How to Build Self-Esteem in Recovery

Table of Contents

  1. What is Self-Esteem?
  2. The Consequences of Low Self-Esteem
  3. Self-Esteem and Substance Use Disorder
  4. Self-Esteem in Recovery
  5. Six Pillars of Self-Esteem
  6. SMART Recovery and Self-Esteem
  7. Self-Esteem and Relapse Prevention

What is Self-Esteem?

While most people understand what self-esteem is, it can be hard to define and identify. According to Merriam-Webster, self esteem is “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself."1 Self esteem relates to your opinion of yourself and your worth, which is often based on your successes, accomplishments, or lack thereof, your relationships with others, their opinions of you, and your beliefs about yourself being a good or bad person.   Because self esteem is a subjective value that we assign to ourselves, it is nearly impossible to objectively define self esteem. That being said, people with high self esteem tend to have a high opinion of themselves and their worth (or a high overall rating of themselves) and people with low self esteem tend to have a low opinion of themselves and their self worth (or a low overall rating of themselves).

So, Where Does Self-Esteem Come From?

According to the University of Texas at Austin, our self esteem develops throughout our lives based on our experiences and connections with people.2 Self esteem is in large part formed throughout childhood, as we begin to form our own identities.   Childhood experiences that may form healthy self esteem are:2  
  • Being listened to and feeling validated
  • Being spoken to respectfully and all around being respected
  • Receiving attention, affection, and affirmation
  • Having successes and accomplishments recognized
  • Having failures acknowledged and accepted
  Childhood experiences that may form low self esteem are:2  
  • Receiving harsh criticism
  • Being physically, sexually, or emotionally abused
  • Being ignored, ridiculed, or teased
  • Having expectations of being perfect
  • Being told that failures in life are a reflection of personal failure (e.g. failing a test, not making it on a sports team, etc.)
 

What are the Consequences of Low Self-Esteem?

It should come as no surprise that low self-esteem can have devastating consequences on a person’s life. In the U.S. alone, approximately 85% of adults report having low self esteem. The opinions that you have of yourself and your worth as a person reflect the way that you navigate life, the way that you interact with people, and the way that you perceive yourself and your successes and failures.
Low self-esteem can be a particular challenge for people who struggle with substance abuse. Substances may temporarily make you feel better about yourself, however, abusing substances can also lower self esteem it might make you feel bad for not being able to stop using substances, or knowing that you have a problem and feeling like a failure because of it. Some of the consequences of low self esteem include:  
  • Stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, worry
  • Deterioration of friendships and relationships
  • Impaired academic or work performance
  • Increased vulnerability to alcohol and substance abuse

Self-Esteem and Substance Use Disorders

The connection between self esteem and substance abuse has long been established. In the 1970s, people who abused substances were found to have low levels of self-esteem, especially among women. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, having low self esteem during childhood and adolescence can increase your risk of substance abuse later in life.3
The reason that self esteem and substance abuse are so intimately linked is that your sense of self and self-worth is greatly impacted by, and can greatly impact substance abuse. For example, people with low self-esteem may turn to alcohol and substances for a temporary confidence boost and to feel good about themselves. This is short-lived, however, and when the substance wears off, the person typically finds that their self-esteem has plummeted even further.   Conversely, the presence of a substance abuse disorder may create low self esteem because of the disorder. Becoming dependent on substances and stuck in a cycle of abuse is not something that anyone chooses for themselves and substance abuse can contain feelings of failure and guilt.

Self-Esteem and Recovery

How Does Low Self-Esteem Impact Recovery?

Struggling with low self esteem can hinder the recovery process because that mindset can deceive us into thinking that we are worthless and that we are failures. It can make it difficult to find the motivation to change our behaviors when we believe that we aren’t even worth recovery. Low self esteem can also increase the risk of relapse.   To be successful in recovery, it is important to know that you can succeed, and low-self esteem can be a barrier to this. Setbacks, such as a relapse, during recovery, can impact someone with low self esteem much more than someone with high self esteem.

How Can High Self-Esteem Help With Recovery?

The higher your self esteem, the more likely you are to believe that you are worthy of living a life free of substance abuse. Since low self esteem can be both a contributing factor to and a result of substance abuse, trying to improve self esteem will inevitably help in the journey to recovery. Because self esteem and substance abuse are both deeply connected to your inner self and identity, working on your self-esteem can help in all areas of your life. Feeling validated, understood, and worthy, is a huge first step towards feeling confident enough to stop abusing substances and to engage in a life of sobriety.

How Can You Build Self-Esteem in Recovery?

There are many ways that you can help to increase your self-esteem during recovery. These practices can range from mental and emotional exercises to physical exercises. These are some helpful ways to increase your self esteem:  
  1. Affirmations: write down and tell yourself positive things about yourself. While you might not believe them, repeating them over time will start to convince your mind that they are true. For example, writing down something as simple as “I am proud of myself" and even listing reasons why can help to counteract negative self-talk.
  2. Self-Forgiveness: dwelling too much on the past and past failures can lower your self-esteem. To let go of the self-blame, acknowledge your mistakes, identify how you can change in the future, and forgive yourself.
  3. Accept Compliments: people who have low self-esteem often have a hard time accepting and believing compliments from other people. Make an effort to hear the kind words others say about you and accept them as true.
  4. Practice Kindness: helping other people out and partaking in random acts of kindness makes us feel good about ourselves. One way to increase your self-esteem is to be kind to others.
  5. Gratitude Journal: using a gratitude journal can help to replace negative thinking patterns with positive ones. Focusing on the positive aspects of your life can help you to feel good about yourself and your life.
  6. Goal Setting: Setting goals that you can work towards gives you purpose Creating goals, even if they are small, can help you to feel accomplished and successful.
  7. Self-Care: Taking care of your physical and mental health makes you feel good about yourself. Exercise, yoga, meditation, sleep, painting, reading, baking, cooking, or other creative activities can help you to feel accomplished and motivated.
  8. Don’t Compare: Comparing ourselves to others is harmful to our self-esteem. With social media, so it can be easy to get caught up in a cycle of comparing ourselves to others on the internet and thinking that we aren’t as good as others.

Six Pillars of Self-Esteem

What are the Six Pillars of Self-Esteem?

The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem is a book written by Nathaniel Branden that outlines how we can improve our self-esteem. The underlying notion of The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem is that self esteem takes practice. To do this, Branden outlines the six pillars of self-esteem that can help you to feel good about yourself. They are:  
  1. The Practice of Living Consciously: this has to do with the idea of using sentence completions to live more consciously. In other words, taking the time to sit down and write down full sentences, whether they are affirmations or methods of improvement, help us to be more present.
  2. The Practice of Self-Acceptance: the practice of self-acceptance is about awareness and acceptance of both our successes and failures. We shouldn’t let our failures destroy our self-esteem and we should acknowledge our successes more.
  3. The Practice of Self-Responsibility: the practice of self-responsibility means understanding that we are responsible for our own choices, actions, and behaviors.
  4. The Practice of Self-Assertiveness: the practice of self-assertiveness is to be authentic and honest with ourselves and in the ways that we live.
  5. The Practice of Living Purposefully: the practice of living purposefully is to use our powers, inspirations, and motivations to pursue our goals. It is to identify our values and beliefs and to take the actions and the steps to achieve our goals.
  6. The Practice of Personal Integrity: the practice of personal integrity is identifying our beliefs, standards, morals, and behaving accordingly.

SMART Recovery

What is SMART Recovery?

SMART Recovery is an “abstinence-oriented, not-for-profit organization for individuals with addictive problems."4 SMART Recovery focuses on scientifically based strategies for therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy. SMART Recovery is based on a 4-point program:4  
  1. Building and maintaining the motivation to change
  2. Coping with urges to use
  3. Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors effectively without addictive behaviors
  4. Living a balanced, positive and healthy life

Why Does SMART Recovery Feel That Self Esteem Should be Replaced?

SMART Recovery believes that the idea that high self esteem is good and that low self-esteem is the root of problems such as substance abuse is outdated.5 Although it is generally accepted that high self esteem is better than low self esteem, Michael Edelstein argues that people with high self esteem have trouble with substance abuse because they are less likely to admit that their behavior is problematic or unhealthy. Edelstein argues that the research on the impact of self esteem is inconclusive, and people who seem like they have high self esteem might be covering up their low self esteem.
Edelstein writes that the alternative to the idea that we all should have high self esteem is that instead of basing our self esteem on a rating of ourselves and our successes, we shouldn’t rate ourselves at all. Instead of associating our self esteem with our successes and failures as if they define us, we should instead just look to make improvements to ourselves, and not feel the need to draw big conclusions about ourselves. The concept of self esteem implies that we either have low self esteem or high self-esteem when in fact we don’t need to define ourselves as either. Instead, we should simply work to improve on the things that we can.

Self-esteem and Relapse Prevention

How does self esteem impact relapse prevention? In the popular view of self esteem, low self esteem would be seen to negatively impact relapse prevention because setbacks in recovery and relapsing can feel like complete failures to some people with low self esteem.   The SMART Recovery program, however, emphasizes that relapses are not weaknesses or failures, they are a normal part of recovery.5 As such, relapses should be acknowledged, and are areas for improvement. Change should be identified to continue on the road to recovery. That being said, while having good self esteem is overall a positive thing, another way of thinking about ourselves is to evaluate our actions on their own, rather than drawing conclusions about ourselves as worthy or unworthy people, based on our actions.

Resources

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/self-esteem
  2. https://cmhc.utexas.edu/selfesteem.html
  3. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/July-2016/Why-Self-Esteem-Is-Important-for-Mental-Health
  4. https://www.smartrecovery.org/about-us/
  5. https://www.smartrecovery.org/smart-articles/the-trouble-with-self-esteem/

If you or a loved one needs help, please call us at (888) 744-9969 and our team at Blueprints For Recovery in Arizona will help.

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