What is self-seeking anyhow?

What the heck is this “self-seeking” thing we hear about in meetings? The term gets bandied about quite a bit, and we know it’s something to do with our behavior, but what’s the difference between self-seeking and selfishness? Or self-seeking and self-centeredness? And most important, why is it crucial that we recognize our self-seeking behaviors and tendencies?

The Big Book introduces the word self-seeking in its discussion of Step Three. In fact, it uses the a form of the word three times from page 61 to page 67. On page 61, in the example of the actor who wants to run the entire production instead of just doing their part, the Big Book describes how this person can be either gracious or cruel in trying to make things go their own way:

What is his basic trouble? 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?

Here the book tells us, by the actor analogy, that when we try to exert control over situations or manipulate them for our own purposes we are being a self-seeker. By extension, self-seeking has something to do with the actions we take as self-seekers.

Here it comes again on page 62:

Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate.

One of the four items in the series above is materially different than the others. Fear, self-delusion, and self-pity all occur in our minds and directed at ourselves. But self-seeking, as we discovered on page 61, connotes an action, and those actions affect others directly. Self-seeking is the stepping on other’s toes that we do, and even its urge is different than those other three things. As we are about to find out, it is a product of them.

On page 67, we learn that to be truly free from our resentments, we must recognize and admit to the part we play in them. We have our list of resentments and the effect they’ve had on us, and we now turn the lens of inquiry onto ourselves:

Referring to our list again. 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? Though a situation had not been entirely our fault, we tried to disregard the other person involved entirely. Where were we to blame? The inventory was ours, not the other man’s. When we saw our faults we listed them in black and white.

Let’s look deeply for a moment at these instructions. At the topmost level, we are acknowledging our part in a situation that involved resentment. And from the looks of it, we will always have some part, minor or major.

Once again, we see that self-seeking is different than its mates selfish, dishonest, and frightened. Those are states of mind, but self-seeking indicates action. What if we asked these questions in a slightly different way?

  • Selfish: What did I want?
  • Dishonest: What lie did I tell myself?
  • Frightened: What was I afraid of?

Those three things all point inward toward us, ourselves, not outward toward the world. And then,

  • Self-seeking: What did I do to get what I wanted or feel better?

This time, we aim our will at the world around us, and we do something that affects others. Sometimes the actions and effects are big: cheating on a spouse, punching someone, cutting a person out of our life. Sometimes, however, the action and effect is subtle: judging someone harshly, staying home from school or work, pitying ourselves. These actions, which seem as though they are pointed at ourselves actually effect others. How? By separating us from them, be they family, friends, or the world. Through behaviors like these we lose effectiveness at work, presence in relationships, and even financial resources.

What is the number one most popular self-seeking behavior in OA? Eating, of course! It’s our primary coping tool. If we can’t get what we want in a situation (and sometimes even if we do), we eat away our feelings. It’s how we feel better in the moment. Turns out it’s a lousy coping mechanism. While we eat at the person we’re angry with, our resentments inside of us remain very much alive and wriggling, so we need more and more food to keep them at bay.

Here’s two more visual ways to think about it.

First, imagine that you’re writing your Step 4 inventory, and at the same time your father is too. You each make a list of people you resent, and guess what, you’re each on one another’s lists! Shocker!!! You both have resentment around the time that dad wouldn’t let you borrow the car. You each follow the three-column format on page 65. On your resentment you list dad’s name in column one. In column two, you note that you resent his not letting you borrow the car. In column three, you write down that it affects your personal relations and fear. Then when you ask yourself Where was I self-seeking?, you answer I took the car without permission. Here’s the kicker: Dad wrote your name in column one, and in column two he wrote Took the car without permission. In other words, the answers we give to the question of Where was I self-seeking? produce resentments for other people.

Second, and simpler. Imagine you are pointing your finger at someone else in anger. The finger you point at them represents your self-seeking actions. But the other three fingers on your hand are all pointed back at yourself. They represent selfishness, dishonest, and fear, the things we do to ourselves that drive us to act out.

So what is self-seeking? It’s the acting out we do when we don’t like how life is treating us. It’s what we do when we are unable to be our best selves. Its how we’ve done most of the instances of damage that litter our lives. And ultimately, it is what we’ve done instead of trusting and relying on God.