When Bill W. coined the term emotional sobriety and made it the ultimate goal of recovery in Step 12, he finally gave voice to an idea that until then had only been latent in the Big Book and the 12&12. Sobriety was more than not drinking, those books had intimated all along. But they hadn’t articulated what that was. Now it had been given a name. Recognizing that it stood for an aspiration more than a reality, Bill later called it "the next frontier.”
As we argue in PTP, it remains that: the next frontier. The expression never caught on in the rooms, where it is seldom used. The reason is simple. Nobody knows what it means. It was never explained. The idea was never developed.
The conceptual vacuum has been filled by the addiction and self-help industry, which has used emotional sobriety as a promotional label under which to recycle the usual platitudes of pop psychology and New-Age spirituality, grafting them to so-called “12-Step strategies,” a big rhetorical basket into which adherents can throw whatever interpretation of the Steps accords with their a priori philosophical and religious commitments. Thus attending AA meetings is billed as a way to develop a “support network,” gratitude is to be practiced by giving thanks to the “Universe” or to our “pre-frontal cortex,” and meditation is reduced to a technique that directs conscious attention to one’s breathing or a body part, instead of to contact with God, as Step 11 suggests we do, its stated purpose being to seek knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry it out. Along the same lines, emotional sobriety is trivialized and repackaged as “emotional management,” variously defined as the ability to “regulate,” “control,” "own," "cope with," “and “embrace” our emotions.
Whatever merit one may find in such ideas, they have little if anything to do with the 12-Step program described in the Big Book and the 12&12. That’s where we have to look if we are going to gain an understanding of emotional sobriety that’s grounded in the Steps and the principles they embody and is thus truly representative of AA.
Since as we have noted the concept is not explained in either book, the only way we can do that is by inferring what is implicit about it in them. And we can only do that if we adhere to a close and faithful reading of those texts. That’s what we do in Practice These Principles, especially in chapter 2 of PTP123 and chapter 7 of PTP4, where the subject is systematically discussed and ample illustrations are provided. We refer the reader to those chapters for a full understanding of the concept.
Here we can only provide a synopsis. We start by inquiring into the understanding of emotions found in the Big Book and the 12&12. This is logically necessary since, whatever their view of emotional sobriety, it must of necessity follow from their view of emotions. Since this is not made explicit either, we have to infer it as well.
The Nature of Emotions
The subject is first seriously broached in Step 4 of the Big Book and expanded upon later in the 12&12:
- In the Big Book, we are called upon to make a moral inventory of ourselves, of “the flaws in our make-up which caused our failure” (p. 64). In the sample inventory provided, these flaws revolve around the emotions of anger, resentment, and fear. This implies three things: first, that some emotions are central to the moral life; second, that they can become defective; and third, that they are subject to moral appraisal.
- We are also told that our moral inventory has a spiritually overarching and transcendent purpose: to remove the things which have “blocked” us from a right relationship with God (Big Book, pp. 64, 71; 12&12, S3, p. 34). Those things involve defects of character (the ‘flaws in our make-up”), such as being “selfish, dishonest, self-seeking,” (Big Book, p. 67) and of emotion, as in the three under scrutiny in the sample. It follows therefore that some emotions are subject to spiritual appraisal as well. They are spiritual, and they are moral. They involve first our relationship with God, and by implication, how that affects our relationship with others.
- This makes the spiritual the ground of the moral. Hence, we read that, “When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically” (Big Book, p. 64). The implication is that we are emotionally ill because we are spiritually sick. Emotional health is a function of, and follows from, spiritual health. This further implies, as we shall explore below, that the solution to our emotional liabilities, as to our drinking problem, is fundamentally spiritual in nature.
How Emotions Arise
The way we are to take inventory of our emotions reflects the books’ implicit understanding of how they arise in us:
- We are to examine specific situations in terms of the way we see those situations affect things that are important to us. The Big Book lists such things as our self-esteem, pride, pocketbooks, ambitions, security, and personal or sex relationships (pp. 64-66). The 12&12 expands on these (adding, for instance, “prestige” and “power,” p.114) and incorporates them into a handy mnemonic formula that highlights the three main areas under which they fall: “sex, security, and society” (S4, p. 42), where “security” stands for that of both the material and the psychological type.
- In the first example given, an alcoholic (whom we call “John” in PTP4) lists a work colleague (“Mr. Brown”) as one of the persons he resents. He lists three causes: “His attention to my wife,” “Told my wife of my mistress,” “may get my job at the office.” Next to each of these causes, John lists the things that were affected: his “sex relations,” “self-esteem,” and “security.” Listed parenthetically after these is “fear,” the third emotion (besides anger and resentment) resulting from the interaction between “Cause” and “Affects.” This pattern is duplicated in the three other examples given (involving Mrs. Jones, John’s wife (“Jane” in PTP4), and John’s employer).
- Two implications follow from this. First, that if we react emotionally to a situation, there must be something at stake in it for us. Second, that how we perceive that thing to be affected arouses the emotion. It also logically follows that if something is important to us, any situation that we perceive to have a negative impact on it is going to arouse a negative emotion in us. Conversely, if we perceive it to have a positive impact, it will arouse a positive emotion. Similarly, it also follows that the more important the thing and/or the greater the perceived impact, the stronger the resulting emotion. By contrast, if it’s not something we care about, then there’s nothing to impact and no emotion to be aroused. We will be emotionally indifferent.
- If, as he initially does, John focuses on what Brown and others did, he will only be doing what we all did when we drank. He will blame others for the way he feels. He does that with the other three persons he lists. He takes their inventory. But of course, the inventory is of ourselves, of what’s wrong with us. Underscoring the need for a change in perception, the Big Book goes on to suggest that John has to go back to his list and look at it “from an entirely different angle” (p.66). At first, all we tend to see is what’s wrong with the world, and how often people wronged us, but that if that’s all we see, we will only continue to feel wronged and therefore angry. Probing more deeply, “we began to see that the world and its people really dominated us,” that by focusing on the wrong they did to us, real or imagined, we were allowing them to control us emotionally. If we were to be free from our resentments, we needed to focus on our own defective responses to those wrongs. The point of our inventory is to see where we are to blame (ibid., p. 67), and how we are responsible for the emotions we are feeling.
The understanding of emotions presented in PTP derives from the above implications in the Big Book sample inventory and related passages in Step 4 of the 12&12. It leans on the work of contemporary philosopher and psychologist Robert C. Roberts, whose conceptualization of an emotion as a “concern-based construal” aligns with the explanation found in those two texts and lays the foundation for a clear understanding of emotional sobriety.
According to Roberts, an emotion is a mental state that arises from the way we see (“construe”) a situation affect something we care about (a “concern”).
Let us apply these criteria to the Big Book sample and see how they can help us assess the emotions under scrutiny there.
- As employed in this definition, a concern is something we are concerned about in the sense that it is of interest or importance to us. It is something that we care about, that matters to us, something that has value, meaning or significance for us; that we are invested in or attached to. Concerns can range from interest at their lowest level to love (as an attachment) at their highest.
- A construal is informally described in the Big Book and the 12&12 as the way we “see”, “view,” or “perceive” a situation, the “angle” through which we are looking at it. It is what we make of a situation, how we take it, the way it strikes us, how it presents itself to us. It is how, almost automatically or instinctively, we process its various elements into an affectively meaningful whole, the picture that impresses itself in us.
- The view of emotions as concern-based construals (CBC) helps us to make sense of several significant things about them. First, it explains why certain emotions can be spiritual, moral, and susceptible to distortion, as AA suggests. Depending on its nature, the concern—the thing we care about—may have spiritual dimensions and moral repercussions. If it does, so will the construal that is grounded on it. Being under the influence of our spiritual disease, both will tend toward selfishness and self-centeredness. This will contaminate the resulting emotion and render it defective.
- Second, the CBC view of emotions helps us distinguish between the various types among them. According to this understanding, different emotions reflect different perceptions and the concerns upon which these are founded. As we discuss in detail in PTP4, situations (words, acts of commission or omission, events) are seen as impinging in different ways on different things that we care about. In anger, for instance, the construal is in terms of offense; in fear, in terms of threat; in guilt, in terms of blame; in shame, in term of unworthiness; in regret, in terms of contravention (a shift in concerns makes us wish things were different from what they are). In anger, the perception of offense revolves around wrongdoing, hurt, injury, transgression, unfairness, injustice, while in fear the perception of threat revolves around risk, difficulty, danger. In addition to its particular situational concern, each emotion also has its own intrinsic, characteristic concern—fairness or justice, for instance, in the case of anger; safety or security in the case of fear.
- Third, the CBC view explains what makes emotions negative or positive (their “valence,” in psychology). According to this, emotions are said to be positive or negative because they reflect situations or state of affairs which we perceive to be good (favorable, and thus pleasing) or bad (unfavorable, and thus displeasing) with respect to something we care about. A perceived positive effect (the rain is good for my plants ) elicits a positive emotion (gladness); a perceived negative effect ( the rain will ruin my picnic), a negative one (disappointment). Same rain, different concerns, different construals based on these, different emotions.
- Fourth, the CBC view explains why some emotions are stronger than others. As already suggested, how strong the emotion is—how positive or how negative—depends on the depth of the concern and the sharpness of the perception. The more we care about something, and the keener our sense of how it is affected, the stronger the emotion. Its strength can be measured along four possible interconnected dimensions: its felt intensity and duration, its overall physiological impact, its imprint on our character, and its determining effect upon our actions. If my concern is for my 600 acres of corn instead of for my few gardening plants, and for my outdoor wedding rather than for my backyard picnic, my gladness and disappointment will be commensurately greater. The strength of either will also be greater the higher the perceived chances of rain, and lesser the lower.
- Fifth, the CBC view explains what makes an emotion defective and what distinguishes defective from simply negative emotions. The two are often confused. Emotions can be positive or negative according to our perception of how a situation affects our concerns. But our perceptions can be wrong —typically because our concerns are. When one or the other or both are wrong, so is the emotion. It is off, flawed, faulty, defective. Defect has inherent moral implications; positivity and negativity do not.
- An emotion may be negative and yet be morally right. Not to experience it in certain situations may in fact be morally deficient. It may reflect the other type of deficit we are to look for in our inventory, namely, a defect of character. Not to feel anger, for instance, may reflect apathy, indifference, a lack of empathy or compassion—or some other forms of self-centeredness. Not to feel fear may reflect recklessness or overconfidence (excesses) or a lack of prudence or wisdom (deficiency). Not to feel guilt may reflect callousness. There are occasions, such as death, which call for sadness and grief, and Stoic philosophers notwithstanding, not to experience them may be symptomatic of a deep spiritual and moral malaise.
- It works the other way too. A positive emotion can be defective. To feel good when others feel bad, to rejoice in their trials and tribulations, is to be spiritually and morally handicapped. English borrows a German term for it: schadenfreude (Schaden, damage + Freude, joy). The phenomenon is more common than we might imagine. It is particularly common where the concerns in collision revolve around so-called hot-button issues involving politics, religion, race, ethnicity, or nationality. But positive emotions can be defective in other, more subtle ways. Feeling superior to others (however slightly) makes it easier to take pleasure (however lightly) in their weaknesses or failures. And then there’s the phenomenon of success, an experience which naturally generates all sort of positive emotion, even when the thing we are being successful in may be morally bankrupt, (like cheating investors of their life savings, as in an infamous case not that long ago).
- Step 4 calls for a moral inventory of such emotions as anger, resentment, and fear, not because they are negative ( the focus of secular psychology), but because they are often defective or symptomatic of defect, whether of character or of still other emotions. Yet the Big Book and the 12&12 do not speak directly of “emotional defects” or of “defective emotions.” They speak of emotional binges, deformities, dependence, disturbance, benders, handicaps, hangovers, insecurity, jags, liabilities, turmoil, twists, and upheaval; of alcoholics being emotionally grandiose, ill, sensitive and unstable; of our being victimized or bedeviled by erratic, sick, stormy and unhealthy emotions.
- The one mention of “negative” in connection with this list indicates that the problem is not negative emotions as such but the excess that warps them, a view latent in the reference to “binges” and “benders” above. Indeed, the 12&12 makes this connection explicit. Using “emotional hangover” as an analog of emotionally impaired, it describes such a condition as the direct product of “excesses” of negative emotion such as anger, fear, jealousy, and so on (S10, p. 88). Excess and disorder—that is what distorts our emotions, be they positive or negative. But as we see in our discussion of the 12&12’s view of instincts (PTP4, Ch. 6, pp. 87-91), the excess and the disorder originate in the concerns and the perceptions which are linked to those instincts and which give rise to those emotions. If our concerns and perceptions are rightly ordered, so will our emotions. If not, neither will they.
- This brings us to our sixth point about how understanding emotions as concern-based construals can help us to make sense of them: it provides us with a clear basis for appraising them in our inventory. In general, the rightness or wrongness of our emotions can be assessed according to the rightness or wrongness of their underlying concerns and construals. From AA’s perspective, this can be evaluated according to three closely related criteria. Objectively, whether or not the concerns and construals they reflect are true to the situation to which they are a response, i.e., whether they accurately fit or match their object. Morally, whether such concerns and construals work for or against the common good. And spiritually, whether or not they conform to God’s will for us, which in the AA understanding of a loving God is precisely for such common good to prevail.
- Recall that Anonymous John experienced two emotions in response to his employer’s threat to fire him: anger and fear. Presumably, his fear of being fired for drinking on the job and padding his expense account was based on a real concern for his job, his livelihood, and his financial security. On principle, these are all morally and spiritually sound concerns, as they involve his wellbeing and that of those who may depend on him. His construal of the situation as posing a threat to these concerns seems objectively warranted, as his actions ordinarily constitute justifiable grounds for dismissal. Given a right concern and a right construal, his fear was right, it was justified, it fit the situation, it was rationally grounded. That the situation was of his own making does not obviate this fact, though obviously he needs to acknowledge it and look for the real cause of his fear in his own behavior.
- His anger was another story. As John saw it, his boss threatened to fire him not just—or maybe not mainly or even not really—because of his drinking and stealing, but because of his boss’s character defects (“unreasonable,” “unjust,” “overbearing”). John pictured himself as being concerned with justice and fairness. Based on this apparent concern, he construed his boss as the culprit and himself as the victim. But, clearly, taking his boss’s inventory instead of his own enabled John to deflect responsibility for the situation. By blaming his anger on him, he could rationalize and try to justify himself, ignoring the fact of his own moral and spiritual failure. His professed concern for justice seems therefore a case of self-deception. The offense and the injustice were patently in his own behavior. His real concern appeared to be for himself, the injury to his self-esteem and sense of entitlement. His was probably a case of self-righteous, defective anger, the defect based on a distorted concern and construal of the situation.
- Likewise with the other situations he faced. His fear of Mr. Brown might have been based on a possibly credible concern for his job and his marriage; of Jane on a concern for his home and (should she follow Mrs. Jones’ example) for his freedom. His construal of a threat to these legitimate concerns was warranted, as he had given them reason to do what he feared they might do. As with his boss’s threat, therefore, the defect lay not in his fear, but in the things he did to create the situations which aroused it. That is where he needed to look for the defects—of character and of emotion—which “set the ball rolling” (Big Book, p. 67). His anger, by contrast, was not only symptomatic of defect, but itself defective. In all four situations, it was apparently his pride that was hurt. He was exposed and made to look bad. That is what he was “burned up” (ibid., p. 65) about. But that is only because, typical alcoholic, he did exactly what the Big Book says we drunks are wont to do: he stepped on the toes of his fellows, and they retaliated (p. 62).
As these examples suggest, Aristotle’s criteria revolve around the emotion’s objective fit to its situation. The question is: Why would my emotions go wrong in any of the ways he stipulates? On the view of emotions as concern-based construals, the answer is clear: because the concerns and/or construals arousing them have themselves gone wrong. They are contrary to reason and hence to the reality of the situation. The rightness or wrongness of an emotion is determined by the rightness or wrongness of its construal and the concern upon which it is founded. These determine whether the emotion fits a situation not only objectively (in terms of the material facts), but morally (in relation to my fellows), and spiritually (in relation to God). In all of the above cases, my anger serves not the good but that which, inasmuch as it causes harm, is bad or evil. From the spiritual perspective of AA, it is out of order with a loving God’s will for me. It is spiritually disordered.
- In taking inventory of an emotion, then, our task is to establish whether it is a right or a wrong response to a situation. If right, the emotion itself is right. If wrong, the emotion is wrong or defective. This is of course not a new idea. It goes back to ancient Greece, and especially to Aristotle, who first stipulated a set of determining criteria. In his view, emotions are right or wrong according to whether or not we experience them in various right ways: for the right reason (cause), toward the right object (people, places, and things), with the right motive (purpose), at the right time (occasion), in the right manner (neither too quickly nor too slowly), to the right degree (no excess or deficiency of intensity), and for the right duration (neither too long nor too short). By “right” Aristotle meant rationally, that is, in accord with reason, in keeping with reality.
- If I’m angry with X for doing negative N but, on the contrary, X actually did positive P, my anger is wrong in that I’m angry for the wrong reason (my construal of the cause is objectively and rationally flawed). If I’m angry with Y for doing negative N2 but it was actually Z who did it, my anger is wrong or defective in that it is misdirected (it has the wrong object). I have misconstrued the source of the offense to which I am reacting. If I act on my anger and retaliate against Y, then I am being unfair, and my anger is morally deficient, reflecting the character defect of injustice in me. If my reaction to an accidental fender-bender is to take out a bat and smash the other car’s windshield, my anger is out of proportion to the injury (wrong degree, excess). If I use my anger to frighten and intimidate my wife or my daughter into submission during an argument, I am motivated by a wrong (a manipulative and unjust) purpose. If I have a fight with my siblings at our mother’s funeral, my anger is out of place: I’m failing to do justice to the occasion (wrong time and place).
- If in any of these situations I reacted with anger too quickly or held on to it for too long, I also experienced it the wrong way. If it arose too quickly, that may have accounted for or contributed to the wrongness of the emotion (why I got it wrong with X and Y, for instance). If I held on to it for too long, that may have aggravated the wrongness of the defect (and my anger may have turned into a burning resentment).
- Note that the issue is not reacting. We will invariably react to emotionally charged situations (since in they involve something we care about). The issue is whether we are reacting rightly. Note also in this connection that Aristotle bases his criteria for right or wrong anger on our experience of the emotion, not on its expression. The issue is not whether our anger is “appropriate” in terms of the way we are expressing it. In all of these cases, my anger is wrong (rationally, morally, and spiritually) even if I manage to repress or suppress it and do not act on it. Even if I don’t, I’m still likely to show the emotion through body language: a look, gesture, tone of voice, even silence. In any case, it will necessarily cause harm. If nothing else, there is the harm to myself that comes with my experiencing a diseased emotion. This includes of course the ill will, resentment, and associated emotions I may silently harbor toward those I’m angry with, emotions which in addition are likely to damage my relations with them. There is also the possibility that I will act on my anger indirectly and unjustly later on—by taking it out on somebody who had nothing to do with the original situation.
The contrast between this and the self-help view of emotions could not be sharper. Nor could the goals that flow from them. Emotional management is a far cry from emotional sobriety. Yet that is also far from obvious. As we have noted, our two basic texts never specify what emotional sobriety is, just as they never specify what constitutes an emotion. The Big Book doesn’t even use the expression. The 12&12, which coins the term, uses it only once and makes no further reference to it. The concept won’t be revisited for another six years, and then only in a brief letter Bill W. writes to a friend and subsequently published in the Grapevine as “The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety.”
All of this notwithstanding, the points we made in our introduction hold. Number one, AA’s long-term objective is not only physical but emotional sobriety. And number two, its understanding of emotional sobriety hinges logically on its view of emotions. If, as we have argued, this view is consonant with that of a concern-based construal, then it follows that the sobriety of our emotions is a function of the sobriety of their two constitutive components: the things we tend to value and the ways we tend to see them affected in the course of our daily lives.
This has important implications for the way we take inventory. On the one hand, examining our emotions requires examining the perceptions and the concerns which cause those emotions. On the other hand, in doing this, we are trying to become conscious of things that, being largely habitual, are largely unconscious. So long as they remain unconscious, emotional sobriety will elude us, for we won’t know why we are moved to react the way we do and therefore we won’t be able to practice the corrective principles which alter those reactions.That is precisely the situation Bill W. faced when he wrote the letter later published in the Grapevine as “Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier” (cf. PTP4, Appendix 5).
- The 12&12 suggests how sobriety might be understood in this way by its use of two terms as synonymous with right emotion. These are “balance,” as in “emotional balance” (pp. 46, 85, 88, 91, 92, 103, 121), and “stability,” as in “emotional stability” (p. 116). This is in line with the 12& 12’s view that our problem is not our instincts, but the excess and disorder that distorts and misdirects them. Balance implies the absence of extremes (whether of excess or deficiency), and stability the absence of disorder, extremes and disorder being adverse conditions which negatively affect our concerns and perceptions and are thus symptomatic of emotional disease. Balance and stability imply instead the presence of constancy, equilibrium, measure, poise, proportion, restraint. Lest we interpret the two words purely in terms of secular psychology, the 12&12 goes on to explain that, when we developed still further, we discovered that the best possible source of emotional stability was God himself (p. 116).
- This clearly places emotional sobriety in the context of our spiritual awakening. In fact, though it mentions it only once, the 12&12 makes emotional sobriety the highest practical expression of this awakening, linking it to “the joy of living,” the sort of giving that asks for no rewards and the sort of love that comes with no price tag on it (p. 106). Introducing Step 12, it describes how, having had a spiritual awakening as the result of the preceding 11 Steps, we begin to practice their principles not only with regard to our drinking but in all areas of our daily lives. We carry the message of our spiritual awakening by living it, and we live it precisely so that we and all those around us may find emotional sobriety (p. 106).
- That emotional sobriety should be tied to a spiritual awakening makes sense if, as we have tried to show is the case with our program, some emotions are seen as fundamentally spiritual and moral in nature. As with our instincts, the implication is that our capacity for emotion has its source in a Higher Power (12&12, S4, p. 42). This follows from AA’s understanding of God as a loving (Big Book pp. 28, 161, 562, 563; 12&12 pp. 9, 10, 110, 132, 189), Creator (Big Book pp. 13, 25, 28, 56, 68, 72, 75, 76, 80, 83, 158, 161; 12&12 pp. 59, 63, 64, 65, 98) God who made us in his image and likeness (12&12, S6, p. 63).
- Such a high view of emotions stands in stark contrast to the low view of them traditionally held since time immemorial (as surveyed in PTP4). It tells us that emotion is as integral to our humanity as our reason, our imagination, our creativity, and our other God-given faculties. Indeed, it suffuses them all. In the form of love, it is its highest and noblest expression, the ground of all human happiness and flourishing. Their origin and their end are what give emotions their essentially spiritual and moral character.
- It is also what makes them intrinsically good. Why then do our emotions go so terribly wrong? On the view of emotions as concern-based construals, our emotions go wrong because our heart goes wrong. We turn from God. We become self-centered and our vision is warped. Our loves go out of whack. With disordered love and disordered vision comes disordered character, and with disordered character disordered emotion. This disorder defines our spiritual disease. Our emotions become distorted and are directed against the good. They become defective. To say that our emotions are defective is to say that our perception of reality is deficient. The ways we see and care about the goods of the material world are disconnected from the Good that is their source. They are out of line with the “Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things,” the spiritual order that lies “underneath the material world and life as we see it” (Big Book, p. 46).
- Thus the need for a spiritual solution, a spiritual awakening which—on the understanding of emotions as concern-based construals—realigns our vision and reorients our heart, restoring us to sanity morally and emotionally. This realignment and reorientation, this "new outlook upon life" (Big Book, p.84), this spiritual way of caring about things, drives the process which brings us to emotional sobriety.
- That such an emotional transformation is possible follows from the view of emotions as concern-based construals. Why? Because, on this view (and contrary to that of secular psychology and self-help), events don’t trigger emotions. Events are construed on the basis of an existing, latent concern, and this construal automatically activates the concern, instantiating thereby an emotion. That is why John could respond with either anger or fear to his boss’s threat to fire him, depending on whether he saw it as hurting his pride or his pocketbook. That is why I can be either glad or disappointed that it is going to rain, depending on whether I see it as good for my plants or bad for my picnic.
- Why is this important? Because, as we have seen, if events trigger our emotions, then there is very little we can do about them. At best, we can try to control their expression so as to limit their damage. But if our emotions are triggered, not by an event, but by our concern-based construal of that event, then we can do much more than that. We can change and reshape them. Why? Because the concern and the construal are ours and therefore can be altered or modified by us. They are ours not just in a general, collective sense—not innate to our species, like the instincts—but in a specific, individual, personal sense. Unlike the instincts, they are soft-wired, not hard-wired. We acquire them as habits in the course of living our lives. As such, we can change them. Provided we take certain steps.
- These are the 12 Steps of recovery. They can result in a spiritual awakening because they are founded upon spiritual principles designed to do precisely that. Practicing these principles in all our affairs can change the way we live and bring about emotional sobriety because they represent spiritual ways of seeing and caring about life. These principles are spiritual not in some vague, mystical, or esoteric manner, but because they are grounded in God and his will for us. Indeed, they represent his will, the way a loving God would naturally want us to live. The 12&12 suggests that our spiritual awakening will enable us to see this. The minute we catch so much as a "glimpse" of God’s will for us, the minute we start to see that "truth, justice, and love" are the “real” and the “eternal” things in life, we can no longer be disturbed by all the evidence to the contrary that seems to surrounds us in everyday human affairs (S11, p. 105, our emphasis).
- Ultimately, reality lies, not in the disorder of the material world, but in a higher order of being that the spiritual principles enable us to perceive as we progressively conform our lives to them. Thus we are told that, as we practice the principles of self-examination, prayer, and meditation, we may now and then be given a glimpse of the ultimate reality which God’s kingdom represents (S11, p. 98).
- A spiritual awakening makes God’s will for us—as expressed through the spiritual principles—our highest concern, and thus the basis on which we start to see reality. Seeing self-examination, prayer, meditation, and the rest of the disciplines as spiritual principles, as God’s will for us, and practicing them as such, enables us to discover our emotional deformities, for they flow from our spiritual ones. Seeing truth, justice, love, and the rest of the virtues as spiritual principles, as God’s will for us, and practicing them as such, enables us to heal from those deformities, for they constitute their remedies.
- Working through the disciplines, the virtues constitute the corrective principles. They correct our emotional defects because they correct our defective concerns and construals. As traits of character, they dispose us to see, to care, to feel, and to act rightly, doing justice to situations. As they become ingrained in our character, they displace the defects which generate defective emotions. The ways we see and care about the goods of the material world are reconnected with the Good that is their source. Being the practical manifestations of love as the spiritually cardinal virtue, the virtues are the principles by which our capacity for emotion is restored to its God-intended purpose.
- That is why the 12&12 makes practicing these principles in all our affairs the path to emotional sobriety, as we saw above. Their practice is what makes the virtues take root in our character as new, habitual dispositions which reorder our perceptions and concerns and thus give a new, spiritual foundation to our emotions. Therefore, on a purely practical level, emotional sobriety is fundamentally a process of new habit formation.
- This spiritual re-habituation is necessary because, as we discuss in PTP4 (chapter 5,“The Seeing Eye,” and Chapter 6 .“The Caring Heart”), perceptions and concerns do not arise spontaneously out of each individual situation. They reflect ways of seeing and caring that over the course of our lives have developed into recurrent patterns and become established in us as habits of mind and heart. We enter situations with these dispositions latent in us, ready to react in ways we have become accustomed to react. That is why our emotions are so immediate and automatic, why they seem to arise almost instinctively. That is also why the myth that we can “choose” how we react emotionally is just that, a myth. At best we may be able to control the way we express the emotion once it has arisen, the degree of control being dependent on the factors we enumerated above regarding its strength. But the emotion will arise of its own accord.
- Though sober, Bill had continued to suffer from long stretches of unremitting depression. Yet he couldn’t identify its cause. Having recently emerged from one episode and seemingly on the verge of another, he entered into an extended period of self-examination, prayer, and meditation, with the Prayer of St. Francis as his guide. Intellectually, he knew Francis had the solution. It lay in practicing the principles of love and service we noted Bill had written about in the 12&12: the sort of giving that asks for no rewards and the sort of love that comes with no price tag on it (S12, p. 106). Yet he couldn’t practice them. When the reason suddenly dawned on him, he immediately recognized it as his “basic flaw.” Yet for 24 years it had remained inaccessible to his conscious mind.
- What was this flaw? Bill referred to it as a false and absolute dependency. He had become dependent on people and circumstances to provide him with prestige, security, and related (but unnamed) “emotional satisfactions.” He gave expecting—even demanding—to get these “satisfactions” in return. When he didn’t, depression set in. Once he saw this, Bill recounts, the block was removed and he was able to start practicing the unconditional love Francis had so admirably modeled. This resulted in a new degree of emotional stability. It came, he writes, out of trying to give instead of demanding to receive.
- For Bill, the lesson was clear. At the root of every emotional disturbance, he writes, there is an unhealthy dependency and its resulting unhealthy demand. Our job in taking inventory is to find out what these are, and then, with God’s help, to continually surrender them. This is what will set us free to live and to love as God would have us do. It is what will bring us emotional sobriety.
- Following Bill’s reasoning, then, emotional sobriety would be defined as freedom from false, unhealthy dependencies on people, places, and things. The way to achieve it would be the continual surrender of such dependencies (presumably through Steps 6 and 7). While we can infer this view of emotional sobriety from the earlier 12&12, it is certainly clearer in his Grapevine piece. This represents an important advance. To build on it, let us explore some questions the article raises.
- To begin with, what was it that made Bill’s dependence a false, absolute, or unhealthy one? Certainly not the fact of dependence alone. As our basic texts recognize, we can properly depend on people for a lot of good and necessary things. This is consistent with the widely held view that we are built to live in community (that we are social animals, as social psychology would view it). Rather, the flaw (the falsehood) lay in what he had become dependent on them for—prestige and security—and in the extent —absolute—of his dependence. And why, we need to ask, had he become dependent on them for these things, so dependent as to demand they provide them to him? Obviously, because they were important to him—too important, in fact. After all those years sober, he still craved them. He still saw admiration, approval, distinction, recognition, and status as essential to his emotional security. In short, he needed to feel important in order to feel secure.
- His dependency was rooted in a distorted concern for prestige based on a distorted construal of himself. It was also based on a distorted construal of people and circumstances as the means to achieving it. In principle, security is a healthy concern. Prestige is not. It is a distortion of a healthy concern for respect and for worth. By basing his security on such a distorted concern, Bill was distorting in turn his concern for security. Being circumstantial and transitory, prestige and related status indicators could not possibly give him any certain or lasting assurance. This is also the reason his dependence on people to give him these things was false and unhealthy. They simply could not deliver. This only made his concerns all the more insistent, the excess issuing in unreasonable demands. These, he recognized, amounted to a demand for the possession and control of the people and the circumstances surrounding him. In this, dependency and domination were two sides of the same coin.
- Next, we might ask why Bill was unaware of these unhealthy dependencies Was it because, as he writes, they streamed out of some hidden unconscious that overrode what he actually believed, knew, and wanted? Does such language suggest that he saw the problem of the unconscious in Freudian terms? Perhaps. Bill was writing in the 1950s, when psychoanalysis was dominant in the U.S. Furthermore, he had been treated for his depression by a Freudian psychiatrist, Dr. Harry Tiebout. The treatment was unsuccessful, however, and after discontinuing it, Bill moved away from Freud and toward Carl Jung’s more spiritual approach (as did Dr. Tiebout).
- Whatever the case, on the view we are espousing there was nothing Freudian about the unconscious nature of Bill’s dependencies. They persisted because they had become habitual, so habitual in fact that they functioned almost like an addiction. For, as he recognizes, there had been no fundamental change in the concerns and perceptions which had driven him going all the way back to his youth in Vermont. He still wanted to be the “Number One” man. Seen through that self-seeking lens, prestige or “top approval” seemed to be his ticket to the “top of the heap” (12&12, S4, p. 53). His failure to satisfy his concerns—to get what he wanted—was what drove his depression. He wasn’t conscious of these things because habits are by their very nature unconscious. We act out of them automatically and sometimes even mindlessly.
- Bill would be the first to stress that a moral inventory is not an analysis of the Freudian unconscious, what with its Id, repressed memories, Oedipus complex, and other now largely discredited ideas.
- This brings us to our final question. In what sense is a false dependency a “flaw”? Certainly not in the sense of being itself a defect of character. The dependency is rather a symptom of such a defect. What that defect may be varies with the dependency. If the dependency is for prestige—to be recognized and feel important in order to feel worthwhile and emotionally secure—the defect is probably traceable to one’s ego. Not what Freud meant by ego, but what AA does. And this is of course pride and, in this case, such varieties of the vice as vanity and vainglory (Big Book, p. 116; 12&12, S4, p. 44). That would explain his inordinate desire to be the “number one” man, its inordinacy stemming from that of his concerns.
Surrendering our unhealthy dependencies is therefore a process of surrendering—through Steps 6 and 7—the defects of character which create them. As “the basic breeder” of most human problems and “the chief block” to real progress (12&12, S4, p. 49), pride in its manifold manifestations is the main driver of those defects. That is why in his article Bill makes the development of more humility the key to emotional sobriety. Humility brings us to a right measure of ourselves and thus to a right dependence on God, a true and healthy dependence that reorders our false dependence on people, places, and things. Humility gives us a right view of reality. This makes it the spiritual, moral, and rational foundation of right emotion.
Emotional Sobriety Defined
- We now come to our seventh and final point about the explanatory power of the view of emotions as concern-based construals. This is its ability to provide a reasonable and common-sense explanation of what might constitute emotional sobriety and how we could achieve it. On this view, emotional sobriety is an established disposition to experience right emotion in any given situation. “Established disposition” references a stable, consistent, and habitual tendency to so experience emotion. “Emotion” references a concern-based construal of the situation. “Right” references a construal’s rational, moral, and spiritual fit to its situation.
- Applying this threefold understanding of “right” to Aristotle’s criteria for right emotion, we may say that we have achieved emotional sobriety to the extent that we are able to experience emotions naturally and consistently for the right reason (cause), toward the right object (people, places, and things), with the right motive (purpose), at the right time (occasion), with the right speed (not too quickly or too slowly), to the right degree (no excess or deficiency of intensity), and for the right duration (not too short or too long).
- In what is possibly one of the greatest understatements in the history of ethics, Aristotle famously remarked that attaining such “rightness” was not “easy.” He made this observation in connection with anger, where it may well be the hardest. But he clearly meant it to apply to all emotions. Though not easy, he considered such rightness to be achievable. He saw it as the product of a life-long growth in virtue, particularly practical wisdom, the chief of the cardinal virtues (wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice). As William C. Mattison notes, practical wisdom disposes us to see rightly, the way things really are in the world, and to act out of that truthful vision in the interest of the good.
- AA accepts this traditional view of the practical role of wisdom. However, unlike Aristotle, it does not see it from a purely rational perspective. Instead, it links it as we’ve seen to a spiritual awakening which reorders our perceptions and concerns, making God and his will for us our highest concern and the lens through which we view the situations to which we respond. In its more dialectal view, a spiritual awakening is both the cause and the result of practicing the spiritual principles of the program in all our affairs, principles which embody God’s will for us and which, in reshaping the way we view and value things, gradually reshape our emotional dispositions, progressively inclining us to right emotion.
- The accent is on gradually and progressively. Just as we never finish recovering spiritually, we never finish recovering emotionally. This for the same reason that we will never be entirely ready to have God remove all our defects of character. (12&12, S6, p. 65). We are not saints. We claim spiritual progress rather than Spiritual perfection (Big Book, p.60). Yet, if consistent, such progress will turn into moral and emotional growth.
How It Works
This will happen one day, one situation, and one emotion at a time. How? By working Step 10 and 11, as Bill suggests he did in "The Next Frontier."
- We continue to take personal inventory of ourselves and, every time an emotion arises in a way that causes harm to ourselves or others, we subject it to a thorough examination in combination with prayer and meditation (12&12, S11, p. 88), and we go through the rest of the process described in Steps 5 through 9 as it applies to it. As we do, we will be practicing the spiritual principles that will foster a spiritual awakening in relation to that emotion, that is, a spiritual way of looking at the situations that arouse it. We will see how the perceptions and concerns giving rise to the emotion may be defective (i.e., selfish and self-centered in specific ways), and will be motivated to practice the corrective virtues. As we do, we will grow in the habits and practical wisdom needed to respond to the same or similar situations with right emotion every time they re-occur. For as Aristotle and the ancients understood, habit is the product of repeated practice, and practical wisdom the result of long experience, especially long examined experience. The examination is what enables us to benefit from the experience.
- To appreciate the practical nature of this process, it may help to see that what the practice of spiritual principles does is to advance and guide in a spiritual direction a process that is natural to us and that we experience throughout our Iives. This is the phenomenon of what, in our discussion of regrets in PTP4, we refer to as “shifting concerns” (pp. 240-242).
- We make choices and decisions through the lens of what matters most to us at any one point. But that changes with time. Obviously, we don’t look at money the same way when we are children, teenagers, working adults, and retirees. Nor do we look at romance, sex, and relationships the same way at these various stages. The things we care about, the way we care about them, and the way we look at them, are altered by time and experience. Practicing the principles of the program in all our affairs helps to channel this natural process along spiritual lines, enabling us to continue our spiritual awakening for as long as we continue to practice them.
- We will find telling example of this process throughout the Big Book and the 12& 12. We see it early on in Step 3 of the Big Book in connection with fear. Describing a different construal of our relationship with God and the resulting right reliance on him, we read that “Established on such a footing, we became less interested in ourselves, in our little plans and designs.” We become less self-centered and the things we want for ourselves become less important. They lose the allure that makes us possessive and demanding of them. “More and more we became interested in seeing what we could contribute to life.” We become more concerned with giving than with getting. “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, p.63).
- The description of this transformation is continued in the 12&12 with reference to the same two areas of concern. As time passed, it says, we began to lose our fears surrounding work and money. We could perform “humble labor”—no longer seeing it as menial or beneath us—without having to worry about the future. If things were good, we didn’t have to fear a change for the worse, for God would still provide. Trusting him, we could accept any setback and turn it into an asset that would help us to show others that they could get over the same fears. Our material condition didn’t matter as much as our spiritual condition (S12, p. 122). Material things continued to matter, but they didn’t matter excessively; we were not inordinately concerned with them. Reflecting this change in outlook, we discovered that being free from fear was more important than being free from want (ibid). Gradually, as we came to see what was really important in life, money ceased to be our master and became our servant, love and service becoming a new means of exchange with those around us (S12, p. 122).
- Here the 12&12 echoes the Big Book, where we read that, “Although financial recovery is on the way for many of us, we found we could not place money first. For us, material well-being always followed spiritual progress; it never preceded it” (p. 127). A job, money, financial independence: these are all good and important things. It is right that we should strive for them, whether to secure them in the first place or to preserve them over the long term. But we come to see that we need to strive for them rightly, in right relation to other goods. We start to follow “good orderly direction” in this area of our lives, and our fears recede.
- This shift in concerns and perceptions is reaffirmed in Step 12 of the 12&12 in connection with some of the fears we may continue to experience in early sobriety, where “balance” is clearly used with reference to our concerns and construals: “This all meant, of course, that we were still far off balance. When a job still looked like a mere means of getting money rather than an opportunity for service, when the acquisition of money for financial independence looked more important than a right dependence on God, we were till the victims of unreasonable fear. And these were fears which would make a serene and useful existence, at any financial level, quite impossible. But as time passed, we found that wit th help of AA’s Twelve Steps we could lose those fears, no matter what our material prospects were. We could cheerfully perform humble labor without worrying about tomorrow. If our circumstances were good, we no longer dreaded a change for the worse, for we had learned that these troubles could be turned into great values. It did not matter too much what our material condition was, but it did matter what our spiritual condition was. Money gradually became our servant and not our master . . . we found that freedom from fear was more important than freedom from want” (S12, p. 121-122).
- The process of shifting concerns (and the new perceptions they make possible) is the key to understanding the promises made in the Big Book. For the internal shifts they suggest are at the very heart of the spiritual awakening through which those promises are fulfilled. “We will not regret the past” because we will see it through different eyes. We will “lose interest in selfish things” and “gain interest in our fellows” because of a newly awakened concern for others. It is because of this shift away from self that we will not “wish to shut the door” on the past. Instead, we will “see how our experience can benefit others” and hence turn that experience into an instrument of recovery for them as well. As our concern for the common good grows, “Self-seeking will slip away” and “Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change” (Big Book, pp. 83–84).
In its comparison of a moral with a business inventory, the Big book makes the point that “If the owner of the business is to be successful, he cannot fool himself about values” (p.64). Unfortunately, that is what we alcoholics did. We fooled ourselves about values. The “flaws in our make-up which caused our failure” were all tied up with our wrong view of what really mattered in life. We placed the satisfactions of our instincts and self-centered concerns ahead of everything and everything ahead of God. But that didn’t work, did it? Hence our bankruptcy.
This is why a spiritual awakening that reorients our hearts and thereby shifts and reorders our concerns is the solution to our emotional problems. It is what enables us to value goods rightly—from a spiritual, God-centered perspective—and thus to discern their true worth. We care for the right things, for the right reason, at the right time, in the right manner, to the right degree, and in their right relation to each other. Such rightness is the basis of right emotion and action. It is the foundation of emotional sobriety. It will always materialize if we work for it.
We have presented a comprehensive account of what constitutes emotional sobriety and how it can be achieved. We have tried to do so through a close reading of the Big Book, the 12 &12, and Bill W.’s letter as published in Emotional Sobriety: the Next Frontier. This has necessitated lengthy explanations and extensive citations of passages from the said AA sources.
It may therefore be helpful to conclude this long post with a summary of the main points we have made about emotional sobriety. Since we have already presented the supporting arguments and passages from the relevant AA material and referred the reader to the relevant chapters in volumes 1 and 2 of PTP, we will be brief and try to keep it as simple as we can, hopefully without reducing and oversimplifying the concept. With that caveat in mind, we will highlight 12 basic points:
- Emotional sobriety is defined as an established disposition to experience right emotion in any given situation. “Established disposition” references a stable, consistent, and habitual tendency to so experience emotion. “Emotion” references a concern-based construal of a situation. “Concern” references something we have an interest in, care about, or value as important. “Construal” references the way we see, perceive, or view how that concern is affected in a situation. “Right” references a construal’s rational, moral, and spiritual fit to its situation.
- It logically follows from this understanding of “right” that the rightness of an emotion is a function of the rightness of our construal and the concerns on which it is based, which is to say that right emotion depends on right caring and right seeing.
- Applying this same understanding of “right” to Aristotle’s criteria for right emotion, we may say that we have achieved emotional sobriety to the extent that we are able to experience emotions naturally and consistently I) for the right reason (cause), ii) toward the right object (people, places, and things), iii) with the right motive (purpose), iv) at the right time (occasion), v) with the right speed (not too quickly or too slowly), vi) to the right degree (no excess or deficiency of intensity), and vii) for the right duration (not too short or too long).
- This would suggest that we have come to a point in our recovery where we care for the right things, for the right reason, at the right time, in the right manner, to the right degree, for the right duration, and in their right relation to each other.
- Such rightness of heart and vision proceeds from a spiritual awakening that transforms the way we see things and the things we care about and makes God and his will for us our highest concern and the lens through which we see ourselves, other people, and everything of moral significance in our lives.
- Such a spiritual awakening is the result of practicing the principles of the 12 Steps in all our affairs, which is to say, in all situations involving right and wrong, doing good or doing harm, helping or hurting.
- A life-long endeavor, such a disciplined, ongoing practice is what creates the new habits of heart and mind embodied by the spiritual principles, principles that represent God’s will for us and which manifest themselves in right caring, right feeling, and right living.
- After we have worked through the 12 Steps the first time, it is then most effectively continued through a synthesis of Steps 10 and 11, where we combine self-examination with prayer and meditation to probe deeply into our hearts, from which spring the self-centered concerns that generate our defects of character and emotion.
- We continue to take personal inventory of ourselves, paying special attention to our emotions and combining the rational and analytical approach typical of an empirical search with the approach of a spiritual one, where through prayer and meditation we seek knowledge of God’s will for us in the relevant situations and the power to carry it out.
- To the extent that 12-step spiritual principles can be said to represent God’s will for us (his moral will, i.e., how we are to live), to that extent doing it becomes most fundamentally a matter of practicing those principles in all our affairs.
- Indeed, that they represent his will for us may be the most logical explanation of what makes them spiritual. It may also be the most logical explanation of why their practice can result in a spiritual awakening whereby doing God’s will for us becomes our highest concern and the lens through which we come to view and reorder all our other cares, thus giving a God-centered foundation to our emotions.
- Emotional sobriety is a product of such a spiritual transformation, for that is ultimately what enables us to care for the right things in all the right ways, and thus to experience right emotion, with “right” finally coming to be understood transcendentally as in accordance with God’s will for us.
[Image: Emotional Sobriety II: The Next Frontier. Published by the Grapevine in 2011, this second booklet also features Bill W's original article on the subject and is followed by additional pieces of a personal-story nature written by AA members. The cover illustrates the understanding of emotional sobriety as emotional balance .To listen to an audio of the summary of this post, please click on link.]
Note: Ordinarily, we would supplement this post with a substantial selection of quotes ranging from the classical past to the present. However, since emotional sobriety is a relatively recent concept, our search has not yielded many quotes that help throw light on the subject. The same applies to emotions, notwithstanding how much has been written about them over the centuries. Hence the paucity of our selection below. We will add to it over time as we find more relevant material.