The Importance of Self Esteem in Addiction Recovery

The Importance of Self Esteem in Addiction Recovery


Yesterday we looked at how to turn off your cravings for drugs and alcohol at the flip of a switch (slightly more complicated than that but still some very helpful techniques there!). Today we want to examine the importance of self esteem in alcoholism and addiction recovery, and see what we can do to enhance our feeling of self-worth.

When I first got clean and sober, I admit that I did not have any idea about why self esteem might be important for recovery. In fact I had no idea that the concept was tied into sobriety at all. And really it was only in looking back that I could see just how important it was to feel good about myself.

Why you need self esteem in recovery

If you have healthy self esteem in recovery then this simply means that you place a lot of value on yourself. If you have low self esteem then this means that you do not put much value on your own life. It really is as simple as that and the implications of this for recovery are profound.

Having healthy self esteem is therefore a form of relapse prevention. If you feel good about yourself and your sobriety then you are far less likely to throw everything away on a relapse. On the other hand if you feel bad about yourself and are constantly beating yourself up inside (mentally) then you are going to be much more likely to “punish” yourself through relapse.

In short, you need healthy self esteem in order to remain clean and sober. Without feeling good about yourself, it is going to be twice as hard to stay clean and sober in the long run.

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Having good self esteem is so important that you could basically design an entire recovery program around the concept. Just think how your life would evolve if you woke up each day and asked yourself: “What actions can I take today that will help me to feel good about myself and my sobriety?” And then you use the answers to that question to dictate your actions. Doing so leads to a life of personal growth and genuine feelings of self worth.

One of the biggest problems comes during early recovery, when you are first getting clean and sober. Most people are at their lowest point at that time and feel terrible about themselves. Usually they are beating themselves up for being such a “bad person” due to their addiction.

Therefore the first challenge in early recovery is to stop beating yourself. This is often referred to as “giving yourself a break.”

Giving yourself a break in early recovery and starting from scratch

The idea of giving yourself a break is not just a random cliche that gets thrown around in recovery circles. This is an important concept and if you are struggling in early recovery then you need to give it some real thought.

The idea is simple:

STOP beating yourself up mentally. Just stop. Allow yourself to move forward in life and forgive yourself for the past. So you were not perfect and you hurt others due to your addiction….we all realize that and we know that you want to somehow make good on that. Well there is really only one way that you are ever going to “make good” on your past and that is to turn things around and start living the life that you were really meant to live.

Do not shy away from the challenge of sobriety based on the idea that you are “a bad person anyway” or that “there is no hope for you any more.” These ideas basically amount to what we might call “loser talk!” Stop doing that to yourself. You are just mentally dragging yourself down in a way that is helping no one.

If you truly feel bad about yourself and your actions during addiction then you have a clear path in front of you to redemption: start living a life of recovery. Your path to “redemption” is not sustainable if you are constantly berating yourself mentally for being a terrible person.

Therefore in order to give yourself a break you have to forgive yourself. You have to allow yourself to start over from scratch, realizing that you are a decent human being and that you want to try to do good in this world. If you are just constantly beating yourself up then you will never have a chance at long term sobriety because you will never build any healthy self esteem.

Having good self esteem means that you care about yourself as a person. When I first got clean and sober in recovery I was the opposite of this. I did not care about myself at all and in fact I placed a value on my own life of close to zero. When I reached my point of surrender I just as easily could have kept drinking instead of trying to get sober. I just did not care. I did not care about myself and I did not care about anyone else. That is what it means to be truly “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” You stop caring.

In order to get started on a healthy path in recovery you have to start caring again. Luckily I asked for help at my point of surrender and my family directed me into treatment. While I was in treatment I started to care again, just a little bit. This is enough to get started on a healthy path of recovery, because at least now you are headed in the right direction. Being clean and sober and starting to care about life again can make all the difference. After you achieve these things all you need next is momentum. If you can start taking positive action each day then the benefits of sobriety will start to build on themselves. But in order for it all to work you have to start caring again.

Do not be discouraged if you are struggling with addiction and you do NOT care. That is exactly the point that I was at too. Don’t be too upset with yourself because of this and realize that you are reaching your point of complete surrender. Once you reach it you will know because you will be willing to ask for help from others. This is how you turn your life around: Get to the point where you no longer care about chasing that next buzz, and be so fed up with the world that you become willing to go to rehab. This describes my own moment of surrender. There was nothing glorious about it except for the fact that I never used drugs or alcohol again after that moment. But otherwise the moment itself was devoid of all self esteem and I felt like a worthless human being. I had to surrender, ask for help, and then slowly build self esteem from there. I had to start caring again very slowly in recovery.

Don’t beat yourself up for feeling bad. Don’t beat yourself because you are not thrilled with the idea of sobriety. That is perfectly normal. I was not thrilled either. I was quite depressed and just barely cared enough to give rehab another chance. This is the fine line that you walk when you surrender to your disease. A tiny sliver of hope is required to give sobriety a fair chance.

Achievement as your foundation of self esteem?

My experience in recovery has been based on personal achievement as a method of growth. This is also how I have built self esteem: By setting goals for myself and then working hard to meet those goals.

Believe it or not, some people disagree with this concept. They don’t believe that setting goals or striving for achievement or growth in recovery is a good idea. One alternative is to go “beyond the level of goal setting and instead strive for living with purpose.” Apparently if you have purpose in your life then you don’t need to set any goals? Or perhaps if you have a higher purpose then you are off the hook and do not have to work hard to improve yourself in recovery? I am not really sure but I would guess that the teachers of the “purpose idea” would say that having a higher purpose should inspire you to take positive action. Perhaps it is all just a matter of motivation and how you choose to be inspired.

Me, I had goals. In early recovery I had several goals and I started working hard to achieve them. My number one priority was always to maintain absolute sobriety at all costs. This was my number one priority in life and it took precedence over all other goals, including spiritual goals (some people prioritize their higher power over abstinence. I never allowed myself to do that, putting my sobriety as the most important thing in my life, period).

So one of my goals has always been daily abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and this has been the foundation of all growth in my recovery. Without this main goal all of the others would fall apart.

Immediately in my early recovery I acquired new goals. One of them was to get a job and find meaningful work (higher purpose?). Another goal was to quit smoking cigarettes. Another goal was to get into shape and be fit and healthy. Another goal was to get more education. And so on.

So here is what I learned about myself in recovery: having these goals was not enough. Actually putting in the effort to work on the goals was what made the process of recovery work for me. I am not sure if the actual achievement is necessary or not but I suspect that it is. “But,” you might protest “Isn’t it enough just to have the goals and be in the process of recovery and in the process of taking positive action?”

I would have thought so, and to some extent this is true. But I think the key point that people often miss is this:

If you are taking positive action in your life and working towards your goals, you WILL achieve things. Give it a few months to a few years and push hard and you WILL chalk up some wins in your life. Not everything will work out perfectly and you will look back and call some efforts “a waste.” That is inevitable. But if you are pushing yourself towards your goals then you will definitely get some wins and make real progress.

Now you might ask: “What if I am pushing for this growth and trying to meet my goals and I am achieving nothing? What of my recovery then?”

And I would counter that and say “You are not really trying. Be realistic and set some healthy goals (ask a sponsor to help you!) and then work your tail off. If you do this consistently then you WILL make progress. Give it time and you will look back one day and see that your efforts have rewarded you.

We cannot see real growth while we are in it. We cannot see our progress as we are making it. This is because true growth requires frustration and struggle. It is only after looking back that we can see how far we have really come. Again, “give yourself a break!” That is a powerful cliche and if you push yourself to make positive changes and just give it time then you will reap the rewards. Again, give yourself a break.

Measure your self worth in terms of willingness, action, and achievement

In my opinion there are three steps to building up new self esteem in your life:

1) Become willing to make a positive change.
2) Take action in an attempt to change your life.
3) Achieve your intended goal. Succeed.

If you want to get a tiny boost of self esteem then just do the first step: become willing. Even this much can make a difference in how you feel about yourself.

Now if you want to prove your willingness to yourself and get more of the benefit of self esteem then you have to actually take action in your life. This will make you feel even better than just the initial thought and plan that was all in your mind. Now you are actually doing something in order to change.

Finally you must meet your goal eventually. This is like going from a 2 or a 3 on the “self esteem scale” all the way up to an instant “10.” Actually meeting your goal and succeeding gets you the biggest payoff.

This was perfectly illustrated to me when I had the goal of quitting smoking.

I had this goal almost immediately once I got clean and sober and I struggled on and off with it for a few years before I finally managed to quit for good.

So the intention of quitting gave me a tiny boost to my self worth. At least I wanted to be healthier, right?

Then I started taking action in trying to quit, and I kept failing. Now this is important: at some point, my failures started working against me. Simply taking action and making an effort was no longer boosting my self esteem. In fact, because I kept failing at the goal it was making things worse. I was feeling bad about myself for being a failure, because I could not seem to successfully quit smoking!

So I had reached a point where taking action was no longer helping. In fact it was working against me in a way because of my repeated failures.

At this point I had to take a step back and evaluate again. Why was I failing? Why was I failing to put a serious effort into this goal? No one was pushing me to quit smoking–I wanted it for myself. So why was I failing?

I am not sure what the turning point was for me exactly, but I know that it had to do with self esteem and self worth. I could not keep killing myself slowly with cigarettes and feel good about myself. Therefore I decided to make a “supreme effort” with quitting to an extent that I had never tried before.

I took time off work in order to do this. I saved up “reward money” for myself if I quit successfully. I put more effort into quitting than I had ever put into anything in my life before, ever.

That did the trick. Just barely, I made it it through withdrawal and was able to quit smoking for good. It was a very difficult struggle.

And the kicker is this:

I have never in my life gotten a bigger boost in terms of self esteem and self worth. I realized when I quit smoking that I could accomplish anything I wanted in this world. Truly this unlocked a ton of growth potential for me. My accomplishments after quitting smoking only got bigger and bigger. This was the “big win” that I needed in recovery in order to unlock my full potential.

When I was trying to quit and taking action every day and failing, this accomplished nothing. It was a total loss. In fact it was starting to drag me down and work against me.

I had to meet the goal in order to reap the benefits in terms of self esteem. This is why I try to emphasize to people that they need to PUSH themselves in recovery. If you try and fail then that might have some benefit, but it might also work against you. Eventually you have to commit fully to your goal and put in enough effort so that you succeed. This is where the real payoff lies.

Don’t just take action in recovery and justify a bit of laziness because “at least you are making an effort.” Look at your goals and what you have actually accomplished (or what you want to accomplish). If you want to feel good about yourself in recovery then you need to get some wins under your belt. Achievement matters. Meeting your goals makes a huge difference.

I did not want this to be true, I wanted my recovery to be a success only based on effort and not on “wins” or “achievement.” But what I learned is that the wins matter. If you never meet any goals in recovery then you are not going to feel good about yourself. Therefore you need to push yourself hard enough and have enough discipline to actually achieve some things.

Positive actions and cumulative growth in recovery

Once you get clean and sober you are faced with a choice: Kick your feet and relax for a while as you coast through recovery, or double down on your efforts and push yourself to make even MORE positive changes in life.

People who relapse in recovery are often those from the first group. They are kicking their feet up and hoping that their initial effort in recovery will be enough to sustain their sobriety.

The alternative to this lazy attitude is to consciously create your sobriety each and every day. This is how self esteem works. If you have a reason to be sober then guess what? Staying sober is easy! But if you have nothing to really live for then the temptation of drugs and alcohol becomes much greater. Therefore people who relapse are lacking in self esteem. It is not necessarily that they do not care about themselves….it is that they are not excited enough about life to remain sober. If you don’t treasure your existence then you will medicate that existence into oblivion. This is why I drank–because I hated my life sober. It was no worth living to me. In order to get sober and remain sober you have to build a new life, one that is worth living. To do that you have to feel good about yourself and feel excited about the positive changes that you are making in your life.


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