to fantasizing about the perfect relationship. The amount of emotional sobriety I have attained helps me put things in perspective. Bill defined emotional sobriety as “… real maturity and balance (which is to say, humility) in our relations with ourselves, with our fellows, and with God.” I have come to understand that emotional sobriety is the byproduct of acceptance of others as they are, of the world as it is, and of myself as I am. This has been described as the path to God consciousness, which is the source of true self-validation.

Today I am underemployed, doing up an old house in a small country town, with only a bike for transport. Although fourteen kilometers from the nearest 12 Step meeting and an hour and a half by bus to the nearest SA meeting, I have never been more at peace and free from fear. In fact, most days I am very content and joyful. I have more visitors than I ever had in any urban metropolis. I get to do loads of individual service work and have the pleasure of studying the AA Big Book.

Today I feel totally protected by my Higher Power who loves me just as I am and asks no more than I be the best me I can be today. I like to say I am a condemned man, condemned to be happy, joyous and free, so long as I stay close to my Higher Power trying to do his work well. For me this means working the Steps, attending meetings, doing service and trying, however poorly, to apply these principles in all my affairs. That is my insurance policy. The funds, relationship and pension, if it is to come, I’ll leave to God. He’s been doing quite well up to now and there’s no point rushing my Higher Power because like me he does everything at the last moment.

For those who would like to receive more information on emotional sobriety please feel free to contact me at brendanessay@gmail.com

Brendan T., Ireland

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