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Remaining Emotionally Sober When Life Becomes Difficult

It’s estimated that 30 million Americans beginning at age 12 are addicted to a vice that helps them silence or avoid specific feelings. Drugs, alcohol, screen time, gambling, food, and porn all help numb feelings they don’t know how to cope with. It’s also estimated that less than 15 percent get help from mental health professionals. Whether you’re overcoming a bad habit or an addiction, the physical sobriety is often easier than the emotional one.

“Emotional sobriety” is getting in touch with your emotions whether positive or negative and allowing yourself to feel them. Emotional sobriety is important because the world is changing faster than we can keep up with. Unless we learn healthy ways of coping with discomfort, we will continue to withdraw or evade; this aggravates relationship problems and creates an atmosphere of chaos in families. If parents can’t cope when life gets tough without turning to a substance, kids grow up fearing what they feel. When they have feelings of anger, hostility, or depression, they keep them silent or turn to a vice to “fix” themselves. The only way to heal a feeling is to feel safe enough to talk about it, process why it scares you or upsets you, and then learn to cope with it. Teaching children and couples how to cope with difficult feelings helps them become more resilient and confident. You can’t shelter yourself or kids from the difficult times by ignoring or denying they happen.

The first step to becoming emotionally sober is to be honest with yourself. Do you get angry easily? Do you shut down, turn to a vice, or stay in a pity party when things don’t go as planned? Do you blame others and lash out at them when you feel hurt? It’s hard to admit when you aren’t dealing with your feelings well. However, until you get comfortable with life’s ups and downs and take responsibility for your choices, you’ll always need a “fix” to make you feel better. These suggestions can help you practice emotional sobriety:

  • Get to know yourself. The more we try to be someone we aren’t, the more lying, denial, and blame we use. Begin by writing letters to yourself or journaling about what you like and dislike about yourself. Keep these to yourself; it is the beginning of getting to know yourself better. You can record video of yourself, too, if writing is not your thing.

  • Practice self-regulation. Self-regulation is something emotionally mature people do without thinking about it. When they have a negative feeling, they pause and dissect the thought before turning to negative self-talk. They process it logically, asking themselves:

  • What is the likelihood of this happening

  • Do I actually have evidence that supports my thinking?

  • What do I really know about this situation?

  • Stay in the present and practice balance. Thoughts about the future stir up anxiety and discomfort. Keeping your mind on the present moment adds a sense of control to what you’re feeling. It also makes you more engaged with the people you work, live, or share a relationship with.

  • Learn to take responsibility for your choices. To maintain emotional sobriety, you must be aware of your choices and the consequences. You may have come from a chaotic family, but if you shout something rude to a cashier who isn’t paying attention to you, that isn’t your family’s fault. It’s you who can’t manage your anger. Blaming someone else or giving excuses about why you must smoke, eat, or gamble are examples of not taking responsibility. You have to make different choices every day to stop the cycle.

  • Therapy and support groups help you stay on track and break through temptations. Just as you go to school to learn concepts and theories, it’s important to go to therapy and support groups to continue practicing emotional sobriety. Therapy can help guide you through your feelings and addictions, and it’s a great way to learn more about yourself and how you relate to others.

The ability to be transparent and honest about who you are is the key to healthy relationships. It is the awareness that you are not “half a person” that needs another person or substance to make you whole. You are enough. Bad things happen; learning to acknowledge the difficult feelings they bring is what it means to be human. We’re fragile, vulnerable, and incredibly strong. Find the freedom to feel everything and the wisdom to let go of what you don’t need. –Mary Jo Rapini


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