Self-Sacrifice and Self-Destruction
“The alcoholic sees themselves as a piece of shit at the center of the universe” is an image that I picked up somewhere along the line in early recovery - it usually gets knowing chuckles and nods whenever it’s shared in meetings, since it captures something that a lot of addicts can relate to. It’s an image of simultaneous grandiosity and self-loathing, of conjoined twin extremes. It’s an image born of comparative worth, of the drive not just to be good but to be better than someone else. So human existence is a relentless contest to assert your superiority, and any failure to assert your superiority is to slip into inferiority, which would be intolerable and unlivable. You’re either better than what’s going on around you or worse than what’s going on around you, and you could slip from better to worse at any moment when you least expect it. You can’t even have the possibility of superiority without the possibility of inferiority coming along with it, so there’s even if you aren’t inferior right now you still have to constantly think about how this could happen and how to stop this situation from coming about.
There’s a lot of self-obsession in this mindset, including (and maybe especially) when things aren’t going well for you. Your flaws are everything that stands between you and being worthy of status, power, and even life itself, so of course you’re going to be fixated on them. Focusing on and proclaiming all of your flaws can even sound like moral growth and justice, which is a rut I fell into for a long time; on some level I figured that if I just felt super guilty and effusively acknowledged that I was a piece of shit then I could behave however I wanted.
Getting involved with a recovery community sanded the edges off of this psychological phenomenon for me, slowly. At first I had a superiority complex about my inferiority complex; I had the most interesting, sophisticated, complex, illuminating, challenging problems of anyone in the room. If I couldn’t have an ego about my accomplishments then I was going to have an ego about my failures, about my victimhood. I didn’t really have any systemic cruelties pointed my way, but I could at least be a victim of my own tragically and horribly flawed nature.
Gradually, with work and time and through connecting with other people who got what I was going through, the “at the center of the universe” part of the opening phrase fell away and I started seeing myself as an ordinary piece of shit. I still saw myself as flawed and fucked up, but now I saw myself as a member of a general category of fuckups, people whose purpose is to atone by putting literally anyone else first.
I suppose this was a step in a more generous and productive direction, but this mindset still generated a lot of friction and difficulty in my life, and when it did I took it to mean that I had to self-sacrifice even harder. The self-loathing was very much still there, but in disguise; it had transformed into a drive to self-destruct by means of self-sacrifice. It manifested as the driving thought that I would sacrifice my way into a state of being “sober enough”, which would maybe come someday but certainly not today.
That mindset cut me off from any possibility of harmonious co-existence with others; I had it that life is a zero-sum game, meaning that any self-denial on my part would translate into fulfillment for someone else. I tried to scrub away my identity and become a blank canvas for others to use to fulfill their desires and dreams. I took on acts of service not because I had something to give but because I had something to get, namely the feeling of having done enough for others to earn feeling okay.
That mindset also cut me off from any possibility of leadership, of feeling like I have any kind of distinct and novel contribution to make to the world. I took on the inverse of leadership, “followship” - the image that my ideas were distinctly bad, that any deviation from what others think is an expression of corruption rather than innovation. I went from thinking I was exceptionally smart to thinking I was exceptionally ignorant, which definitely hurt; I think now that a lot of that “followship” was mostly there to keep me from feeling the hurt of that fall again. The best way to avoid losing self-esteem was to prevent myself from having any at all.
I’d love to say that all of this stuff vanished instantly as soon as I went 24 hours without a drink, but it took a lot of trial and error and learning the hard way. There was no singular moment where I got struck by sober lightening and instantly figured all of this out. It took a lot of encounters with lots of different growth practices, as well as getting out of an insecure relationship, before anything resembling a healthy and sustainable self-image began to stabilize for me.
That self-image is one where I see myself as equal in dignity and worth to the people around me, not categorically better and not categorically worse. It’s one where I see my needs and desires as worth advocating for; if I can’t advocate for my needs and desires, who else can? How can people connect with me if they don’t know what I want and like? How can I give generously if I’m exhausted and empty myself?
There’s another quote that captures a lot of this that gets passed around in 12-step meetings: “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less”. I like the sentiment that this captures, but I also don’t like the application of this as a general rule; I don’t like the idea that you’re always supposed to be thinking of yourself less than you already do, since you could exhaust yourself and everyone around you if you try and fail to avoid yourself completely. I prefer to think of myself a proper, healthy, happy amount, with self-compassion and self-support, knowing myself as always already enough. It’s better for everyone involved, especially me, if I take charge of making sure that I can hold on to that.