Practice These Principles
Living the Spiritual Disciplines and Virtues in 12-Step Recovery

Emotional Sobriety


Fear, anger, and resentment cause the alcoholic (and probably everyone else) the most trouble. It is for this reason that the Big Book suggests we start our 4th Step inventory by examining these emotions. 

Fear and anger are said to be primal, protective emotions. They are considered the twin sides of a fight-or-flight response built into our nervous system to ensure our physical survival. When triggered, it automatically generates a defensive reaction. Faced with an attack, we fight back to counter an injury. Faced with danger, we retreat to avoid harm.

Fear exists because danger exists. Danger is an objective fact of life. It is real. Fear alerts us to the possible existence of peril and enables us to defend ourselves against potential harm. It is a necessary internal alarm system.

Thus when AA tells us that our goal is to be free from fear, it is not suggesting that we will cease to experience fear. What it is suggesting is that we can be free from a certain kind of fear, the fear which is “an evil and corroding thread” (Big Book, p. 67) running through human existence. This is “self-centered fear,” a fear, says the 12&12 (Step 7, p. 76), which revolves primarily around loss and failure: fear of losing what we have or not being able to get what we want. 

This fear arises not just because we have and we want, but because we “possess” and “demand.” It becomes a self-centered and disabling emotion because what we have and what we want means too much to us. It is too important. We have to have it. We can’t do without it.

And so we become too dependent on it. We base our happiness on it. And because it is so valuable to us, we become too sensitive to any potential threat to it. We see risk and danger everywhere. We become prey to fear, anticipating loss and failure.

This perception of a threat to something I value is what characterizes fear. As an emotion, fear is a mental response to a situation that I construe as posing some difficulty, risk, or danger to me with regards to something I care about.

The perceived threat can be to life and limb or my physical wellbeing and security, as in its primal form. Or, more broadly, it can be to my self-worth or anything that I invest my emotional security in: a relationship, a job, wealth, status, power, or a whole host of other things through which I hope to find meaning and purpose in life. The fear is a function of the value and the perceived threat to it. The higher the value and the stronger the perception, the greater the fear.

Self-centered fear results from a distortion of value and perception as regards what I have and what I want. We take inventory of fear because, as self-centered fear, the emotion is a prime manifestation of our spiritual disease.

It is, we are told, the "chief activator" (12&12, Step 7, p. 76) of our character defects. We want what we want and we want it so badly that we are blinded to what we do to get it or keep it and the resulting collateral damage. We cheat, lie, steal, and otherwise do ill. Then we fear the consequences. It becomes a vicious cycle. Fear drives us to do wrong and doing wrong drives us to fear.

As we work the Steps and grow in our recovery, we are promised that “fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us (Big Book, p. 84).” Not because the risks involved in relationships or in the facts of economic life will cease to exist. Those things may not necessarily change. But we will. And central to that change is that we will see people and money differently; they will take on a different meaning for us.

As we grow spiritually, we come to see everything that we have and everything we may get in entirely different terms. As blessings. We value them as the gifts of a loving and gracious God. The giver becomes more important than the gifts. We depend on him for our own value, not on them.

We are no longer fearful of not getting what we want, for we trust we will be given what we need. We are not fearful of losing what we are given but grateful for having received it. And when we lose it, as we will—for we will lose each and everything that we have—we will be grateful for the time that we had it.

Other spiritual principles will help us to become progressively free from fear. But they all work with gratitude, grounded in faith and humility.

[Image: Archie T., who started AA in Detroit, according to the introduction to his story in the Big Book, “The Man Who Mastered Fear.” To hear his story, please click on its title. For questions and answers about it, please see Big Book Q&A, Personal Stories, p. 246. To hear Archie talk, please see in AA History and Big Book Authors “Archie T. ‘The Man Who Mastered Fear,’ Speaking in 1948.”]

“As faith grows, so does inner security. The vast underlying fear of nothingness commences to subside. We of A.A. find that our basic antidote for fear is a spiritual awakening.” – As Bill Sees It

“As we felt new power flow in, as we enjoyed peace of mind, as we discovered we could face life successfully, as we became conscious of His presence, we began to lose our fear of today, tomorrow or the hereafter.” – Big Book


“The chief activator of our defects has been self-centered fear—primarily fear that we would lose something we already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded.” – 12&12


“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” – Psalm 23:4

“Perfect love casteth out fear.” – 1 John 4:18 


“If you look into your own heart and you find nothing wrong there, what is there to worry about? What is there to fear?” – Confucius


“That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot prevent. But that they build a nest in your hair, this you can prevent.” – Chinese proverb 


“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” – Plato

“There are times when fear is good. It must keep its watchful place at the heart's controls.” – Aeschylus

“He who has overcome his fears will truly be free.” – Aristotle 

“He whom many fear, has himself many to fear.” – Publilius Syrus

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” – Marcus Aurelius

“We are more often frightened than hurt, and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” – Seneca


“Fear is not a lasting teacher of duty.” – Cicero

“Grief has limits, whereas apprehension has none. For we grieve only for what we know has happened, but we fear all that possibly may take place.” – Pliny the Elder [edited]


“Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.” – Thomas Aquinas 


“We fear nothing save to lose what we love and possess, or to not obtain that which we hope for.” – St. Augustine 

“Things done well and with a care, exempt themselves from fear.”
– Shakespeare

“’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved.” – John Newton, Amazing Grace

“Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.”
– St. Francis of Assisi

“No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” – Edmund Burke

“Fear is implanted in us as a preservative from evil; but its duty, like that of other passions, is not to overbear reason, but to assist it. It should not be suffered to tyrannize it.” – Samuel Johnson

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” – Alexander Pope


“Have no fear of robbers or murderers. They are external dangers, petty dangers. We should fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices the real murderers. The great dangers are within us.” – Victor Hugo


“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” – Marie Curie


“He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.” – Michel de Montaigne

“Don't waste life in doubts and fears; spend yourself on the work before you, well assured that the right performance of this hour's duties will be the best preparation for the hours and ages that will follow it.” – Emerson

“Good men have the fewest fears. He has but one great fear who fears to do wrong; he has a thousand fears who has overcome that fear.” – Christian Nestell Bovee  [edited]

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” – Elbert Hubbard 

“You are only afraid if you are not in harmony with yourself. People are afraid because they have never owned up to themselves.” – Hermann Hesse

“Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.” – Max Ehrmann


"And I will show you something different from either/ your shadow at morning striding behind you/ or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;/ I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” – T.S. Eliot

“Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear. But so do several other things—ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity. It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out fear.” –
C. S. Lewis

“The man who fears losing has already lost.” – George R. R. Martin

“Many people suffer from the fear of finding themselves alone, and so they don't find themselves at all.” – Rollo May [edited]


“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.” – Thomas Merton


“Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. And lo, no one was there.”
– Unknown 

“There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.”
– André Gide


“Fear is an emotion indispensable for survival.” – Hannah Arendt


“The deepest fear we have, 'the fear beneath all fears,' is the fear of not measuring up, the fear of judgment. It's this fear that creates the stress and depression of everyday life.” – Tullian Tchividjian


“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H. P. Lovecraft

“Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.” – Anonymous

“The truth is that there is no terror untempered by some great moral idea.”
– Jean-Luc Godard 


“If fear is the great enemy of intimacy, love is its true friend.” – Henri Nouwen


“You can’t stop being afraid just by pretending everything that scares you isn’t there.” – Michael Marshall 


"Am I afraid of high notes? Of course I am afraid. What sane man is not?"
– Luciano Pavarotti 

“Don't let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use.” – Earl Nightingale


“Once we have read [a neuroscientist’s] book, we may infer that our amygdala is active when we feel strong anxiety or fear. But nobody feels his amygdala being active. Instead, he feels afraid.” – Robert C. Roberts 


“Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” – Unknown

“Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles; it takes away today’s peace.” – Anonymous 

“Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.” – German Proverb

“When I am trapped in thoughts about what I want and what should be coming to me, I am in a state of fear or anxious anticipation and this is not conducive to emotional sobriety. I must surrender—over and over—to the reality of my dependence on God, for then I find peace, gratitude, and spiritual security.”
– AA’s Daily Reflections


“Calm comes after a storm. As soon as I am rid of fears and hates and selfishness, God’s love and peace and calm can come in.” – Twenty-Four Hours a Day


“Am I fearful, picturing with dread what the future will bring? I will Let Go and Let God, and live only for this one day.” – One Day at a Time in Al-Anon

“Worry and fear can alter our perceptions until we lose sense of reality, twisting neutral situations into nightmares. Because most worry focuses on the future, if we can learn to stay in the present, living one day or one moment at a time, we take positive steps toward warding off the effects of fear.” – Al-Anon’s Courage to Change

“The more we allow changes to happen at the direction of our Higher Power, the more we’ll trust that those changes are for the best. Faith will replace fear, and we’ll know in our hearts that all will be well.” – Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts

“Faith and trust in a loving God who cares for our well-being will help us let go of fear and gain in courage.” – PTP123        

“There is healthy fear and unhealthy fear. One prevents harm, the other causes it.” PTP4, p. 159

For shareable images for this post, please click on link.

For more PTP123 passages on fear, see, among others, pp. 29-35. For PTP4 passages, see Chapter 9: Fear and Anxiety, pp. 147–174. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on and search under fear and its cognates. See also entries under fear in As Bill Sees It.

Additional Resources

  1. Two stories in the Personal Stories section of the Big Book: “The Man Who Mastered Fear” (Archie T., in Pioneers of A.A.), and "Freedom from Bondage" (Wynn C., in They Lost Nearly All)
  2. In The Language of the Heart: Bill W.'s Grapevine Writings: “This Matter of Fear,” (pp. 265-269) and “The Antidote for Fear: Prudence, Trust, and Faith” (pp. 342-345)

  3. Meditations for 05/15, 06/15, 11/10, and 12/12 in Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts
  4. “Courage,” chapter by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, in Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett, editors
  5. “Acting Rightly in the Face of Danger,” chapter in How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad: Living a Life of Christian Virtue, by James S. Spiegel
  6. “The Virtue of Fortitude and the Unity of the Virtues,” chapter in Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues, by William C. Mattison III

For more posts on Emotional Sobriety, please click on link.