Most people have heard that if they want to be successful in alcoholism recovery then they need to “put themselves first.”
On the other hand we are told that selfishness is the root of all of our problems in addiction.
So how do we reconcile these two ideas and live our lives in sobriety? How do we put ourselves first without it leading us to a selfish relapse?
The selfishness and selfless dilemma in sobriety
Sobriety is tricky. In some ways we need to be selfless and reach out and help others in order to succeed. But in other ways we need to be selfish and put ourselves first.
So let’s break it down.
When we say that we need to be selfish in recovery, we are talking about our absolute highest priorities that are really only about us.
For example, if you are trying to recover from alcoholism then your highest priority in life should be physical abstinence. In other words, the most important thing in your life at any given moment is the fact that you do not want to take a drink of alcohol. Period.
That is your highest truth. Total and complete abstinence.
So let’s say that your long lost cousin is in town and he wants to take you out for the night and put you in a dangerous situation where you might be tempted to drink alcohol with this person.
That is the kind of situation where you need to be selfish. This is an example of how you can put your foot down and thus “put yourself first” in recovery.
It doesn’t really matter if you feel badly about not partying with your cousin, or if it hurts his feelings, or any of that stuff. All of those details are trivial compared to the importance of not taking a drink of alcohol.
You have to be “selfish” in this way to protect your sobriety. One drink and your entire life goes back down the tubes. One drink and it starts a huge chain reaction of devastation, chaos, and misery. You cannot afford to take one drink of alcohol, ever again. If you do then it will lead to a thousand drinks, to insanity, and eventually to your death.
See how serious that can become? Total and complete abstinence must therefore be your highest truth in life, and you cannot let anyone else infringe upon this. You have to be selfish when protecting yourself in this way. If someone wants to try to push you to drink alcohol then you need to “selfishly” push back against them and protect your sobriety.
Now there are other situations where you want to be selfless instead of selfish. These two can be polar opposites so we need to know when to apply them in our lives.
The time to be selfless is when you are reaching out and helping others. This is especially true if you are helping someone to become clean and sober, or helping them to maintain sobriety in some way.
The more selfless you can be in that regard, the stronger it will make your recovery.
Maybe you are going to AA meetings and someone is asking you for specific advice after the meeting. Perhaps you think you can give some good feedback to this person so you take them out for coffee and talk to them for an evening. You make a connection and hopefully your advice really has a positive impact on this person.
That is selfless, not selfish. It is the opposite of being selfish. You are going out of your way to try to help this other person to achieve sobriety. And in doing so you strengthen your own sobriety.
So really it comes down to the impact that something will have on your own sobriety. Ask yourself if it will help or hinder your efforts at staying sober. Whether it is “selfish” or “selfless” could vary from situation to situation, but your bottom line is that you want to know how that decision will impact your chances at remaining sober. If something compromises your sobriety then obviously you should not do it. If something strengthens your recovery then you should try to go out of your way to do it.
How to put yourself first in terms of surrender and early recovery
Perhaps you are not even in recovery yet.
Maybe you are still struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction. Maybe you are stuck in the cycle of trying to quit, but then going back to drinking again, then trying to quit again. You are trapped in a cycle.
If this is the case then you have not yet surrendered.
What you are doing is what we might call “partial surrender.” You realize that drinking is bad for you and you know that you should stop, so you make some effort at doing so. But it’s not enough. And you continue to relapse and struggle.
So how do you put yourself first in this situation? How do you break through that last bit of denial and find a path to recovery?
The secret is very counter-intuitive, in my opinion. I say that because I think that I am of average or better intelligence, and this is something that I could not figure out for a long time. In fact I struggled for about a full decade trying to figure out how to surrender to my disease. It took me several years. And of course, some people never figure it out at all.
The secret is this: It is that you must abandon the self.
When you surrender and make the leap of faith into sobriety, it is really the death of your ego that allows it to happen.
Now what do I mean by this, “death of your ego?”
What I mean is that when you reach the point of true surrender, when you are willing to get sober, go to rehab, walk away from your drug of choice, and try to change your life….when you finally reach that point, you are so miserable and so sick and tired of being afraid that you just don’t care any more.
You don’t care about anything or anyone. You don’t care about your life, you don’t care about yourself, you don’t care about anything in the whole world. You stop caring.
This is the ego death. You are beaten down completely with fear and misery. You are sick and tired beyond all belief. Beyond recognition. You have been miserable for so long that you no longer recognize yourself! You hate your life and you are sick of it. You just want it all to go away.
This is the moment of real surrender. And in this moment you will abandon your fear.
There is a battle raging on between your misery in life and the fear that is holding you back from getting sober.
I was afraid of treatment. I was afraid of rehab, of detox, of AA meetings, of getting a sponsor, of going to therapy. I was afraid of facing life without alcohol.
All of those fears were swirling around in my head and they kept me drunk. I stayed drunk and I was miserable.
And eventually the misery became so great and I was so sick and tired of it all that I just wanted it all to end.
Some people who have this feeling may call it being suicidal. In truth it is not necessarily wanting to die, but they definitely want the pain and suffering to end. I used to tell people that I was near suicidal but in reality I just wanted the misery of my alcoholism to go away.
And so I surrendered. I abandoned my fear. This is the selfless moment when your ego dies. Because you have to face your fear directly, head on, and stop caring about it.
Think about it: You have to care in order to be afraid, don’t you? You have to care about yourself in order to be afraid for yourself. You have to care about your life in order to be afraid of losing your life.
I call it the “ego death” because at that moment of surrender I no longer cared. I stopped caring. And therefore the fear had no more power over me.
My fear of rehab, my fear of sobriety, all of those fears became meaningless to me. They couldn’t hold me back any more because I no longer cared about myself or others. The misery of my alcoholism had beaten me down so much (and for so long) that I stopped caring.
And this is a gift.
That moment when you surrender the self, when the ego dies, when you stop caring about yourself, you are able to let go.
And in that moment you are able to say “I don’t care about my fear of treatment, my fear of sobriety, and all these other fears. I don’t care any more. I am just done being miserable, I want it to stop. So please help me, show me how to not be miserable.”
And that is the start of recovery. That is the start of healing. When you abandon the ego, you abandon the self, and you ask for help.
It is that moment when your new life begins. Because you no longer have the “self” in the way, your ego is silenced, and you can finally listen to others and take their advice.
This moment when you feel like you want to die is the death of your ego. It is real surrender. You abandon the self and you become willing to take direction and advice.
If you are selfish in this moment you would return to drinking (I have done that before myself).
If you are selfless in this moment you will have the courage to get help. I have done that too. I highly recommend this path instead of the other one!
How to put yourself first in terms of personal growth and development
Once you are clean and sober and living in recovery you may still think about how you might put yourself first.
What you want to do in long term sobriety is to put yourself first in terms of personal growth and learning.
You want to learn new things, experience new things, and test new ideas.
You can do this in a non-selfish way, of course, by simply being willing to listen to others and take their advice.
I found this to a very interesting way to live in early recovery. What I did for the first year or two of my recovery was to get out of my own way. I decided to listen to other people’s ideas rather than my own.
Why did I do this? Because I was so afraid of relapse. I was so afraid of self sabotage. And so I found myself trusting in others rather than trusting in myself.
And I had to force myself to do this. I made a decision. I said to myself: “Look, I know I am in danger of screwing everything up and relapsing. So I am going to take advice from other people and avoid my own ideas for a while, and see how it goes.”
And so I did that. I stopped using my own ideas. Or, I would run them past multiple people in sobriety and see what their opinions were first. I did not act alone, I did not just strike out and use my own ideas without getting advice first.
And the amazing thing was how quickly this changed my life.
I was amazed, quite frankly, that this worked at all. I thought that it would backfire, and that I would be miserable.
But I wasn’t. I was taking advice from other people and I was loving my life more and more every day.
Things were getting really, really good. And I can remember thinking to myself in early recovery “This almost isn’t even fair….my life keeps getting better and better, and all I am doing is following advice from other people. I’m not even really thinking for myself! It’s like cheating somehow.” That was how I felt because my old belief system was that I had to figure everything out for myself. That turned out to be wrong. In truth, I could take advice from various people in recovery and they would lead me to happiness.
Again, this was about abandoning the “self” and losing the ego. I forced myself to listen to other people, to take their advice, and this slowly transformed my life. It really was amazing.
Putting yourself first in long term sobriety
Now in long term sobriety it can be easy to forget to put yourself first.
What you need to do is to remember that you still need to learn, you still need to be honest with yourself, and you still need to achieve personal growth.
If you stop growing in long term sobriety then there is a chance that you might relapse. When this happens we refer to it as complacency.
Obviously we want to avoid complacency. So how do we do that?
First of all, I suggest that you always assume that you may be complacent on a daily basis. Every day, assume that you are complacent and that you need to take action in order to create positive growth in your recovery journey.
There is nothing wrong with this assumption. It can only help you. It cannot hurt you.
Second of all, I would suggest that you find ways to connect with other people in recovery. Obviously we would want these to be healthy relationships. Maybe in some cases you would be helping others, and in some cases you might reach out to someone to get help yourself. And some of these might be friendships in which you help each other.
That might sound counter-intuitive because we are trying to put ourselves first, and in doing so we are seeking to help others. But that is an important concept in recovery that too many people miss out on. The entire 12th step in AA is based on this principle, that when we are helping others in recovery we are really helping ourselves. So I think it is important that every person in recovery finds a way to give back to others, a way to connect with others, a way to help others in sobriety.
You may want to seek out help for yourself in the form of guidance, advice, and suggestions. You may even do this after several years or decades of sobriety. So you might ask people in recovery: “What would you do next in life if you were in my situation?” Or you might ask them what you should work on in your life next.
Get feedback from various people and then try to put a plan into action. Push yourself to make a positive change. Test new ideas and then see what results you get. Always be testing out new ways to improve yourself and your life.
Do you have to be selfish to recover?
In some ways you definitely have to be selfish to recover. Mostly in order to protect your own sobriety.
In other ways you have to be selfless. You must be selfless at the moment of surrender in order to face your fear and ask for help.
And you must be selfless when you reach out to help others in their recovery journey.
It is important that you don’t switch the two! For example, if you are selfish when reaching out to help others then you will just take advantage of them somehow (unfortunately, this has been known to happen in some recovery programs). And if you are selfless when you are trying to protect yourself from relapse then you will be too weak to stand up for yourself and refuse temptation.
So there are definitely moments when you need to be strong, when you need that strong sense of self, when you need to put your own needs and your sobriety first. Learn when those moments are so that you can stand up for yourself. You may need to seek out support systems in early recovery so that you can learn how and when to be “selfish” in this way.
Be very careful of using the idea of selfishness to justify unhealthy behavior in your life. Many people do this when they claim that “it is a selfish program” and then they use that as an excuse to engage in behavior that is ultimately unhealthy for them. You don’t want to fall into this trap for yourself. Be careful and surround yourself with strong and positive role models and mentors in sobriety. They can help you tell the difference between when being selfish will help you (protecting your sobriety) and when it may hurt you (acting selfish only for self gain).
What do you think, have you learned how to be selfish in the right ways in order to protect your sobriety? Have you experienced this selfless aspect of recovery as well? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!