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Addiction Recovery the “Healthy Selfish” Way: Focus Inward and Stay Sober

By Linda Whiteside

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Table of Contents

Healthy Selfish Way

The Healthy Selfish Way: Focus Inward and Stay Sober

Addiction is, by nature, a selfish act. You may even have heard as much from frustrated friends or family members. Looking back at your behavior while you were using, you may have done horrible things, always in the name of making yourself feel good. The truth is that being sober requires a sort of selfishness, too- but it’s entirely different. 

Getting sober requires nothing less than an intentional turning inward to find out what needs to be fixed and how you will go through the world without a cushion of drugs or alcohol. Unlike the destructive, self-centered nature of active addiction, active recovery is constructive self-care. 

Especially during the first year after getting clean, your attention should be on yourself-your thoughts, behaviors, and actions. You will need all the focus and energy you have to keep yourself on the right path.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for other people. Healthy, loving relationships are one of life’s greatest joys. You may also find yourself in a position of needing to apologize and make amends with people that you hurt while in the throes of addiction. Own your part in causing the hurt, ask for forgiveness, and move on. 

It’s also important to respect the boundaries that loved ones may have set: if you’ve lost relationships, understand that you may have caused deep pain and you need to obey the other person’s wish to be left alone. Apologize and let it go, rather than spending emotional energy begging or cajoling. 

Essentially, you should enjoy your relationships with others, but understand that your energy must be focused on primarily tending to your own needs. The best thing you can do is take responsibility for your actions and turn your focus inward, where you can learn and evolve so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes.

Staying Sober: Three Self-Centered Rules

Caring for yourself isn’t “selfish,” it’s self-improvement. Especially if your addiction stems from wounds, mental illness, or other trauma, recovery means taking the time to heal. This can be done without burdening others, being obnoxious, or any of the other worries you may have when you hear the word “self-centered.” 

As long as you’re intentional and aware of what you’re feeling, thinking, and doing, healthy selfishness is a perfectly normal part of getting sober. Not sure where to start? Use these three rules as a guide to self-care and healing in a productive way.

Rule 1. Go to addiction therapy.

An important part of staying sober is figuring out exactly what went wrong in the first place. What part of you was in so much pain or discomfort that you needed to self-medicate? It’s time to bring your attention inward. Taking such an unsparing assessment of yourself can be a profoundly uncomfortable experience, which is why therapy can be so useful. Talk with a professional, journal, and otherwise clear out the cobwebs in what should be a healthy relationship with yourself. 

This self-possession is the solid foundation that you will use to build and develop the emotional coping skills that will keep you from using. Without being comfortable in your own skin, you’ll simply be “white knuckling” your sobriety- and it may take you down the road to relapse. Plus, in therapy, you can talk about yourself as much as you want without worrying that you’re burdening a friend or being too self-centered!

Rule 2. Avoid Romantic relationships.

For at least a year after being sober, it’s essential that you focus on yourself. If you’re doing it right, most of your emotional energy will be spent learning to get comfortable in your own skin-alone and sober. For most recovering addicts, this process is challenging, because addiction often involves deep feelings of self-loathing. 

If you choose to date, you’ll be focusing on other people, which is essentially the easy way out. It’s even possible to replicate the same addictive behaviors you were previously engaging in by simply replacing drugs with dating and sex, both of which are powerful distractors. Instead, spend all that energy building yourself up. 

If you’re married or otherwise deeply committed and your relationship managed to survive the addiction, focus on how you are contributing to the current dynamic, which may need to be repaired. Let your partner heal, and focus on what you can improve on and bring to the relationship instead of spending your emotional energy looking at your partner’s flaws.

Rule 3. Practice honesty with yourself.

By nature, addiction is mired in dishonesty and evasion. Practice self-improvement by being as honest and transparent as possible-starting with what you tell yourself. Learning to understand and challenge the kind of thinking that leads to substance abuse is almost a full-time job. It starts with acknowledging all thoughts and feelings, instead of ignoring or trying to “numb out” with distractions. 

Sitting with your emotions is an essential part of self-care; it will help you in all other aspects of your recovery. Secondary to this is the importance of being honest with everyone else, something that will become much easier once you’re comfortable in your own sober skin.

Getting Sober, Unapologetically

Remember, getting sober is a process not unlike building new roads in your brain. For a while, everything must be “intentional,” and you may feel like you’re in the Greek fable where Sisyphus is doomed to push a boulder up a hill forever. Rewiring your brain takes hard work, and requires you to pay a lot of attention to yourself. 

Initially, this will require most of your time and energy, leaving little time for other people. That’s OK. Explain to friends and family that “me time” is what you need right now; if they care about you, they will understand why this is so important. The work that it takes to get sober will ultimately make you a better friend, partner, parent, etc. While you may need to limit social engagements and stop dating for a while, the good news is that you’re alive, clean, and healthy.

Celebrate this achievement.

As you step into a new, sober chapter of life, place yourself first, unapologetically. This doesn’t mean you can’t have relationships, but they must come secondary to your process of healing. One caveat: getting sober isn’t an excuse to shirk essential responsibilities like parenting. Ideally, you can keep most of this process to yourself (and maybe your therapist or support group)- you don’t need to take up space in every conversation talking about your recovery. 

If you’re doing it right, your friends and loved ones will simply notice you quietly getting stronger, more reliable, and self-confident. These attributes are the foundation of a healthy, productive life, and they come from tremendous inward work. Be selfish!

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Author

Written By: Linda Whiteside
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Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson
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Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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