Service work, often touted as a necessity to our recovery, finds its roots in evolution. Humans shared something of a pack mentality, a vital component of our survival instinct. Fail to keep the approval of your tribe, and you may find yourself ostracized, vulnerable to attack from wild predators. This is why some say over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen can help numb the pain from a broken heart. Social pain and physical pain share many of the same neural pathways, because mankind’s early ancestors relied on social support to ensure physical safety. And we must give social support if we expect to receive it. In other words, humans are social creatures because we must be. Unfortunately, we find our instincts constantly threatened by the triangle of self-obsession.
We’ll get to the triangle of self-obsession momentarily. First, we want to clarify that the above statements are not meant to sound cynical. Yes, our social instincts derive from evolutionary science. But our intention in pointing this out is not to suggest that acts of service yield no spiritual benefits. Rather, we hope those reading this will come to understand that our physical and spiritual well-being often work in synergy. We don’t just show kindness to others because it makes us feel good about ourselves. We also do it because, in a very primitive way, it literally makes us feel more alive.
The triangle of self-obsession impedes our social development in three directions at once. Resentment springs from the past, while anger operates in the present and fear stands in the way of our future. Each corner of this triangle may stand on its own, or may operate in conjunction with one or both of the others. It generally depends on our situation at any given time. No matter what, however, the triangle of self-obsession results in much of the grief we cause ourselves and others. And to make matters worse, it’s just as ingrained within us as the social instinct with which it so greatly interferes.
Understanding the Triangle of Self-Obsession
One of the reasons we felt the need to clarify the cohesion between service and self-interest is because we recognize how cynical this may sound to some without explanation. But long before we are capable of providing service to anyone, we recognize the impact of others on our lives. A child receives love and warmth from the parents, but also food and shelter. Without other people, an infant can fulfill neither physical nor emotional needs. And it isn’t long before the baby’s cry becomes more than a signal of needs, but occasionally a manipulative tactic used to fulfill desires.
This extends beyond the need for a diaper change or the desire to be held. We begin to develop specific preferences, and express disdain when they are not met. Think of the “fussy eater,” who would forgo nourishment in favor of spitting his or her least favorite flavor of Gerber’s on the floor. This doesn’t fit too tightly into the triangle of self-obsession, as it’s hard to imagine a baby harboring literal resentment against carrot-flavored mush. But keep forcing that same flavor on the child, and you can expect to be met with little more than crankiness.
In this stage of infancy, we don’t really know that our caretakers will continue looking over us once our tantrum is over, nor do we really seem to care. We simply know what we want, and become upset when we do not receive it. And as explained in an NA-approved pamphlet on the triangle of self-obsession, this destructive self-interest sometimes only worsens with age.
“We never seem to outgrow the self-centeredness of the child. We never seem to find the self-sufficiency that others do. We continue to depend on the world around us and refuse to accept that we will not be given everything. We become self-obsessed; our wants and needs become demands. We reach a point where contentment and fulfillment are impossible. People, places, and things cannot possibly fill the emptiness inside of us, and we react to them with resentment, anger, and fear.”
This passage does not apply to all adults, in the same way that not all children act fussy at feeding time. But many addicts and alcoholics will see themselves in the above description. And unlike the demands of an infant, the triangle of self-obsession exhibited in adulthood will not be met with patience and understanding. As adults, people will feel less inclined to grin and bear our childish behaviors.
Before long, we find ourselves isolated from the bulk of the herd. Sure, we might pick up a few enablers along the way, not to mention a few fellow addicts and alcoholics. Unfortunately, this hardly makes up for the lost. Those around us either suffer from exhaustion and emotional anguish due to the hell we’ve put them through, or else are kept in our lives primarily to offer us more of the same substances that continue to numb us and stunt our emotional growth.
It’s no wonder that we often feel so miserable during active addiction. We’ve stunted our evolution, fighting our natural social instincts in favor of the childhood survival instincts that we never quite outgrew. And it’s a shame that we’ve pushed so many people away, for we will not recover from this evolutionary stagnation on our own. The NA pamphlet concludes:
“We have a disease that, in the end, forces us to seek help. We are fortunate that we are given only one choice; one last chance. We must break the triangle of self-obsession; we must grow up, or die.”
How do we break the triangle of self-obsession? The answer is actually rather simple, though not always easy. We must break the chains that hold us in stagnation by poisoning our past, present, and future. Upon relieving ourselves of these poisons, we replace them with qualities that will nourish the soul to full health. Acceptance must take the place of resentment. Love must be put in place of anger. And faith must take preference over fear. Otherwise, we may never find our way back into the fold of a loving community, and will risk finding ourselves in complete isolation. Failure to develop these three fundamental virtues would see us as abandoned infants, stranded in our high chairs with nobody left to feed us.
The Past – Resentment vs Acceptance
We already tend to identify resentment as one of the biggest obstacles to sobriety. It keeps us rooted in our negative emotions. Looking toward the past, we identify the ways in which people did wrong by us and proceed to play these memories over and over again. We keep them on loop, refusing to move on, believing that they owe us some sort of justice. When we inventory our resentments in Step Four, we find they range from serious offenses to minor or even imagined wrongs. Somebody didn’t give us something we wanted, or didn’t show us the respect that we felt like we deserved. This might lead us to pursue unhealthy confrontations. Possibly worse will be our tendency to simply imagine these confrontations in our heads, endlessly and without resolution. Neither of these actions usually helps us to move on.