Episode 142: Emotional Sobriety, the Next Frontier

Archer Voxx,  author of The Five Keys: 12 Step Recovery Without A God, and Alcoholics Anonymous Universal Edition spoke on the topic of emotional sobriety at the 2018 International Conference of Secular AA in Toronto, Ontario. Archer describes emotional sobriety having an awareness of the negative impact that unhealthy dependencies on people, places, and things can have on our emotional well-being. 

You can learn more about Archer and his work at the following links: 

AA Agnostica: Emotional Sobriety, Archer Reviews the book, 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and the Drugs are Gone, by Allen Berger, Ph.D. 

AA Beyond Belief Podcast Episode 54: The Five Keys 

Review of Alcoholics Anonymous Universal Edition 


Archer: My name’s Archer, and I’m a grateful recovering drug addict and alcoholic. 

Audience: Hey, Archer. 

Archer: It’s inspiring to be here with as many people that are like-minded, people from Atheists, Agnostics, free thinkers. We have a lot in common. There’s also, I’m a recovering pirate, scalawag, and troublemaker, and I expect there’s a few of you out there, too. When I first was presented the opportunity to do the workshop, I wanted to make sure that it fits in the subject of inclusion and diversity, because that, I think that’s important, that it supports the overall theme. But the second thing is, I wanted it to be something interesting there and something I’m passionate about. And the subject I’m passionate about is the subject of emotional sobriety. And I’m going to use emotional maturity and emotional independence interchangeably with that as I’m discussing it with you today. The reason I’m passionate about it is that it has opened up a whole new door for me. Like many of you, you’ve worked the steps, you attend meetings, you get a sponsor, you get some solid sobriety under your belt. And the next thing you find yourself asking is, “Well, where can I take it next? Where can I take my sobriety practice next that will be enriching?” 

Archer: And I believe the area of emotional maturity and independence, and emotional sobriety is one of the great areas. It’s been a new frontier for me. It’s something that I’ve been able to use with my sponsees, with my sponsor. And it’s completely secular. It is, I do it on a completely secular basis. I don’t need a higher power or anything in that space to make it work. My goals for today would be this, to give you some interesting background leading up to the subject of emotional sobriety. I got a few historical things and things I’d like to share that you might find interesting. I’m going to give you a definition of, a working definition of emotional sobriety. First, I’m going to read the definition that comes from our founding, one of our founding members in AA. But then, what I want to do is give you some tangible examples of it, some real-world examples of it, and hopefully, if I achieve what I’m going to achieve, you’re going to walk out the door and you’ll have a couple of solid tools in your tool kit, maybe some new ones that you can use on a day-to-day basis. Something that will expand this for you quite a bit. 

Archer: When you first hear the subject of inclusion and diversity, the first thing that comes to mind particularly with a secular person, is you would like the program to be inclusive and diverse of all beliefs. You’d like it to, us as free thinkers, and Atheists, and Agnostics, and you’d like it also to be welcoming on the other end to the people who have devout beliefs, religious beliefs, and things in the middle, spiritual beliefs. I believed that my version of Buddhism is more of a spiritual program rather than a religious. But when you hear inclusive and diverse, what you would hope is that it’s inclusive and diverse for all people. But there’s another version of inclusive and diverse, and that has to do with being inclusive and diverse relating to the kind of materials and things that the program exposes people to over time, meaning to bring into the fold you’d think over time. There have been 80 years of research into the allergy of the body since the big book was published. 

Archer: 80 years of research. They know that there’s some DNA implications, brain function implications. They know that the person’s liver, depending on how it operates, will put more or leave more poisons in the system and cause you more craving when you drink. There’s a whole litany of science that’s occurred over those 80 years. On the obsession of the mind from the big book, there’s also 80 years of research since then on the obsession of the mind. People’s emotional foundation, how they’re raised, the things that occur in their lives. And so, along the path though, in that 80 years, and unfortunately AA General Services has chosen largely to stay out of all of that. They’ve just stayed out of it all. They have an organization, General Services. I think there are 70 employees, paid employees, and there are some other employees sprinkled around that essentially, they’re a maintenance organization for something that was published in the ’30s. They have something that’s working, at least in their eyes, and it does, there’s many, there are 1300 AA meetings a week in Southeast Michigan where I’m from. Just take an extrapolate out globally what’s going on every week. 

Archer: So, there’s something there, they see it working. And I’m not going to be too much of an activist here, but they could do some things. They could do some things. But they’re an organization that has no stockholders. They are an organization that’s run on an ad hoc basis. They’re organized… The disorganized organization that Bill Wilson and company set up. So fundamentally, General Services has no product development people or people in the strategy department. And eventually, AA could atrophy in its current form, but it serves a large population. And there’s one argument I could make, I could put myself on that side. So anyway, not to go down that path anymore, I think there’s plenty they can do. Now, most of the work that’s being done is grassroots related efforts to bring new things in. 

Archer: For example, this meeting we’re having today, the whole conference around keeping the secular issues in front of us, very important. People setting up secular meetings locally, people bringing literature to the tables and the meetings I go to there are books like Drop the Rock and some other books like that, that they’ve been introducing over time. They bring the addicted brain, addictive thinking. There’s some great material on both allergy of the body, obsession of the mind, that at a grassroots level are starting to trickle into the meetings just like secularism is. And in my space, I’ve done some work, I’ve got a couple of books that… I’m not here to pitch books but I’m just telling you where… I took on general services a little bit about this because my belief is, they could publish a secular, neutral version of the Big Book. So, my books, Alcoholics Anonymous Universal Edition, I did a soft edit on it, take the religion out of it. I can do that because it wasn’t copyrighted. 

Archer: One of the versions wasn’t copyrighted so I… But that’s a form of service work on my part. So, I have a couple of books out there that help fill in that space because they’re not filling in the space. Well, you might be surprised to find out that Bill Wilson in the 1950s and some of you will know this, he wrote a letter to the Grapevine, called The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety. He suggested to AA General Services through this article in the Grapevine for something called emotional sobriety and where AA could go next. Now, I’m a Bill Wilson fan and I don’t know if it’s my background. I have a corporate background, but I have some background in strategic planning, organization development and things of that nature. When he writes this article, I look at him kind of as a troubled visionary, somebody that people should listen to, general services should listen to. My guess is there are a few troubled visionaries here in the audience that believe they should be listened to. 


Archer: I’m certainly one of those people. Let me take a little diversion to give you a little bit on Bill. I am not a Bill Wilson historian. I read a couple of bibliographies on… Biographies on him but let me give you a little bit on him just to show you the troubled visionary that I think Bill was, the package that he is, because then maybe you will appreciate when the guy’s making the suggestion, later on, I just find this interesting. He was abandoned by his parents when he was young, raised by his grandparents, my understanding grandfather’s an alcoholic. Bill struggled with alcoholism, caffeine, cigarettes, womanizing and depression. He carried most of that his whole life except the drinking part. Had trouble holding a regular job, he was known as being arrogant, sloppy and looking like he got out of bed in his suit most of the time, ashes on his suit. 

Archer: This is one of our founding fathers. To do an everyday thing, he was unreliable. He was an unreliable guy and he was debilitated by alcohol. What I read somebody in one of the comments was that he never had a drink, a recreational drink. It was kind of always lived at that. Now, for the other side of Bill Wilson. The president of his senior class in high school, a star on both his baseball team and the football team and captain of one or more of those. He taught himself to play the violin and was the first chair violin in his school. Now there may have only been one seat in his school, but he was the first chair violin in his school. His mother who was in the medical field believed that he could have gone to MIT and there were other people. He took a test there and did miserably on it, perhaps the drinking already had a hold of him. 

Archer: He took a test offered by Thomas Edison at Menlo Park, he scored one of the highest scores on it and was offered a job by Thomas Edison to do research at Menlo Park and turned it down, turned it down. He was an innovator in the stock market and that’s covered somewhere in the Big Book and that literature. Actually, he was one of the first people to go out. He went out on his motorcycle and they went out and did research in the field and started bringing insider information into the fold. So maybe he had invented insider information or something. But this is Bill and he was known by people around him although arrogant and although this kind of guy, he was known as an eclectic big-picture problem solver by those people and when he says something, that’s why I’m a fan. I mean, here’s a guy that I don’t believe is just a drunk guy that fumbled around and drafted the 12 steps and wrote the first chapters of The Big Book, you just don’t fumble around and do that. That’s where I believe the visionary part of it comes in. This guy wrote that material and got this thing on the way. He invented a disorganized organization, which is one of the reasons this whole thing survived, he invented that along with Bob and some of the other, his cohorts. 

Archer: But this isn’t something that he just stumbled into. So, I think he’s worth listening to when he starts suggesting and he did that in ’58 kind of subtly in the material. Again, called The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety, and I’d like to read you a couple of excerpts from that, and I’m just going to read a couple of short ones and I paraphrased them a little bit because there’s some language. He uses the word oldsters and things like that in it. And so, I’m paraphrasing a little. Let me read to you. This is Bill’s suggestion and what he says there. 

Archer: “I think that many of us who have used the AA program successfully still find they often lack emotional sobriety. Perhaps this can be the next major development in AA. The development of much more real emotional maturity and balance in our relations with ourselves and with others. I realized that my basic flaw has always been dependence, almost absolute dependence on people and circumstances to supply me with prestige, security and the like. Failing to get these things, I fight for them, and then when defeat comes, I feel the depression, or I feel let down. If we examine every disturbance, big or small, we will find at the root, some unhealthy dependency and the unhealthy demands we place on people, places and things. And I’m going to give you some examples of this in a little bit, so just hold on to that thought. What he’s saying here, we need emotional maturity and balance. 

Archer: Not having a dependence on people, places, and things for our well-being. Not holding everyone and everything to a perfectionist standard. And I’m going to give you some examples of that where that comes in here. And he said, in a sense what underlies this is letting go of the control. Letting go and developing an awareness that you have this going on. That you walk into situations expecting those situations to fulfill you in some way, and holding everybody in those situations and things, by the way, I’m going to give you an example, to high standards. It fails you, and then you feel, you know. And that is emotional immaturity, having that dependence. Call that clinging, what Bill’s talking about, call it an attachment. But there are roots of what he’s describing. And again, I mentioned Buddhism before, I look at it more like a belief system than a religion, but it’s mentioned, what he’s talking about is the core of Buddhism from 2500 years ago. It’s the center of Buddhism. 

Archer: Buddhism is we cling, so we suffer. We cling so we suffer. We cling to people, places and things. We compare ourselves to that. We compute the gap. We compute that gap. And we kick our ass about it. We kick our own butts about it. It’s at the center of Buddhism. Taking it forward to today, what he’s talking about, this emotional dependency and immaturity, taking it forward to today, it’s at the center of obsessive-compulsive behavior. It’s at the center of acceptance commitment therapy, ACT. And all of the… I’m not saying Bill drove those sciences with his recommendation or anything, but what he’s saying is profound. It’s at the core of some of these things and some of the modern psychology. Now, there have been some people in one of my… I’ve got a copy of the book up here, rather than you write it all down right now and getting in the way of my profound knowledge. 


Archer: I’m going to tell you that there’s a guy named Allen Berger. There are some people in modern recovery that have picked up on this, Emotional Sobriety. Great book. But what he’s done is, he studied this. Bill’s recommendation and brought in, and he has a Ph.D. in psychology, he’s one of us, he’s been in recovery for over 35 years or so. He was one of the first counselors of Vietnam vets coming out of Vietnam with addiction. He’s a great guy, I’ve met him personally. He’s a wonderful guy. So, what he’s brought forward has said, “So how do you react when you’re emotionally immature?” Okay, when you walk in a situation, you’re holding everybody in the… To high standards, and you’re expecting them to, you know. And they don’t do it, how do you react? He said there are three ways, and this comes out of the study of psychology. You go on the attack. Well, it’s a one-on-one, “You motherfucker.” Why don’t you buy into what I’m saying or?” The other one is, you run. You leave the situation and go, “I’m not talking to that guy again.” You go on the attack, you run, or the worst thing you do is you, people, please. The next time we get together, I’m going to buy him lunch. I’m going to buy him lunch so that he likes me more. Our conversation had nothing to do with any of that, but I walked into it expecting a perfectionist outcome, him to treat me in that way. 

Archer: You don’t think you’re doing that. You don’t go in that, but what happens is your self-esteem and your neediness drive you to be that way. To go around looking for validation and looking for that input. And not only that, you expect not only applause from people, a lot of applause, and often. For your profound input and knowledge. Now, these things, holding people to high standards, expecting to get a lot of good vibes from them and everything, and then running, or attacking, running or pleasing and being in that whole space, is where the fear and resentments and stuff come from. These things underly steps 4, 5, 6 and 7 in the study into that. And that’s where the enrichments come for me. By understanding this theory of emotional sobriety, you start to get a lot better feel, you start to get a lot better feel for what’s going on under there. 

Archer: What I’d like to do is give you some live examples of this, some real examples of this so you can start. Okay. I have, as a hobby, music. I play guitar and I have a little recording setup at home, and I write songs. And of course, they’re brilliant. Of course, they are. So, I make an MP3 of a song that I do. And I take it to a family gathering. There are 25 family members on one side of it and I walk in with my MP3 player and I plug it in and I turn up the volume, I turned it all up and said, “Hey everybody, check this out, this is a song I… This is a tune I did.” And while it’s playing, a couple of them keep drinking and… You know, there’s a beverage corner. 

Archer: And a couple of them keep drinking, a few of them are off too and they walk outside, and a couple of them stay inside, and it finishes up and they go, a couple of them go, “Hey, that’s pretty good, that’s good.” And I can remember, later on, my fur just going up. Like, “Come on, I worked on this thing for a week.” I worked on this thing for a week and I feel myself hating all 25 of them. And thinking, and thinking, “Those sons of bitches.” Well, the fact is, the fact is that behind the scenes when I walked in there, I walked in there with… Expecting them to fulfill my needs, and I expected them to… I was holding them to the high standards of music production. I expected them to flip around in their seats, and this is in the back, this isn’t like I’m not thinking this overtly, but I expected them to flip around in their seats and get… Come to attention. I expected them to say, “Turn that up a little more so we can hear it, so we can hear it.” I expected them to when it was done, for them to go, “Wow. Wow.” Maybe light some lighters. 


Archer: Light some lighters and go, “Archer, damn it, that’s good. Do you sell it? Do you have any you can buy?” But that doesn’t happen, but that’s what you can walk into situations when you don’t realize you’re doing it, but your kind of self-esteem and your motivation like that pushes you to be like that. What do I do in that situation? I can go on the attack, I chose not to do this, I can remember this. I could get them and just say, “Come on guys.” Get the whole room and say, “Come on. I worked on this a lot.” Or I could go, or I could just leave, Sarah there and say, “I’m never going back to those sons of bitches again. I don’t care if they’re relatives. They don’t love me.” Or worst-case scenario, as far as I’m concerned, the worst-case scenario is I decide that “I’m going to go back and make a better song and take it to the next party because I’m not good enough. That song was not good enough and that’s why they didn’t listen and that’s why they didn’t applaud.” 

Archer: Perfect example. It’s a good example. That’s a live example with me. Another example, okay, here’s a person I know, they’re at work, they walk in a conference room, they walk in this conference room, there are two people that are very good friends of theirs at work sitting at the table in the conference room. They walk in and then one of them, they’re really quiet, and one them just looks up and then goes, “Hi, I’ll talk to you later.” And this guy I know just leaves the room, just storms out and he’s pissed off at these people. He’s pissed off at them. And we talked about it, and the reason he’s pissed off at them is this when he went into the room when he went into that room, he went in there with these expectations, they’re his good friends, they should have propped up and said, “Hi Jim, how are you doing? How is it going?” And they should have invited him into their private conversation. Of course, they should have, because he’s got the answers, he’s the answer man and he would have been the guy to have in that discussion, this is what he’s… In the back of his mind. 

Archer: It’s not driving him directly, but when you talk to him about it, that’s what it is. He was expecting them to be welcoming, to have him into the conversation. He was put off by the fact they just went, “Hi,” and, “I’ll talk to you later.” They found out… He finds out later the one guy’s wife just left him, and did it via phone, and they were having a very private conversation. It had nothing to do with him, but his motivation and his self-centeredness and everything caused him to be like that, and he said, what he did in that situation, he went on the attack, he went at both of them and said, “What are you guys up to? Can I get in on this? What’s so private about this stuff?” And they said… And one of them turned around to him and said, “I’ll talk to you later. I can’t talk to you now.” And then he’s on fire leaving the room. So, his response was what the expectations of the situation were, the expectations and holding these people to high standards for a lot of applause and validation.

 Archer: My last example is this, you could have these relationships with inanimate objects. Let’s take the car purchase, this is an automobile purchase. You spend two or three weeks researching the car. You have conversations even with friends about how excited you’re getting about… And you got this new car you’re looking at and everything and you start looking at the cars, you spend a lot of time. So, you buy this car, you take it around to a few of your friends and you go, “Here’s my new car.” And they go, “Hey, that’s pretty cool.” And that’s it. And then, you have a lease payment in transportation.


 Archer: Those jerks. And you all of a sudden, let’s say you go on the attack with that car, “This car, this stinks, this is a bad car.” You run from it, “I’m not going to buy a car like this again.” Or even worse, you don’t get the reaction from people you were kind of expecting in that, “I’m going to spend more on the next one. I’m going to spend more on the next one.” You can have that relationship with houses, watches, people, objects, where you’re expecting too much out of them, holding them to high standards and then you get disappointed.

 Archer: So, what is emotional maturity? I believe it’s a new frontier really. And where the emotional maturity comes in is understanding the awareness, and understanding the terminology and definitions, but having an awareness of this, just so when you walk into situations you’re walking into the situation with an awareness that you can be like this, that you might have expectations that are unrealistic, and you might be holding the people in there to standards that you shouldn’t. And then, if you start an awareness also if you start to feel that your fur go up, and you want to go on the attack or you want to run or you think yourself people-pleasing, ask yourself why you’re doing that. because there is an underlying emotional foundation in there that I believe, I know I have. And if you practice this kind of thing on a regular basis, you’ll… It is really enriching. You can take it to one-on-one conversations with people, but in the workplace, at home with your significant other, and walk in the door and go, “I’m having a terrible day and my significant other is on the computer and doesn’t pay any attention to me. Come on, I’m the King of the Castle. You should be welcoming me home. You should be making me feel good. That shit, whatever you’re doing doesn’t matter. I matter. I matter.”

 Archer: And then they don’t even turn their heads and look at you, and they go, “Let’s go out and get something to eat.” And they keep going on the computer. It’s very enriching on one-on-one conversations like this. So, if you take this with you, I’m going to wrap it up here, but now I’m going to tell you the title of the book. This is one of my favorite books, and I use this for myself with sponsees, Karen, my wife, uses it in Al-Anon with her sponsees. It is called, 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs Are Gone. 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs Are Gone. Choosing emotional sobriety through self-awareness and right action. By the way, self-awareness and right action are Buddhist terms. So, this guy, Allen Berger, probably has a little bit of that going. He’s got some other 12 smart thing books, but I think this one, for the subject I’m talking about, hits it right on the money, and it’s good stuff, it’s things you can actually do. It opens up with Bill’s letter and things like that.

 Archer: That is what I have for you today. Now, I want to close with one thing though. I came in here with a very emotionally mature view of the world.


 Archer: And I came here without holding you to a lot of expectations. But if you don’t applaud for me, I’ll be devastated. Thank you very much.


John S: I thought Archer made an important point during the opening of his presentation about how AA World Services hasn’t been as visionary as was AA’s co-founder Bill Wilson, who for all his faults, was a brilliant man and a frustrated visionary who badly wanted the Fellowship he helped found to explore new frontiers such as emotional sobriety. It is interesting to imagine what our Fellowship would be like today if we had continued to update our basic program of recovery, or at the very least how we communicate that program.

John S: Thank you for listening. It’s always nice to spend this time with you. Last week, we had our first episode that was streamed live and we even took listener phone calls. That was a lot of fun and I believe I learned how to avoid the poor sound quality of the phone calls. So, we will try another live feed in the near future.

John S: In closing, I would like to ask that if at all possible, please support our site and podcast with either a one-time contribution or small recurring donations. You can do this at our Patreon site, patreon.com/aabeyondbelief, PayPal at paypal.com/aabeyondbelief, or simply by visiting our site aabeyondbelief.org and clicking on the dontate button.

John S: Well, that’s it for another episode of AA Beyond Belief…. The podcast.