At a recent meeting, someone brought up a slogan I hadn’t heard since my days as a newcomer back in the mid 80’s: “Feelings are not facts.” The person was trying to be helpful. It was his way of trying to ease the intense feelings of guilt another AA had shared about regarding a difficult family situation. He was in effect suggesting that the guilt was unwarranted, because “feelings are not facts.”
Slogans are rife in AA, and they are generally helpful, but when we are new to the program, we can’t tell which are genuine AA slogans that originated in AA experience and can be traced to the primary AA literature, and which originated elsewhere and were later imported into the rooms. The difference matters, for in the case of the former, we can expect the slogan to accurately reflect the program, while in the case of the latter it may have little or nothing to do with—indeed, may even contradict, that program.
“Feelings are not facts” figures among this latter group. It is to be found nowhere in the Big Book or the 12&12. The origins of the expression can be traced to two philosophical traditions that are popular in the self-help movement and which form the foundation of most of the secondary recovery literature. These traditions share a tendency to question the value of emotions and to be dismissive of them.
One is Stoicism, an early form of rationalism which considers emotions to stand against what it sees as the rational order of the universe and hence to be inherently irrational. On this view, the facts of life are what they are, and there is no sense crying over them. Death is a fact of life, hence grieving someone’s passing away is pointless. For the true Stoic, the right attitude to take is one of apathy or indifference (cf. PTP 4, pp. 107-110). The other tradition is of an eastern orientation and identifies emotions with a different sort of irrationality, namely, illusion. Like the self from which they proceed, emotions are supposedly not real, that is, they do not correspond to anything in the real world. They are figments of our duality-deceived imagination (ibid.).
Again, Those who avail themselves of this slogan mean well. They want to help people who are feeling very badly not to feel so badly by questioning the objective validity of their emotions. However, our intentions can often have unintended consequences, and before using non-AA tools it would be wise to think these through and ascertain that they are faithful to the AA program and can make a positive contribution to recovery.
If we do that with the slogan “Feelings are not facts,” we will discover a number of problems. First, the way AA proposes we deal with our emotions is clearly to take inventory of them. But, by questioning any connection between feelings on the one hand, and facts and reality, on the other, the slogan is likely to add to the confusion already besetting the minds of newcomers and undermine their ability to properly examine their emotions when working Step 4. For one of the main tasks in making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves is to establish the right or true relationship between our emotions and the situations that arouse them. That is, we want to examine the extent to which our emotions are based on the facts of a situation, the extent to which they correspond to reality. That determines whether they are morally right or wrong, that is, whether they do justice to a situation, or do not.
That is why the Big Book insists that establishing the right connection between fact and emotion is essential to our inventory. Comparing a commercial with a moral inventory, we read in “How It Works” that “Taking a commercial inventory is a fact-finding and a fact-facing process. It is an effort to discover the truth about the stock-in-trade. . . . We did exactly the same thing with our lives. We took stock honestly.” (p. 64). Taking inventory is all about facts, and first among these facts are the three emotions— anger, resentment, and fear—which the Big Book says led us to cause the most harm as active alcoholics, and which as such it takes up first in its sample inventory (ibid., pp. 64-65).
In this search for the truth about ourselves, we are to be guided by three questions which seek to establish very specific facts: Where were we wrong? Where were we to blame? Whom had we harmed? (ibid., p.67) But if feelings have nothing to do with facts, with the truth about the situation which arouses them, how am I to know the answer to these questions, how am I to know the truth? For me to find out where my anger is wrong and where I am to blame for my emotion and the harm it caused, there must be the possibility of a correspondence between my feelings and the facts surrounding them. Otherwise, there is no way to judge, and therefore no way to do an honest inventory, by which we are obviously to understand one that adheres to the truth and the facts.
Thus it would be more accurate to say that feelings are not always or not necessarily facts. Of course, we would no longer have a pithy and catchy slogan. But we would be closer to the truth. How close depends on our ability to be clear about the ambiguity at the heart of the slogan and to distinguish between feelings and emotions. For once we do, we will see that, as a generalization, the slogan is fundamentally wrong.
Achieving such clarity begins by defining the terms in question. In Practice These Principles, we define an emotion as a concern-based construal of a situation, or in the less technical terms of the Big Book: the way we see a situation affect something we value, deem important, or care about. Feelings, on the other hand, we define as physiological or sensory events (of an electrochemical nature) that take place within our bodies and which may or may not be the result of an emotion.
Consider the following situation. Our neighbor Marie, who is having trouble staying sober, is involved in an altercation in the building where we live and is subsequently evicted from her apartment. When we find out, our first reaction is to get angry with management. According to our definition, our anger can be explained in terms of our concern for Marie and for justice, and in terms of our construal of the eviction as an injustice. Simply put, we care about Marie, who is our friend and fellow alcoholic, and we care about justice, about right and wrong, about people being treated fairly. And as far as we can tell, the way we see the situation (our construal of it), Marie is not being treated right. From what we know, Marie is normally quiet and inoffensive, and this is the first time she’s been involved in a problem in the building. Besides, she’s elderly and in poor health, and the eviction will be very hard on her. As we see it, she should have been issued a warning and given another chance. Being evicted outright is unfair, and we are ticked off.
So that’s anger the emotion. Now, That emotion may or may not be accompanied by certain feelings or physiological events in our body, depending on its intensity. We may feel a rush of adrenaline; our face may turn red; our blood pressure may go up and we may feel agitated when talking about the situation and perhaps start using foul language to convey our anger. These are all symptoms of the emotion, not their cause. The intensity of these feelings depends on the intensity of the emotion, which in turn depends on the depth of our concern (how much we care about Marie and about people being treated fairly) and the sharpness of our construal of the situation ( how clearly we see it as an injustice, how keen is our perception that Marie’s being wronged.)
To further appreciate that feelings are not the same as emotions, we may consider that some of the same feelings generated by my anger may also be generated in situations not connected with anger the emotion, or connected with other, different emotions, such as fear or anxiety. For instance, running on a treadmill, drinking a double shot of expresso, or having sex may all cause our blood pressure to go up and our heart to beat faster. Similarly, our face may turn red as a result of our being embarrassed rather than angry. And we may feel agitated just by the mere fact of rushing around, rather than moving calmly, or because we are anxious about an anticipated event, or still reeling from a very scary experience.
Distinguishing between feelings and emotions enables us to make a better assessment of the slogan under consideration. For one thing, properly understood as what they are, as physiological events, feelings are always facts: they do take place in the real world (namely within our bodies); they can be observed, sometimes even measured; and in some cases, they have actual, real-life consequences, such as suffering a heart attack or stroke if the events are sufficiently intense, be these the result of the emotion anger or of strenuous physical exertion.
For another thing, in and of themselves, as physiological events, feelings are not necessarily moral; they don’t necessarily have to do with right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice; hence, they are not the proper subject of a moral inventory. Emotions, by contrast, are typically moral. This is implied by the very fact that we are being asked to examine them as part of a specifically moral inventory. And yet, the way in which they are moral is not obvious to most of us. This makes it all the more difficult to take inventory of them, a difficulty which is aggravated when they are conflated with feelings and thence categorically disconnected from facts. What usually happens is that we let ourselves be guided by pop psychology and the secondary recovery literature, which following an outmoded behaviorism, tend to reduce emotions to their expression, which is a function of bodily sensations or feelings.
According to this reductionist view, there is nothing wrong with anger, but only with the way we express and act on it. Hence the prescription of "anger management" as the secular solution—by which is meant managing the expression of our anger, the feelings we feel, so as to diminish their harmful consequences. Such reductionism is common in secular psychology, which sees emotions in purely materialistic terms and in denying their moral underpinnings also deny their fundamentally spiritual nature.
As a tool of recovery, then, the slogan “Feelings Are not Facts” is both misguided and misleading. It blurs the relation between feelings and emotions. It suggests there’s no factual basis for our emotions and thus hinders the task of making an objective assessment of them when taking inventory. It suggests there’s no truth to our emotions, undermining our ability to be honest in our search for the defects of character underlying them; for If there’s no truth, neither can there be any honesty.
If we wish to help a fellow alcoholic who is deeply disturbed by the emotions he or she is feeling and we want to carry the AA message in such situations, we would do well to dispense with the slogan and instead remind the person of AA’s “spiritual axiom.” We’ll find it appropriately enough in Step 10 of the 12&12: “It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us” (p. 90). The diagnosis of the problem is very direct and leaves no room for ambiguity or confusion: there is something wrong with us, period. Furthermore, the diagnosis implies the solution: we have to find out what is wrong with us: we have to take inventory of ourselves. This can be done immediately, while we’re under the influence of the emotion, as the book suggests: “a spot-check inventory taken in the midst of such disturbances can be of very great help in quieting stormy emotions.” (ibid.) As the book further suggests, the spot-check inventory can be followed with a fuller Step 10 inventory later on, perhaps with the help of our sponsor.
In addition to providing this guidance about the ‘spiritual axiom,” we may refer our fellow alcoholic to the passage on acceptance on p. 417 of the Big Book, where a possible defect underlying our disturbance —and the solution to it—are clearly explained:
“When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, thing or situation—some fact of my life—unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it it is supposed to be at this moment. .”
If we are to work the Steps and practice the principles of the program with a view to achieving emotional sobriety, we need to have an understanding of emotions that allows us to probe deeply into how they work and to restore them to their spiritually intended moral purpose, which in keeping with God's will for me is simply to do good and avoid doing harm.
[Posted 12/16/23. Image: Bill and Lois's Stepping Stones home in Katonah, NY. For related post see The Slogans of Step 3]