REESTABLISHING SELF ESTEEM IN RECOVERY
You may tend to see yourself as totally honest, patient, or hopelessly Ill-tempered. (totally and only). However, 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 becomes, 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.
The foundation for our self-esteem can be damaged 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 you a lot and apprised you honestly as smart or good-looking, you developed a sense of 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. The foundation for our self-worth were conveyed through the conditions of worth by original significant others and authority figures when we were young. Our behaviors also affect and are affected by 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 do not match your values when you are using. 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. These are in conflict with our core conditions of worth.
Getting high becomes more important than anything else. You may quit doing anything that took time away from using. Doing things to feel good about yourself, which reinforced your healthy self-interest, 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 your self-image.
Approval Seeking and Self-Esteem
Adolescents 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.
For adolescents trying to be their own person and find their own way individuated from the family, friends become an avenue for validation and acceptance. We want friends who like and accept us. 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 and included. You may do things you don’t want to do because of peer pressure, just because they are doing them, but you will end up doing things just to feel acceptance.
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 independent, self directed, 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. As the addiction takes hold, 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 Worth and Self-Esteem
The path to real recovery is also a path to authentic sense of self worth. Dr. Paul Standal has often told his clients that their greatest revenge is their success in achieving their goals, be it sobriety or their occupational or relational success. For the adolescent, there is a two-fold path. The first is the understanding that, in order to really achieve independence and a sense of themselves, they will have to balance their independence with responsibility. Self-responsibility becomes a pathway to personal self-worth. For both adolescents and adults, legislating successful behaviors is an important step in regaining self-responsibility and self-worth/respect. For those whose original conditions of worth were destructive or led to self sabotaging behavior, these old messages need to be confronted and changed in favor of taking on new experiential values that come from healthy interactions with the world around them that make sense and that lead to personal success.
The return to a balanced life that is not narcissistic and self-centered is a long one, requiring reestablishing relationships with other healthy people and developing a strong regard complex with them. As you begin living to be good to yourself and other people, your self-esteem will return. Dr. Standal believes that the great advantage in a connection to self-help groups like AA or NA is that it gives you an opportunity to develop a healthy regard complex with others.
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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