You may tend to see yourself as totally dishonest, completely lacking in patience, or hopelessly ill-tempered (totally and only). Our self-image (the way we picture ourselves) and our self-esteem (the confidence and satisfaction we have in that picture) really suffer when we abuse alcohol and drugs. No matter how distorted our self-image is, we generally believe it—and act on it. And we pick the kinds of friends we think go with our self-image. When self-image is twisted, so that we see only our faults, we have low self-esteem.
We get low self-esteem from the way we were treated when we were children. We didn’t know it at the time, but our self-image was being shaped by the way people treated us. If they touched and held us a lot and told us we were smart and good, we developed high self-esteem. We valued ourselves. If they rarely touched or held us and told us we were bad, we developed low self-esteem and sold ourselves short. We obtained a self-fulfilling prophesy from authority figures when we were young.
Our past behavior also affects our self-image and self-esteem: “All my teachers treated me like I was different. I did not do well at schoolwork; they did not expect me to. After a while, I quit trying and I learned even less. That just made my teachers and myself even surer I couldn’t do it. I believed I was a bad student and that affected my self-image and self-esteem.”
How Your Addiction Affects Your Self-Esteem
For most addicts, behaviors often did not match your values when you were using, and it still may not, even in early recovery. If you stole to pay for drugs, you may see yourself, deep down, as a thief. If you hurt people you loved, you may see yourself as uncaring and mean.
Getting high becomes more important than anything else. You may have quit doing anything that took time away from using. Having fun and doing things to feel good about yourself got put on the trash pile. If friends and family got in the way of your getting high, you may have dumped them for friends who reinforced you self-image.
Self-Esteem and Your Friends
We want friends who like and accept us. You may do things you don’t want to do just because they are doing them and end up doing things just to impress them. That is called peer pressure.
Looking for Approval
You run into a lot of situations in which you don’t always know what to do. With some people, if you do the thing they expect you to do, they will like you and you will feel accepted. You may try to change your behavior to fit in so you won’t feel lonely and left out.
Looking for Independence
You want to be treated like an adult. You want to do what you want to do when you want to do it. You want to make your own decisions and be independent. When you first started using, your self-image may have gotten a temporary lift because you saw yourself doing something “grown up.” Doing them might have made you feel older, especially if it meant you were accepted in a group of friends who were older than you, but this is an error.
Looking for the Right Thing in the Wrong Places
When you first started using, your self-esteem may have gotten a boost. Alcohol and other drugs can give you the illusion of being confident and courageous. Some people even feel like they can take on the world. They feel strong and in control when they drink or use other drugs. Their control and strength start to slip. Their ability to handle life begins to fade. As you needed drugs more and more, you probably did things you once thought were unthinkable, such as stealing from other people, selling drugs or selling your body.
Recovering Your Self-Esteem
In early recovery, you will experience mood swings that carry you from elation, to depression, to total confusion. During early recovery, you have been acknowledging the harm your drug use has caused yourself and all the people in your life. We generally feel guilt and shame. When you’re using, your values change. You become dishonest with yourself and others. You hurt others and tell yourself it is all right. For addicts, using becomes more important than honesty, integrity, or other people.
The return to a balanced life that is not narcissistic and self-centered is a long one, requiring relationships with other recovering people and developing a relationship with your Higher Power. As you live striving to be good to yourself and other people, your self-esteem will return.
How Your New Friends Can Help You
In early recovery, you will feel a lot of pressure to return to your using friends because that is where you felt accepted, understood and cared for. You may also experience pressure from your old friends to “come back and be normal again.” Remember, giving up your using friends may be difficult, but recovery will be nearly impossible if you don’t. Developing a regard complex with a new set of sober people can be awkward at first. But as you move into greater sobriety, your ability to foster a congruent self-image will increase. Take action and then your values and self-esteem will follow.
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