Thought, Feelings and Behavior

By Bill

As an addict in early recovery I never quite got the idea of emotions. I’d been living in my head for so long – bending my thinking to support my addictions and fears – that I’d managed to stifle my feelings so that I didn’t have to be concerned about them (I thought). In fact, I probably couldn’t have identified more than one or two if I’d had to, and would most likely have denied having those.  I thought love was when I was feeling good about a relationship. Anger was beneath me — the cool intellectual.  I just didn’t have time for that other psychological fol-de-rol. It was okay for all you “still-suffering addicts,” but hey — I was in recovery!.

I carried that denial with me for a long time. I was unable to identify many of the issues in the people I tried to help, because I didn’t understand them in myself. As a result, I was far less effective than I probably could have been, and far more importantly it allowed me to completely ignore some critical, basic issues for a long time – like 24 years. If you can’t identify your feelings, you don’t have to worry about where they’re coming from. Until you do.

After a good chunk of therapy and work in and outside of treatment, I’ve gotten a little bit better about not only identifying feelings, but also understanding how they affected my life for nearly seven decades. Actually, that’s a misstatement. They affect my life today, all the time. They affect yours, too, whether you think so or not, so I thought I’d share a bit about what I’ve learned in the hope that someone might find it useful. If you already know about this stuff, fine. If I’d known more about it oh, say, 20-odd years ago, I’d be a much more sober guy today. If you don’t, I’d suggest giving it some…


Thoughts are the way we talk, inside and outside our heads; they are one of our chief means of communication. (Facial expressions and body language are the others, but because they are mostly tied to our feelings we often aren’t aware of them.) Thoughts are the language of logic, of ideas, of description. They are, quite literally, what we think.

We can become aware of our thoughts, and begin to learn how they can lead us toward healthy or unhealthy goals. If I think about what happened in the meeting today, and what I got out of it, I’m unlikely to relapse in the next few minutes. But, if I find myself wondering if John is down on the corner with some rock, or Marcel is working behind the bar today – well, let’s just say that those thoughts can lead me in directions and to places that I don’t want to go. Learning to distract ourselves from thoughts of substance abuse or other unhealthy behavior is an essential part of recovery. Although it isn’t easy to learn to monitor our thinking and control it, practice makes perfect. If we don’t become fairly good at it, we’ll end up being led around by our…


Emotions are feelings; anger, sadness, happiness, joy and love are some of the easier ones to identify. Feelings are our minds’ responses to things that happen to us. They are neither good nor bad – they simply are. We can’t control having a feeling, but we can often control what we do with it.  We can learn to recognize our feelings, and we don’t have to let them boss us around. Awareness of our feelings is the key to recovery because they can, without conscious thought, lead us to the conclusion that we need to feel better fast. We all know where that leads.

All of us, addicts or not, have feelings that relate to situations in our past. Some of those are pleasant, but some may have been terrible. If the situation was traumatic or pleasant enough, the feeling may become “tied” to that situation, and may leap up to affect us whenever we encounter a similar circumstance – or think we have. For example, I may have had wonderful breakfasts with my family, and when I smell maple syrup all those good feelings may be triggered.

On the other hand, if the sound of a raised voice usually meant that a beating was coming, I may feel all that helplessness and fear whenever someone raises their voice in anger. A soldier who survives a battle in which some of her buddies perished may feel fear, an adrenaline rush, and need to strike out (or hide) when she views images of battle, and so forth.

Drugs can change and/or suppress our emotions. That is the primary reason we begin to use them. During early recovery our emotions are still mixed up from the drugs, and feelings that we have suppressed may come up at unexpected times. Our supports, counselors and family members can help us identify these potentially harmful emotions, and our awareness and therapy can help eliminate the ties with the past experiences. It is extremely important that we learn to identify and deal with our emotions in positive ways, or the pain may seem so bad that we are drawn back to our addict…


Behavior is what we do: working, playing, going to meetings, reading a book. Acting our in our addictions is behavior. So are choosing to go to treatment and our participation while there. Thoughts, emotions or both can affect our behavior. Often we are not aware of the connections, but we can learn, or relearn, how they interact. Addiction, whether to substances or various kinds of behavior – food, sex, shopping, gambling and so forth – changes the way we think and pushes us in the direction of more acting out. Changing this process (which is definitely “cunning, baffling and powerful”) is the main function of recovery.

We recover by means of therapy, meetings, structuring time in productive ways, attending support groups and following their processes, and continuing to do those things until we think, feel and behave like sober people instead of addicts. Then – because addiction is a chronic disease with no real cure – we work at practicing our principles of recovery for the rest of our sober lives.

Addiction is a matter of how we think, feel, and behave. The substances and behaviors by which we act out are almost incidental. There are physical factors over which we have little or no control, but we can learn to think positively, identify and ground our feelings, and change our behavior. Our programs and supports are the trunk and branches of our recovery, but our realization of how thinking and feeling relate to our addictive behavior is the roots.

If the disease gets back into the roots, the tree will die.

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