What Are the Traditions & How Do They Help Food Addicts Heal?

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When I first came to recovery, I was in a lot of pain, and I was doing everything I could to avoid feeling more.

In my first foray through the Twelve Steps, my sponsor helped open my eyes to how all of my attempts to avoid pain weren’t actually getting me out of it but were just banking that pain and letting it collect interest.

By learning how to trust God, be honest with myself and others, and to develop God’s gift of self-control and self-responsibility, I built the spiritual muscles I needed to accept life on life’s terms rather than making more deposits in the pain bank.

This involved facing a lot of constructive discomfort. I could not have left my disordered eating behind without learning how to give myself space to experience uncomfortable emotions—guilt instead of people-pleasing, boredom instead of distraction, grief instead of numbness—and experience them long enough for my body and mind to believe that those emotions, too, shall pass without my having to trade them for food, only for that pain to come back later with the added pain of shame that I had failed again.

Once I had worked my way through the Twelve Steps, my sponsor suggested I start working through the Twelve Traditions. I admit I was a little apprehensive about this next phase in my recovery.

I’d heard the slogan, “The Steps keep us from killing ourselves, and the Traditions keep us from killing each other.” While I appreciated the tongue-in-cheek humor and understood that the Traditions are about how our meetings function, I didn’t get why it was so important for me to study the Traditions and talk about them with my sponsor. Weren’t they just for meetings, not everyday life?

In the early days of AA, the founding members noticed that, while the Steps were working to keep individual members on the right track in their personal lives, there seemed to be inherent risks when groups of addicts got together. They found themselves prone to distractions like religious and political conflicts, members trying to sell products to other members, and members trying to profit for their own gain off recovery activities. They also noticed the importance of addicts needing to experience a sense of purpose and belonging while growing in humility.

Thus the Twelve Traditions were born. Most secular 12-step groups follow some adaptation of the following:

  1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon unity.
  2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  3. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop our compulsive behavior.
  4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups as a whole.
  5. Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to those who still suffer.
  6. A group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the group name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
  7. Every group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  8. Groups should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
  9. Groups, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  10. Groups have no opinion on outside issues; hence, the group name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
  11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, films, television, and other public media of communication.
  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all these Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

They are called “traditions” rather than “rules,” because recovery is never mandated but always suggested. The Traditions outline how we keep recovery meetings focused on the tasks of recovery. By informing how people at meetings serve each other, especially newcomers, the Traditions guide us towards supporting ourselves prudently, not letting ourselves get distracted or bullied, and keeping us from turning into bullies ourselves. Most of all, the Traditions unite us in our common purpose of recovery when everything else about us seems like it would pull us apart.

The way my sponsor helped me love the Traditions, however, is by teaching me how they’re not just for meetings. They’re also great tools for interacting in any kind of group, whether it’s a group of two or two thousand.

What does this have to do with healing my disordered eating patterns?

Pain brought me to food. Then food failed to get rid of that pain and only caused more. Food also took the focus off of my relationships, because let’s face it: food feels better faster than a conflict with my kids or my friends.

By practicing not just the Steps but the Traditions in my relationships, I reduce the amount of avoidable, purposeless pain that comes from argument for argument’s sake, people-pleasing, taking rejection personally, and so much more.

I have enough to do in keeping up with constructive discomfort. The less destructive discomfort I have in my life, especially in my relationships, the easier it becomes to stay out of my compulsions. In other words, the Traditions make it a lot easier to “easy does it.”

Looking for more wisdom as you navigate the emotional landscape of recovery from compulsive food behaviors? Join CIR+ and access exclusive recovery tools, including a video series specifically on recovering from compulsive food behaviors.


Erin McCole Cupp, CTRC, is grateful to be recovering from compulsive overeating, binge eating behaviors, and developmental and betrayal trauma. As a Certified Trauma Recovery Coach™, she coaches, writes, and teaches about trauma and addiction recovery from a Catholic perspective. Take her quiz, “What kind of stress eater are you?” at erinmccolecupp.com.