Addiction and the Battle against Selfishness


Contributor: written by Southcoast Behavioral Health clinical content team member Hugh C. McBride, M.A.

The words “addiction” and “selfishness” are often used in close proximity to each other. In one sense, this reflects a continuing failure by many people to understand the true nature of addiction. In another sense, it can be the key to successful recovery.

Allow me to elaborate.

guy sleeping on truck steering wheelIt is an unfortunate reality that many people refuse to abandon the outmoded belief that chemical dependency is nothing more than the result of poor character, a lack of self-discipline, and/or an overwhelming tendency toward selfishness.

When someone famous dies of a drug overdose, it is almost automatic that within days someone will write a column or post about how selfish this person was for daring to wallow in substance abuse.

  • It happened when Heath Ledger died after overdosing on prescription medications. [1]
  • It happened when Whitney Houston drowned with cocaine in her system. [2]
  • It happened when Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose. [3]

Every time it happens, it is wrong. Yet it continues to happen. Even after decades of research, awareness campaigns, and educational efforts, many people refuse to acknowledge that addiction is a disease, and fail to understand that blaming an addict for abusing drugs is akin to blaming a person with diabetes for needing insulin or blaming a person with heart problems for needing a pacemaker.

It would be nice to be able to end this post right here. Addiction is not caused by selfishness. Selfishness does not lead to addiction. Case, as they say, closed.

But of course, addiction not that simple. It’s never that simple.

People should never be defined by their disease, regardless if that disease is diabetes or hypertension or addiction. People should be defined by who they are, what they say, and what they do.

But if you’ve ever spent any time around people, you know that they have a tendency to say and do some very selfish things. In some cases, that selfishness involves abusing alcohol or other drugs.

man reading Bible after overcoming AddictionAddiction is a disease, but substance abuse is a selfish act. This is a very important distinction to make.

Whether it takes the form of having a few too many beers, sneaking an extra pain pill, or shooting up with heroin, no one engages in substance abuse as a way to make someone else’s life better. We do it for ourselves.

The topic of selfishness is addressed in Chapter 5 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:

The alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us! God makes that possible. And there often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self without His aid. Many of us had moral and philosophical convictions galore, but we could not live up to them even though we would have liked to. Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God’s help. [4]

By the time a person begins to walk the path of recovery, he or she is already well aware of the destructiveness of selfishness. But successful recovery often demands what we might call “productive selfishness.”

Declining an invitation to a holiday party where alcohol will be flowing freely, and where one’s sobriety may be threatened, is an act of productive selfishness.

Ending a co-dependent relationship is an act of productive selfishness. Reaching out to a counselor, sponsor, or other trusted individual for help in a time of crisis is an act of productive selfishness.

Recovery involves recognizing the human tendency toward selfishness, taking responsibility for the consequences that result from selfish behavior, and relinquishing control over oneself. It also involves realizing that selfishness can be a lot like fire: When controlled, it can make life better. When uncontrolled, it can destroy everything in its path.

[1]: Peyser, Andrea. (February 7, 2008). “His Pals Are Guilty – And So Was He.” New York Post. Retrieved from
[2]: Frank, Marshall. (February 19, 2012). “Another Side of Whitney Houston.” frankly speaking. Retrieved from
[3]: Mandel, Bethany. (February 3, 2014). “Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death: The Height of Selfishness.” PJMedia. Retrieved from
[4]: Alcoholics Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition. Page 62. New York: A.A. World Services.

About the site:

Southcoast Behavioral Health is a 120-bed inpatient hospital for individuals who are struggling with mental health disorders. Conveniently located in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Southcoast Behavioral Health offers a safe and supportive environment in which personalized care is provided by multidisciplinary teams of experienced professionals, including board-certified psychiatrists, licensed clinical social workers, registered nurses, recreational therapists, and mental health technicians. Typical length of stay at Southcoast Behavioral Health is five to seven days.

About the author: “Addiction and the Battle against Selfishness” was written by Southcoast Behavioral Health clinical content team member Hugh C. McBride. Hugh has several years of experience researching and writing on a wide range of topics related to behavioral healthcare. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Grove City College.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on December 14, 2015
Reviewed and Updated by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 7, 2021
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About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.