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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Achieving Emotional Sobriety

  • Dr. David Hawkins, The Marriage Recovery Center
  • 2012 27 Feb
 Achieving Emotional Sobriety

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We’re all familiar with alcohol sobriety, drug sobriety, sexual sobriety and even sobriety as it pertains to our eating habits. Sobriety—being sober in our approach to certain aspects of living—is not only wise, but Biblical as well.

“Be sober minded. Be watchful.” (I Peter 5: 8)

In a recent conversation with a couple, I found a new application for the concept of sobriety---emotional sobriety. Emotional sobriety, as I define it, applies to maintaining emotional balance. It means attending to our emotional life when we are angry, discouraged and frustrated. During these times we are likely to react and react again, creating unbalance in our relationships.

“We debated for so long, over so many days, that I could hardly see straight,” Susan shared. She was referring to the conflict she had been having with her husband, Terry.

“Did you do anything to manage your emotions during those days?” I asked.

Susan looked at me incredulously.

“How do you do that? We dive into certain topics and before we know it we’re in quicksand,” she continued. “Every word he says makes me react and everything I say seems to make him react. We’re two over-reactive people sinking deeper and deeper into conflict.”

Terry had been sitting quietly.

“I guess this is just like alcoholism, you have to be just as responsible with your emotions,” he offered.

As I talked to Terry and Susan about their relationship, I considered that emotional sobriety wasn’t simply a problem for marriages, or those in dating relationships, but anyone relating to another person or even an event. I reflected about a friend of mine who struggled with emotional sobriety.

“I get so twisted with the way things go at work,” Justin shared with me. “I shouldn’t let policies and procedures get me out of whack, but they do.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I get so angry when policies aren’t followed,” he said. “I expect everone to follow the rules, and when they don’t, I get mad. So, you can imagine working for the company I do, I get mad a lot. Drives me crazy.”

“You can’t let it go?” I asked.

“Wish it was that simple,” he said. “My emotions seem to rule me rather than me ruling them. I’m practicing trying to keep things in perspective, but that’s easier said than done.”

Emotional reactivity. Rollercoaster emotions. Getting bent out of shape by things we have little control over. These are all symptoms of emotional imbalance and the need for emotional sobriety. What are some things we can remember in using our emotions the way God intended them to be used.

First, learn about your emotions. Emotions are e-motions, “energy in motion,” and as such can be used for constructive purposes or be boundless energy that is quite destructive. First you must be aware of your emotional makeup. Do you become easily irritated? Are you prone to discouragement? Do you have patterns of emotional reacting that are harmful to you and your relationships? You must become familiar with these patterns before you can change them.

Second, monitor your emotions. Because most of us tend to be reactive, we seldom watch our emotional reactions. We’re caught up in whatever is taking place externally, failing to monitor/ keep watch over our emotions. Journaling is one of the best methods I know to keep track not only of our daily moods and emotions, but patterns and trends in our emotional makeup.

Third, embrace emotional sobriety. Take responsibility in not allowing your emotions to rule your reactions. I’ve noted that it takes far less time to feel than it does to think, but it is critical we consider every situation, using our God-given wisdom to rule our behavior. If you’ve had problems with anger or emotional volatility, vigorously pursue emotional balance. 

Fourth, make amends quickly for emotionally reactivity. Making quick apologies for any emotional reactivity will assist you not only in taking responsibility for it, but recognizing the impact emotional reactivity has on those around you. Your apology will also make necessary repairs for damage you’ve caused.

Finally, slow things down, at work, in your relationships, and in every aspect of your life. Give yourself every opportunity to keep things in perspective by taking time to think about what you want to say and how you want to act. Don’t allow yourself to become emotionally reactive.

Scripture repeatedly warns us about behavior that is ungodly. We are warned about excessive anger, encouraged to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1: 19) Leaders in the church were encouraged to be sober-minded. I’m sure this included the way they dealt with their emotions as well as their behavior. Being sober-minded in how we deal with our emotions will help us in our relationships as well.

March 21, 2011

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.