By: Marilyn L. Davis
I’m Feeling Empty; Now What?
Many of us come to recovery with numbed feelings. Drinking and using helped suppress or numb our feelings or clouded our thinking so we didn’t have to remember what we’d done to people we loved, or accept our negative outcomes.
Using helped us ignore the feelings and experiences. Shame, guilt, anger, anxiety, and unresolved issues were all things we wouldn’t or couldn’t deal with so we used to cover them up. We just could not, or would not, experience the feelings nor think about all the negative outcomes in our addiction.
Recovery is learning how to think differently and learning how to articulate or express feelings, but first we have to experience them, especially those that have prompted our use in the past, and get through them without a relapse.
Up Pops an Unfamiliar Feeling
What happens to most of us is that numbed feelings and reflecting on choices in our addiction come rushing to the surface in early recovery. Think about all the stored or suppressed emotions from your use. Those feelings and thoughts about our life were held down rather like a jack-in-the-box – hidden away only by the mechanism of the box, or in the case of our addiction, by our use.
Take away the drugs and alcohol, and the feelings come flooding back, seemingly without rhyme or reason. However, emotional memory stores all those old feelings. They are still there.
And when they surface, we’re sometimes laughing when we feel like crying, or crying for no clear reason. We often judge these as inappropriate feelings for the situation. Yet, they are real, whether they come back in an orderly fashion or not.
Do Not Judge
There is no rhyme, reason, or proper time frame for the suppressed or numbed feelings popping up or surfacing. When you can accept that, it is easier to understand that some of your feelings will just happen. It is important that you not judge the feelings, but realize that they are probably just an old feeling able to surface now that you are not using. This attitude can make it easier to accept them. It’s often a time of confusion and your feelings can seem overwhelming. These reactions to the up-and-down emotional responses are common and predictable for most people in early recovery. It will get easier to deal with these emotions if you:
- Understand that your emotions will be “all over the map”
- Know that the ups and downs will lessen with time
- Learn to process feelings as they are happening
Remember the Simple Categories for Feelings
The feelings that you are experiencing will correspond to one these five categories:
- Bad – typically, guilty, jealous, envious, or other unpleasant feelings
Learning these, and the various degrees of feelings will help you distinguish them, learn to process them, and not use them as an excuse to relapse, or try to find other ways to numb or suppress them.
Processing Feelings and Thoughts: They are Different
Learning to process your thoughts, opinions and assumptions, along with your feelings, as the separate and distinct aspects that they are, makes it easier to decide if your thoughts need changing or your feelings are the problem. For example, you walk into a recovery support meeting and you are late. You are late because your babysitter had a flat tire that morning. You meekly sit down, wondering what you have missed in the discussions. You feel guilty, but glad that getting the tire fixed was simple, even though it cost you an hour of time. You also feel guilty because you have not made as many meetings as you usually do because you have picked up some extra shifts at work to offer camp for your children in the summer.
Since you have not relapsed, you think that what you are doing for your family takes precedence or priority over a meeting at this time. You think that talking to your sponsor is keeping your recovery important and your sponsor agrees. You feel grateful that you’re thinking of others and not the self-centered way you thought in your addiction. You’re proud that you can give your children some pleasant experiences, since you fought so hard to regain custody.
However, other people at the meeting have completely different thoughts, opinions, assumptions and feelings. They make assumptions about why you are late and react to those erroneous opinions.
- John thinks you are rude and do not value recovery and he feels annoyed.
- Susie feels relieved when she sees you.
- Mary does not even know you; she just thinks you have on a great pair of shoes and wonders if she should ask you after the meeting where you got them.
Your Thoughts and Feelings are Different Than Mine
Each person, you included, have different thoughts and feelings about the same experience. Individual perceptions of what is going on, or what you and others think about something, and feelings about a situation or person rarely tell the story.
To get a clear picture of the “reality” of this scenario, each person would need to tell their truth, and then let others process it and then reach a conclusion.
Rarely do we take the time to ask about other people’s opinions. We have just come to conclusions and have feelings about a situation. As the author, Fred Ward says, “If some woman tells me how she feels about something, my immediate assumption is that she wants an answer, or that she wants me to solve her problem. In fact, all she wants to do is share, or show how she feels.”
Learn to Claim the Feelings as Your Own
People influence how we feel, not make us feel something. We are not subject to feelings like a mechanical wind-up doll, yet, people often talk about something or someone “making” them feel a certain way, as if they pulled our strings, or wound us up and then ‘we felt’.
There are several problems with adopting this attitude; it removes your responsibility for your feelings and puts the blame or responsibility for how you feel on others. What happens when you make others responsible for your feelings?
- You hold them accountable for what you are feeling.
- You can then give yourself an excuse for why you feel a certain way.
- You lose control over how you feel because others made you feel something.
This can become a victim posture or a manipulative cycle that needs to be broken for you to acknowledge that they are your feelings, independent of others. You can state what you feel about what someone did or did not do without holding them responsible for what you feel.
This does not mean that you do not react to the actions of others. It is simply a way of acknowledging that when someone did or did not do something that you had feelings about their action or lack of action, but you are claiming the feelings as your own. A less blaming way of stating how you feel about what someone else has done or not done, said or not said, is to state it as, “When you did or said that, I felt.” It lets you state what they did, but how you felt.
Dealing with the Feelings Takes Time
Taking responsibility for your own feelings is empowering. You can choose how to feel in any given situation and not blame others for how they made you feel.
And the jack-in-the-box? Well, with time, you can put it on the shelf.
Writing, and recovery heals the heart
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