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Emotional Sobriety in Addiction Recovery Dr. Allen Berger

Emotional Sobriety in Addiction Recovery
Dr. Allen Berger’s insights into learning and growing from our past
Emotional Sobriety: What is it and Why is it Important to Recovery from Addiction?
Emotional sobriety is finally taking its rightful place in addiction recovery. Reaching this stage pushes sobriety from simply abstaining from an addictive behavior to creating a lifestyle that reaches deeper emotional balance. We have been seeing more and more folks like you and me begin to discover this dimension to their recovery that they never knew existed. This is very exciting. I love it when I see that light bulb get turned on.
I’ve often referred to emotional sobriety as the missing link in achieving full addiction recovery—or what I like to call optimal recovery. It helps us reach a place in our lives where we truly feel emotionally whole. In previous writings I’ve explored various aspects of emotional sobriety like:
keeping our emotional center of gravity within, learning to hold on to ourselves without letting other people’s limited perceptions of us or our addiction define us or impact our behavior,
pressuring ourselves to change, and seeing struggle as beneficial and grief as necessary.
In this article I will explore how completing unfinished business helps us achieve emotional sobriety on top of our existing addiction recovery.
How Does Sober Suffering Keep Us from Emotional Sobriety?
So many of us struggling with alcoholism are plagued by painful past experiences from before we became sober. Regardless of what happened, we can find ourselves stuck in the past or tied to a negative feeling. This creates what Fred H., author of Drop the Rock: The Ripple Effect, coined as sober suffering. Unfinished business has a way of making us react to the present as though it were our past. Even though we are sober, this creates trouble because it interferes with our ability to cope with what is, which increases the risk of relapse. When we are stuck in the past we can’t deal well with what is going on now. We can’t achieve emotional sobriety.
It is easy to conclude that sober suffering means that something is wrong with our recovery. But this is a mistake. What will determine if something is wrong with our recovery is how we respond to what is happening. If we know how to respond to our external circumstances with productive behaviors and emotions, we can avoid becoming emotionally stunted on sobriety journey. I’ve said this many times in my writings, but it is worth repeating, “The problem is not the problem, the problem is how we cope with the problem.”
Recovery doesn’t mean we will be free of problems and intense feelings. It means that we will discover new and better ways of dealing with them instead of turning to alcohol or other drugs. We can further avoid relapse when we learn how to live life on life’s terms, rather than continue to think that life should conform to our expectations.
Achieve True Emotional Sobriety: Claim Your Experience
The good news is that regardless of what caused so much pain or emotional stress in our lives—whether it be a significant loss, physical or verbal abuse, neglect, abandonment, adult-child sexual molestation, rape, hardships related to alcoholism, or some other unspeakable traumas—we can always grow from the experience.
In order to grow from these experiences, we need to learn how to claim our experience instead of letting our experience claim us. Thom Rutledge, a brilliant author and therapist, put it this way, “Learn from the past, and then get the hell out of there!” Many of us are stuck in the past and don’t know how to get the hell out of there. For addicts and alcoholics, that can be a dangerous place to be stuck. I hope to give you a few tips on how to release the past so you can get on with living a life free from addiction here and now.
If we are going to grow as healthy, sober individuals after a traumatic experience, we need to learn how to digest the experiences and feelings we had in the past. Today there is much talk about a phenomenon that we have called Post Traumatic Growth (PTG). PTG is defined as the growth that can take place when we properly digest a traumatic experience and the emotions that accompany it.
Let’s talk about what we need to do to properly digest a trauma or any other painful or disturbing experience in order to maintain our sobriety
When We Digest Trauma to Survive and Grow, We Reach Emotional Sobriety
The biological imperative, those things we need to ensure survival, involves a process that operates outside of our awareness—subconsciously.
Let’s focus on the digestive process. When we are hungry we make contact with our environment to satisfy this need. We ingest food to satisfy our hunger.
What happens next is quite fascinating. Our body takes what was not us (food), and makes it us (this is called assimilation). It separates what is nurturing from what is not. It does this by breaking down the food so we can digest it.
We start by biting and chewing our food, which is then moved into our digestive tract to be broken down for further digestion. Our bodies are able to separate what we need from what is unnecessary to us in the food. The food then moves into our intestines where the nutrients are absorbed, and finally the leftover waste is eliminated.
It seems strange to say it this way, but it fits: We take what we need and discard the rest.
When we absorb nutrients from the food we eat it, is no longer alien to us. It becomes us, and we are indistinguishable from the nutrient that has been absorbed into our bodies. If we eat something that is toxic, our bodies will forego the entire process and eject the toxins by inducing either vomiting or diarrhea—or both.
Our psychological imperative operates along the same parameters. We digest our experiences: we chew them up, digest them, and separate psychologically what can nurture us and then eliminate the rest.
When we work toward emotional sobriety, we begin to allow ourselves to re-experience the traumas, and we can begin to digest and resolve them. We will take what can help us grow from the experience and eliminate the rest. There is no easier, softer way. To reach optimal recovery, we have to re-experience the emotional situation and the feelings associated with it. It’s worth noting, this practice isn’t just beneficial to those of us that may identify as an addict or an alcoholic – everyone can benefit from processing trauma this way. With the guidance of a professional counselor or therapist, we can resolve our past trauma and emotionally straining experiences and ultimately learn to grow from them.
In order to grow from a traumatic experience, we need to go back and relive those situations; feel those emotions. But this time, we take care of the unfinished business. We say what we didn’t dare say. We stand for ourselves as we wish we could have. If we need to, we shout, scream, cry, rage, and declare we will never forgive the person who violated us.
When an experience is really toxic, we may even need to vomit to rid of selves of the toxins. This is the process that will help us digest a traumatic experience. This is the process that will help us separate what will help us grow from what won’t. We strive to find the words that will best reflect what we needed to say but didn’t because we were frozen with fear and flooded with feelings.
The bottom line is that throughout our sobriety we need to trust ourselves—our organismic wisdom—that will move us toward resolutions and emotional sobriety. We are wired to complete unfinished business, to move toward wholeness.
We need to get out of our own way: to let go and let God. Doing this alone is not recommended. We need a guide. Many of us suffering from addiction or alcoholism can often start this process when attending rehab with a reputable treatment provider. After rehab, when we are desperately trying to avoid relapse, a good therapist can help us process our experiences and grow from them in our newly sober state.
Remember that addiction recovery is not just about sobriety, it is the discovery of new possibilities and a new identity beyond “alcoholic or addict”. This is what I try to facilitate in my clinical work and in my retreats. I hope you will join me.
The good news is that regardless of what caused so much pain in our lives prior to our sobriety—we can always grow from the experience.
Join us for an upcoming recovery retreat entitled Emotional Sobriety in Addiction Recovery, April 13-15, at the Dan Anderson Renewal Center in Center City, MN.

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