What are feelings?
A feeling is an emotional state or reaction. It’s a subjective response to a situation person, or thing. Feelings involve both mental and physical responses: think of how you sense pain or pleasure.
Feelings are neither good nor bad; they just are. Our bodies and minds respond to the world, in large part, through our feelings. All feelings are legitimate. The issue isn’t what feelings should we have, but what is the best way to handle them?
For example, anger can help us if we recognize it as a signal that something is wrong. But it can also be a harmful feeling if we act out our anger in violent or inappropriate ways.
For people in recovery, feelings can often be a minefield of potential problems if we don’t handle them in positive ways. Feelings that are not handled appropriately can feed into a negative cycle—I feel bad, so I use substances or binge in other ways, then I feel badly about my behavior, which leads me to use or binge again.
In early recovery your emotions can seem overwhelming at times. You may feel anger, grief, resentment, loneliness, or pain. In the past you may have covered these feelings up with alcohol or drugs. Now, without the chemicals, these emotions may come flooding in on you.
This is common for many in early recovery. Over time these emotions should subside and take on a more normal level in your life.
But others in early recovery may realize that they’re out of touch with their true feelings, and that identifying them is difficult. Awareness is the first step toward addressing this issue. You may want to seek out counseling during this time to help you work through these feelings.
As you work your recovery program, you will come to see emotions as a gift: they help you express yourself to the world.
How are thoughts, feelings, and behavior intertwined?
Often your thoughts or beliefs influence your feelings, which then influence your actions. For example, if you allow yourself to think, “I’ll never be able to stay sober for the rest of my life,” the thought may lead you to feel overwhelmed, depressed, and discouraged. Those feelings may then lead you to take actions that harm your sobriety—like resuming use.
If, instead, you think, “I won’t worry about my whole life, I’ll focus only on staying sober today,” you may feel very different, perhaps even hopeful or contented. These feelings will most likely lead to actions that support your sobriety. This simple shift in thinking can produce great changes in behavior.
Just as thoughts can influence your feelings and actions, the reverse is also true. Your actions can influence how you feel and think. For example, if you are feeling depressed and thinking discouraging thoughts about your recovery, you can take action. Get up off the couch and go to a meeting, call a friend in recovery, or spend time meditating and connecting with your Higher Power. By taking proactive steps you will change how you feel and think about your situation. This is known in Alcoholics Anonymous as “Fake it till you make it.”
How can feelings affect your journey of recovery?
You are not at the mercy of your emotions. It is important to acknowledge and identify them, but they don’t need to rule your life. You can take steps to influence how you feel by challenging your thinking and changing your behavior.
Twelve Step members have long recognized a strong tie between feelings and substance use disorders. Throughout human history, substance users have used mood-altering chemicals to feel pleasure, mask pain, and/or enhance a mood. A drink or two can lower our inhibitions to the point where we express feelings we wouldn’t otherwise share. If we feel too much or too little, we may overreact or under-react. Feelings that are incorrectly identified or understood in a distorted way lead to inappropriate behavior—which leads to more negative thoughts and actions in a cycle that feeds upon itself.
How can you learn to identify your feelings?
Though it may sound easy, naming feelings is not simple for addicts. After years of ignoring feelings, denying them, hiding them, or lying about them, you may have a distorted view of them. It may take effort to pinpoint your real feelings.
One way to aid this exploration is to keep a daily journal of your feelings. Go beyond basic emotions such as sad, mad, glad, and afraid. When did you feel anxious, peaceful, excited, or tired? If it helps, do this exercise with another person. Take turns talking about your feelings that day. In the beginning, as you are experiencing feelings, you may need to talk with someone objective. This may help you accurately identify your feelings with your experiences.
What are some positive ways to handle feelings?
You can write down your problems and emotions in a journal. Over time, you may discover why you feel a certain way; in other words, you may identify the source of your feelings. Perhaps your feelings are based on an irrational belief system or unfounded fears. If you see a trend in your emotions—for instance, if you always feel sad—you may want to seek outside support to help you deal with your emotions in a positive way. Praying and meditating might also help you to understand your feelings.
Recovery Action Step
Name the ways you are feeling right now. Use your journal as a place to record your response to the following:
1. Write down words that describe how you are feeling now.
2. Think back over the past week. Were there times that you remember experiencing very strong feelings? Name those feelings and record them in your journal.
3. Think about your life during the past few years. Are there just one or two feelings that you experience frequently? Record those feelings in your journal.
4. Are there a couple of feelings that you would like to feel less often? Record those feelings in your journal.
I am feeling:
Afraid Angry Annoyed
Betrayed Caring Competent
Complete Confident Delighted
Dependent Despairing Discouraged
Distant Eager Encouraged
Envious Excited Fearful
Frightened Fulfilled Giving
Glad Grateful Grief stricken
Guilty Happy Hesitant
Hopeful Hostile Hurt
Immobilized Impatient Inadequate
Irritated Isolated Jealous
Joyful Lonely Loving
Mad Optimistic Overwhelmed
Patient Pessimistic Pitiful
Proud Rageful Regretful
Resentful Revengeful Sad
Scared Shameful Strong
Sympathetic Tender Trusting
Untrusting Unwanted Useless
Vulnerable Wanted Warm
Realize that it is okay to feel a certain way, but that you should think about your feelings before reacting to them. Though you should analyze your feelings before you react, you should also not ignore your feelings. Ignoring your feelings can later result in physical illness, stress, overeating, and other difficulties. In addition, these feelings will keep coming back—meaning that relief from repressed feelings is only temporary.
Confronting your feelings can be painful at first, but you can also learn and grow from the situation. You can share your feelings with a trusted friend or relative, or seek the help of a counselor if needed. Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous can also be beneficial for helping you deal with your newfound feelings. Don’t allow shame based on past actions to keep you from expressing your thoughts and feelings with others: be open and honest.
Another important skill to learn in expressing your emotions is using “I” statements. Instead of saying, “You made me mad because _____,” take responsibility for your own feelings and say, “I feel mad because _____.” No one can make you feel anything. Focusing on how you feel about a situation, instead of blaming others, is a powerful way to take care of yourself.
What is HALT?
A useful tool for those in recovery, the word “HALT” is our cue to ask ourselves if we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Any one of these feelings can lead us to incorrect, inappropriate, or just plain “stinking” thinking. If you experience several together, you could be headed for real trouble. Try to develop an extra sensitivity to HALT feelings; when the red flag goes up, eat, rest, or talk with your sponsor or a good friend.