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Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important for Addiction Recovery?

Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important for Addiction Recovery?

In recent decades, more people have become aware of the importance of emotional intelligence, and it is especially important for recovering from addiction. While cognitive intelligence can help you get good grades in school and excel in certain jobs, it won’t protect you from developing a substance use disorder. In fact, some studies suggest that IQ correlates with a greater risk of substance use issues.

The problem is that cognitive intelligence has little influence over emotions. And once you develop a substance use issue, you mainly use your intelligence to get more drugs and alcohol. That’s why they often say in AA that “your best thinking is what got you here.” In a way, recovery from addiction is all about strengthening your emotional intelligence. The following are the five standard components of emotional intelligence and how they contribute to sobriety.


Self-awareness is the foundation of all emotional intelligence. It means being aware of your own strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, biases, and triggers. It means knowing what your core values are, what you enjoy, and what you don’t. Having relatively good self-awareness is like having a good map of your own mind. It helps you accomplish the things you want to do.

Unfortunately, self-awareness is not easy. As noted above, well all have biases and blind spots and these are usually most extreme regarding ourselves. This is compounded by the illusion that we know ourselves very well. Luckily, you can improve your self-awareness. The best tools for doing that are group and individual therapy.

These provide the rare opportunity to get objective feedback about your personal history, your beliefs, and your thinking habits. Another way to improve self-awareness is just to ask for feedback from people who know you well--friends, family members, coworkers, and so on. However, these people may be reluctant to be too honest, so you have to make it clear that you’re trying to better understand yourself, including your weaknesses.


Self-regulation is when you put your self-knowledge to good use. It’s the ability to keep yourself from lashing out in anger or from pouring a drink when you feel stressed. It’s the ability to cope with feeling overwhelmed or comfort yourself when you’re feeling anxious.

When you know yourself, you know what kinds of situations are likely to trigger cravings and which people you have trouble saying no to. Self-regulation is the main area where the rubber meets the road in addiction recovery, where the self-discovery you did in therapy is put to practical use improving your real-life behavior.

Self-regulation, like self-awareness, is a never-ending process and each depends on the other. Again, therapy is the single most powerful way to improve self-regulation. You learn many cognitive and behavioral strategies to help you cope with challenging emotions and make better decisions.

Some therapeutic methods, like dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, specifically use group sessions as a safe space to practice new skills before you have to use them in the wild. For example, it’s a good place to practice hearing constructive feedback without becoming angry or defensive. 


Motivation is being able to motivate yourself and others to do what needs to be done. In addiction recovery, self-motivation is most important, but it can also be a way to support fellow group members and possibly even mentor others later on. People often start out in recovery feeling motivated because they are desperate for change. However, motivation often wanes as people encounter unexpected challenges or start to feel complacent about recovery. Knowing how to motivate yourself can make the difference between sticking to your recovery plan and gradually sliding toward relapse. 

Motivation is mainly about three factors: remembering why sobriety matters to you, remembering how bad things were when you were actively addicted, and overcoming your doubts about whether you can succeed. There are various ways to address each of these but a good place to start is by connecting sobriety to your highest values. Having a why can keep you going through tough times.


Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place, to be able to have some idea of what they’re feeling and thinking. It’s the basis of compassion, which is empathy plus the desire to relieve someone’s suffering. In the context of addiction recovery, empathy is most important for its role in strengthening relationships--both with friends and family and with your sober network. The more connected you feel to others, the easier it is to stay sober. Socially connected people feel less stressed, less lonely, more accepted, and more accountable. 

Increasing your empathy is mainly a matter of making a consistent effort to understand other people’s perspectives. This is especially important for people you don’t especially like or get along with. It helps to start by identifying the things you have in common. For example, you both want to be happy, you don’t want to be in pain, you want to feel like you matter, and so on. Recognizing these universal needs can help you understand what other people are going through.

Social Skills

Social skills are built on empathy and they are important for many of the same reasons as empathy is important. However, just as self-awareness is the foundation of self-regulation, empathy is the foundation of social skills. Much of our stress in life comes from interpersonal conflict, and much of that comes from poor communication. By improving your communication and conflict resolution skills, you can eliminate a lot of stress and irritation. 

Improving your social skills is a huge subject, but it all starts with being a good listener. Give the person you’re talking to your undivided attention--which means put down your phone for a minute. Use reflection to show you’re listening and figure out whether you’ve understood correctly. Reflection usually involves phrases like, “So, what you’re saying is--” Validate what the person is saying and try to understand points of confusion or ambivalence. 

Although some people are born with more emotional intelligence than others, we can all improve our emotional intelligence. What’s more, some people are stronger in some areas than others. You might have loads of empathy but poor self-awareness or vice versa. Correcting your weaknesses can help you have a better, longer recovery and be happier overall.

At The Foundry, we believe that overcoming a substance use disorder is really part of the larger project of living a better life. We use methods like DBT, group therapy, and mindfulness meditation to help our clients live fully realized lives, free from drugs and alcohol. For more information about our treatment options, call us at (844) 955-1066.

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(844) 955 1066