How do you master your emotions in long term sobriety, and what does it really mean to have emotional stability in your life? Why make this a priority at all?
It is said that before an alcoholic relapses physically and lifts the drink up to their lips, they must first relapse spiritually. I absolutely believe that this is true, but to take it a step further, I also believe that such a person has relapsed emotionally as well before they actually take that first drink.
Which is another way of saying that the struggling alcoholic or drug addict becomes so emotionally upset or overwhelmed that they no longer really care about anything, including their life in recovery. They are incredibly upset and emotionally overwhelmed.
One of the reasons that I noticed this happening when I was in early recovery myself was when I was observing my peers. Many of my peers in early recovery were finding themselves getting into new and romantic relationships during those first few months (or even weeks!) of their sobriety.
This always ended in disaster. Every single time. And the reason that it ended badly was because my peers in recovery believed that they could brush off their emotions if things went badly, that they would somehow be immune to the emotional fallout of a breakup. And then when it inevitably happened they could not handle the emotions and they ended up relapsing as a result.
Now if this just happened in one or two cases I may not have noticed. But honestly it happened every single time, in every single case. I know that statistically this was probably weird, that every single relationship that I observed ended up failing and ending in relapse, but it made a huge impression on me. If you lose control of your emotions then you lose control of your recovery.
Now at the time I was introduced to a therapist in treatment who taught us a great deal about our emotions and our feelings. Here is the practical takeaway from what she was essentially teaching: In recovery, there are going to be times when you get very upset with another human being, and those emotional flare ups have the potential to make you relapse.
Here is how she suggested that we deal with it. One, you must give yourself space to cool off. Run away and go call your sponsor, go to an AA meeting, just chill out and give yourself time to process without making a stupid mistake. That is step one.
The next part is to process the emotion and figure out what is underneath your anger. You are upset with another human being, but what is really going on underneath your anger? Is it that they hurt you somehow? Are you afraid of something? It is likely one of those two things: Hurt or fear. You must unpack the emotion and figure out what is driving the anger.
Then, and only then, do you go back to the person who upset you and you talk with them calmly and you let them know what was underneath your anger. That’s it. Just communicate that underlying emotion to them. If you do this calmly and honestly then it will set you free and the incident will no longer have the ability to drive you to relapse.
This is really difficult to do, and it takes some practice. For one thing, some people do not even realize when they are angry or upset. They have to increase their awareness to the point that they can even identify when they are getting angry.
Two, you may need some help in order to unpack your emotions correctly and identify what is really driving the anger. Often times, someone will say something like “I am angry because that person is an idiot and I can’t stand them.” No, that is not what is driving your anger. There is something underneath that, they either hurt you or scared you in some way, and you may have to dig in order to discover the truth. And you may need a therapist or a counselor who can help you to identify this.
And then three, going and being honest with someone about how you were hurt or scared is not easy. Period. You are essentially telling them how you are vulnerable. No one wants to do this. But it is the path to freedom in most cases.
Now I would recommend a couple of things to go along with this idea of “unpacking” your anger and then communicating it.
One is this: Get yourself into therapy or counseling if you are struggling with your feelings or emotions. This is not a sign of weakness. If you are willing to work with a therapist in order to learn more self control then this is a sign of strength. You stand to become much stronger if you are willing to go talk about this kind of thing.
Two, I would strongly urge you to start some sort of physical exercise. That probably seems like it is unrelated and out of left field, but honestly, this has been one of the biggest things in terms of helping myself and my emotional balance. Check with your doctor first of course, but if you can figure out a way to get into shape and do some intense workouts on a regular basis then your emotional state will be far smoother than if you are completely out of shape.
Why? I think that when you engage in a vigorous workout that you definitely smooth out whatever drama or trauma you may be going through in your life at the time. Think of a time when you pushed yourself physically with a really hard workout–you were huffing and puffing and the world was spinning and you were on a “runner’s high.” You have the option of achieving that intensity at any given time, and when you do, the physical sensation of an intense workout can overpower the emotional state in your body. It is like a volume knob of sorts–when you turn “up” the volume with physical exercise, you are also drowning out any emotional distress that may be inside of your body at the time. The physical sensations overpower the negative emotions. The feelings are still there, but they become muted, less important.
Now another suggestion that I would have for you is that you start meditating. There are many different ways to go about this, but I would recommend that you try sitting with your eyes close, simply breathing and visualizing your breath going in and out, for roughly 20 minutes each day. Do not do this while you are tired, as that is not the point. The point is to simple exist, to give your mind a rest, to watch the breath and to be still. If you practice this every day then you will notice some things in regards to your feelings.
One, you will notice that you are not your emotions. You will see that the “you” that is in there is not your anger, it is not your fear. This is important for some people to realize because they may be defined by their emotions at times.
Second, you will be able to better unpack your emotional state and figure out where the feelings are coming from if you meditate regularly. You will be more in tune with what is really going on inside.
Hopefully you can use some of these ideas to master your own emotions, because this is often the very thing that can drive a relapse. Good luck to you on your journey!