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.


Fear and self-pity: a deadly combination

Go to any OA meeting, and you’ll hear about fear. We hide out from the world and seek the companionship of food because we are afraid to face what’s out there. If we restrict our eating, it’s often because we are afraid we weigh too much and that people will judge us. No matter the fear or its origin, we have developed eating behaviors as a coping mechanism. And if that weren’t bad enough, fear has a nasty relationship with self-pity that speeds along our demise from this disease.

In the Big Book, we read that “resentment is the number one offender.” When we take inventory of our resentments, we list how it affected us, and, as in the example on page 65, we always list “(fear)” among them. Of course, we don’t stop at what the offending person did. The Big Book instructs us on page 67 to also ask ourselves where we were selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and afraid. As we write all these resentments, we come to see the massive power that fear had over us. We acted selfishly, lied to ourselves, and behaved out of self-concern because of our fears. So, the Big Book then has us inventory our fears, starting with those we analyzed in our resentments and then those unconnected to a resentment. Fear is a big deal.

The thing about fear is that our disease uses our past experience to create fear about our future. If we were told something negative in the past that hurt us, our addict brain tells us that we will suffer the same humiliation or heartache whenever a similar circumstance occurs. It uses our past as a lever to make us eat. This is a big part of why it is that the cycle of addictive behavior always begins with a feeling before we are activated to eat.

If fear is the transferring of past experience to an unknown future, then self-pity is staying stuck in the past and being unwilling to see a different future. Our disease loves to tear down our defenses with self-pity. We feel a strong urge to stop eating compulsively, and then we have an encounter with someone at work that didn’t go well. That encounter reminds us consciously or subconsciously of another time we had a bad encounter with someone. And another. And another and another. Until this small but painful encounter today feels freighted with the emotional weight of our whole inner world. Because we have a disease that warps our perspective, we can only see this tunnel-like vision of bad encounters, forgetting or ignoring all the positive relations we have in the world. And we are activated to eat.

Our disease skillfully plays fear off of self-pity:

  1. We have a painful encounter
  2. It reminds us all our other painful encounters
  3. We feel self-pity
  4. We realize that we’ll have to deal with the person or situation again in the future.
  5. We fear that the next encounter will be as painful as this one…or worse.
  6. If we haven’t already eaten, we’re primed to do so now.

If we are truly addicts, we have lost the power to control ourselves around food in part because our minds act against us in this and many other ways. We cannot change ourselves. We’ve tried! We’ve told ourselves we won’t take ourselves so seriously, or that we’ll go on a diet, or that we’ll let these hurtful things roll off our backs, or that next time we just won’t eat over it. But it never works. We always return to our old ways of thinking and our addictive eating.

The whole point of the 12 Steps is to create inside us the conditions for change. We prepare ourselves to be changed by inventorying all the yucky stuff so that we can then ask God to remove it all and enter into our hearts. The Big Book tells us that we must let go of “old ideas” in order to be changed. These fears and self-pities are some of those ideas. We may have suffered in the past, but now we replace the fear of the future with trusting and relying on God to get us through whatever may come. We may have continually felt sorry for ourselves, but now we see that God is using those old hurts as ways that we can win the confidence of other suffering compulsive eaters and help them find the recovery we’ve been granted.

In other words, God turns these defects of character into assets that help us to be of service to others. Fear and self-pity are an insidious part of the human condition, a killer for people like us, but OA and our HP give us a special power to combat them and help the world be a little better place. And that’s nothing to be afraid of!