"Spirituality enables us to be at peace with God, with other people, and with ourselves."

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Episode 98 -- March 22, 2021

I'm Not God: Working Out What's Worth Worshipping

One of the greatest aspects of diversity among those who pursue recovery is our understanding of spirituality. Each of us has an idea of what "Higher Power" means in our lives, and how—or whether—that power impacts our growth as well as our ability to stay sober.

In his book The Spiritual Self: Reflections on Recovery and God, rabbi and psychiatrist Abraham Twerski speaks with a unique perspective on the way worship, here defined as any combination of adoration, prayer, and trust, can affect emotional health and successful sobriety. In this excerpt, Dr. Twerski offers insights about the role of ego in recovery, and how a healthy spirituality can help us right-size the way we think of ourselves.

Although Twerski writes from a specific background, he's not trying to convert anyone. In his words, "Lest anyone have any doubts, let me point out that in my role as a physician I do not have any interest in promoting religion. My goal is to help people overcome their emotional problems in a manner that produces mental health."

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

Worship Whom?

In order to make a reasonable decision on this question, we must be aware of what our options are. Not knowing what options are available may cause us to make foolish decisions.

A father confronted his daughter's boyfriend, "What are your intentions, young man, honorable or dishonorable?"

The young man responded, "You mean I get a choice?"

We sometimes think we have options that really do not exist.

Let me place a proposition before you: Humans are creatures of worship.

There is much evidence that since time immemorial and in places vastly separated from one another, humans have always worshipped something. Primitive humans worshipped the sun, moon, and various objects or forces of nature. Later, some systemization of religion appeared in paganism, and finally, "civilized" beings arrived at monotheism. However, worship was always around.

If, indeed, it is inherent within us that we worship, then the option is not whether we will or will not worship, but whether we will worship ourselves or something external to ourselves. Worship is here defined as adoration, prayer, and trust, individually or in combination.

When worship is of something external, it may be worship of God or the state or some ideal to which we dedicate ourselves. If worship is not of something external, the only remaining option is worship of ourselves, which takes the form of egocentricity.

I alluded to this a bit earlier in the book when I pointed out that people who claim that they are atheists and hence cannot participate in a Twelve Step program because it is God-oriented are deluding themselves. They do believe in a God, but consider themselves to be their own God.

There is such a thing as a healthy ego. I am a very important part of my world. However, it is essential that I know my proper place in the world, what I can expect of myself, and what I can expect of the world. When the I is disproportionately great, egocentricity or egomania exists.

In egocentricity, the ego becomes a tyrant whose demands are insatiable. Everything egotists do is in service to the ego, because they essentially worship themselves. An irony of egocentricity is that these persons are apt to vehemently deny that they are the center of their own world. They are quick to point out that other people are egocentric, but certainly not them. Often this is just a projection of their own egocentricity on others. By projecting thusly, egotists delude themselves that they are not egocentric.

Egocentricity breeds misery because the demands of the egocentric are rarely met, and their inflated egos require that others appreciate them and that they manifest this appreciation by showing the appropriate respect. If they are not greeted in the manner they feel is their due, if they are not given honorable mention, or if they are not seated in a place of distinction, they are deeply irritated. They may manifest this displeasure, or they may suppress it. In either case, their attitude conveys itself and does not buy any friendships. Their extreme sensitivity may actually alienate people, and when they find themselves more rejected than welcome, they are deeply hurt and become even more demanding of their environment.

Egocentric persons delude themselves because they fear the truth, which is in fact something that merits no fear at all. The truth is that these persons would be well-liked if they would only have a realistic self-awareness. Their hurt feelings are in themselves fed by a delusion, as are their inflated senses of importance. Egocentrics know no happiness as long as they remain victims of their delusions. Trying to satisfy the egocentric is like trying to fill a bottomless pit.

The difference between healthy and unhealthy emotions is often quantitative. It is only natural that a person wishes to be appreciated by others, and a person who is not subject to inordinate needs for recognition can enjoy being appreciated. However, if we constantly dream of achieving fame, glory, riches, or great achievements not only in order to be admired, but also to feel vindicated, we are probably egocentric. A person may protest that this desire to make an epochal discovery is only in order to benefit humankind. If that were completely true, that person should be just as happy if that discovery for the benefit of humankind were made by someone else. We can be both altruistic and also enjoy being recognized. Those who profess to be purely altruistic and to have no need for appreciation are probably defensively denying their craving for recognition.

I once interviewed a very successful businessman who was hospitalized for peptic ulcer disease. He had been active in many civic projects but was unable to enjoy the abundant recognition he had achieved. "One wall of my living room is covered with testimonial plaques," he said, "but they mean nothing to me." Egocentrics are thus unable to enjoy doing for others and are discontented even with their achievements.

Another characteristic of egocentric persons is that they are likely to be vehement in their denial of any dependency. Egocentrics in dire physical straits have been known to walk out of hospitals because they cannot accept legitimate help. Accepting help is demeaning to them and is intolerable to the fragile, inflated ego. Those familiar with the alcoholic, whose life is disintegrating but who continues to refuse help from anyone, are witness to a classic example of how threatening the acceptance of help can be to the egocentric.

It is the nature of human beings to be dependent, and this should not be in the least demeaning. When our dependency is so exaggerated that we refrain from doing for ourselves whatever we can and depend on others to do everything for us, then this dependency is pathologic. When we do for ourselves everything that is feasible, our dependency on others, whether on another person or on God, is a healthy dependency.

When Gateway Rehabilitation Center, a large rehabilitation center for the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction that I founded, was in its planning phase, I met with psychoanalysts who had been my instructors in psychiatry. When they heard that I was going to fashion the Center to be compatible with the Twelve Step program, they were critical. "All you will be doing is taking the person's dependency off of the bottle and transferring it onto AA," they said. I asked them to tell me in absolute honesty whether they had ever succeeded, even with years of psychoanalytic treatment, in making a dependent person nondependent. Gradually, they had to admit that even within their greatest therapeutic triumphs, a sick dependency was invariably converted into a healthy dependency.

Spiritual persons may free themselves of obnoxious egocentricity. They worship God rather than themselves and know their existence is to fulfill some purpose other than gratifying their own desires. Their demands are therefore not excessive, and they are not victims of the chronic fear of those whose desires can never be satisfied. They accept dependence upon God as only natural and not in the least demeaning. By the same token, they are not deflated by the realization that they may be dependent upon other people for things that are factually beyond their capacities. They have not become unrealistically overdependent, because they have a sense of duty and responsibility. They can like themselves and be liked by others, because they neither cling to people nor repel them.

Spirituality enables us to be at peace with God, with other people, and with ourselves.

About the Author:
Founder and medical director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Abraham J. Twerski was a rabbi, psychiatrist, chemical dependency counselor, and the author of many books, including Addictive Thinking: Understanding Self-Deception.

© 2000 by Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.
All rights reserved