Reader Mailbag: Do All Alcoholics Suffer From Low Self Esteem?

Reader Mailbag: Do All Alcoholics Suffer From Low Self Esteem?


Is self esteem always a problem when it comes to alcoholism? Is heavy drinking always fueled by some sort of internal problems?

Does every alcoholic who is trying to sober up have self esteem issues?

Without making a blanket statement there is usually some sort of problem “on the inside”

In my opinion (not professional, just based on experience in working with other alcoholics in recovery), every alcoholic usually has some level of self esteem issue.

In other words, they have an opportunity to do serious internal work in their recovery.

Of course in order to have a meaningful discussion we have to first define our terms. So what exactly is self esteem as it relates to alcoholism?

What is self esteem and how does it relate to recovery?

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Self esteem is basically self worth. It is how you feel about yourself and how much you value your own life.

Speaking from personal experience, I can say that I definitely suffered from low self esteem when I first made the decision to get sober. In fact this was one of the main barriers to my recovery effort, because I did not value my life enough to make the effort to get sober. I felt like “what is the point?” of trying to get sober because I felt like my life was worthless.

If you do not feel like your life has any value then it will be difficult to pull yourself out of your addiction. It is easy to justify more drinking if you do not place any value on yourself at all.

I don’t believe that any alcoholic who starts out on day one of sobriety has entirely healthy self esteem. I think that there is always going to be at least some problems in this area that require some work. This is not a bad thing necessarily, it merely represents an opportunity. It is a gift to know about it and to act on it so that the alcoholic can address the problem and fix it.

In fact, my experience in recovery is that building up healthy self worth is, in itself, a powerful form of relapse prevention.

The idea is simple: If you value your life in sobriety, you will be much less likely to throw that life away by relapsing.

There are two ways to do this, and I think that both are important. One is that you must do this internal work that I am talking about where you fix the negative self talk that goes on in your daily thoughts. Second is that you must fix your daily actions and behaviors in order to be consistent with a higher self worth.

In other words, you must fix your life both on the inside and on the outside. You must fix the internal mind as well as the external things in your life (people, places, and things). It is not enough to do just one or the other. You must do both to succeed in recovery.

Again, this is not a bad thing. It is an opportunity for growth and the rewards of doing this work is immense.

What is the solution for low self esteem?

The solution for low self esteem is to build value back up in your life over time.

In order to do this you must stop living a passive life and start taking deliberate action. If you do not take action then you cannot create the life that you want and you will continue to be a victim of circumstance.

If you have ever felt like “life just happens to you” and that it is not fair, then you really need to take a look at this idea. Of course it is not a perfect cure for everything and bad things may still happen in the future, but it definitely shifts your mindset from being a victim to being more in control of your own happiness.

Most people secretly wish for the universe to reward them with certain things and then they get mad when they sit back, act lazy, and are ungrateful for what actually shows up in their life.

If you are a recovering alcoholic then you cannot afford to do this. You do not have the luxury of being passive and ungrateful at the same time.

Notice that you can actually be rather passive if you want, so long as you are extremely grateful for what is showing up in your life. But the reality is that you are probably going to have to take a more active role in your recovery.

Getting over alcoholism is a process that requires action.

You need to take action.

You cannot be passive. You must build something in order to recover. You must create a new life for yourself to replace the old one.

I can only speak from experience and from observation. When I was alcoholic my life revolved around drinking and drug use. That was my entire existence. It was all I cared about. And so when I finally became sober, I had a really big hole in my life that used to be filled with drugs and booze.

How are you going to fill that hole? What are you going to fill your new life with?

If you don’t have an answer for that question then you are going to relapse. Luckily you have a bit of time to figure it all out, but only if you have the right attitude.

One way to figure it out is to take suggestions from other people in recovery. Now you might think that this is rather “passive” as compared to active living, but you would be wrong. In fact it is one of the most powerful things that you can do to take suggestions from other people.

I don’t care who you are or how smart you might be. If you want to take a shortcut to wisdom in recovery then you must ask questions and take advice from others. They have already traveled the exact path that you are on, and they know the answers! Why would you not take advantage of that? It is crazy not to. So ask them what their advice is, ask these people what you should be doing in your recovery efforts, ask them what you should be doing in order to feel better about yourself. They will give you suggestions and advice. None of it will sound like a magic solution but you should probably do most of it anyway. If you keep taking suggestions like this over time then eventually you will be living a much better life than you were before. In fact the transformation will happen in such a way that you will not even realize how much better your life has become until one day you look back on it.

When you live this way in recovery and take advice from others you are basically testing things out. You are testing out ideas and seeing which ones truly help you and which ones do not. But because you are taking an active role in the process you are bound to get better results than someone who is passive about their recovery. Being passive leads to relapse. Taking action gives you a very good chance of rebuilding a life that is worth living.

In the end if you keep taking advice then you will look back one day and realize that you were still in control, you were still in the driver’s seat, and you still had to push yourself to take action and to follow through. So you “earned” the results that you are now getting in life, and you will feel good about yourself. This is true even if you never had an original idea through the entire process, and you simply took advice from other people the whole time. It doesn’t matter, because the advice and the suggestions are useless without the action to back them up. It’s not knowing what to do, it is actually doing it that is so critical. Anyone can sit in an AA meeting and know what to do, that is the easy part. But actually doing it? Actually going and working the steps or doing the soul searching that is necessary to rebuild your life? That is the hard part and that is what will rebuild your self esteem over time. Actually doing the work, taking the action and getting the results.

If you feel good about what you are doing in your life and you feel good about yourself then that is healthy self esteem.

Another thing starts to happen in recovery and that is that you begin to help other people. This can happen in any number of ways and it may even just be the example that you set from being a recovering alcoholic. Or you may help other people directly. But eventually you will realize that as you are maintaining sobriety you are having an impact on other people. And this positive impact is going to go a long ways in raising your self esteem back to a healthy level. It is a little bit like the idea of “pay it forward.” You will one day realize in your recovery journey that you are making a difference, you are helping other people, and some of those people that you help may even go on to help others as well. So there is real power in this, and you will feel a deep gratitude that you have been a part of it and that you helped to serve a greater power in life. You were part of the solution and you made a difference. You brought real value to the world and therefore your life has serious value and worth. This is real self esteem.

And it doesn’t just happen overnight. You don’t get sober and then wake up after two weeks of sobriety and decide that your life suddenly has this huge amount of value. It takes time to rebuild. And it takes work. You have to put in the effort, one day at a time.

How do you do this when starting from zero? How do you pull yourself up from your bootstraps when you are on your first day sober and you feel totally worthless?

I have been through the entire process myself so I can outline what worked for me. I believe the same basic principles apply to others as well based on my observations:

1) Surrender to alcoholism and ask for help. You must ask other people for advice and suggestions. “How do I stop drinking?” Then follow directions. Not your own ideas, but you must listen to other people. You must take direction.

2) Take action and follow through. For me this meant going to rehab. Follow directions. Do what they tell you to do. What you are doing is rebuilding your life from scratch. You start this process very slowly.

3) Start doing the work. Remember that this involves both internal work (such as the 12 steps of AA) as well as external work (changing people, places, and things). You must take an active role in doing this work. You must figure out what works for you in recovery and what does not. You don’t get to decide what your path in recovery will look like in the end. You don’t get to design your recovery program in early recovery and decide if you want daily meetings to be a part of it or not. Instead, you must test. Start testing out suggestions. Give everything a chance. Start taking action based on the suggestions you are given.

For example, I was told in early recovery to meditate. So I tried meditation. I read a few books about it. I practiced every day. I tried different techniques. I gave it a fair chance. It had some benefit for me, but ultimately I replaced the meditation with something else. I replaced it with exercise. This was based on another suggestion that I got in recovery. Someone told me that I needed to exercise. Actually I got this suggestion from a lot of people, so I had to stop ignoring it at some point.

But I did not just take either of these suggestions blindly. I took them actively. I tested them out in the real world to see what helped me the most. And it turned out that exercise, for me, was much better and more powerful than seated meditation. Could I do both? Sure. But I found the best use of my time was to just exercise and to skip the seated meditation entirely. That seemed to work the best for me.

But I could not figure that out on my own. I never would have reached that point just using my own ideas. I had to listen to other people and take their advice. I had to take their suggestions and actually go put them into action. This is how you rebuild your life in recovery. You rebuild it by taking action and doing things. And there are an infinite number of things that you might do, so you need to narrow down your choices. The way to narrow it down is to talk to people who are already successful in sobriety and ask them what actions you should take. Then test those actions out and see if they help you or not. Some of them will and some will not.

I promise you this: If you take suggestions from other people in recovery, some of the stuff will help you and some of it will not. Think about that for a moment! There is your whole answer right there. There is the entire secret of sobriety. Start taking suggestions from other people, but the ideas into action, and then keep the stuff that actually helps you. Discard the rest and move on.

Is that simple to do? Yes, it is very simple. But does that mean it is easy to do? No, it is not easy, and most people will not be willing to do it.

Do affirmations help?

Depending on who you are and what your level of negative self talk is like, affirmations may be a part of your recovery strategy.

They were not a part of my strategy personally, but I know that some people really do need to work on this part of themselves.

If your internal mental chatter towards yourself is extremely negative then you need to take an active role in changing that inner dialogue. You must change the language that you are using to think about yourself. You must turn the negative into a positive.

This is not about “magical thinking” or believing that faith without action can move mountains. This is about using your thoughts in a healthy way and not beating yourself up on a daily basis.

To be honest I cannot advise directly on using affirmations because that was not a major part of my journey in recovery. But if you think this may be a stumbling block for you then you need to find someone who can help you with it directly.

One way to do that is to go to a variety of AA meetings and bring it up as the topic. They will usually say the beginning of each AA meeting: “Does anyone have a topic or something they would like to discuss today?” At that point you can say something like: “I suffer from a lot of negative self talk and I am wondering if anyone here has used affirmations in their recovery to help them maintain sobriety?” After listening to a room full of people address this question, you will probably find one or two who seem like they really know what they are talking about. Ask those people for help after the meeting, or if they might be able to talk to you in greater depth about it. This is just one simple way to find a guide for a specific problem in your recovery.

How to develop a long term strategy for raising your self esteem

It is my belief that you need to adopt a long term strategy for recovery that continuously builds and improves your self esteem.

Basically it works like this: If you stop taking positive action in your life and you are no longer building up healthy self esteem then you are slowly sliding towards a relapse.

You cannot sit still. That is not an option. You are either moving forward or you are sliding backwards.

Therefore your obvious choice is to keep moving forward.

You must continuously reinvent yourself in recovery in order to maintain sobriety.

This is all tied to your self worth and how you value your life, of course.

If you keep taking positive action in recovery then you will tend to value your life more and more. If you stop taking positive actions then you allow doubt, fear, and uncertainty to creep back in. These can slowly erode your sobriety over time to the point where you no longer care if you are sober or not.

Think about this carefully: In order to maintain sobriety you have to CARE about your sobriety. If you don’t care then how will you convince yourself to turn down that drink? If you don’t actually care about yourself and your health and your value to the world then how will you protect your sobriety?

You have to care. You have to value your life and the role that you are playing. If you do not value something then it gets thrown out.

Therefore you must adopt a long term strategy of recovery that allows you to build more and more value.

So how do you do this?

With a balanced life and a holistic approach. Every day, you must:

1) Take care of yourself physically. Improve your health. Fitness, exercise, nutrition, healthy sleep. It all starts with a baseline of physical health. Eliminate addictions.
2) Take care of yourself emotionally. Seek balance and stability. Communicate your feelings with others. Find outlets for stress. Reduce anxiety.
3) Take care of yourself mentally. Every day find new ways to help others, to build gratitude. Stress your mind to generate healthy ideas. Explore. Test.
4) Take care of yourself spiritually. Practice gratitude daily. Pray, meditate, or just focus on gratitude. Gratitude is at least 90 percent of spirituality.
5) Take care of yourself socially. Eliminate toxic relationships. Reach out and help others in recovery. Be honest, kind, helpful.

Do all of these things every single day of your recovery. Every day. If you neglect something here then it can lead you to relapse. This is how you rebuild your self esteem when starting from zero. This is how you should live in sobriety.

Do you have a question for Spiritual River? Contact us and let us know your question and we will try to answer it in a future post.

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