Once you stop your out of control sexual behavior, you’ve come to the starting gate of discovering emotional sobriety. But what does this really mean? It’s when you feel most like yourself. When you begin to feel more comfortable in your skin, more relaxed and more at peace. It’s a reclaiming of your resilient, resourceful, regulated state of well-being.
During your highly-driven sexually compulsive days, you often felt like you were crawling out of your skin—restless, anxious, and often disconnected. According to Tian Dayton, author of Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance, these are the signs of emotional sobriety:
- Ability to regulate strong emotions
- Ability to regulate mood
- Ability to maintain a perspective on life circumstances
- Ability to regulate potentially harmful substances or behaviors
- Ability to live in the present
- Ability to regulate activity levels
- Ability to live with deep, intimate connection
- Resilience—the ability to roll with the punches
Many of these ingredients include regulation which describes when your nervous system is more resilient and balanced. By building awareness of your emotions, moods, thoughts, and sensations, you’ll have more choice over how you practice emotional sobriety as part of your daily recovery tools—and it’s a daily practice.
It’s only human to become dysregulated at one time or another, and you may experience this imbalance as rage, panic, depression or exhaustion. Part of recovery is knowing when you’re regulated or dysregulated and to feel more equipped to find your way back to a more regulated state more efficiently. This may include responding rather than reacting, building perspective on the activating situation or calling your sponsor for a reality check—all examples of emotional sobriety skills.
Keep in mind that emotional sobriety is not possible without sexual sobriety. Because out of control sexual behaviors hijack the brain, it will always leave you in a dysregulated state. Let’s take a look at how Jason consciously works toward emotional sobriety.
Jason is in his early 30s and has been going to twelve step meetings for sex addiction for two years. In general, he’s doing much better, but he doesn’t feel emotionally sober in spite of working the steps with a sponsor and using the tools of program.
Growing up in a wealthy family, it may appear that Jason had everything, but most of the time Jason was left with the nanny, leaving him starving for love and attention from his parents. When he went away to boarding school, he learned that his father had multiple affairs, and soon thereafter his parents went through a contentious divorce.
As a teen, he was moody, depressed and suicidal. And that’s when he discovered porn. Jason found a way to temporarily avoid the pain through masturbation and sexual release. He had no idea that pornography would be so intoxicating, and before he knew it, he was lost in porn more days than not.
It’s been more than fifteen years since Jason first found porn. He’s now been sexually sober for eighteen months and his longing for a romantic relationship is stronger than ever which feels exciting and terrifying. Being emotionally abandoned at such a young age, in addition to the secrets and lies surrounding his father’s infidelities, trusting others presented a serious risk. He realizes now that relying on reliable people is essential to living a life with emotional sobriety.
Little by little, Jason is learning to identify and express all of his feelings honestly and directly as he works the steps and goes to therapy. As a result, he describes feeling more comfortable in his skin. Although Jason has barely left the starting gate, he envisions a calmer, more grounded future. An internal experience he’s never known before.
Jason had been medicating his brokenheartedness through porn, but underneath it all, he craved love and meaningful connection. After he went into therapy and began to work a twelve-step program, he found people who unconditionally cared about him and offered him acceptance, compassion and understanding. As a result of experiencing dependable relationships, he now feels more regulated, relaxed and resourceful. Although it’s an ongoing challenge, Jason knows that he never wants to go back to his compulsive ways. Instead, he enjoys building upon his newfound emotional sobriety.
Andrew Susskind, LCSW, SEP, CGP is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Brainspotting and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner and Certified Group Psychotherapist with a private practice in West Los Angeles since 1992. He is the author of a workbook entitled From Now On: Seven Keys to Purposeful Recovery, and in June 2019 his latest book entitled It’s Not About the Sex: Moving from Isolation to Intimacy after Sexual Addiction was released by Central Recovery Press.