The Unhelpful S-Word in Addictions Recovery


People with addictions are told that they are selfish, that the origin of their addictions is selfishness, and if they just weren’t so selfish, their addictions would go away.

Anne's SelfAs someone trying to recover from addiction to alcohol, as someone trying to help others recover from addictions, I find this concept a tragically counterproductive component of addictions recovery dogma. In the recovery community, when I challenge use of the “s-word” – selfishness as the origin of addiction – I am often reprimanded and offered the delightfully shaming double bind of being accused of being selfishly blind to my own selfishness!

Most people struggling with addiction actually suffer from the opposite of selfishness – not enough self, not enough ego strength (with its accompanying longing for human connection), not enough of what Dr. Nina Brown terms in her newest book “healthy and constructive adult narcissism.”

Brown asserts that possessing “healthy and constructive adult narcissism” is “actually an ideal state of being.” Its opposite is “self-absorption,” a problematic state of anger and fear to which she has devoted much of her researchShe writes that, if cultivated as part of “an individual’s growth and development,” attributes of healthy adult narcissism – a.k.a. “selfishness” – can, paradoxically, yield “an accompanying reduction of self-absorbed behaviors and attitudes.”

1. Shows empathy
Demonstrates the capacity to enter the world of the other person, to feel what that person is experiencing without losing the sense of self as being separate and distinct, and to accurately convey those feelings in words to the other person.

2. Creative
Uses the ability to provide new and novel initiatives in everyday life, to be flexible in thought and actions, and to make constructive use of imagination.

3. Exhibits appropriate sense of humor
Is able to see the humor in life’s absurdities and in events that are not harmful or shameful for others. Refuses to laugh at others’ unfortunate conditions. Does not use slurs, put-downs, or sarcasm and sees no humor in differences over which others have no control, such as race and gender.

4. Wisdom
Demonstrates through words and action an ability to capitalize on life experiences and to learn from mistakes made by self or others. Understands when and how to intervene, has confidence in self and confidence in others to take care of their needs, and has developed a sense of personal meaning and purpose for life but remains open to possibilities.

5. Self-reflective
Takes time to consider personal values and priorities before taking action. Also can engage in self-examination so as to reduce self-absorbed behaviors and attitudes. Does not automatically dismiss unpleasant feedback from others but can carefully consider the worth and value of this feedback without becoming narcissistically wounded or angry.

6. Beauty, wonder, and zest
Is able to see beauty and wonder in everyday life, appreciates the various forms in which they can appear, and searches for new expressions of them.

7. Balances self-care with care for others
Accepts appropriate responsibility for caring for self and for others; nurtures and cares for children, the elderly, and those who have a temprorary or lasting need for caring and nurturing. Can have others’ needs as priorities, when necessary, but can also distinguish between his own needs and priorities and those of others.

8. Emotionally expressive
Has and expresses a wide range and variety of emotions and can manage and contain intense and unpleasant emotions.

9. Recognizes separateness of self and others
Demonstrates an appreciation for others as being worthwhile, unique, and separate from oneself and as having the capability and responsibility for caring for themselves.

10. Cultivates resiliency
Deeply feels the impact of life’s negative events, takes stock of internal resources that can be used to foster self-efficacy, and uses these resources to help overcome life’s adversities.

11. Lives by a set of freely chosen values
Does not blindly accept the values proposed by others, even those that were a part of earlier development, but instead examines these and makes a conscious choice to accept or to reject them and seek out other values that are more fulfilling. Chooses and uses values to guide moral and ethical decision making and actions.

12. Altruistic
Can freely give to others when appropriate and does not expect reciprocity.

13. Initiates and maintains meaningful and enduring relationships
Has long-term friends…and is not exploitative of relationships.

14. Has strong and resilient psychological boundaries
Demonstrates an understanding of where self ends and others begin. Is not easily manipulated or bullied, does not engage in manipulative or bullying actions, and does not become enmeshed or overwhelmed by others’ emotions.

– excerpted from Nina W. Brown, Ed.D., LPC, Children of the Aging Self-Absorbed: A Guide to Coping with Difficult, Narcissistic Parents and Grandparents

If I am termed”selfish” for attempting to cultivate in myself Brown’s list of attributes of “healthy adult narcissism” – or for perhaps creating my own list  of attributes of “healthy adult narcissism for recovering Anne,” so be it. Truly, I think the problem is definition of terms – self, selfish, ego, egocentric – the list of imprecise words used in addictions recovery goes on and on.

I am increasingly falling in love with my life and the self who lives it. I don’t think anyone would begrudge me that, however selfish it might seem.

Image: “Anne’s Self” by Laurel Sindewald

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When the Silence Ends


  1. Most people I have known with alcohol trouble have been exceptionally big hearted, fun lovely people to be around. Anne, I knew you when you were drinking and you were all that and more and I am sure you have not changed except for the better.

    I have a hard time reconciling my personal anecdotal evidence with the general label that addicts are selfish as I have just not found that to be the case.

    Keep up the good work, proud of you.

  2. Eloquently put, Anne! I would even go so far as to say that if one has been in the extreme of selflessness, one might try in some cases to go with deliberation for the extreme of selfishness. It is hard to find a place of balance if we have only ever been on one side.

  3. I love that image of the 1/7th billionth, and I’m going to print out that list of appropriately narcissistic qualities. Thanks, as always, for sharing your story and helpful resources!