Why Emotional Intelligence is the Core of Addiction Recovery

March 4, 2020

In recent decades there has been a growing awareness that cognitive intelligence–as measured by IQ tests–is not a reliable predictor of success in life. Although it certainly helps to have some of the talents measured by IQ tests, such as mathematical ability, spatial awareness, and verbal acuity, these talents don’t amount to much unless you have another set of skills too: emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is an idea popularized by writer Daniel Goleman and it describes the talents and skills required to effectively deal with people, including yourself. 

If one thing is obvious about addiction and recovery, it’s that they have little to do with intelligence. In fact, there’s research suggesting that people with higher IQs use drugs–including cannabis, cocaine, and amphetamines–at a higher rate than the general population. Once addicted, intelligence isn’t likely to help you get sober. There’s a saying in 12-step circles: “Your best thinking is what got you here.” Too often, intelligent people with substance use issues mainly use their intelligence to rationalize their substance use. 

If you want recovery from a substance use disorder, you need emotional intelligence. That’s not to say that people with substance use disorders are emotionally stupid. Like everyone else, they have their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, it’s not uncommon for someone with a substance use disorder to have loads of empathy but perhaps not so much self-regulation. Treatment programs are full of kind, intelligent people who can’t seem to get the upper hand on their substance use.

The good news is that with persistent effort and the right guidance, you can significantly increase your emotional intelligence. In fact, you might say that’s the primary aim of treatment. Overcoming addiction isn’t just about abstaining from drugs and alcohol; it’s about gaining insight into your own behavior and motivations, connecting with others, and finding a sense of purpose so you can live a more fulfilling life. Emotional intelligence broadly consists of five areas: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. The following describes why those skills matter for addiction recovery and how you can improve on them.


Self-awareness means understanding what goes on inside your own head. It means understanding the reasons for your emotions and behavior. Self-aware people know what values are the most important to them, they know what motivates them, and they know what irritates them. Self-awareness means you have a reasonably good idea of how you’ll react in certain situations because you are aware of your patterns of behavior. 

Self-awareness is really the cornerstone of other aspects of emotional intelligence. Having good self-awareness is a bit like having a good map of your own interior. It’s also the first step in recovering from addiction. Most people aren’t fully aware of the reasons they continue to use drugs and alcohol despite the obvious problems they cause. Sometimes people are vaguely aware that their substance use is related to trauma or to feelings of anxiety or depression but they are nevertheless stuck in a cycle they don’t fully understand. Some people aren’t even aware they have a substance use problem, never mind the complex reasons for it. 

Understanding the complex connections between personal history, trauma, personality, beliefs, and circumstances is the first step in untangling the knot of addiction.

Becoming More Self-aware

It seems like self-awareness should be the easiest thing in the world. After all, you know about most of what has happened to you in life because you were there. You also have unique access to your thoughts and emotions. It seems like you should be the foremost expert on yourself. However, there are many reasons we fail to understand ourselves. These include selective and unreliable memories, cognitive blindspots and biases, and distorted ways of thinking.

One of the best ways to become more self-aware is to engage in therapy, either individually or with a group. A good therapist can ask the right questions to get you to think about your motivations and behavior. A therapist can help you see yourself in a more objective way.

Another good way to become more self-aware is to keep a daily journal. Start simple by just writing down what happened that day. When you’ve established the habit of daily writing, start getting a little more in depth. How did you feel about what happened? Why did you feel that way? Why did things happen? What were the circumstances? After doing this for a while, you will start to notice patterns–how you act around certain people, what makes you anxious, what makes you excited, and so on.

Another way to increase your self-awareness is to ask for feedback. Your therapist and group can give you feedback based on what you tell them but other people in your life can offer feedback based on what you do. For example, you might ask your boss or your coworkers to give you specific feedback about your job performance or ask your friends for feedback about your personality. You may be surprised by what they tell you.


Self-regulation is the ability to act in your own long-term interest. It sounds simple enough, but self-regulation is actually a complex set of skills. It doesn’t only include doing the things you know you should do and refraining from doing the things you know you shouldn’t do–although those are important. It also means knowing how to cope with challenging emotions, having the metacognitive awareness to identify faulty thinking, creating healthy routines and habits, and having the foresight to manage emotional risks. All of this heavily depends on having good self-awareness.

Self-regulation is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to addiction recovery. For most people seeking treatment, the main thing they want is to be able to stop doing the thing they know is bad for them. All of treatment is essentially designed to support self-regulation in some way. It’s particularly important to learn to cope with challenging emotions, since these are typically what drive substance use. 

Learning to Self-regulate

As with self-awareness, therapy is the most direct way to improve your self-regulation. Currently, the most widely used method of psychotherapy is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. The central insight of CBT is that it’s our beliefs about events, not the events themselves, that cause challenging emotions. CBT and other forms of cognitive therapy focus on helping you identify your faulty beliefs and thought patterns. Once you realize how your thinking contributes to your emotional suffering, you can work on challenging your faulty beliefs, which changes your emotional reaction. 

So, to take a common example, you text a friend and he doesn’t text back right away. Maybe you start to feel angry, anxious, or hurt. It’s not the slow response that’s bothering you but rather your thoughts about it, some of which you might not even be aware of. You might be thinking something like, “I’ve done something to make him angry,” or “He hates me,” of “He’s been seriously hurt or killed.” Those are examples of personalization, mind reading, and jumping to conclusions, respectively, all common cognitive distortions. 

Since our own cognitive distortions and faulty beliefs are often invisible to us because they are so familiar, working with a therapist is a huge advantage. However, you can also work on this on your own. For at least a week, write down every time you feel a challenging emotion, such as anger, fear, stress, sadness, and so on. See if you can identify the event that led to it and write that down too. Finally, figure out what belief connects those two. Once you’ve identified the belief, you can challenge it by looking at the actual evidence for and against it. You may also be able to replace the belief with something more accurate.


Motivation is your ability to keep yourself–and to some extent, others–moving forward. If self-regulation is the steering wheel and the brakes, then motivation is the accelerator. For people in recovery, it’s hard to overstate the importance of motivation. Motivation is typically highest at the beginning of recovery. People often enter treatment following some precipitating event–a drunk driving accident, a family intervention, getting fired for substance-related reasons, and so on. Sometimes they just feel like life has become unbearable and something has to change. 

Although recovery is challenging at the beginning, it’s also when your motivation is the most clear. Later on, people start to get complacent. Maybe recovery has gotten pretty easy and they start to slack off a bit. Maybe they feel disappointed in their slow progress and start to wonder if it’s worth the effort, and so on. This is when motivation matters most. It’s the little push you need to keep going rather than give up

Learning to Motivate Yourself

In a way, motivation is the trickiest aspect of emotional intelligence. As Schopenhauer said, you can do what you want but you can’t want what you want. As long as you want to stay sober, you can probably manage it but the mind plays tricks in recovery. You start to think about the good times when you were drinking or using, while forgetting the awful times, and you start thinking that maybe, now that you have been sober for a while, you can drink or use in moderation.

The antidote to this kind of thinking is to play the tape. Typically, when you think of using again, you only think about the moment of gratification. However, when you play the tape, you think beyond that to all the consequences that follow–how disappointed you feel, how disappointed your family will feel, the uncertainty about whether you will be able to get sober again, and the possibility that you might end up where you started right before you decided to get help. Imagine it in as much vivid detail as you can. 

Of course, for that to work, you have to have some vestige of motivation to stay sober. In terms of keeping your motivation up to begin with, it often helps to have a clear sense of your highest values. In 12-step parlance, this is your higher power. These are the values that are more important to you than the pain of challenging emotions or the temporary comfort of drugs and alcohol. Connecting to your values and using them to overcome challenges is the core idea of a form of cognitive therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT. It is also explains the power of a technique called self-affirmation. This is when you spend some time writing about your core values and why they matter. Studies show that self-affirmation can actually boost your willpower. 

It’s also important to realize that motivation–and to some extent, self-regulation–aren’t only about your own thinking. They also depend on creating an environment for yourself that keeps you on the right track. There are two main elements of this: habits and routines, and social support. Habits and routines make healthy behavior automatic. You do the same things, more or less, each day, and eventually it gets harder to deviate from them than it is to just do them. Assuming your regular behaviors promote recovery, this helps keep you out of trouble even when you don’t feel especially motivated.

The other part, creating social support, is one of the most important aspects of any recovery plan. When you don’t feel motivated, you can borrow some motivation from your friends, family, and 12-step group. You use going with the flow to your advantage because you don’t want to disappoint the people around you. That’s one reason the last two aspects of emotional intelligence, empathy and social skills, are so important.



Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place, to be able to make some reasonable guesses about what they are thinking and feeling. Having a bit of empathy is a tremendous help in communicating and resolving conflict effectively. At its best, empathy is the basis for compassion, or wanting to relieve other people’s suffering. 

Empathy is important for addiction recovery because it’s the basis for any strong relationship. You have to care about what other people are going through for connection to be possible. Feeling connected to a group, knowing other people have you back, and feeling like you play some role in other people’s wellbeing contribute to your sense of belonging and fulfillment and help you stay sober. 

Expanding Empathy

Nearly all of us have an innate sense of empathy. We wince when we see someone get hurt and we laugh when our friends laugh. Our ability to identify with other people is the reason we can enjoy reading books and watching movies about people who don’t even exist. However, sometimes this innate talent gets a bit rusty. We get too caught up in our own problems, we get distracted by fear, anger, and pain, and care less about what others are experiencing. 

We all have the ability to expand our sense of empathy just by reminding ourselves to care about what other people are thinking and feeling. You can use your imagination to that end or you could just ask. Indulging your curiosity about what’s going on inside other people’s heads keeps you from making the error of assuming you can read minds, it gives you insight into how the other person thinks, and it lets the other person know you actually care what they think.

Social Skills

Social skills are all the various skills you use to manage long-term relationships and short-term social interactions. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean manipulating other people; that only gets you short-term gain at the expense of long-term connection. Rather, it’s about understanding yourself and understanding other people, and knowing how to work through conflicts and achieve mutually beneficial goals. 

These skills are important for addiction recovery largely for the same reason empathy is important–stronger relationships mean stronger recovery. Social skills are important for the added reason that they help you reduce stress in your life. Most of our stress comes from interpersonal conflict, so the better you are able to avoid, manage, and resolve that conflict, the less stressed you will feel.


Improving Your Interactions

Unfortunately, most of us were never taught effective social skills. We learned by whatever example happened to be available plus whatever we could figure out on our own. You could fill volumes with advice on how to improve your social skills. However, there is one bit of advice that is the foundation to everything else: Learn to be a good listener. You can’t communicate if you don’t listen. 

Listening itself requires a lot of practice. There are two ways to become a better listener right away. The first is to pay attention to the person you’re talking to. Don’t look at your phone; don’t even have it out. Look at the person and don’t do anything else. Next, practice reflecting. This simply means explaining back what the person just told you. It typically begins, “So you’re saying that–” You might be surprised how often you completely misunderstood. Reflecting lets the other person know you are interested in what they are saying and it ensures you are not talking past each other. 

Emotional intelligence is massively complex and no one completely masters it. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses but our brains are also incredibly adaptable. Even if you feel like you’re not especially self-aware or you think you have no social skills, you can improve with practice. A big part of addiction treatment is helping you expand your emotional intelligence so you can stay sober and live a more fulfilling, more connected life. At Steps Recovery Centers, we help people with drug and alcohol use disorders get sober using 12-step principles. To learn more about our treatment options, explore our website or call us at 385-236-0931.

Recent Posts

6 Recovery Symbols to Celebrate Your Sobriety

6 Recovery Symbols to Celebrate Your Sobriety

If you are struggling with addiction, it may seem like there is no end to it. However, do not lose hope. Drug rehab in Payson will make addiction recovery possible for you. Recovery is undoubtedly a challenging journey, but there are better things laid out for you at...

What is Residential Mental Health Treatment?

What is Residential Mental Health Treatment?

The world of mental healthcare and counseling uses various terminologies to describe treatments, mental health conditions‌, and more. One such common phrase is 'level of care,' which signifies the extent of services a patient needs. It can vary from simple traditional...

Dual Diagnosis: Mental Health and Addiction Treatment?

Dual Diagnosis: Mental Health and Addiction Treatment?

Most people with substance use disorder are likely to suffer from mental health conditions. It is called dual diagnosis. If you also have a dual diagnosis, you must follow a collaborative treatment plan that can simultaneously address both disorders. As per the...