It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.
— Aldous Huxley
Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, coined the term “emotional sobriety”. He saw sobriety from a substance as the addict’s first task, the next challenge or “next horizon” he felt was emotional sobriety. And this is true for addicts and anyone who has lived with addiction or the emotional dysregulation that accompanies relational trauma. Emotional sobriety is a mind/body phenomenon. It encompasses the ability to experience and talk about feelings alongside learning to live life in balanced ways so that both the mind and the body can live in harmony.
Emotional sobriety isn’t about being overly serious; it’s about not feeling, thinking, and behaving from emotional extremes. It’s about self-regulation. As we become “emotionally sober” we expand our ability to tolerate what we’re feeling, to live through our intense emotions without acting out or self medicating. We gain information, and allow our feelings to inform us, we have them, feel them, think about, process and move through them. We can step back from them and perceive our own role in the play of life, in the scheme of things. We can see the big picture.
In trauma parlance this allows the thinking mind to come on board so that the beautiful prefrontal cortex can play it’s function of creating meaning out of experience and placing it into the framework of our lives.Remember when we’re traumatized, whether from a charging elephant or a raging parent, our thinking mind shuts down so that our fight/flight can operate encumbered, so that we’ll get out of harm’s way fast, without considering the options. However, while this allows us to take immediate evasive action, it means we don’t think about what’s happening. Which also means that we don’t translate our feelings of fear and hurt into words, understand them and work through them. Rather they live within us in a sort of flash frozen state. If that were the end of it it would be great but it’s not. These feelings don’t lose thier power to influence us simply because they are unconcious. In fact, the very fact that they are unconcious can mean that they can derail us at any time. When we get triggered, those unconscious feelings can shoot to the surface and leak out all over the place as sudden bouts of rage, sadness or hyper vigilance.When it’s close relationships that hurt us, it’s often close relationships that become our triggers, or rather the feelings that we experience (or try to avoid experiencing) in close relationships like dependence, vulnerability, need, love, rejection, acceptance….those kinds of feelings….the meat and potatoes of intimacy.
One of the stepping stones towards emotional sobriety is emotional literacy. Being able to translate our emotions into words elevates both feelings and limbic body memories from an unconscious state into a conscious one.
Learning the Language of Feelings
Emotional literacy or what I am calling the language of feelings constitutes nothing less than learning a new language, the language of our emotions. When you become emotionally literate, your ability to translate feelings into words serves as a map that allows you to enter into your own inner world, travel through it and find your way out again. And then you can communicate that inner world to others. Simple as that sounds, it’s not easy. It is a skill best developed in childhood, in the caring arms of our parents and caregivers who first and most importantly allow us to have an inner world of our own. Who listen as we struggle to find the right words, at the right time, for the right feeling, so that our fledgling attempts at being understood can actually be heard.
This language of emotions begins before words. Before language even enters the picture, we communicate our needs and wants to our parents and caregivers through an ever-expanding repertoire of looks, noises, screeches, facial expressions, gestures and body positions. An outreached hand, an arched back, a slap, a coo, a facial expression and a cuddle are the baby’s way of expressing themselves and for the parent who cares, they are loaded with grammar, meaning and syntax.
Early Attachment and Emotional Literacy
Children have a language all their own, and it is up to the adults in their world to pay attention, so that they feel heard. So that they can know themselves and walk through the world as confident little beings who feel that they can be seen and understood for who they are. In the mind of a child, if our parents understand us, we carry an inner sense that the world will understand us. If our parents do not turn away from our fragile attempts to communicate what is going inside of us, then the world perhaps, will have time for us, too and we develop the inner strength to fight our way through to make ourselves understood if and when we feel ignored. When this process happens day-by-day throughout our childhood, with the people we love and want to be understood by the most, through our primary attachment figures, it will feel as if it comes naturally to us, and we will have a much better chance of understanding ourselves. If it doesn’t, we will have to learn emotional literacy later in life.
That’s both the bad and the good news. The bad news is that we have to learn it; the good news is that we can, and learning it later in life can be a soulful and exciting journey.
Finding the right words for the right feelings liberates our truth, as Max Plank says, “The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.” Once we can use words to put shape and nuance into our inner experience, once we can communicate who we are on the inside, how we feel about something to ourselves and another human being, doors fly open. We can “know ourselves.” This is one of the most empowering odysseys anyone can take in life: the journey within. This is what allows us to explore our inner world. To reflect on our feelings and create meaning and understanding.This is what I go into in more depth in my new book, The Soulful Journey of Recovery. Because only then can we become reflective about our emotions, ponder their meaning and significance within our self and our life, and share them with another person, then listen as another person does the same. Only then can we use the beauty of our thinking minds to bring balance and order to our inner world. Emotional literacy is part of how we create emotional sobriety and emotional intelligence. Both require that we feel our feelings and name them, that we become curious about our own inner experience and learn to hear ourselves. And if we want intimacy, that we become curious about the inner experience of others.