12 Step Work

Step 2: The Lies I Tell Myself

“Came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.”

My food addict’s mind is endlessly creative. It will tell me that changing my diet, arguing with my sponsor about food amounts, thinking I need to lose more weight, and impulsively trying a new food are all perfectly reasonable.

My thinking is my problem.

I used to “think” that if I just found the right diet, the right sponsor, the right medication, did enough therapy, lost enough weight, that I would stop having “problems with food.” I didn’t want to be a food addict. I lived my life by what I wanted, or didn’t want to do; what I felt like doing, in the moment. If I think it, then it’s right.

I would plan to eat abstinently, and then change my mind.

Because I thought all those things, I believed I was right. I would run ideas by myself, and of course “my self” would agree. I spent endless hours counting calories and planning what I would do when the weight came off. Meanwhile, being fat was depressing, so I told myself it was “OK to have just a little,” which would invariably lead to a binge.

I tell myself a lie, and then I eat.

I spent 10 years in and out of relapse with food addiction. I didn’t “think” I needed to stop eating flour and sugar. I didn’t “think” I should have to ask another food addict for decisions about my food. I didn’t “think” I needed to commit my food on a daily basis, and keep my commitment. And I certainly didn’t “think” I needed to do those Steps exactly the way they were written. I did them “my” way, the way I thought “worked for me.”

I utterly believe my own lies.

I felt vaguely offended by Step Two. “Restoring me to sanity?” I wasn’t insane! I told myself “I just have a problem with food.” Insane people are those drug-addict homeless people lounging on the street talking to themselves, not me. As a therapist, I told myself that “insane people” have fixed delusions and problems with reality. I didn’t “think” I was anything like them.

And yet I kept eating. My best efforts would provide me with a day or two of “abstinence,” clenching my teeth all the way through. What was I doing wrong? I tried everything, I “thought.” But I didn’t want to admit what I wasn’t willing to try. Which was most of the program.

I (the big I) was trying to do it by myself, my way.

Finally, I gave up. I gave up trying to do it my way and became willing to follow directions. I committed my food every day to a sponsor and ate only what I committed. Another food addict “held” my food plan, and I agreed not to make changes without talking to her first. If she didn’t think it was a good idea, I didn’t do it.

I stopped lying to others about my food.

But after 2 1/2 years of clean abstinence, I was still obsessed with food. Candy in the drugstore would “sing” to me. I knew everything that was in the vending machines at work, even if I didn’t want to. I knew what everyone else was eating, all the time. Going to the grocery store was still torture. I had to stare at the floor when I walked down the aisles. Hearing others talk about food could trigger a food obsession I would have to talk about for days in order not to eat it. I hated watching normal eaters have dessert and other things I told myself I “couldn’t have.” I was still lying to myself about food.

Food was not my problem.

I wasn’t eating compulsively any more, I was a normal weight, but my thinking about food was making me crazy. I started to wonder if I hadn’t always been this crazy. I still believed that food would make me feel better, even though I had enormous evidence that it never had. That actually qualified as a “fixed delusion,” now didn’t it? I believed I had to do food a certain way, with very strict rules, in order to stay abstinent. I “thought” it was my abstinence.

My thinking about food is fatally flawed.

I finally knew I really was insane. It was my thinking that kept taking me back to the food, over and over. But how could I possibly change my thinking with my thinking? Simple answer: I can’t. But God can. I didn’t believe that God (or whatever) cared about me or my food problem. I was so busy living life my way, “thinking” that my way was the right way. Finally, I heard the question: “What if my way is wrong?”

Being “right” and doing it “my way” is playing God.

I didn’t think I was egotistical; I just had to do it my way, and things would be fine. Except that it never worked out. I finally understood about the actor in the Big Book of AA in Step Three, the one who keeps trying to be a director and get everyone to perform his way. I was selfishly chasing after what I wanted all the time.

What if abstinence was a gift from God? A gift I could take really good care of and return, with thanks, at the end of each day? I didn’t have to be “in charge” all the time. I could practice trust. I could turn my thoughts and my actions over to the care of God.

Making that Third Step decision meant I was no longer running my life based on what I wanted; the four-year-old inside of me was no longer in charge.

According to the dictionary, what does restore” mean?

  • To return to its original or usable and functioning condition;
  • To regenerate: return to life; get or give new life or energy;
  • To give or bring back
  • To repair: restore by replacing a part or putting together what is torn or broken

After doing the work in the 4th and 5th Steps, I could truly see how insane my thinking was, not only about food, but about life. The lies I told myself built an enormous tower of resentments I could have never dismantled without the help of God and a wise sponsor. Before every slip or binge was a resentment. Under every resentment were lies and fears.

I have only one “problem:” being separated from God.

If I am practicing rigorous honesty and a daily spiritual life (Steps 6-12), I am not obsessed with food. It no longer calls to me, or bothers me. I can focus on being of service, being happy, joyous and free. This freedom is more wonderful than I could ever have imagined with my limited thinking.

The problem has been removed.

© Arian Eigen Heald, M.Div.

Step 1 Writing (12 Steps of Food Addiction)

© Phil Werdell, M.A. (This is a portion of a much longer essay)

“We admitted we were powerless over food, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

First Step writing is about admitting powerlessness over food. If there was something else that a person could do in a particular situation to have control over their eating, then they would not be powerless. That is obvious.

So, First Step writing is subtly but importantly different than inventorying a situation in which one was not food abstinent and figuring out what could have been done differently. In the arena of food addiction recovery, this distinction is fundamentally important because most food addicts who have gone over the line of biochemical dependency are not able to find long-term recovery without completing the First Step 100 percent.

When a food addict puts down their binge foods completely – and goes though a period of detoxification, she/he finds that their physical cravings are greatly diminished or completely removed. If the progression of the addictive disease has advanced to seriously affecting the mind, however, they are still likely to eat addictively again. Put most simply, they are in exactly the same state of mind in which they began eating out of control in the first place. They still have euphoric recall, still have and believe a rationalization for eating, still have a tendency to minimize the seriousness of the disease, and still are prone to “mental blank spots” where they simply don’t remember that food is a problem for them at all.

It is the inherent nature of the food-addicted mind that it cannot be changed by understanding or by force of will. These efforts sometimes work in the short run, but inevitably, diseased thinking and/or lack of thought returns so powerfully that the food addict is eventually back in the food and bewildered by how this could have happened again. Not seeing that this is a biochemical disease that has taken over the mind, the food addict is typically filled with guilt and shame.

If food addicts are this powerless over their disease, what can they do? Well, food addicts are indeed powerless, but not helpless. There is one thing that they can do, and that is to work on a spiritual basis to become more willing and able to fully accept their powerlessness. This is truly paradoxical: in seeing more completely how powerless they are food addicts become open to the only answer possible – a power greater than themselves.

The most immediate and practical question of a food addict in this position is: just exactly what can I do to pursue taking a food First Step? Here we have a lot of experience, and we think many readers will find it quite valuable.

To put the material of this essay/chapter in proper context, it is important to say that there are many different ways to do First Step work on food and other addictions. Each of these is effective if done as a spiritual practice. That is to say, as with the more commonly known spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, the food addict needs to do the spiritual practice of First Step work without an expectation of when or how these efforts will bear fruit.

We offer the ACORN approach to doing First Steps because it is a process which has been very effective for food addicts who have not been able to take a spiritual food First Step alone, with the help of a therapist, or even by pursuing one of the many routes offered in food-related Twelve Step fellowships. This is the most rigorous approach to food First Step work with which we are familiar, and it compliments an experiential educational process about food abstinence and learning alternatives to food as coping mechanisms for dealing with difficult feelings.

Food First Step Preparation Assignments

There are eight basic questions which can help a food addict better write a rigorous story of their powerlessness over food.

  1. What are your secrets about food? Be as specific as possible.
  2. What are other secrets? Again, be specific.
  3. What is it that convinces you that you are powerless over food? (Some find it helpful to also write about what convinces them that they are not food addicted.)
  4. What convinces you that your life is unmanageable? (Also, possibly, what convinces you that that it is not unmanageable.)
  5. Make a list of all the foods you have binged on, and any other out of control eating behaviors. Be specific.
  6. Make a list of all the diets you have tried, and everything else you did to try to control your weight or eating.
  7. Make a list of 15 specific times when you were powerless over food.
  8. Make a list of at least 30 negative consequences of being powerless over food – some physical, some mental-emotional, and some spiritual.

It helps to read each of these assignments, one at a time, to another food addict in recovery and get feedback. It is best to read to a whole group of recovering food addicts including ones who have done this type of rigorous food First Step work.


The first two assignments are about secrets – the first about food and the second about the rest of one’s life. From a worldly perspective, this is just a way of getting rigorously honest. If you are willing to self-disclose information that you don’t want to share, then you are on the track to being rigorously honest.

There is also a spiritual dimension to telling “secrets” in food First Step work. Secrets tend to be the information that we are unable or unwilling to tell others. It is information about which we lie to ourselves, and is information we often want to try and keep from God. The primary spiritual problem of addiction is often named “self-will run riot.” This is just as true for chemical dependency on food as it is for alcoholism. Telling secrets is thus a spiritual practice in which a food addict develops the spiritual muscle of willingness by telling others exactly what he/she doesn’t want to reveal.

Twelve Step spiritual fellowships put a great deal of emphasis on “rigorous honesty.” In practice, this means, at least in part, being as specific as possible. What follows is a list of increasingly specific ways of reporting one particular break in abstinence:

  • “I had some problems with my food.”
  • “I wasn’t abstinent – ate something not on my food plan.”
  • “I ate some sugar.”
  • “I ate some ice cream.”
  • “I gulped down a quart of ice cream.”
  • “I ate two separate pints of Haagen-Das Chocolate Chip. I ate so fast the cold of the frozen ice cream gave me a headache, and I kept eating anyway and dripped ice cream all over my shirt and pants.”

A food addict can often tell if they are being sufficiently specific by noticing if sharing that the details cause embarrassment. Embarrassment is one of the many signs of false pride.

Response to Secrets and First Step Writing

In responding to secrets – and any First Step work – the most helpful information is often when other food addicts share ways that they have done the same or similar things with food. This type of sharing begins to relieve some of the original food addict’s embarrassment. As these feelings bleed off, it also has a way of breaking denial.

A food addict often sees themselves as guilty, shameful or just a “bad” person because they are not in control of their food. When they learn that someone else – who they do not see as shameful or bad – has done the same thing, they can often see the other person was actually powerless, and this helps them begin to separate themselves from the disease of food addiction.

Read on about Step 2 of the 12 Steps of Food Addiction.

Step 0 (12 Steps of Food Addiction)

Step One of the Twelve Steps, as they are written in the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous, reads like this (for our purposes, we are going to change “alcohol” to “food”):

Admitted we were powerless over food -– that our lives had become unmanageable.

What does it mean to admit we are powerless over food? Here’s a dictionary definition of the words:

Admit: to grant as true or valid; a voluntary acknowledgement of the truth; to acknowledge, confess or avow the existence of the truth of <something>.

Powerless: lacking strength or power; helpless; ineffectual; unable

How do I know I am powerless over food? If I have enormous (literally) amounts of evidence, (i.e., facts) that I cannot control my eating. If my experience is that once I pick up sugar and/or flour, (or whatever the addictive food), I am unable to stop. Then I am helpless.

The lie I tell myself is that if I can find the right food plan, the right ingredients, the right sponsor, and develop the right eating habits, then I’ll get abstinent. This keeps me in the same vicious cycle of trying and failing to fix myself. My best thinking is ineffectual.

This is Step Zero of the 12 Steps

I spent over a decade in Step Zero, even though I was sitting in the rooms of a food-based 12 Step program. I never made it to Step One, because that would have meant doing things I didn’t want to do. (Like give up flour products, “sugar-free” candy and gum, letting someone else be in charge of my food plan and committing my food.) I saw people with long-term abstinence doing those things, but in my diseased thinking, it wouldn’t work for me.

The essence of surrender is to give up trying to do it our way. To do fully, willingly, and with no reservation things we don’t want to do, that we may think are “stupid, ridiculous and will never work.” It means giving up trying to make the program work for me and to start working the program.

Often, when we say we are “trying” to …, what we really mean is that we are trying to do it our way.

So, at Step Zero, we haven’t admitted we are powerless over food. We don’t want to give up control of our food. We work away at writing our own food plan, finding a sponsor who has a food plan that will enable us to eat what we want, sponsoring ourselves, and just generally continuing to run the show.

Ironically, we don’t want to give up control over something we don’t have control over! That’s how I finally realized I was at Step Zero.

The Three “A”s

There’s a saying in the Twelve Step rooms: Awareness, acceptance, action.

I was aware that I couldn’t stop eating, but I was in a terrible cycle of trying, over and over, to find what would enable me to eat without the consequences that food addiction inevitably brings. I wanted to believe that even though I couldn’t control my eating, I could “manage” my food plan. It makes as much sense as an alcoholic trying to “manage” their drinking.

Awareness starts with being willing to look at facts. Try answering a few questions with a simple answer of yes or no:

  1. Has my problem with food always gotten worse, never better?
  2. Have I ever worked all the tools of a food recovery program and followed all of a sponsor’s suggestions wholeheartedly?
  3. Is there a food I am not willing to let go of?

People in Step Zero can spend a lot of time (I spent years) not accepting that they are food addicts. If you have read other documents on this website that have helped you identify your problem, then you may have come to this conclusion: I have a problem that I am unable to solve.” If I can’t control my eating, it stands to reason that I can’t manage my recovery, either.

Just like alcoholics, we must accept that we cannot eat like “normal people” (I didn’t really want to eat like them, I just wanted to eat what I wanted to eat and look like them) and that we’re not going to be able to. At some point, if you put a cucumber into alcohol, it becomes a pickle. Taking the pickle out of the alcohol doesn’t turn it back into a cucumber! We have lost control and we will not regain it. That doesn’t mean you won’t be happy, joyous and free.

Read Chapter 3 of AA’s Big Book, change the word “alcohol” to “food,” and see if you can relate to how hard we try not to be who we really are. When I could accept I was a food addict, I began to get free of food.

I needed a lot of help to see through the web of lies I told myself that kept me eating addictively. I got abstinent 11 years ago at an ACORN Primary Intensive©. I had attended many other Intensives, retreats and events over the course of ten years, in addition to my recovery programs, but something finally clicked. I understood that I was powerless over food and that I could not manage my own food.

Now it’s time to take action. The word “admit” is a verb. If we admit that we are powerless over food, then we must have outside (of our heads) help, or the addiction will kill us. Surrendering to structure and support around your food means taking concrete actions, regardless of whether you want to do them, think they’re insane, dumb, embarrassing or just won’t work. Remember, the people who are helping you have thought the same way, but they took the actions because they were willing to work the program. They became abstinent by accepting help and following through. So can you!

Read on about Step 1 of the 12 Steps for Food Addiction