Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) suggests that “selfishness – self-centeredness” (p.62) is the root cause of the alcoholic’s problems. That they are “driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking and self-pity.” (1)
There is no doubt that addiction, of any description, quite often leads to self-centered and selfish behavior. Addiction tends to corrupt character and ‘narrows the sufferer’s focus’ (2) – which is often described as ‘obsessional’ in nature. This addictive relationship with a substance, behavior, or process becomes all-consuming and takes precedence over other relationships and personal responsibilities. It quite often leads to the transgression of personal boundaries and values resulting in distressing moral dissonance, shame and guilt.
The suggestion that selfishness and self-centeredness is the root cause of addiction is a matter of debate outside of the 12-Step arena. According to science journalist and addiction writer Maia Szalavitz, there are “no universal character traits that are common to all addicted people”. (3) In her bestselling book, ‘Unbroken Brain’, she suggests that “the idea of a general addictive personality is a myth” (p.58), and that the “the whole range of human character can be found among people with addictions” (p.59).
However, Szalavitz does suggest in her book that extremes of character traits do put people ‘at risk’ of developing addictions. For example; anti-social personality traits, impulsivity and risk taking traits, as well as, those who are sensitive, overly moralistic, compulsive, or excessively anxious. Also, not all traits that make people more vulnerable to developing addiction are necessarily negative. ‘Giftedness and high IQ, for example, have been linked with higher rates of illegal drug use’. (4)
The above traits only put individuals at a ‘higher risk’ of developing addiction and do not guarantee it. Additional bio-psycho-social factors interact with these inherent traits of personality and are key in the development of addiction.
Alcoholics Anonymous, in fact, doesn’t just describe alcoholics as having a one dimensional character, typically thought of as: selfish, self-centered, egotistical, prideful, arrogant, dishonest and fearful. If you read the full range of AA literature you’ll find plenty of examples of the full range of character traits present…
“The classification of alcoholics seems most difficult….There are, of course, the psychopaths who are emotionally unstable….There is the manic-depressive type….Then there are types entirely normal in every respect except in the effect alcohol has upon them. They are often able, intelligent, friendly people. All these [personality types], and many others, have one symptom in common: they cannot start drinking without developing the phenomenon of craving.”
‘The Doctor’s Opinion’, Alcoholics Anonymous, p.xxviii, 3rd ed.
My own view and experience does suggest that there is some truth in the theory that self-centered fear (which can lead to selfish behavior), or in other words, ‘a separate and anxious sense of oneself’, is the root cause of addiction for many in the meeting rooms of AA. If you listen to enough people describing their history of addiction and the experiences that have led to it, you will often hear them share feelings of ego-isolation or aloneness, and a sense of separation and not feeling whole. These feelings are inevitably accompanied by an undercurrent of anxiety, insecurity and shame.
This sense of ego-isolation and dualism, and its resulting anxiety, seems to be the common, if not universal, psychic anatomy of those that suffer serious problems with addiction. Alcoholics/addicts often begin drinking alcohol or misusing other drugs in order to escape this internal sense of separateness and ‘dis-ease’, and in an effort to connect with others and feel whole.
Anxiety about our aloneness, or, in essence, ‘self-centred fear’, is one of the four main existential human concerns – in modern day societies – and so is not just a problem for those who suffer with addictions. Although, some would say, that all people suffer with addictions of one form or another, for example: obsessional thinking, compulsive habits, watching television, smart phones and social media, computer gaming, shopping, materialism, being busy, exercise, food, sex and relationships etc. Modern-day human beings have a need to escape their internal anxious state, even though many are unaware of their inner discontent. Materialism and capitalism have greatly increased our sense of separation and individualism (ego), and rates of serious addiction and mental illness seem to have increased in tandem.
According to the transpersonal psychologist, Steve Taylor Ph.D., in his book, ‘Back to Sanity’, indigenous peoples and hunter-gatherer societies had a more unified sense of being and consequently felt connected to others, animals and nature in general. In his book, Taylor describes anthropological research of these pre-modern (pre-agricultural) cultures and the lack of a sense of ego-separation and interest in acquiring material possessions, beyond those that were essential. These people were generally much happier, less self-centred and more egalitarian, and didn’t seem to suffer from the increasingly common social and psychological problems prevalent in today’s post-modern cultures.
When these pre-modern societies came into contact with modern era Europeans they became separated from their cultural practices and traditions and consequently became infected with what Taylor calls “humania” or “ego-madness”. (5) The tragic consequences of this separation from traditional ways of living are well documented in relation to the native peoples of North America and Australian Aborigines, “whose displacement and disconnection from their homelands, cultural values, traditions, and spiritual practices created feelings of painful and meaningless existence, in turn leading to great problems in relation to addiction and mental illness.” (6)
In addition to the increased sense of ego-separation (and its ever present anxiety and need for attachments and possessions), experienced by most people nowadays, brought about by modern-era materialism, many who’ve suffered serious addiction to alcohol and other drugs also have predisposing bio-psycho-social influencing factors that have led to their problems with addiction. For example, developmental trauma, abuse and neglect “can cause ‘structural damage’ to the psyche” (7) creating a more ‘fragile and separate’ sense of ego and ‘an acute sense of incompleteness and insecurity.’ The greater the degree of psychological distress and isolation human beings experience, the greater the need for escape or distraction from the self. However, in their efforts to escape their psychological suffering they tend to intensify their sense of separation and fear in the longer term.
While I agree with the contention that the full range of personality traits, both positive and negative, are present among those who suffer, or have suffered, from addiction, I would suggest that self-centred fear is common to all to some degree or another. We are all embodied and vulnerable human beings with evolved survival instincts and self-conscious anxiety. Many in the rooms of AA and other 12-Step fellowships do suffer from exaggerated degrees of self-conscious fear and insecurity, though, due to inherited characteristics, developmental trauma, co-occurring disorders, and adverse life experiences etc.
In my opinion, the inventory process suggested by AA, as a part of its program of recovery, is valid and helpful if practiced in a balanced and compassionate way. Our instinctual drives, general self-consciousness, and the conditioning of a materialistic modern-day culture, make us all vulnerable to feeling threatened by others and life, and we can all be ‘selfish and self-centered’ in response.
Are alcoholics and addicts particularly guilty in this respect? When in active addiction, I’d say that the case is generally so. However, in recovery we can practice the principles inherent within the 12-Step program in an effort to feel more integrated, whole, and less anxious about the self.
- ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’, p.62, 3rd
- ‘The Biology of Desire’, by Marc Lewis, Ph.D.
- ‘Unbroken Brain’, p.58, by Maia Szalavitz.
- Ibid, p.59.
- ‘Back to Sanity’, p.xi, by Steve Taylor, Ph.D.
- ‘The Role of Choice in Addiction and Recovery’, by Steve K.
- ‘Back to Sanity’, p.55, by Steve Taylor, Ph.D.
About the Author
Steve K. lives in Cheshire, which is in the Northwest region of England, and describes himself as an agnostic who is open to spirituality. He has been a member of AA since 1991 and his home group is the Macclesfield Saturday Morning AA Group. Steve is the author of The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous: An Interpretation by Steve K. The paperback version is available on Amazon, or you can download the pdf. version for free here.
You may also like to check out Steve’s well-received recovery site, 12stepphilosophy.org.