What is emotional sobriety? Some might think that it means being “happy, joyous, and free,” a common adage in 12-Step meetings, taken from AA literature. Of course, people like this definition. It means that if they work a good program, they will achieve physical sobriety (abstinence) and become happy in the process.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but this definition puts a lot of recovering people in a tough spot. For example, what does it say about a person’s emotional sobriety if they are having a hard time? What if they are afraid, anxious, sad, angry, confused … the list can go on and on. Does this mean that they aren’t emotionally sober?
I believe that emotional sobriety is less about the quality of the feeling (“good” or “bad”) and more about the general ability to feel one’s feelings. Being restored to sanity isn’t about getting the brass ring—or cash and prizes—or being “happy, joyous, and free” all the time, but it is about being in the present moment, whatever it happens to look like. What are you experiencing right now? And how about now? Can you be present to all of your feelings without any one of them defining you?
Sometimes emotional sobriety is about tolerating what you are feeling. It is about staying sober no matter what you are feeling. It means that you don’t have to blame yourself or your program because life can be challenging. It means that you don’t necessarily need to do something to make the feeling go away. Many people will take their bad feeling and try to pray it, meditate it, service it, spiritually distract themselves from it, thinking that this means they are working a good program. This experience is actually called spiritual bypass.
John Welwood coined the term spiritual bypass and defined it as “using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘un-finished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks, all in the name of enlightenment.” The shorthand for spiritual bypass is when a person wears a mask or presents a false spiritual self that represses aspects of that person’s true self. Spiritual bypass involves bolstering our defenses rather than our humility. Bypass involves grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting.
I am forever interested in how mind, body, and spirit interact for people in recovery and how the “ism” (alcoholism) is always trying to steal the show. “Ism” doesn’t want you to acknowledge that you are scared, ashamed, lost, or angry. And let’s face it, some people in recovery don’t want you to acknowledge that either. Because then they would have to look at that stuff (and feel it), and they just might not be ready. So spiritual bypass becomes a tool for working a spiritual program that is really in service of controlling obstacles and outcomes. It provides the illusion that the addict can still manage their feelings even though they aren’t using their drug of choice.
In my own spiritual journey, I have experienced spiritual bypass many times. As a defense mechanism, we are all susceptible to this unconscious drive to protect ourselves from our painful realities. And using spirituality as a defense certainly looks a lot better than using drugs or alcohol. But it is a defense mechanism nonetheless and most people in recovery want the ability to access all of their feelings, because being present to what is real is what enables choices, and choices propel people towards their most authentic and fulfilling sober life.
I have spent a great deal of time studying and researching the experience of spiritual bypass in 12-Step recovery. I’ve written a book called Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice that goes into great depth on this topic. Every person in recovery who I have interviewed or worked with in my psychotherapy practice has gained tremendous insight by looking at their own experiences of spiritual bypass and I hope that you will gain similar results. If nothing else, give yourself permission to feel all of your feelings. Know that we don’t have the sort of surgical precision to only feel the feelings that we enjoy. Happiness might be sitting right next to regret, joy might be right next to overwhelmed. That is just the human condition. And experiencing all of our feelings is true emotional sobriety.
Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice.