I got sober when I was 15 years old. Life, for me, was emotionally confusing and painful, so drugs and alcohol became the solution—albeit a flawed one. But even though I was able to get sober, living day-to-day was still a chore.
Every challenge seemed insurmountable: Two years sober, a friend told me she had a crush on me. I remember lying in bed, trying to figure out if I wanted to date her. I couldn’t tell. I was afraid if I said no I would give up an opportunity for connection and regret it. I was afraid if I said yes I would dislike being close with her. I couldn’t answer, “What do you want? How do you feel about her?” The fear from such a seemingly trivial situation—one I might seem lucky to be in—was paralyzing.
Consumed by life’s chaos, a mentor told me, “I want you to start meditating every day.” The directive changed my life.
Meditation has been one of the greatest catalysts of emotional well being in my sobriety. Now, I’m a long way from the all-consuming fear—instead, generally happy and free from the bondage of unprocessed emotion I thought I’d be trapped in for life. Of course, I still have my moments—and everyone does. But I know how to be okay through the emotional process of being a human.
Consumed by life’s chaos, a mentor told me, “I want you to start meditating every day.” The directive changed my life.
For me, this is the essence of “emotional sobriety:” I’m able to feel the vast spectrum of human emotions; I’m able to walk through these emotions without using addictive behaviors to regulate myself; while difficult times happen, my overall emotional baseline is one of contentment with myself and my life; and I know how to come back to emotional equilibrium when life throws me for an emotional loop.
If you’re interested in using meditation to work toward emotional sobriety, it’s helpful to work with someone who’s committed to tracking how you’re doing and available to support you. This could be a therapist, one-on-one meditation teacher, recovery sponsor, lifestyle coach, or another mentor whom you trust.
And remember: Stay within your window of tolerance. What’s progress and healing for someone else might not be the same for you, and emotionally oriented meditation practices can bring up intense emotions or upsetting thoughts, particularly if you’ve experienced trauma. If this begins to happen, shift to a practice from suggestion five below. That’s one of the reasons you’ll need to have someone by your side throughout the process. Call them to talk through your experience.
These are mindfulness tools my meditation students and I find most effective for emotional sobriety. Remember to take this practice in small doses and short practice periods. There’s no rush.
1. All emotions are natural and lovable. Practice mindfulness of emotion in the present moment.
In the mindfulness system I teach and practice (Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system), we explore emotions as body sensations. There’s strong research to support that emotions manifest in specific parts of the body. By turning attention toward the body and watching emotion there, you’ll get to know yourself on a deeper level. By learning to allow these sensations to come and go in their own time, you can develop peace with emotion.
These are the two components my mentor concisely captured in her first meditation instruction to me. It’s an important teaching. Watch emotions in your body without trying to fix or change them. Get curious about what the sensations in your body are like. Watch how they change over time. Practice as much nonresistance with them as possible. If you can, try naming each emotion. Labeling emotions can help regulate them.
It’s helpful to do this in formal meditation practice, and also periodically throughout the day.
2. Emotions that aren’t allowed to move through get stuck in the body. Process this “old” emotion through mindfulness practice.
We all get messages about what we are and aren’t supposed to feel, from both our families and cultures. In traumatic situations, it can even feel dangerous to feel or express emotions. We often grip down in our bodies to try to stop emotional sensations we believe we aren’t supposed to have, or have a freeze response that also hinders the flow of emotion.
This emotion that isn’t allowed when it first arises gets stored in the body, often in the throat, chest, and abdomen. This old emotion then colors day-to-day experience. When I started doing this practice, I found a lot of sadness stored in my body. An enduring sense of despair persisted in the background of daily life, even when nothing particularly sad was happening. This old emotion can also lead us to have intense emotional reactions that are confusing to those around us.
We often grip down in our bodies to try to stop emotional sensations we believe we aren’t supposed to have, or have a freeze response that also hinders the flow of emotion.
For example, when I began this practice, I noticed that when my partner gave me suggestions for how I could do something better it brought up all this old shame in my body. This shame caused me to have a big emotional reaction that felt to him like it came out of the blue. This reaction made complete sense based on my personal history, but didn’t make intuitive sense to others.
Here’s what to do about it: Learn to observe and allow this old emotion. This old emotion often happens deeper in the body, and has a gripping or contractive quality. It sometimes feels thick or dense. The sensations stay relatively still in one area of the body. As you begin to bring attention to the body in the previously described exercise, you may notice locations where you find this kind of emotional sensation. Hold your awareness in that location. Practice relaxing the body in the area where the emotion is held, and locations surrounding that area. Practice allowing yourself to feel that emotion. Sometimes it can be helpful to repeat a word or phrase to that emotion in your mind—something that communicates full permission for that emotion to come and go as it needs to. Sometimes I’ll say “welcome” or “I love you” over and over again to these pockets of old emotion.
3. Bring mindfulness of emotion into your relationships.
Relationships are key to emotional sobriety. But research indicates that having relationships aren’t the only thing that correlates with life satisfaction, but rather the quality of those relationships. More mindfulness correlates with higher relationship satisfaction.
Working on practice two (above) can help release emotion that’s stored up from the past, and can cause us to have emotional outbursts or big reactions that don’t make sense to others. And this practice can help us become aware of which emotions we have a lot of stored up in the body, and when these old emotions become activated. This means that we can start to discern, when we feel hurt or discomfort in a relationship, how much of that is from the current situation with the other person, and how much is old stuff getting kicked up.
In my best moments, I’ll remember to bring attention into my body and do a little investigating when I feel interpersonally triggered. I can then say something like, “I don’t want to lose sight of working on what’s happening right now, and also I think this is bringing up past stuff for me that I could use some care around.” Then, instead of increasing conflict and distance by taking that old emotion out on the other person, I can get care that will help heal that old emotion.
Relationships are key to emotional sobriety. But research indicates that having relationships aren’t the only thing that correlates with life satisfaction, but rather the quality of those relationships.
Working with practice one can help us process emotion in real time, so we don’t accumulate more old emotion. It can also help us communicate in real time about what we want, need, and feel. I distinctly remember the first time I told my now-fiancé that I felt jealous. We were six months into our relationship, and he spent most of the time at a big group dinner talking with a female acquaintance I found very attractive. On our ride home I used this practice to check in with how I was feeling.
First, I noticed anger: a buzzy flow that felt like it was pushing outward on my arms and face. Then fear: tightness in my chest and throat. Then I noticed longing: a contractive, sinking feeling in my chest and belly. Without this mindful check-in, I would have been directed ambient anger toward my partner. Thanks to this mindful check-in, I was able to take responsibility for how I felt and the care I needed. I was able to say, “Can I ask for your reassurance? I felt a little jealous and insecure at dinner, and I still feel that way. Can you reassure me that you’re attracted to me, want to be with me, and aren’t going to cheat on me?”
Communicating authentically about how I felt and what I needed transformed the experience of difficult emotion from something wedged between me and my partner that I could use against him, to something that brought us closer and made us better at caring for each other.
4. Live your life. Learn when to focus on the difficult stuff, and when to let all those feels take care of themselves.
It’s important to develop a balanced skill set in which you’re able to face difficult emotions, and also able to disengage from them. Sometimes it’s informative, cathartic, and resilience-building to face into difficult emotions, as described in the techniques above.
At the same time, there are many reasons to learn to disengage from the difficult stuff. As mentioned before, facing into difficult emotions can sometimes lead them to get more intense. We’re all born with negativity bias. Our minds are naturally drawn to sensations and situations that seem like a problem. This can lead us to ruminate over problems that thinking won’t solve (in other words, 99% of them); to get fixated on a small mistake and miss the million beautiful moments that preceded and followed it; to spend a lot of time thinking about what seems to be going wrong in ourselves and our lives, and hardly notice (let alone appreciate) all the things that are going just as we would like them to.
You’ll be okay if you take time away from worrying about your problems.
Balance practices one, two, and three with learning to intentionally focus on sensations in the world around you. My favorite is to learn to intentionally focus on sights. I let my eyes move naturally to whatever they’re drawn to. Each time my eyes move, I soak into the visual details of what I see. I don’t care what objects I see (person, computer, chair, etc.). I pay attention to color, shape, texture, getting curious enough to notice details I never noticed before. There is only so much bandwidth in attention. Through this technique, you can fill that bandwidth with the generally pleasant or neutral experience of seeing. The difficult stuff just won’t have room to bug you.
This can take a leap of faith sometimes. You’ll be okay if you take time away from worrying about your problems. If there’s something going on that needs your good thinking, set aside intentional time to write, think, and talk with others about it. Your problem solving skills and sense of perspective will be in better shape if your mind isn’t continuously wrapping itself around one problem.
5. Learn what regulates you.
Through the recommendations above, you have lots of great strategies for regulating your emotional experience and increasing emotional sobriety. And it’s important to remember that mindfulness is not a panacea in and of itself. Bringing mindfulness into your life can help you identify the wide variety of supports that help you come into equilibrium. These could include therapy, recovery meetings, dinner with a friend, going to the movies, asking a friend or partner to rub your back or for some hugs and snuggles, spending time in nature—the list of possibilities is vast. See if you can use a mindful approach to living to notice what regulates you and provide yourself with (and ask for) responsive care.
Life is going to happen. With these tools, emotions can become friends, not foes.