Are our feelings killing us?

Feelings are…complicated. On one hand, they help us relate to the world and to others. On the other hand, as OA members we are emotional eaters. On one hand, we can’t undo our feelings or ignore them. On the other hand, we often hear in meetings that “feelings aren’t facts.” So what are we supposed to do with all this contradictory information?

For one thing, what are feelings and emotions? Ultimately, they are responses to stimuli whether internal or external. They can be subtle social cues, and they can be knee-bucklingly powerful. They arise naturally from our bodies and minds. Our many shades of emotion help differentiate us from all other animals, and they provide the basis for art, music, and literature, as well as the drive to compete and excel in sports or business.

The trouble for people like us isn’t that we have emotions, or that they are strong emotions. It’s that our conscious minds don’t know how to deal with them. As emotional eaters, we’ve always responded to feelings with food. Our first thought is to take the edge off a feeling. That’s why we hear phrases such as “Happy, mad, sad, glad” and “Hungry, angry, lonely, tired” during meetings. Those are all states of mind in which we eat. Either we don’t want to feel powerful negativity, or we don’t want to get too happy and have our bubble burst when the other foot comes down on it. Either we resent others for treating us unfairly, or we feel rotten for treating others unfairly. And we just can’t let any emotion linger because they are too powerful for us.

Things get even more complicated by the disease of addiction. Our addiction takes over our brain, and it uses our own minds to lie to us and poison us. We discover through our Fourth-Step inventory that we have been amazingly dishonest, even if we didn’t realize it. Our illness warped our thinking so that we saw slights or provocations all over the place. We saw danger and despair everywhere. Over time, this led us down deep wells of self-pity. It was all too much, so we had to numb out rather than face our feelings with maturity.

This is why “Our Invitation to You” describes OA as helping us with “acting on life rather than reacting to it.” If the issue isn’t that we have feelings but rather that our mind magnifies them and drives us to soothe them with inappropriately, then the problem is with our thinking. We need new ways to understand and respond to our feelings.

Luckily, that’s exactly what the 12 Steps are for!

When we do our moral inventory, we discover exactly how our brains turned our thinking against us—its modus operandi. Many of us, for example, will find out that we take personally things that were never meant for us. Another common lie our diseased brains tell us is that we can read someone else’s thoughts, and, not so shockingly, those thoughts are bad. Another is that we aren’t good enough. This lie allows us to interpret any behavior, words, or events as titled against us. Yet another lie is that bad things that happened before will happen to us again. Still another is that exerting control over a situation will help us feel better. And, of course, the big whopper: We can’t possibly live through these feelings, so we must take the edge off with food.

We find out through the steps that we are, indeed, powerless over our feelings coming up, but that we are not powerless over our response to them. When we develop a relationship with a Higher Power, we have the one resource we’ve never had: courage. We need a lot of this courage stuff. We’ve lived in fear of our feelings, of the past, of pain for all our lives. Left to our own devices, we would continue running scared to the food. But with a Higher Power to lean on, we can face our fears. We know that we can call upon God, whatever that means to us, for the strength and support we’ve never mustered on our own. We can get through our most difficult feelings with dignity and grace. We can feel some pain while we discover that it will not kill us.

The 12 Steps show us that when we give our feelings power over us, we end up in the murky depths of self-pity, a place where no human being can help us. Feelings in this way have the power to kill us. They can lead us to never-ever land, where we’ll die the death of compulsive eating, chained to the food with links of iron forged in the black furnace of self-centeredness. Sounds great, huh? But when we embrace the 12 Steps, we are shown a way out of this deadly place, a path toward the sunshine of the spirit, and a freedom from the obsession with food.

We are not what our feelings say we are. We are not doomed by them. In fact, we will ultimately use them to help others gain freedom from compulsive eating. But we can’t do that until we ourselves are free. And to do that, we must first do the 12 Steps.



3 ways out of dangerously sentimental food thoughts

“We will not regret the past,” says the Promises that many meetings close with each week. Usually we think of this as referring to the stuff in our backgrounds that we’d rather not remember. But we also need to keep careful watch for sentimentalism, a gateway to self-pity.

Of course there’s nothing wrong for reflecting gladly on bygone days of glee. We rightly and naturally cherish the memories of our loved ones, special moments, successes, happy surprises, challenges overcome. But the disease of addiction is cunning and baffling, and so we must be on guard and monitor our thinking. Instead of keeping it in the day, our illness can turn our thoughts toward matters of food, weight, and body image quickly and almost imperceptibly.

What begins as a pleasant trip down memory lane can turn into lingering thoughts about certain foods or meals. Once our minds reach a place such as this, we can easily slip into self-pity over the foods we can no longer eat. Our disease can begin to tell us that those meals of yore were worth more than our abstinence. The cycle of addiction always beings with a thought or feeling.

So how do we recognize when we’re in danger of romancing the foods of yesterday? And what do we do if we enter that mindspace?

These are some warning signs heard from OA members that signal when we’ve crossed over from sentimental remembrance into self-pity:

  1. “I wish I could eat that again.”
  2. “Ooh, I remember that [holiday or special event]. The [food] was soooooo good.”
  3. “Wow, I can taste that right now.”
  4. “I wonder if that would taste as good to me now as it did back then?”
  5. “Maybe I could have a bite of that? It’s been so long.”
  6. “That food reminds me of my parent/sibling/friend who I miss so much.”

If thoughts such as these rattle through our mind, we’ve got to act quickly and decisively. The longer we polish this turd, the more it looks to us like a jewel. How do we get ourselves out of this tight spot?

  1. Pick up OA’s Tools: The Tools which will turn our thinking back toward our solution quickly.
    1. A plan of eating: Review our food plan to help remember why we don’t eat what we’ve been thinking about
    2. Sponsorship: Call our sponsor to talk about this slide into food-romance or call a sponsee to see how they’re doing to move our thoughts in a more productive direction
    3. Meetings: Get to a meeting quickly to hear about the solution and to be reminded of the hellishness of being in the problem
    4. Telephone: Talking to someone right away about the dishonesty our illness is trying to perpetrate on us is a sure way to be reminded of the solution
    5. Literature: Read any piece of program literature to remind us of the importance of maintaining our abstinence
    6. Writing: Journaling about our thoughts drifting foodward, writing a letter to our Higher Power asking for help, or continuing our 4th Step inventory will support sanity around food
    7. Service: What’s better for redirecting our thoughts than seeing how we can be of service to OA or any group that needs a helping hand?
    8. Plan of Action: Any other action that we regularly take as part of our program can help us keep our OA foundation strong.
  2. Do a 10th Step: Page 84 of the Big Book tells us to watch for selfishness, dishonest, resentment, and fear then gives us specific actions to take when these crop us:
    1. Ask our HP to remove the issue: Go straight to the spiritual source of our recovery!
    2. Discuss the issue with someone immediately: A sponsor or trusted OA friend is the ideal someone who understands how food addiction plays tricks our minds
    3. Make amends if necessary: Especially if our thinking is causing us to neglect other important responsibilities
    4. Turn our thoughts to someone we can help: Getting out of our own heads requires us to put ourselves second
  3. Remind ourselves of the nature of our illness: Our addiction always lies to us, and it even uses truths to deceive us. For example, it reminds us of the fleeting pleasure of food, but blocks out recollections of the daily torture of compulsive eating.

Additionally, we must remember that whatever direction our life in recovery takes, it’s an unfolding adventure that we get to live fully one day at a time. Rather than worry that tomorrow won’t be like yesteryear, we can instead rejoice that today isn’t as painful as our old way of living was. Rather than pining for the “good” old days, we can be grateful for this moment in recovery.


Tradition of the Month: God is an outside issue

10. Overeaters Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the OA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.


Believe it or not, OA does not have an opinion on the nature of God, even though we practice a program of spiritual recovery. To be effective, OA can’t have a stance on God, and Tradition 10 assures that we won’t, as a fellowship, tread that dangerous path.

To be accurate, OA does take certain positions on God. They are very few, very specific, and address as little as possible the question of the nature or identity of God:

A) Each member needs a conception of an HP to recover
B) To be effective, a Higher Power must be more powerful than the member him- or herself
C) Each member can have their own conception, and no one can tell them what the specific conception must be
D) The conception must be one whose will they are willing to surrender to then to trust and rely on for daily living.

OA only talks about God in relation to recovery. It only takes positions on what it knows: How a Higher Power enables us to get better. That’s because God is an outside issue.

How can God be an outside issue in a spiritual program? Here the previous traditions guide us:

Tradition 1 tells us that “personal recovery depends upon OA Unity.” Imagine trying to achieve OA unity on the question of what God is or isn’t. Millions, probably billions, of people worldwide have been killed across history over the question Which is the one true God? How could we each recover if we busy fighting amongst ourselves about the nature of our Higher Powers?

Tradition 2 tells us that God is the source of our group conscience. How many My God can beat up your god arguments would arise if OA took even a simple and vague position on God?

Tradition 3 denies us the right to exclude anyone who wants to stop eating compulsively. Religious and spiritual tests are, therefore, disallowed. We’re having a hard enough time with our own food trials to be putting anyone else’s beliefs on trial.

Tradition 4 reminds us that groups are all autonomous except in matters affecting the entire fellowship. If OA took a position on God, every meeting would have to accept that stance.

Tradition 5 clearly states that OA’s primary purpose is carrying the message of recovery. We are not evangelists, but if OA took a position on the nature of God we would be. That would ultimately prove exclusionary, which would severely limit our ability to carry the message to all sufferers from this killing disease.

We could go on, but we needn’t. By taking a position on the nature of God, which is, perhaps, the most controversial question ever asked, OA would sabotage itself completely. There are programs sponsored by churches that attempt to use the 12 Steps in a specific religious setting, and those programs are not affiliated in any way with OA or any other 12 Step group. They can’t be if OA is to survive and thrive.

So when our members remind themselves and other members to trust and rely on God, we must always remember that while they may experience a Higher Power in a certain way, we each interpret that suggestion through the lens of our own concept of an HP. And even though the Big Book has a chapter devoted to the question of whether there is reason to believe in God, we are free to disagree with it always remembering the words we find in the famous promises: “This book is meant to be suggestive only.” No one can tell us that our HP must be a supernatural being. No one can tell us that our HP must have a personality of any sort. Or have a name. Only that we’d better something more powerful than we are that works for us. Because in the end, even God is an outside issue.

Step of the Month: Forgiveness around food

10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Even in recovery, many of us are still touchy around food. We aren’t defensive, so much as ready to blame ourselves. If we are one spoonful off or we’ve eaten something that might contain a food that’s not on our plan, we double over with guilt, shame, and remorse. The question is whether we’ll let those feelings overrun us, or whether we will simply resume our food plan. It can make all the difference.

With a slip or break in our abstinence, it’s natural to feel disappointment or anger. We feel that old sense of powerlessness, and because we have years of experience with shaming ourselves, our disease guides us into that old groove: I feel bad about eating, so now I want to eat again to dull the pain of having eaten in the first place. Depending on what and how we’ve eaten, we’ve reactivated the physical craving and mental obsession that has lain dormant for some time. How do we return them to slumber?

Of course, we must cease eating compulsively and return immediately to our food plan. But we also have to deal with the mental and spiritual parts of our disease. What’s going to turn off the obsession? What’s going to prevent it from turning back on again? How do we get back on the spiritual track? Fortunately Step 10 holds a practical answer to all these questions.

We know that the cycle of addictive behavior begins in our minds with some kind of activating thought. Usually a negative one. “I wish it had gone my way.” “I wish my husband/wife were different.” “I’m tired of this.” Step 10 rolls together Steps 4 through 9, so we first look back at what kind of thoughts could have triggered our eating, and then we inventory them just as we did in Step 4. We are looking for any chinks in our spiritual armor that allowed our disease to attack us. These are places where we may have held onto fear or resentment and not given them away to our HP. As we seek these weak spots, we must be ruthless in our inspection, but we must also take care not to pound on ourselves. It’s as much a lie to harshly judge ourselves as it is to harshly judge others. So, just the facts.

Once we’ve inventoried what’s been eating us, Step 10 tells us to do as we did in Steps 5 through 7. We ask our sponsor or a confidant to listen to us as we read off whatever inventory we have written. We then ask God to remove the objectionable thinking, and in so doing, we also let go of the negative judgments about ourselves. Remove means remove. God takes it, so we don’t hold onto it. We start putting one foot in front of the other just as we know how to do. That’s the essence of spiritual action, moving forward with trust that our Higher Power is keeping us safe so long as we continue to take spiritual action.

As we resume our walk down the spiritual highway, we may find it helpful to remind ourselves of what spiritual work may we have pushed aside during busy times, resisted all along, or simply forgotten? We ask God to help us add such actions to our OA Plan of Action so that we might avoid a food slip or relapse in the future.

Here’s some things we don’t do. We don’t walk around fretting that we’re going to eat again. Instead we just get back on our feet and keep walking. We don’t blame ourselves. Instead we use the experience as a learning moment, remembering that humility is another way of saying we are teachable. We don’t blame anyone else. Instead we remember that we are responsible for our own spiritual condition and take action to restore its solidity. We don’t say screw it and go off and eat again. Instead we remember that the program kept us food-sober for some time when we ourselves couldn’t, and we embrace OA principles more firmly.

In short, Step 10 is like our spiritual GPS. When we make a wrong turn with our food, we return to Step 10 for a course correction. It helps us recalibrate our route on the road to happy destiny so that we can enjoy our life again and keep a right-sized perspective on those moments when we temporarily lose our way.