Dealing with Self-Esteem in Recovery

  • By Aaron Mills
  • 08 Nov, 2017

In recovery, it is easy for us to under-value and appreciate our own power and ability to create effective change in our lives. Likewise, we can use our power to prevent the need for sobriety.

Wait. I thought I was powerless? Isn’t that the whole point of the first step in recovery?

Certainly the first of the 12 steps is a key ingredient in recovery. But let’s step back for a moment and think.

The first step in a 12-step program is really about admitting we have a problem. It is about surrendering to the fact that we simply cannot manage that problem. We need new tools and strategies – not alcohol or drugs – to deal with the problems in our lives.

We can serve as an agent of change in our own lives, and it's critical we choose to do so. 

Impotence is debilitating. Real or imagined, when we believe we cannot do something, or cannot do it well, it will be debilitating and hamper our own ability to be successful.

Self-doubt in recovery can guarantee failure if that personal belief is deep-rooted enough. At the very least, it can hamper progress.

Some of the symptoms of chemical dependency are powerlessness, rigid negative attitudes and low self-image. But not everyone is in this same space. We don’t all feel that lack of control. In fact many of us feel entirely in control of our lives.

When we approach our self-efficacy we should realize it impacts self-esteem in a big way. It's how we think about our own competence and our intelligence to accomplish tasks. It's about our ability to get the right answer, to think and problem solve, and to deal with social situations.

"Why try? I'm a failure."

For a person who has a healthy view of failure and their own competence, trying and failing doesn't lead to giving up. They know that they can get a different outcome through repeated effort. They understand that even repeated failure is OK, because that is often the way to success. We continue to try, even after we fail, because we know we can succeed.

But for an addict who has already lived through more failures than most people will experience in a lifetime, they have been beaten into failure. They have been trained that failure is all that they can accomplish. We stop trying because we give up. We know that for us at least, it will never work. We are failures. All we can do is fail. Why even try to be sober?

"But I don't feel powerless."

Some addicted people who don’t suffer from a lack of self esteem, or low self-efficacy, will approach the same situation very differently.

Maybe you say, “Hey I'm not powerless. Look at me. I have a job, which I am successful at. I have a family, and I am in good shape. I have my drinking under control, and I am not powerless to it.”

Addicts who have a high self-esteem say, “I am not doing anything wrong. After all, I am intelligent, successful, educated.” They seek out people who will agree with them, often other addicts or people who are accepting of substance use.

This can be an even more dangerous situation to be in. Once you hear the message that, “Hey, you're a good person, even though you're using,” you can lose any motivation to be sober.

It is often a person's close friends and peers who affirm their obvious capabilities in life and downplay their addiction problem. Does this sound familiar?  “Yeah, that DUI was just bad luck, man. We have all driven after a few beers. You just got caught.”

"They don't know what they're talking about."

Those of us dealing with low self-esteem issues often start off believing that we can change when we get into a recovery process, start going to meetings, or enter treatment. People around us say we just need to believe in ourselves. These are educated, smart people, who have their lives under control.

We start out believing them. We feel good, for a while. Then we start to think, "Who are these people? They don’t really know me. They don’t really grasp how much of a loser I am. They don’t know just how far down this hole I have gone. I know I can’t do it. My entire life is a failure."

For those in this situation, starting recovery is something we can be easily talked into. Actually doing the work seems impossible, because for us, everything good is impossible.

"I can believe what they say."

What if your friends are successful, well-adjusted, intelligent people who are doing really well in life? They have good jobs, families, and lives in general. If they all tell you that your DUI was bad luck or that everybody does a little coke to relax, do you believe them?

If we believe those friends, those seemingly qualified people, why should we try and be sober? Why does sobriety even have a relationship to us?  After all, they DO know me, and I am just like them. I am NOT one of those losers who can’t get their act together.

A therapist's perspective: Raoul's story

Raoul was born in Canada and moved to the United States with his parents when he was a teenager. They settled in upstate New York. Raoul’s mother is a middle school guidance counselor and his father is a hydraulic engineer.

The family has always been upper middle class and both Raoul and his younger brother are college graduates with only good prospects ahead of them. Raoul’s high school and college experiences appear to have been routine but successful, with records of high academic achievement the norm rather than the exception. Both sons were expected to do well and so far, at least on the surface, his parents have not been disappointed.

Raoul holds a deep sense of respect and gratitude to his parents.  He acknowledges the sacrifices they made for their sons, moving away from family and friends so that the boys could have greater opportunities, as they saw it, and both sons remain close to their parents. The parents and the younger son continue to live in New York state but Raoul has moved to Greenville, SC, having accepted a job opportunity that was too good to refuse.

I met Raoul in Greenville when he was referred for counseling after a drunk driving arrest and his subsequent suicide gesture/attempt.  Even though Raoul was nearly 30 when I met him, he lived in fear of his parents learning about any of his perceived “failures,” especially those that might be related to his drinking.

Raoul was a high self-esteem, high self-efficacy alcoholic.  Raoul was a success professionally and socially.  He appeared to be gifted in his area of expertise with no reason to bet against him climbing the professional ladder without interruption.

Raoul, though single, experienced a full dating life and he stated on several occasions his desire to “settle down” soon and start a family. He was careful to control his social drinking, which he differentiated from the “serious” drinking that took place when he was alone and free of work and social responsibilities. Raoul reluctantly admitted that he “lived’ for those solitary drinking episodes, but he was still unwilling to think of himself as an alcoholic or addict in any way.

As an alcoholic in the midst of professional and personal success, Raoul was able to avoid any confrontation that he might be drinking too much. Until, that is, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Then there was no denying that some level of problem existed, but he was nowhere close to acknowledging a serious problem with alcohol.

Raoul’s self-enhancement activities were true to form. He sought out ways to confirm that he was successful in spite of his drinking. He associated with others who drank routinely and often heavily and who agreed that there was nothing to be ashamed or worried about in that regard.  Everyone who knew Raoul agreed (so he told me) that he should not see himself as addicted to alcohol just because of the DUI or the weekend “benders” he looked forward to. He was successful and competent, so why should they worry or interfere?

Raoul’s attempts at self-verification can seen in how he interpreted situations related to alcohol use.  His friends agreed with him as they discussed the relativeness of moral standards.  Whose business was it anyway, they argued, if Raoul or anyone else wanted to spend their weekend “wasted” and locked un in their apartment? If a highly successful person like Raoul needed that opportunity to let off steam, what’s the harm?  Anybody could get a DUI citation, they all agreed, and it was just dumb bad luck that he was pulled over when he was. Did Raoul commit a crime? No way, his friends agreed.

Working with Raoul was not easy.  He was a charming and intelligent person who used alcohol a lot but not, he and his friends agreed, to excess. 

Why should he change? Raoul did not see a reason to change anything except agreeing he'd call a taxi when he was out and had been drinking too much. But that was it, at least in the beginning. I had an advantage in that he was required to participate in counseling in order to get his driver’s license back, and he had to do so for at least one year and on a weekly basis. There was time to work.

He needed to understand that self-esteem has three components: global self-esteem, feelings of self-worth, and self-evaluations.

Global self-esteem, high or low, refers to the way people feel about themselves across a broad range of situations and circumstances. Global self-esteem is basic and relates more to personality variables rather than any set of specific behaviors or attitudes. Global self-esteem traces its roots back to early childhood and thus, is very difficult to change to any significant degree. Raoul’s global self-esteem was very high.

Feelings of self-worth are more transitory, changing as the person experiences positive or negative situations and is called on to adapt to them as best they can. People say certain people or situations made them feel good or bad, but that feeling lasted only as long as the situation remained prominent in the person’s mind and as soon as the pleasant or unpleasant experience is replaced by another, the good or bad feelings of self-worth conform to the new emotional stimulus. A person might say, “I felt great about getting that great feedback on my report until the boss said I would have to one more section to make it really complete. Just more work. Oh, well!”

Self-evaluations are related to the way people grade or rank their own attributes and abilities. Raoul, for example, appeared to evaluate himself very highly indeed, and with apparent good reason. He was successful in everything he did, people loved him, his opinions were valued by others, and he had risen higher than anyone else in his family or among his friends and associates back home.

But if all these things were true, why did he feel such a need to use alcohol? If he felt as others seemed to feel – that he was at the top of his form – why was he not satisfied with his psychological state free from alcohol? Raoul did not just drink a little.  When he drank, he usually drank to excess and at times to the point of passing out and losing days at a time. Fortunately for him, the lost days happened when he was alone in his apartment and had not, so far, affected his work.


How Raoul was thinking  

“I don’t have a problem. The DUI was an aberration, and not something I actually need to deal with.”

The truth is that if he has been arrested for a DUI, it's very likely he is engaged in periodic, if controlled, benders. He is drinking way more than people who “have it all under control”.

“I don’t have a problem. In fact, you should stop judging me and look at your own life.”

People who are actually educated on substance abuse would indeed say he has a problem with drinking.

“I do NOT have a drinking problem.”

In his case, his denial is bordering on mental illness.

“Last weekend I didn’t get REALLY drunk, and I didn’t have a hangover. I just had a mild flu.”

Passing out is drunk. Not remembering is drunk. The neighbors calling the police is drunk. He was drunk.

“I am not hurting anyone or myself. I can stop any time I want, and I will clean up when I am good and ready.”

Medical doctors say that drinking as much as Raoul does will lead to his death. This is an objective fact.

“I am under a lot of stress, and having a drink after work is totally acceptable. You don’t understand just how stressful my job is.”

Millions of people get off work and deal with stress without ever using alcohol to deal with it. This is a cop-out.


How Raoul thinks today

It took a year of treatment for Raoul to come to the realizations he needed to find his courage. Here are some of the things Raoul is saying today:

“Of course I had a problem. I was just too damn stubborn to admit it to myself!”

“I was scared that any solution would mean no more drinking. I really like drinking alcohol!”

“I am embarrassed at all the lies I told about not being drunk. I realize all the damage I did to myself and those around me. I have a lot of amends to perform.”

“I was smart and successful before I got sober, and I will continue to be smart and successful after I am sober.”


We must come to recognize our own self-efficacy 

Being honest about our own self-efficacy can help us identify the place we are coming from. Are we someone who has adopted failure because it is the only thing we have ever known? Are we someone who needs to see the reality of our own substance abuse?

The truth is that even in a 12-step program, the third step is about conforming your will to that of your higher power. This requires your taking action, and using your power.

Let's examine that for a moment. When you conform your will to that of your higher power it's all about willingness to change. That means taking up your own power and wielding it. Making the decision to change is taking action, and it's one of the hardest actions to take for many. It’s taking the action to say, “Maybe I don’t know what's best, and I need some new tools and ways of thinking to deal with my problems, so that I am not a prisoner of this substance.”

Being powerless is not and should never be about being incapable of being sober, and it should not reinforce your negative self image as a loser or someone who just “can’t do it”.  You may already know you're not a loser, and maybe you are completely aware of your personal self-efficacy.

No matter which direction you're coming from, addiction is a real disease that affects people from all walks of life, and from every background. The first step in dealing with addiction is admitting the problem is real.

For some, finding the courage to make that leap is the hardest step.

At Desert Rose

We have helped people who are coming from both sides of the self-esteem spectrum. We understand the war you are fighting, and we can help give you the tools you need to make a healthy change in your life.

We accept you right where you are, and who you are. There is hope.

If you or a loved one are dealing with substance abuse please call us today at 844-338-5587 and let’s talk about how we can help.

Book recommendations:

Arterburn, S. & Burns, J. (1990). Drug-proof your kids. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

Gorski, T. & Miller, M. (1982).  Counseling for relapse prevention. Independence, MO: Herald House-Independent Press.

May, G. (1988). Addiction and grace.  New York: Harper Collins.

Miller, J. (1991). A hunger for healing. New York: Harper Collins.

Walter, J.L., & Peller, E. (1992). Becoming solution-focused in brief therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

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By Jenny Hunt 22 Jan, 2018
So often I talk about the big blessings of sobriety – great job, great life, great friends, great relationship with my family, and that feeling of inner peace and contentment. Sometimes I forget about the little things. Little things that were so out of my reach in addiction, I didn’t even believe they were possible. So here are some of those things, in no particular order:
By Jodi MacNeal 22 Jan, 2018
By Aaron Mills 20 Jan, 2018
By Jodi MacNeal 20 Jan, 2018
Two days after the 1986 NBA draft, No. 2 pick Len Bias was dead of cardiac arrest after of a cocaine overdose.

Len Bias: Best player Maryland had ever seen (maybe the best Maryland player ever, depending on how you feel about Juan Dixon). The future of the Celtics. About to sign an endorsement deal with Reebok. Life was perfect.

Cocaine killed that. He was 22.

Bias hadn’t left home to play college ball; he was a home-grown talent who came up just outside D.C. and played ball in Maryland so he wouldn’t have to leave his family. He had a future as wide-open and promising as any kid, ever. Already a star, a freak of athletic power and poise, he might have changed the world of professional basketball. He’d fueled the dreams of a thousand city kids who wanted to play like him, be him. He swaggered, Len Bias did. His opponents couldn’t fathom him: “He’d jump and his knees would be in my teeth.” He dunked on guys, whether he needed to or not, just because he could. Len Bias could fly.

And then cocaine ended him.

Here’s how it went down: Bias and three buddies were snorting coke in a dorm room, suite 1103 in Washington Hall. Bias did a line, tried to get up, fell back on the bad and lapsed into seizure. One guy held his legs. Another one put the handle of a pair of scissors in Bias’s mouth, to keep him from biting his own tongue. The third somehow called 911 and mumbled, over and over, that his friend was in trouble. Kept saying his friend’s name, even when the emergency operator told him it didn’t matter. “This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die.”

But drugs don’t differentiate. Substance use, abuse and addiction have attacked athletes across the spectrum of sport.

By Emily Johanson 18 Jan, 2018
If a stranger in a gas station parking lot asks this question, it’s easy to assume what’s going on.

“Nope. I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yep, thanks.”

After working a full day, then sitting through a 4-hour class, the last thing I was in the mood for was to be pestered by a drug dealer at 11 p.m. All I wanted was to get my Marlboro Smooths and go home.

As I got into my car, annoyed by the fact that I had to start it with pliers (broken car keys aren’t worth the $200 replacement), something told me to stop.

I reversed, and rolled down my window next to the mysterious black Toyota.

“What are you selling?”

He told me that he had whatever I needed: Weed, percs, Xanax, heroin, flakka, oxies, you name it.

Addiction was too close to home to keep from speaking up.

“Do you realize what you’re doing? Do you realize what you’re selling?”

He was silent for a minute, staring at me. After what felt like eternity looking into this man’s eyes, I decided that I had the freedom to continue. What else do I say? I began to tell some of my story. I served him my heart on a silver platter.

“You don’t have to do this. There are other ways to make money.”

He looked down in shame. I encouraged him to take a few of my Desert Rose company cards in case he knew someone who needed help. He got out of his car, took the cards from my hand and stood there, shaking his head. With tears in his eyes, he said, “They’re for me.”

I sat there with this guy for 45 minutes while he poured out his heart and story.

Gary told me he’s 49 years old, works on classic cars by day, and sells drugs by night for extra money. He has a beautiful son who he loves with all of his heart. When he removed his hat and pulled his shirt collar aside, his bald head and IV port revealed his personal nightmare: Gary was also fighting stage four colon cancer. He made it clear that his cancer was not an excuse for his behavior, or for his personal drug use.

I was caught off guard when Gary squeezed my hands and began to pray. He prayed against forces of the enemy. He prayed for blessing over my life. He prayed protection and favor over his son. For himself, he prayed for wisdom and strength to do the next right thing.

As he walked back to his car, he turned around and said, “It’s time for me to go home and kiss my son good night. Thank you for reminding me of what’s important.”

Every day, we pass people by, like they’re just part of the scenery. We have absolutely no clue what kind of story, beauty, and pain lie beneath the surface.

If you're in pain, please know we understand and we're ready to help. Call us today at (844) 338-5587. 
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How do you carry your recovery into the world? Do you pin it on daily, like a badge of honor? Do you bring it out just for special occasions, or do you keep it well and truly hidden?

Last month, a longtime acquaintance told me (in slightly hushed tones) that he’s in recovery. 

I was glad that I didn't hear any traces of shame or guilt in his voice. His long-ago drinking and drug use? It’s just the life he was living at the time. He’s not afraid of being judged, or of any stigma attached to substance abuse and recovery.

It’s just that he’s moved on. He’s private about being in recovery and it’s not particularly relevant to the life he's achieved – husband, father, business owner, artist, athlete. He sponsors people, even quietly mentions that he’s a former addict when he thinks it might help somebody. He probably won’t bring it up with his kids unless they ask him point-blank, once they’re old enough to understand. It’s a crazy-healthy way to be.

For some people, declaring their recovery to the world is a part of staying clean. It gives them a sense of identity and a tribe – their own #MeToo community. They’re vocal, active, engaged. These are the folks going into the prisons, leading the meetings, talking to groups of high school students and their parents. Walking though recovery means talking about recovery. They have no secrets.

Then there are others who’ve closed and locked the door. The subject is not open for discussion, and if you happen to touch upon it, everybody’s going to feel a little uncomfortable for a while. This happened to me not long ago, with a pastor friend. Trying to find a way to refuse a glass of prosecco I offered, he made a joke about being an overachiever in everything – including, at one time, drinking. He made his point in a way that made it clear that was all he was planning to say on the matter. His right, and I respect that.

It seems to me that there are a million ways to navigate long-term recovery. What’s your way?
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