Selfism - By Rabbi Twerski
Having seen how effective the 12-step program is in achieving significant character improvement, I decided to work the program as if I was an alcoholic. However, one of the requirements of the program is that one have a “sponsor,” a person with years of recovery to be one’s guide, I found it difficult to get a sponsor because I did not drink. Eventually, I was able to get a person with over thirty years of recovery to be my sponsor.
The fourth of the twelve steps is to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” When I submitted my inventory to my sponsor, he returned it with the instruction to redo it and be more honest. My second submission met with the same response. The third submission was returned with the comment, “I asked for an inventory and you gave me a chimney sweep. An inventory should list both one’s liabilities and one’s assets. You listed all your character defects and the mistakes you made. You did not list any of your positives. Isn’t there anything good about you? Do it again, and this time list your personality strengths and the good things you have done.”
Strangely, this was more difficult than listing my faults.
It took me eighteen months to complete my inventory to my sponsor’s satisfaction. By this time, I had achieved a self-knowledge that was more thorough than had I been on a psychoanalyst’s couch four times a week for three years.
When I later learned Alei Shur, I found that Rebbe Shlomo Walbe put great emphasis on a thorough self-awareness, and dedicated an entire section in volume one (pp. 131-198) to this subject. “A person who does not know oneself cannot be at peace with oneself, When he attempts to learn Torah, his drives and traits will not allow him to learn and act wholesomely” (p.131).
The success of AA led to the development of a number of 12-step programs, among them, NA (Narcotics Anonymous), GA (Gamblers Anonymous), OA (Overeaters Anonymous), SA (for sex addiction). Most of these programs have a companion program for the family members of the addict, such as Al-Anon family groups.
During my more than forty years of psychiatric practice, I dealt with a variety of problems in addition to addiction. There were some mood disorders that were of physiologic causation, that were treated with medication. There were many cases of emotional difficulties that I found were due to a faulty self-awareness, with unwarranted feeling of inferiority resulting in low self-esteem.
I believe that many psychological problems are due to “selfism,” to a person seeing oneself as being the center of the universe, that one has not received all that is due him/her. Many marriage problems, family problems, social problems an simply dissatisfaction with one’s life are due to the frustration resulting from selfism. Indeed, when Moses said, “I stood between Hashem and you” (Devarim 5:5), the commentaries say that this means that the “I,” the ego, is the barrier between man and Hashem. All the works of mussar and chassidus stress the importance of bittul, of self-effacement. The latter cannot be achieved in absence of an accurate self-knowledge. Indeed, Rabeinu Yonah says that ga’avah (grandiosity) is a defense against feelings of inferiority (Rabeinu Yonah al HaTorah p. 156).
Selfism is a destructive attitude. Rebbe Chaim Vital says that one should be more meticulous about middos (character traits ) than even the positive and negative commandments (Shaar Hakedusha 2). Selfism is a most destructive character trait.
The society we live in is “selfist.” People are overwhelmingly motivated by pleasure-seeking, as though pleasure can provide happiness. In such an environment, overcoming selfism is a major challenge.
The 12-step program has been proven to be effective in overcoming some very difficult attitudes and behaviors. The 12-step program can be applied to overcome selfism, which would eliminate many psychological problems and enable people to achieve a true, enduring happiness.