"Self-concern is different from selfishness. It does not exclude others; it is inclusive."

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Episode 24 -- July 6, 2020

Stupid Thing 8: Confusing Self-Concern with Selfishness

This excerpt is from 12 Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery by Allen Berger. It has been edited for brevity.

Anyone who has spent time in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other Twelve Step--based recovery programs--realizes--that self-centeredness and self-will run riot and are viewed as the root cause of addiction. Many Twelve Steppers interpret this as meaning that concern with personal needs is "bad." There seems to be no room for self with the--capital S or lowercase s in recovery. They think self in any shape or form is a demon that needs to be exorcised. The myth perpetuated by this notion is that becoming "selfless" is the primary goal in recovery.

While it's important for us to put "self" into a healthier perspective, we also need to learn how to take better care of ourselves. Many of us become self-centered because we don't know how to take care of ourselves emotionally, spiritually, or interpersonally. We are ignorant of how to stay centered in relationships and soothe ourselves when anxious, disappointed, or concerned.

Our personal level of suffering is related to the degree of alienation from our true self. Another way of saying the same thing is that our level of "dis-ease" is related to how fragmented or disconnected we are--how cut off we are--from our true self.

Recovery is a salvage operation. We are actually recovering our lost self: disowned and fragmented parts of our being. In order to become whole, we need to integrate all aspects of our self.

Another way to describe the process of recovery is to think about it as recovering our emotional and spiritual development. Most of us were developmentally arrested at a pretty early age because of our addiction. Recovery helps us reclaim and integrate the lessons we never completed.

Let's discuss a specific issue that we all have to face. There are two powerful forces within us that are usually in conflict: our desire to please and our individuality. We become selfish or we become people-pleasers. Often, we don't know how to honor both of these desires simultaneously.

Let's discuss the nature of these two forces. First is our desire to please and cooperate. We all have a desire to please those who are important to us, to cooperate with them, and to join or unite with them. We are social animals and we thrive in union. Recent surveys of the medical and sociological literature have demonstrated the importance of love for survival. If we are in a loving relationship, we live longer, recover faster and better from physical illnesses, commit fewer crimes, and make a better living.

The second force in our life is our desire to follow our own song, to pursue our individuality, and to seek personal mastery. This force is also necessary for our survival, as it moves us to become the best person we can be. This is a growth force that moves us forward in our development and maturity. For most of us, the desire to please and individuality are forces in conflict throughout our life and throughout our intimate relationships. We do not know how to please without losing ourselves; we do not know how to stay connected to our parents or a partner without losing our individuality; or we do not know how to cooperate with our parents or a partner while staying centered. What we do is fall out of one side of the bed or the other. We try to please and cooperate by submitting to our parents' or our partner's will, or we try to control them and get them to submit to our demands. We may distance ourselves, run away, detach, split, disconnect, and/or become emotionally withdrawn, building a stone wall. When we fail to integrate our desire to please and our individuality, we are not acting out of integrity. When we are not centered, we react and let the pull of our emotional fusion to our parents or our partner control our response, regardless of whether we are trying to please or detach.

When we emotionally withdraw, it is hard for us to recognize that we are being controlled by an emotional connection. We think we are acting independently. Independence is not individuality. When we pull away because of our emotional dependency, we are in fact being controlled by these feelings. The emotional dependency is forcing us to withdraw.

This is what I believe happens when a person is being selfish. When we use independence to deal with emotional dependency, we are being selfish. We think we are honoring our individuality, but we are not. This is pseudo-independence. It is not an independence grounded in individuality. It is a reaction to the pull of our emotional dependency. Few of us want to be controlled, and we go to any lengths to avoid it. We just don't realize that what is happening within us makes us feel¿controlled. Instead we externalize the blame, which keeps us ignorant of the real problem. The real problem is our emotional dependency on others and how we are controlled by this dependency, by this self-imposed pressure. Selfishness is pseudo-independence intended to neutralize emotional dependency. The drive toward self-realization--integrating apparently conflicting aspects of ourselves--is so deep and powerful that when ignored, it lets us know by causing us serious emotional, physical, or spiritual problems.

To achieve real emotional maturity, we need to honor everything that is important to us, and this includes our desire to cooperate and our need to be ourselves. When we consciously balance these two forces, we are functioning with integrity and wholeness. We self-actualize. We strive for balance and we strive to stay centered when facing conflicts. We strive to honor our own personal desires and the personal desires of our partner. When conflict occurs, as it inevitably will, we maintain our connection. We don't submit to them, try to control them, or run away emotionally or physically. This healthy tension creates real maturity and is one of the life lessons we missed. My mentor Dr. Walter Kempler used to refer to this process as "all hands on deck."

Confusing selfishness with self-concern cuts the legs out from under us. The confusion becomes self-defeating and self-destructive. It prevents us from acting on our own behalf, lest we be selfish. Self-concern is not selfishness! When we honor ourselves, our existence, our life, we are not being selfish. Learning to honor and care for ourselves is a hallmark of recovery.

When we honor ourselves, we strive to function with integrity and honor all of our personal desires. We strive to please others and honor our feelings simultaneously. We strive to assert ourselves appropriately, but not at anyone's expense. We strive to stay balanced and take responsibility for our feelings and personal desires rather than manipulate and maneuver others to take care of us and make us feel all right. We seek to be of value without losing ourselves in the process. When we take care of ourselves, we learn to stand on our own two feet. The result of these efforts is peace of mind and serenity, what Bill Wilson referred to as "emotional sobriety." This, too, is possible in our life if we strive to remain conscious and work our program. There are many long-timers who have trudged this road and are more than honored to help us along the way.

Learn more from Dr. Berger by reading 12 Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery.

About the Author:
Allen Berger, Ph.D., is in private practice. He is also the author of Love Secrets Revealed, a book about making relationships work. For the past thirty-six years, Dr. Berger has been on his own personal journey in recovery while helping thousands of men and women discover a new way of life, free from addiction and its insanity. You can learn more about Dr. Berger and his work at www.abphd.com.

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