In the Big Book there is an explanation of step four–a searching and fearless moral inventory–that includes this passage: ‘Putting out of our minds the wrongs others had done, we resolutely looked for our own mistakes. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and frightened?’ What’s the difference between selfish behaviour and self-seeking behaviour?
This distinction has been discussed at some length in 12-step circles. While the distinction is subtle, most agree that it is significant. We are all familiar with selfish behaviour. This is a preoccupation with your own needs and an indifference to the needs of others. You make take more than your share without giving. You may decline to help others if you don’t feel like it. You may be indifferent to the suffering of others. There are plenty of ways to be selfish. Selfishness is usually apparent and we generally dislike selfish people.
Self-seeking is a little more complicated. It’s possible to do good and still be self-seeking if you only do good to be praised for doing good. In a sense, it’s a higher order of selfishness. Maybe you give up taking the last slice of cake but only because you value being thought generous more than you value the cake. You are still mostly focused on yourself, but now you seek a nobler prize.
You may ask, ‘So what? If you do good, what does it matter if you do it for selfish reasons?’ It’s a perfectly fair question and it gets to the heart of why self-seeking behaviour is insidious. One answer is that it’s hard to be of service if you only want praise for being of service. It’s hard in the sense that you have to force yourself to do it and in the sense that you don’t quite know what’s expected of you. You will make different decisions about how to be of service depending on whether you want credit for it.
Another reason is that being of service is meant to get you out of your own head and serve a larger purpose. It’s this larger purpose that makes sobriety easier, not just the self-esteem of being thought a good person. If you are only serving your own ego, sobriety will remain a struggle. You may resent people who don’t seem to adequately appreciate your efforts. If your goal is to be of service, then your service is enough. Only you will really know whether your motivations are altruistic or self-seeking, but being honest and holding yourself accountable will serve you better in the long run.
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Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | January 29, 2020