How does the Recovering Addict or Alcoholic Generate Healthy Self Esteem?

How does the Recovering Addict or Alcoholic Generate Healthy Self Esteem?


An insightful reader commented recently, stating:

Those of us in recovery have to be careful when we base our self esteem on accomplishments. Anytime we use something outside ourselves to validate our self-worth, we re in dangerous territory. External factors come and go – jobs are lost, injuries occur, etc – but our recovery has to be constant. The only constant is the internal.

This sounds like very good advice at first glance….but in thinking further about it, I’m not sure that it matches up well with my own experience in recovery. It is definitely worth exploring though, and I am glad that this particular reader brought it up.

A big part of the addiction help that I needed in early recovery was to start valuing my self higher. Like many addicts, I suffered from low self esteem. At the time, I was working with a therapist who believed strongly in affirmations as a means to generate healthy self esteem. After genuinely trying the techniques for some length of time, I found it to be lacking. Repeated, positive self talk was not working for me the way it seemed to work for some other people. At the time I was still in very early recovery and I was down on myself and my self esteem was not very high.

My own experience in this case is that I met a sponsor in the 12 step fellowship and he pushed me towards action in my life. I was geared up to dive into heavy step work and philosophical discussions with him, and instead he started pushing me to do things “in the real world,” such as to go back to college, to get a job, and to start chairing an NA meeting every week. The things that I thought were so important to recovery, he seemed to push aside.

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And so I just went with the flow, and gave up on the idea of affirmations, and gave up on the idea of positive self talk, and really just started putting one foot in front of the other in terms of taking real action in my life. I was setting goals and working towards them based on suggestions. I was not really self motivated but I was willing to do the work. I was being nudged. Reluctantly, I was taking real action.

At first I would say that I did not have instant self esteem based on these actions, or even on the resulting accomplishments. I was still a bit down on myself at this point. It took time and a continuous effort to rebuild my self esteem. I can distinctly remember still being quite frazzled at six months of sobriety. But my point here is this:

1) My self esteem that I have today was built on continuous action, on personal growth. It was built on merit. I did things, and I feel better about myself.

2) Positive self talk was not working for me. I felt like it was a sham because I was trying to convince myself of something that I did not really believe in.

Positive action succeeded where positive self talk had failed me. Of course, not all of my actions led to success, and I still had some failures and let downs in my life. But I was taking action in so many areas that I was still able to build self esteem this way. I felt better about myself as a person because I was making real progress in my life. I did not have to manufacture a false sense of worth for myself. I was building value by accomplishing real goals and taking action to meet those goals.

For example, back when I was in this phase of my recovery, I got a job, went back to college, started exercising, and tried to quit smoking. Guess what? I failed at quitting smoking. I failed–many, many times over a period of several years.

Now if that was the only thing I was basing my self esteem on, then my failure at quitting smoking would have indeed been devastating. But in fact I was basing my self esteem on my entire life, including all of the other actions I was taking at the time.

This is why the holistic approach in long term recovery makes so much sense. If you are pushing yourself to grow in several areas of your life, then you are going to have some success stories. You will win some and lose some. Growth will occur. Success will build on previous successes.

Eventually, I did quit smoking. All part of the journey. And I have other goals that I have not yet met, that I am currently working on. But I have learned to celebrate my successes and keep pushing myself to reach these goals. I know that I am not going to conquer every battle I fight in this life. That’s OK.

So perhaps this part of recovery can be unique for different people. The breakthrough for me in early recovery was to start taking positive action and build my self esteem based on accomplishment and merit. I tried to do it “internally” and felt like I was betraying myself. It was not authentic. But when I met certain goals, or pushed myself to grow in some way, I genuinely felt better about myself.

I would love to hear your opinion on this. Do you think it is dangerous to base our self esteem on external factors, such as setting and reaching goals, achieving things, etc? Or do you think that self esteem should be generated internally somehow? Please answer in the comments below so that others can benefit from your experience. (you may have to visit the website in order to comment.)


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