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.