Being Self-Centered vs. Having a Self

My experience with people in recovery via the Twelve Steps is that they can sometimes have a distorted understanding of the concept of “self.” And I believe that that misunderstanding is rooted, in large part, in the general poverty of the English language when it comes to issues of spirituality and spiritual growth.

Here’s a pivotal quote from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:

“Selfishness, self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self, which later placed us in a position to be hurt. So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making”.

– Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition, How It Works

Again, my experience, based on this quote and other similar quotes, is that very often people in recovery reach this over-simplified conclusion:

“self = bad;  getting rid of self = good.”

And this over-simplification creates a huge problem – an actual barrier to a full recovery. How?

We’re going to be talking about two different concepts, which in reality are worlds apart, but are often confused as being the same thing in 12 Step circles: 1) being self-centered; and 2) having a self.

Basically, “self-centeredness” is seeing oneself as the center of the world (albeit unconsciously). Other people are regarded as resources to be exploited in the pursuit of ego-gratification. This puts the self-centered person at odds with the rest of the world, because the self-centered person puts their needs and views above the needs and views of other people. This causes them to attempt to control the world, and the people in it, to fulfill their agenda. And indeed, this behavior causes harm to others, as well as to self.

“Having a self”, however, is something quite different. “Having a self” simply means being in touch with one’s authentic, God-given identity. It means knowing who you really are, in depth. It means discovering and living in alignment with one’s unique identity, separate and distinct from all other human beings. Having a self is summed up quite nicely in Shakespeare’s aphorism “To Thine Own Self Be True.”

“Having a self” does NOT mean putting oneself above other people. Not in the least.  It simply means relating to others from the perspective of one’s true self rather than from behind a false self, or persona, or “mask.” It means living life from an authentic perspective. It is the root of personal authenticity, of being “real.” It gives one the ability to make decisions about career, personal relationships and all other areas of life that are truly supportive, healthy and beneficial. When one “has no self”, i.e. doesn’t really know who they are, they are doomed to make lousy life decisions, because they have no real idea about whether the option they are considering will truly be healthy and supportive.

My concern is that because the English language is clumsy and inadequate when it comes to articulating the various, and widely varying, concepts related to the word “self”, many people don’t make the crucial distinctions among these varying concepts. They tend to equate them all. Hence the oversimplified, and just plain wrong, equations:

“self = bad;  getting rid of self = good.”

Because of this conceptual confusion, Twelve Steppers can sometimes do real damage to people by inadvertently sending the message that “having a self” is a bad thing. They equate “getting rid of self”, i.e. becoming less self-centered, with “having no self”, i.e. with having no identity. This message repeats the trauma that was inflicted on so many recovering people by their family of origin, their original childhood care givers. In dysfunctional families, “having a self” is actively discouraged and even punished, sometimes viciously, because it threatens the power structure. So, many/most people who are new to recovery have little-to-no idea who they really are; i.e. they do not yet “have a self.”

Counseling people to “get rid of self” too often means demanding that they become just another well-trained recovery robot, instead of helping them pursue the quest to discover their own essential, authentic identity. And this is wrong.

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