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The Virtue of Selfishness for People with Addictions

This week I have been reminded that sometimes it’s quite alright to be selfish. In fact, I would even go so far as calling selfishness a virtue. For some of our alumni who are in recovery from addictions, I would go one step further and say it’s a matter of survival.

The Paradox of Selfishness

So, how can selfishness be a virtue? After all, page 62 of the Big Book states:

“So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us!”

However, Bill Wison himself understood the paradoxical nature of selfishness. In response to a letter from someone who was disturbed to hear someone say that “AA is a selfish program,” Bill wrote *:

“I can see why you are disturbed … The word “selfish” ordinarily implies that one is acquisitive, demanding, and thoughtless of the welfare of others. Of course, the AA way of life does not at all imply such undesirable traits … our own recovery and spiritual growth have to come first – a right and necessary kind of self-concern.”

* Source: Ernest Kurtz, in his historical account of the AA movement, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 242 and 243.

Selfishness as an Antidote to Apathy and Resignation

As mentioned in the opening sentence, this week really drove the importance the importance of having this “necessary kind of self-concern” that Bill Wilson describes. A new alumni group has started up in Vancouver and, like any start-up endeavour, has had it’s share of ups and downs. Attendance has been spotty and some alumni have expressed frustration and doubt over its survival.

I, personally, have had a similar experience in my yoga group.  I, too, am grappling with poor attendance as a member of a yoga group in Richmond. The women that run this group out of a Hindu temple in Richmond are the kindest, most generous people you would ever want to meet and only ask for a small donation to the temple in return. However, there will be some days when there are only one or two participants.

I can think of countless other examples of other events or group activities and, regardless of whether its staying sober, losing weight, staying connected to god, etc. all groups struggle with consistent attendance.

It is at times like this when we are faced with apathy, resignation, and excuses that it’s necessary to reconnect with our own selfish interests and push on regardless of what others do or think.

Selfishness as a Necessary Survival Instinct for Early Recovery

In addiction recovery, particularly in early recovery, being selfish can be the difference between relapse and sobriety. Examples include:

  1. turning down invitations to risky social events (e.g. weddings, Christmas parties, etc.)
  2. staying away from friends and family members that are not supportive of your recovery
  3. participating in 12 Step meetings or spending time with other people in recovery in spite of complaints from family members who may feel left out
  4. keeping a healthy distance from fellow alumni who have relapsed if you feel being around them could jeopardize your own recovery
  5. asking your employer for a new position or work schedule change to reduce the chance of relapse (overtime, isolation, boredom, etc.)


As Ernest Kurtz wrote in Not-God, ” sefishness [can] be directed and tempered – applied to its proper object with the help of another of the program’s (AA) maxims: ‘First Things First.’ ” Selfishness is something to be explored, not avoided, and is another fine example of the paradoxical nature of addiction.

About the Author

Daniel Jordan is the General Manager of Sunshine Coast Health Center and hopes that these postings will help  take away some of the mystery often associated with addiction and its treatment.

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