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“Selfish” vs. “Self-seeking” Behavior

Under Step Four– “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”– in the Big Book of AA, there is a passage that often makes people scratch their heads: “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?” Is there a difference between selfish and self-seeking?

There is a difference between selfish and self-seeking behavior, though it’s a subtle one. Selfishness is more impulsive and more easily recognized as self-centered. It’s grasping for oneself and being oblivious to the needs of others. It’s essentially childish behavior.

Self-seeking is, in a sense, a more sophisticated form of selfish behavior. This is when your behavior is self-focused even when it appears to be altruistic. Think of the politician who champions a cause, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it polls well. Self-seeking behavior may appear generous, but there is always the expectation of getting something back.

You may ask if it really matters whether someone does good things for selfish reasons. Most of the time it doesn’t. No one cares whether the politician really believes in an issue as long as she faithfully represents her constituents–although it’s certainly easier to champion causes you believe in.

In recovery, though, it absolutely does matter. You have to be honest with yourself, which means not deceiving yourself about your motivations. It’s particularly important here because self-centeredness, according to AA, is the root of addiction. If you are trying to make an honest inventory, you can’t let your selfishness hide behind good deeds. As long as you remain self-focused, anger and resentment will continually spring up. Keeping them in check requires total honesty about your motivations.

You are the only person who really knows whether you are being altruistic or self-seeking. You can lie to yourself about it, but in the end, you are the one who suffers for it. You will probably be aware of the deception because good acts with selfish motivations often go a bit wrong. As the Big Book says, “Is he not really a self-seeker even when trying to be kind? Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well? Is it not evident to all the rest of the players that these are the things he wants?” If you trying to behave altruistically but you don’t find your resentment abating, you may want to ask whether you are really being honest with yourself about your motivations.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, Gardens Wellness Center can help. You can detox in a comfortable environment and make an individualized plan for treatment with the help of our addiction experts. Call us today at 844-828-1050 or email us at to learn more.