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Why Emotional Sobriety Takes Longer to Achieve than Physical Sobriety


January 17, 2018

If your addiction recovery includes participation in a 12-step program, then you have undoubtedly encountered the concept of “first things first,” or, putting it plainly, “don’t drink.”

When recovery is new, addicts are advised not to analyze the “whys” or the big questions surrounding their addiction and recovery. In the early days, you do what works and take it one day at a time.

This approach can “work” on a long-term basis in that you can keep yourself from using indefinitely through distraction. However, addiction recovery includes emotional recovery as well as physical recovery, and to attain emotional recovery, you must do more than refrain from using. It is more work, but worth it many times over.

Physical vs. Emotional Sobriety

Physical sobriety is the actual “not drinking” (or not using) that you practice every day. It is mandatory, but not sufficient for full emotional addiction recovery. There is no discounting how momentous an achievement physical sobriety can be. It can take strength you never knew you had. But you deserve more than the rewards you get from plain abstinence.

Emotional sobriety fortifies you against relapse, but it also strengthens you to handle other areas of your life with more wisdom, compassion, and grace. It requires greater resiliency and the development of balance in life. A person can maintain sobriety by throwing themselves into work, or a hobby, or sport, but that does not make for a balanced life with richness and multiple dimensions, including good physical and mental health and strong relationships.

Learning to Engage with Unpleasant Emotions Necessary

People naturally shrink from traumatic situations as emotional self-protection. Emotional sobriety allows you to learn the difference between the truly traumatic situations from which it is necessary to protect yourself and the merely challenging situations that you can learn to engage with and overcome.

Addiction recovery

Emotional sobriety not only aids long-term addiction recovery, it equips you to better handle the stresses of everyday life.

If you have limited yourself to physical sobriety, you tend to go into self-protective mode even in situations you are capable of handling (or could be capable of handling with a reasonable amount of personal growth). Do not sell yourself short by thinking physical sobriety is enough. If you have done the hard work of physical sobriety, you deserve the additional strength and rewards of pursuing emotional sobriety as well.

Addiction Recovery Path Neither Linear Nor Straight

The path to recovery is not linear, in the sense of getting incrementally better every single day. There may be days where you stay sober, but it is really hard. That does not mean you are not making progress. Progress is often spiral, meaning you will have to revisit people, situations, and emotions that are difficult for you. When you fully commit yourself to emotional sobriety, the spiral goes upward, and over time you develop the skills to cope better with the difficulties life will inevitably present.

Peace in Acceptance of Imperfection

One of the toughest things about long-term emotional sobriety is that there will be days when you are simply not feeling it. On those days, you may rely on your physical sobriety skills of distracting yourself so as not to drink. That is okay, though. Emotional sobriety is a process, and some days you will make real progress and some days you may feel as if you are treading water.

Emotional sobriety as part of addiction recovery is a way of accepting that the path is not straight, but if you pursue it with commitment and self-compassion, you will always return back to your true self and will be able to seize opportunities to redefine challenges and overcome them.

Addiction recovery can be messy and imperfect, but so is any other major life challenge that is worth overcoming. As essential as physical sobriety is to full addiction recovery, it is not sufficient for recovering emotionally. Emotional addiction recovery is full, beautiful, and rewarding. Not every day will be great, but every day will be worth the work you have put in. If you want to talk about addiction recovery, we are here, and we invite you to contact us at any time.

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