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Putting Yourself First in Recovery: Necessary, Not Selfish

September 01, 2022
Recovery in a sense is built on the idea of altruism, or the selfless giving of oneself. This is a sentiment echoed through all of the 12 Step programs and yet as important as altruism is to recovery, learning how and when to give is equally as important.
For instance, giving at the expense of your own peace of mind can actually hamper your recovery, leading to feelings of resentment and bitterness. Anyone who has been sober for a little bit has experienced this. Someone calls them and asks them to do something that they genuinely do not have time for and they agree to help because they believe that putting the other person’s needs before their own is what is expected of them. They have been told that selfishness is the root of their troubles and so by placing others’ needs before their own they are stamping out the selfishness. This is partially true, but the result is usually not a reduction in selfishness but rather a denial of self, and the self-care that is also extremely important to sobriety.
Self-care is often something that gets thrown to the wayside in the pursuit of helping others, but it is something that even the co-founder of AA, Bill Wilson, thought was extremely important. Bill Wilson said of AA, that it is a “selfish program” which creates one of the wonderful dichotomies that often occur in 12 Step Programs. How could a program based on altruism be selfish, and what’s more, how can you put yourself first, when you are told that your selfishness is the root of your troubles?
In order to understand why putting yourself first is important to recovery, you first need to understand what this exactly means. Putting yourself first does not mean solely putting your needs ahead of others while you selfishly go through life pursuing your wants, but what it does mean is that you must put your recovery first above everything else.
A good example of this is a friend of mine who told me a story about when he first got sober. He said, “When I was in treatment I told my parents to please not call me, that I would call them. I didn’t mean this to be rude, but I knew that if I was going to attempt to get sober I couldn’t have them calling me all of the time questioning my every move, so I did what I had to do.” Now, this may sound selfish, because my friend had put his parents through a lot, so asking them to not call him seems like a punishment of sorts, but it is not. He was simply putting himself first in order to recover.
This is what putting yourself first means, doing the things that you need to do in order to achieve and maintain your recovery. What this looks like may differ between people and between situations but the spirit of it is the same, at times you will have to make the choice of you and your recovery over other people.
One place that this often comes up in recovery is with friendships. Many times in early recovery we make a lot of friends, but as time goes on some people tend to fall off. The question will ultimately arise, how do we handle these situations? If they have started using do we cut them out of our lives or do we keep the friendship intact? There is no set answer for this because each person must make their own decision based on the particular circumstances, but a good rule of thumb for situations like this is to put your recovery first, regardless of whether the person is going to get mad at you.
Another place that this commonly comes up is in the workplace. This one can be a little trickier because at the end of the day you have to make a living and pay your bills, but due to the people-pleasing nature of addiction, you may be giving more than needed at work. Many alcoholics and addicts are incredible workers once they get sober, but once again the balance of when to give and when to step back can often be difficult. Your job may be taking you away from your obligations to your sobriety, and this may begin to affect your life. This is the point when putting yourself first comes into play and many times taking a step back and shifting your focus just a bit can do wonders for your mental well-being.
Learning to put the needs of your sobriety first is important not only because it will help you maintain your sobriety, but also because it will make you more helpful to others. There is a line in the book Alcoholics Anonymous that says, “You cannot transmit something you haven’t got” and this means that you cannot carry the message of the 12 Steps if you yourself are not right. By neglecting yourself you not only harm yourself but also harm the people you could potentially help, so remember to take care of yourself and your sobriety above all else. Find the services that can help you get the support you need.