Emotional Maturity

Father Richard introduces this week’s meditations on emotional sobriety: 

Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson (1895–1971) viewed emotional sobriety as where the Twelve Steps should finally lead. The goal is not simply to stop drinking, but to become a spiritually awakened person who has found some degree of detachment from their own emotional, narcissistic responses. How is it that all of us get so easily hooked, so easily snagged by often temporary or even irrational things?

Let me try to describe the process. The word “emotion” (from Latin emovere) means a movement. It’s a body-based reaction in the moment that snags me immediately and urgently and feels like “me.” Some people say we should call emotions “narcissistic reactions,” and we have to recognize that they largely are! Since the body carries all our shame, our childhood conditioning and memories, our guilt, and our previous hurts, the addictive patterns of our emotions can be very hard to “unhook.” Emotions feel like truth—but they’re not necessarily.

That doesn’t mean emotions should be ignored. They must be felt; their honest message must be heard. Only then can we release ourselves from their fascination over us. They are necessary weathervanes to help us read situations quickly and perhaps in depth. But they are also learned and practiced neural responses, often ego-based, which have little to do with truth and much more to do with the story lines we have learned and created. The ego loves to hold on to such emotions to justify itself, defend itself, and assert its power. There is nothing like an angry person to control an entire conversation!

Much of the work of emotional maturity is learning to distinguish between emotions that offer a helpful message about ourselves or the moment, and emotions that are merely narcissistic reactions to the moment. I dare to say that, until we have found our spiritual center and ground, most of our emotional responses are usually too self-referential to be helpful or truthful. They read the moment as if the “I,” with its immediate needs and hurts, is the reference point for objective truth. It isn’t. The small, defensive “I” cannot hold that space. Reality/God/Creation holds that space. Persistent use of the small self as an objective reference point will only create deeper problems in the long run; it will not solve them.

If an emotion does not help us read a situation better and more truthfully, we must let it go—for our own well-being. Most of us are naturally good at attachment, but we have very little training in detachment or letting go. We must take the risk of legitimate attachment (fully feeling the emotion), learn its important message, and then have the presence and purpose to detach from that fascinating emotion after it has done its work. This is the gift and power of an emotionally mature person.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Emotional Sobriety: Rewiring Our Programs for ‘Happiness’ (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2011). Available in CDDVD, and MP3 download; and

“Introduction,” Oneing 6, no. 1, Anger(Spring 2018): 14–15. Available in print or PDF download.

Image credit: Carrie Grace Littauer, Untitled 8 (detail), 2022, photograph, Colorado, used with permission. Jenna Keiper, Untitled (detail), 2022, New Mexico, used with permission. Arthur Allen, Untitled 6 (detail), 2022, photograph, France, used with permission. Jenna Keiper, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: As we learn the art of detachment, we see the simplicity and truth of each passing moment: anger, resentment, excitement, a tree, bark, marbles in the dirt.

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