Recovery Myths That Can Hurt You

By Lisa L. Kirchner 08/22/18

I could be saying how well I was doing, while the psychic megaphone over my head screamed, “Can’t you see how lonely I am?” Not surprisingly, I wasn’t drawing healthy people into my world.

Serious woman with back against wall.
Telling a person not to believe their feelings is the same as saying they shouldn’t trust themselves.

When the words “feelings aren’t facts” first pierced my brain, I was hooked. My baseline was misery, so it was a huge relief to believe I was lying to myself. Over the years, I repeated this gospel, too. Until I saw it for what it was—a form of emotional abuse.

I get it. Many of us have a tendency to dramatize that we’re unaware of, largely because our addiction made life a fuckshow. But our lives continue even after we put our substances down, and the show rolls on. When my sober boyfriend of five years died, I was 24. And five years clean. The tragedy was real.

In truth, I’d barely learned to identify my feelings. My therapist had finally resorted to pulling out a chart with stick figure faces, each labeled with an emotion. “Pick one,” she encouraged. I needed that chart for a long time. When I tried to express myself in the real world, however, I had a very different experience. 

“Don’t believe your feelings,” I was cheerily told as I moped around the rooms. But my emotions were the only thing that seemed solid. Even if I wasn’t great at describing them, I experienced the world through my senses. My mindscape was a constant stream of love and hate, desire and abstinence, hunger and disgust.

I tried to act the part, fake it till I could make it past this sadness, but my actual sentiments came out despite these efforts. I sensed that I was making the people around me uncomfortable. Left alone, my mind went wild. This grieving is going on too longHe was only your boyfriend. No one will ever love you like that again.

Trying to change my mind about how I felt wasn’t the same as changing my feelings. Yet ignoring my feelings and listening to my supposedly rational mind felt equally horrible. The only thing it did help me succeed at was questioning my every move. I must be doing this wrong, I’d think, vowing to hide better.

The Psychic Megaphone

There was just one problem with suppressing the truth—it didn’t work. I didn’t merely sense I was repelling people, I was. I could be saying how well I was doing, while the psychic megaphone over my head screamed, “Can’t you see how lonely I am?” Not surprisingly, I wasn’t drawing healthy people into my world. This had the added bonus of giving me something new and shiny to mull over. These people are messed up!

My feelings, I now know, were never the issue. It was the stories I told about them that caused the problem, a habit that, like any addiction, got stronger every time I did it. I turned my unworthiness into legend.

I was scared, too, that I’d be overwhelmed by my emotions. In some sense, I was right to be afraid. Overwhelm reeks of powerlessness, and when I’m powerless, I’m tempted to act out—smoke, spend, eat, fuck, drink.

I had to learn to grant a healthy to respect my feelings, to pay attention to them without reacting. This is also known as self-soothing, which many people are taught, or learn. But I don’t know of any addicts who sober up with this ability intact. I didn’t get anywhere near it for a decade in sobriety. I’m slow.

The light at the end of the tunnel is this: when we stop believing our feelings, they lose their power to stop us in our tracks.

But How Is It Emotional Abuse?

Telling a person not to believe their feelings is the same as saying they shouldn’t trust themselves. It’s a recipe for slavish dependence. Who are we suggesting that person trust? Why, God of course! And how do we connect with God? Through the steps. The steps lead toward accountability in our lives, and also, prayer and meditation. What happens when that reflection leads back to our emotional lives and we disbelieve ourselves? Some of us develop co-dependent relationships with sponsors, or take hostages in the form of sexual partners. In my case, I relapsed.

I was desperate to be better already, but I was stuck in disavowing my sorrow. That loop gave me no way to address my grief. I had to believe in something, so I created stories that I could believe, stories that had little to do with the emotions that created them. When telling myself I was garbage got boring, I’d romanticize my addiction instead.

Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach says that when we disconnect from the entirety of our experience this way, we put ourselves into a trance that keeps us from living fully. This concept of an "unlived life" feels more relevant than the idea that I can't know happiness if I don't know sadness, because it points to a solution.

Now, 22 years away from that relapse, I’d say that suggesting feelings aren’t facts is contrary to the core of 12-step recovery—the freedom to choose a Higher Power. The formula is spiritual. The steps are designed to awaken spirituality within us. If denouncing our needs and desires as liars is part of the program, then this places a condition on our spiritual awakening. And it’s not a condition I’m willing to accept. My spiritual life has to be big enough to encompass the full spectrum of who I am. I’m not interested in “growing up” to be without feelings, good or bad.

I’ve spoken about this with friends in long-term recovery. “I don’t get it,” one woman said, unable to wrap her mind around the idea that her feelings were legitimate, even after more than 20 years of sobriety.

I explained it was like being in traffic, and getting angry when someone cuts you off. “I want to run that car off the road!” I might think. It’s true, in the moment I was mad. But my thoughts told a lie. I have zero desire to use my car as a weapon. Am I hair-trigger rage-y in traffic? Maybe something else is going on. Or maybe I was just startled. Our minds exist to find danger, and so tend to be negative.

The first thing I had to learn to do—rather than criticize myself for being angry, which leads to identifying with the idea that I’m an angry person—was to find comfort. In the car I can put my hand on my chest and remind myself everything is ok.

Another person commented, “Facts don’t change. Feelings do!”

I understood where she was coming from, that feelings are malleable. But that doesn’t mean I should deny their reality. Facts have been known to evolve, too. The surest way for an emotion to become fixed is by gaslighting myself. Then my thoughts get murky, and it’s hard not to identify with the thinking. Like with the car example, if I don’t allow myself to see my anger for what it is—mortal fear, or perhaps anger at my boss—I get trapped in, “There’s my anger. I am such an angry person.”

In fact, I count on my changing emotions—it’s the exact freedom I was seeking in a bottle. By allowing my emotions to settle, I can master the thoughts that arise. If I don’t, who’s running the show? The boyfriend who rejected me? The kids who called me Stinky? My mom?

When René Descartes made his famous declaration, he was looking for an irrefutable statement. He believed if he could doubt his existence, that was proof of it. But what's doubt if not a feeling? My thoughts are another matter: my best thinking got me into rehab. I think, therefore I am a liar.

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Lisa L. Kirchner is the author of Hello American Lady Creature: What I Learned as a Woman in Qatar. She lives in Florida with her favorite husband, where she’s completing her latest memoir, The Joyseeker: How I Lost (and Found) My Happy Place.

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