Emotional Sobriety

How to change attitudes

Altered Attitudes is one of the many sayings that are used in meetings and in rehabs that is adapted from the letters of Alcoholics Anonymous into another word or phrase.

AA meetings and the recovery process generally are full of sayings and phrases that for some people are quite catchy, and for other people can be a bit irritating.

What is often important, is to look behind the saying or the phrase, and see what it is really saying to you. Continue reading


Changing the things I can

Many people will be familiar with the wording of the Serenity Prayer, often heard at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step fellowships, and often use das almost a type of mantra by many people in recovery.

Indeed many people say that the wording of the serenity prayer in effect sums up many of the principles of the AA 12-step program, especially perhaps the most important principle about that of control.

The wording of the serenity prayer reads “courage to change the things I can” and many people will focus on the word courage.

In fact, whatever one’s understanding of courage, the most important thing is to recognise the sense that there are things you can change, and there are things that you cannot change, and know the difference between the two.

This is more than an issue about semantics. It is a fundamental sense about knowing what you are in control of and what you are not in control of.

Psychologists refer to this process as a ‘locus of control’ which really goes to the heart of the whole recovery process.

In the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the section on Step Three refers to a scenario of an actor on a stage trying to control the environment around him.

The real value of this analogy, may take a while for many individuals to really understand, as it goes to the core of an individual trying to control the life.

Many people in AA and in recovery generally understand this message to mean that they are not in control of their alcoholism, and more widely not really in control of anything that happens to them.

This can lead to real problems, and an inverted sense that if they are not in control of their life, someone or something else must be.

This can have huge implications for an individual’s sense of self, their understanding and their sense of God, and their sense of power or control over their own life.

This understanding of themselves as people, what their sense of God is or isn’t and how it impacts on their lives is hugely important in a recovery context.

Any rational human being looking at their life, what ever the context, would readily understand that at some level they have control or power over some things, and there are other things that do not have control of power over.

Being able to consciously understand this, and make adjustments where necessary is an absolute key to any peace of mind and inner stability. For many alcoholics and people heavily affected by alcoholism it is a lifesaver, often quite literally.

The alternative is that your feel you have no control over anything your life, in which case you are likely to feel that you’re simply drifting through and reacting to life, or that something or someone else is in control of your life.

That scenario is more akin to a cult setting, than the reality of a free human being.


What is Caretaking?

Asking the question what is care taking could almost be tagged with what is the relevance of caretaking in the context of alcoholism or other addictions. Caretaking can often be seen in the same context as taking care of people, a healthy thing to be aware of someone else’s needs and helping them take care of them.

It is important to understand the term caretaking specifically in the context of alcoholic homes especially, but other dysfunctional families may give rise to many of the problems associated with alcoholism and other addictions.

Whilst it is always dangerous to generalise about families, is probably fair to say that anecdotal evidence suggests that many active alcoholics, and especially members of Alcoholics Anonymous grew up in alcoholic homes.

This may well be where one or both of the parents were alcoholics, or may well be what our Al-Anon refers to as generational alcoholism. This simply means that one or more of a families relatives may have been alcoholics, and the effect of this may have been passed down through generations.

The process of recovery from the effects of growing up in alcoholic home do not really depend upon identifying who the alcoholic was or when they lived. The issue is much more about the effects of alcoholism in an emotional context upon the family concerned.


There are a number of common features that seem to affect children who grow up in alcoholic homes.

They mostly seem to relate to a lack of boundaries, a sense of enmeshment within the family, and a huge sense of distorted responsibilities. It is very common for children who grow up in alcoholic homes to take on responsibilities that are way above their age, and are not theirs to take.

This is essentially what caretaking refers to in a recovery sense. The effect that it can have on children in the context of becoming responsible for things that they do not have control over can be hugely damaging, both short-term and long-term.

Caretaking has very little to do with actually taking care of people, but has a lot to do with children trying to fill a hole that should not exist but often does. Any child in any family needs a sense of safety in order to grow and lead any sort of decent life.

In an alcoholic home that is likely to be little safety, either of a physical or an emotional nature. This will often lead a child or children to try and create their own sense of safety by overcompensating for the parents.

This often defines their sense of self for life, and their whole sense of identity once they grow up.This process is known as caretaking, and needs to be identified in a recovery context once the alcoholic is sober. This is essentially a process of rebuilding their life and their inner world, that is about giving them any peace of mind and stability as adults, whether in rehab or elsewhere.


How easy is it to Change?

One might easily ask change what, but anyone who has been to any AA meeting or has been through rehab will be well aware that people talk about change consistently, and present change as being perhaps the most important issue that anyone wanting to recover from alcoholism or any other addiction needs to address.

To anyone who isn’t an alcoholic but knows one, what that individual needs to change may well be fairly obvious.

It may start with their drinking, may well continue with their anger and their other emotional reactions to life.

The other person may or may not be aware that they cannot change the alcoholic, but can change themselves in terms of their approach to how they deal with them and help them or not.

Anyone entering a rehab or going directly to a meeting is likely at some level to be pretty terrified about the process, or what it involves doesn’t involve.

One of the underlying fears that may take a time to identify is the fear of living without alcohol.

This is not linked to where the reality of the alcoholism has taken them, it is simply an emotional attachment to alcohol that is likely to have been present for some time, and is likely to have got deeper the worse their alcoholism has progressed.

For many people who are alcoholics the idea of change is pretty terrifying.


It means letting go of the one thing that they believe has held them together most of the lives, which is alcohol, and letting go of the emotional coping mechanisms that have also held them together most of their lives.

For anyone entering rehab therefore, the notion of change can seem pretty terrifying and it is important for everyone to realise this.

People who are in recovery need to understand the process of change and the benefits that come with it and need to remember that this cannot be forced on an individual. Understanding where that individual is coming from and the fears that they are likely to have at some level is a crucial part of helping them feel safe enough to begin the process of recovery, of change.

The key, if there is one, to change is safety.

The individual needs at some level to be able to feel safe enough to begin to heal their inner world, the process that is key to their own long-term recovery. How an individual changes is a uniquely individual experience, and that change they will take time for them to fully appreciate.

Other people may see the change in them quicker than they stayed in themselves. However, the nature of change however it occurs, is that it is likely to happen only when the individual feels safe enough to really begin to deal with the underlying emotional drives that have fuelled their alcoholism.

For many people this is a incredibly scary process and takes some people much longer than others. Giving them time to process what they need is perhaps the greatest gift they can have.


What are Boundaries ?

Boundaries is a word that is often thought of as being used purely in therapy or in various types of psychobabble that many people in rehab and recovery work in 12 step fellowships will ignore or not go near.

This is a real shame, as the idea of boundaries and an understanding and implementation of them in an individual’s recovery work is a key and crucial element of their staying sober and moving forward with their life.

Anyone entering rehab is likely to be struck by the number and type of rules and regulations that often exist by way of structuring the individual’s life whilst they are in rehab. To many people these rules and regulations seem excessively rigid, and often put people off going into rehab as well as giving them an excuse to leave once they are there.

There is no doubt that some rehabs take these rules and regulations to an extreme, but it is likely that they would argue that the purpose of these rules and regulations is to provide some type of structure for the individual to begin their recovery process in.

The structure is of itself a set of boundaries, providing what should in theory be a safe place for the individual to begin the process to effectively switch off from their active alcoholism, and begin the process of their emotional recovery.

The nature of boundaries is in fact an integral part of any healthy child development in any relatively normal or safe and well functioning family.

The intent is to provide a safe and secure environment, where the child can essentially bounce off a permanent structure in such a way that allows them to develop their own sense of identity whilst exploring what is and what is not acceptable.

Many people who are alcoholics have grown up in homes where there were either no boundaries or very lax boundaries. This meant that they never really developed a healthy sense of self or a healthy identity, and in many ways always felt out of control at some level.

This internal and often external chaos has often been a key element of fuelling their active alcoholism, and is one of the first things that recovery, either in rehab or in meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, seeks to address.

The boundaries that are set in a rehab are obviously external, although the intent is to provide a sense of safety that ultimately an alcoholic will be able to operate into their own life, and create a sense of safety that is within.

The sense of an inner stability and safety will take some time to develop for most people, and is to a large extent dependent on the individual recognising a lack of boundaries in their life, and where this has taken them.

Setting boundaries about one’s own life is not about setting rules, although this may be the initial sense of what is happening. It is about recreating at an adult level a healthy sense of self in the individual that does not let other people manipulate them, and gives them the freedom to explore and rebuild their life in a loving and healthy context.


The Nature of Blame

The tendency to blame other people and institutions for whatt has happened to us tends to get a bad press, often being thought of as a bad way to think or a way of thinking that is a process where there is no escape.

It is one area of emotional insight work that falls into the trap of judging emotions rather than accepting them as part of how we think.

The other main areas that are akin to this are things like gratitude, which is sort of an seen as a good emotion, or anger or self-pity which are seen as not very pleasant character traits and thought of as bad emotions.

Anyone entering a rehab will be, or is likely to be surprised that the main focus of the time spent in rehab will not be on alcohol particularly, but on the therapeutic approaches that the rehab offers as a way of helping the alcoholic understand the underlying emotional drives that have fuelled a drinking.

Rehab will most likely invoke the 12 step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous, and is likely to use a watered-down version of the 12-step process as part of their own addiction treatment program.

Whatever the approach used by the rehab, it is likely to include a process that is known in AA language as taking an inventory. This is in fact much simpler than it sounds in theory, it is simply the individual taking stock of their lives and looking at where their sense of anger and fear and other emotional highs and lows have taken them.

It is probably simpler to look at the process as outlined in the book Alcoholics Anonymous which focuses on resentment as being the main priority in taking an inventory. It asks the individual to outline and detail their resentments in a particular way, in such a way as to give them an insight into who they are angry with and why they are angry.

The real freedom comes from understanding what it is within the individual themselves that triggers their anger, irrespective of the cause or how strong or big the trigger is.

The important thing about dealing with one’s anger or resentment however one does it, is to realise that one is not judging the emotional response, one is simply acknowledging it as being a reality of how the individual may think.

Often the individual does not want to acknowledge that they do think this way, but all that does is actually suppress the anger and the blame even further. Self-censorship of one’s emotions is a highly damaging process.

Telling yourself you are not angry or that you do not blame people when you actually do, merely buries the anger and rage even further and is likely to create an even deeper neurosis which will do much more long-term damage that people may realise.


A Sense of Belonging

Anyone who has ever sat in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous is likely to have heard at least one or more individuals say that whilst growing up and as adults they never felt as if they belonged, with a fitted in.

They may not enlarge upon this feeling they had, they may not explain what they did not feel they belong to or what they feel they did not fit into, but most people who are alcoholics will understand and identify with the sentiment.

It is one of the perhaps unique features of meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, whether held in a rehab or outside the world of rehab, that individuals share certain character traits and beliefs which other people who are alcoholics readily identify with.

This sense of identification is often a key part of giving new, and often people around sometime, a sense of identity, and a sense of feeling they are in the right place in order to deal with their alcoholism.

This sense of not belonging, or not fitting in, is a felt sense that is often very common amongst children who grow up in homes where one or both of the parents are active alcoholics.

Often this growing up in what is known as an alcoholic home has many different side-effects, but one of the main ones is that the children will feel a lack of safety, a lack of permanence and a lack of any sense of adult control over their lives.

This sense of no one being in control often leads the children themselves to believe that they have to take a sense of control over their lives, and this leads to a completely disjointed sense of responsibility at an age where it is completely inappropriate.

One of the major side-effects of growing up in an alcoholic home, is that there is not this natural sense of belonging, a sense of which is more likely to be commonplace in a loving and secure home environment.

There is not a natural and unconditional acceptance of the children, instead the children will feel that they have to earn a sense of being loved and wanted and belonging to the family.

The legacy of this type of needing to earn a sense of being wanted and loved can have devastating consequences for the child, both at the time and in later life. It is probably fair to say, based on anecdotal evidence, that a large percentage of members of Alcoholics Anonymous grew up in homes that could be described as alcoholic as outlined above.

Acknowledging what the problem is, and where it has come from is a crucial part of recovery, and one of the first major emotional insights that a rehab should be working towards helping the individual understand and integrate into their adult life.


What is Balance?

The idea of achieving balance in life can possibly seem quite a natural process for many people, depending on what sort of things they want to be in balance.

Many people assume that this means managing a work/life/family balance so that the person has time for each of those, and can integrate them into a healthy and holistic life that is fulfilling and worthwhile.

For someone who is an alcoholic, especially if they are about to enter or even when they leave a rehab, the idea of balance can have a completely different meaning.

It is always a bit dangerous to generalise about alcoholics, but it is probably fair to say that most alcoholics feel their life is completely out of balance when they get sober, both internally and externally.

Many people who are alcoholics live a life that emotionally is based on huge swings of great highs and great lows. Their life as an alcoholic can often result in huge traumas and great joys.

The idea of balance can be equated with a life that is quite boring, and the one thing that most alcoholics crave above all else is excitement.

It is important to re-examine what people who are alcoholics really mean or want, or might want by the idea of balance.

Upon entering rehab, it is probably fair to say that the individual will be in a pretty desperate state, and will need much reassurance that there is a lot of value to the idea of rebuilding their life without the need to drink or use drugs.

Up till this point, the life of the individual is likely to be premised on the basis that they need to drink in order to stay alive and in order to function.

The notion of staying sober and rebuilding a life may seem not only boring, but also pretty mundane and worthless.

It is important for the individual to begin the freedom to explore these doubts, and to begin to get their own understanding of what a life in balance may seem like. It is a good idea to stress that the idea of balance is primarily an internal process, one that is likely to bring a degree of inner stability and peace that may make the idea of balance seem more attractive.

For many people who are alcoholics, the emotional and mental swings that come with active alcoholism can be almost as destructive as the alcohol itself.

This emotional unmanageability can often be seen as an integral part of step one, although it may take the individual some time to realise this.

Achieving a degree of internal stability and emotional balance is the nature of the recovery process as outlined in the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, the principles of which had been adapted and used by many rehabs in their own addiction treatment programs.


Awareness, Acceptance and Action

These are often referred to as the 3 A’s, and tend to be essentially one of the slogans or sayings that are widely used in Al-Anon meetings.

Whilst sayings like this may be the preserve of certain 12-step fellowships such as Al-Anon, the significance and importance of these sayings reaches far beyond one fellowship or one meeting.

The value of this slogan of Awareness, Acceptance and Action is that it puts in very simple terms the process that people go through in terms of acceptance of an individual’s alcoholism or other addiction, and the process of recovery that follows it.

Awareness that an individual has a problem with alcohol can come quickly or slowly to the family and friends of that individual, whereas the individual themselves is most likely to take a lot longer to acknowledge that they have a problem.

For the family and friends of an alcoholic this presents real problems in terms of a quandary as to how they accept it and what they do about it.

The awareness that there is a problem with the individual can also lead them to understand that there is a broader problem within the family and that they are affected by the individual’s alcoholism whether they like it or not.

Awareness of a problem does not necessarily bring acceptance of it.

Awareness, Acceptance and Action

People can become aware of an individual’s alcoholism or other problems and simply refuse to acknowledge that it is true. Acceptance of a problem is often seen as self-defeating or surrendering to a truth that people do not like.

It is often a much healthier way forward to understand that acceptance simply means an acknowledgement of the reality of the situation, whether the individual likes it or not. An individual can accept a situation as being reality, without liking it or in some way wishing it was different but realising that it’s not.

This sense of acceptance of a problem in another individual, be it alcoholism or something else, inevitably brings forward the possibility of action of doing something about it.

What that action is, or what the individual chooses to do can vary quite widely, but the sense that they have some degree of control over the situation once they have accepted it, means to have choices that they did not have before.

Action can also mean no action in terms of not doing anything. So long as not doing something is a conscious choice it is as valid in its own right as doing something.

Anyone dealing with active alcoholism is going to face hard choices and difficult decisions, and the fear of making the right or wrong decision often only enhances the difficulty of these choices.

The way forward with any really difficult decision is to bring it back to the nature of the process, and to realise the enormity of the environment within which the individual is trying to move forward.



Anyone dealing with someone else’s active alcoholism is often baffled by the seeming lack of awareness that seems to pervade the thought process and the actions of the alcoholic themselves.

It seems pretty obvious to everyone around the alcoholic that they have a drink problem, and the obvious solution is for them to stop.

Even if they are unable to stop it is expected of them that they will have an awareness of the fact that they are addicted to alcohol and cannot stop and seek help. For many people the reality of working with an active alcoholic is very different.

Not only will an alcoholic deny that they have a problem with alcohol, they will go to extraordinary lengths to prove that they do not have a problem with alcohol, that in fact alcohol is a minor if inconsequential part of their life.

This denial of the fact that they have a problem is a huge and frustrating element to the whole recovery process for the alcoholic themselves, and to anyone else trying to help them.

As with any illness, the notion of recovery means that you get better. For anyone who is an alcoholic this process of getting better does not necessarily mean that an individual stops drinking.

There are many anecdotal instances of an alcoholic who has stopped drinking, but does nothing else with their recovery, and their partner or family after a while urge them to start drinking again because they are so miserable without it.

This often laughable but tragic situation goes to the heart of an individual’s process of dealing with alcohol and their alcoholism.

Any individual who is an alcoholic is most likely some point to start believing that alcohol is their friend, is the solution to their problems, and is essentially the only thing that is really holding them together.

They will base their denial of the fact that they have a problem around this belief system, subconsciously.

The reason why awareness is such a major issue, is simply because once any individual becomes aware of anything in their life it is impossible to turn the clock back.

Once an alcoholic becomes aware that alcohol is in fact the root cause of their problems not the solution, they are placed in an almost intolerable position in terms of living with the reality of their alcoholism, whilst at the same time holding onto a belief system that is holding them together but essentially killing them at the same time.

This is a very scary prospect for an alcoholic, and one that will only deepen and get worse the more the alcoholic clings to the belief that they need to drink in order to survive and stay alive.