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The Trouble With "Sobersplaining"

Even in recovery, they're not the expert on anyone else's.

Key points

  • Sobersplaining is a type of projection of one person's beliefs, values, and knowledge onto others.
  • Sobersplaining involves making recommendations about someone else's addiction or recovery.
  • Sobersplainers overestimate their own knowledge while underestimating the knowledge of others.
  • Sobersplaining has unintended negative effects on people struggling with addiction and recovery.
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Sobersplain (v) 1. To act as an authority on the subjects of addiction and recovery when a person has experienced neither. 2. To act as an authority on someone else’s sobriety just because a person is herself sober.

Two Types of Sobersplainers

John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty (1859), observes that it is part of human nature for each of us to assume we are right about the goodness or rightness of our beliefs, values, and knowledge and then project these onto others. We expect others to act as we do because, well, we are right.

Often with the best of intentions, people who wish well and want the best for others actively addicted or struggling with recovery feel licensed to make recommendations, claims, and judgments about what a person must or should do. Sobersplainers tend to do just this by making a lot of “you statements.”

Sobersplainers in the first category—those who have never been addicted—offer a carousel of "shoulds" and "oughts" to people struggling. One of the more common offerings is: “You need to hit rock bottom and lose it all before you can change.” This is often accompanied by the claim that “you need to go to counseling/treatment/AA.” If met with any resistance to these recommendations, a sobersplainer may lob the charge that “you are in denial.”

Sobersplainers in the second category—people themselves in recovery—often tell others, “You need to go to more meetings; you need to recommit to your program.” If a struggling person reflects that a particular program or treatment method isn’t working, the sobersplainer may observe, “You are not trying hard enough.”

An even more alarming response to this concern is, “That’s just your disease talking.” If wondering whether a person can ever drink again, she may be told, “If you do want to drink, put your sober chip/medallion in your mouth. If it melts, then you can drink.”

The “in recovery” sobersplainers often expect people to find the same program helpful or useful as they themselves do. Sobersplainers have difficulty contemplating that what worked for them may not work for others.

Sobersplainers exercise what philosophers call epistemic authority—authority based on alleged knowledge and expertise—over the knowledge that others have over their own experiences. In the world of sobersplaining, the active addicts or the people struggling in recovery are not seen as experts on their experiences.

Stereotypes of addicts as liars and unreliable reporters combined with claims about being in denial and excelling at rationalization and minimization make it easy to wonder if we can be experts on our own experiences. At worst, people struggling with addiction or with recovery are seen as self-deceived in a local sense about our use and, perhaps more globally, about our place, worth, and value in the world.

Who is Best Positioned to Make Judgments?

Underpinning sobersplaining is the assumption that a disinterested person is the best positioned to see the truth or reality of someone else’s addiction or recovery. Someone who is disinterested is neutral, impartial, and objective. This objective perspective stands removed from the weeds and the nitty gritty lived realities of active addiction.

Call this the "view from nowhere." It is one of the oldest views in philosophy and continues to exercise an outsized influence. Sobersplainers take themselves to occupy this perspective on others’ use and recovery.

The alternative to the "view from nowhere" is "perspectivalism," along with standpoint epistemology. Perspectivalism holds that every claim to knowledge is embedded in a particular context. We can never get outside of a particular perspective; the best we can do is acknowledge our location and explore how this affects what we can see and apprehend.

Standpoint epistemology claims that people who occupy certain perspectives have the best vantage point from which to make accurate knowledge claims. Put another way, standpoint epistemology acknowledges that perspectives make knowledge possible.

For example, women understand how sexism works better than men because we live its expectations and effects. People who are disabled have knowledge about the different ways that ableism literally and metaphorically structures the world. People who are addicted know addiction from the inside; we live its rhythms and rollercoasters. People know their own recovery—what they need and want and what works for them.

In no way is this to claim that only the addicted have knowledge about addiction. There are experts and non-experts who can offer valuable insight and knowledge without sobersplaining. My claim is perhaps more modest; people who are addicted presently or in recovery have knowledge that needs to be respected. The non-addicted sobersplainer tends to see themselves as having the only knowledge that matters and should drive decisions.

The sobersplainer in recovery needs a reminder, too. This person continues to marginalize people struggling by not recognizing the knowledge and insight they have. The desire to project one’s recovery path or method—even with the best possible intentions—can still bring about bad effects. That path may not work for someone else.

Consider that someone struggling with an opioid addiction may not do well in an abstinence program where medication-assisted therapies are maligned. The people receiving all these recommendations may start to distrust their own knowledge and become more apt to second guess themselves.

The challenge for all of us is to reject both the assumption that only certain knowledge matters and the propensity to project onto others. It is so tempting to project when the stakes are so significant. But resist that temptation we must.

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Mill, John Stuart. (1989). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

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