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Building Self-Esteem During Recovery and Sobriety

One of the reasons why it’s so hard to recover from substance use disorder is because of the negative stigma that surrounds the condition. Most people think that substance use is a choice and that individuals suffering with an addiction use illicit drugs just because they want to. While that couldn’t be any further from the truth, there’s no doubt that these concepts can weigh down on those who struggle with the disease. These negative ideas about drug use, in combination with the complex emotions that entangle the problem, can make recovery especially challenging. So it’s really no surprise that people suffering with substance use disorder tend to feel intense shame, embarrassment, and guilt that may hinder them from sobriety.

Why Does Substance Use Disorder Cause Shame?

Shame is defined as an unpleasant self-conscious emotion that stems from regret and humiliation. While guilt might be a similar experience, guilt commonly refers to feelings of embarrassment and regret towards an action that goes against an individual’s moral code. Shame on the other hand eats away at a person’s self-worth. Thus, when a person experiences shame, they lose their sense of personal value. It’s very common for individuals with substance use disorders to feel that they’re hopeless, worthless, or a lost cause. These complex emotions often stem from the network of negative experiences like trauma, abuse, and poverty which cause SUDs in the first place. Coming to terms with an addiction means accepting that they’ve made a mistake in trying the illicit substance in the first place. But at the same time, this can bolster pre-existing negative ideas about the self, especially if the individual has had to deal with various struggles and stressors in the past.

Why It’s Important to Increase Self-Esteem

It’s important to recognize that there are mental aspects to substance use disorder. While the effects of drug use on the body are quite obvious, there are also significant changes that happen in the mind that need to be addressed if a person is to live sober-free. For treatment to be truly successful, it’s necessary to put focus on the individual’s mental state. That’s because when a person feels worthless or hopeless, they’re likely to look for a way to escape the negative feelings. While drugs and alcohol might provide temporary confidence and happiness, the crash that follows will result to even more significant self-esteem issues. This can become a vicious cycle, prompting the individual to retake the substance when they’re once again confronted with the negative ideas that they have about themselves. Unfortunately, the drug use itself will contribute to the problem, bolstering the thoughts of worthlessness and hopelessness. Take for example an individual with a history of sexual abuse. Living in poverty most of their life, this individual struggled with both work and intimate relationships, in part because of the negative concept and low self esteem they formed as a result of the abuse. After developing a substance use disorder, the individual was brought to a rehabilitation facility where they were assisted through withdrawal. But once the symptoms of withdrawal waned, they were allowed to return to everyday life without first addressing the mental aspect of their condition. Carrying the same burden of stress, shame, and low self-esteem, they relapse within days of re-entering society.

How to Restore Self-Esteem in Recovery

The treatment process itself incorporates a number of techniques and strategies that work to help people find their worth through all of the struggles. These programs place significant importance on re-establishing self-esteem because when a person recognizes their value, they learn to take care of themselves and to say no to habits that cause them harm.

Providing Support Systems

One of the cornerstones of recovery is the provision of a support system. As early as rehab, individuals are given the chance to mingle with people who struggle with the same problem. These groups are provided scheduled time where they can share their thoughts and experiences, creating an atmosphere of judgement-free familiarity and safety. During these group therapy sessions, individuals are given the chance to empathize with one another, discovering each person’s unique story and struggle. In effect, everyone receives the support and encouragement they need, helping them to realize that drug addiction can happen to anyone, and that it doesn’t take away from a person’s inherent worth.

Addressing Past Traumas

Self-esteem can be marred by past traumas, and these can take the shape of anything from all kinds of abuse, to violence, to living in poverty. As long as these traumas go unnoticed and unresolved, they can continue to wreak havoc on a person’s self-worth. Every time these memories are revisited or when there are triggers that remind the individual of their past trauma, they’re likely to feel an overwhelming sense of stress. And as the tension rises, they feel the need to escape, looking for any way to suppress the negative thoughts – and that includes drug use. During trauma treatment, individuals undergo counseling in order to unearth these traumas. And as they come to light, counselors provide affirmation, encouragement, and support aside from guidance on the different techniques a person can use to lay their trauma to rest.

Establishing a Healthy Lifestyle

Studies have found that individuals who invest in their health are generally less prone to stress aside from being more confident and positive. That’s why fitness routines and healthy diets are highly encouraged during the treatment process. Individuals on the road to sobriety will often encounter treatment programs that incorporate a health regime. These can include visits to the gym and cooking classes that teach participants how to prepare hearty, healthy meals that can support their wellness and overall health. These techniques don’t only make a person feel better, but showcase how caring for yourself can improve the way you perceive yourself in the first place. By placing importance on health and fitness, it becomes harder to engage in habits that might damage what you’ve already invested in.

Tips for Building Self-Esteem

Aside from the techniques and strategies used during the treatment program, individuals can take the initiative to engage in activities or habits that build self-esteem on their own time. These can include:

  • Start a Journal – Write a short entry about a small success you managed to achieve each day. It can be as simple as getting a new recipe right, or as big as reaching 100 days of sobriety. Focus on the good points, and if you ever start to feel hopeless, you can look through your journal to see how far you’ve come.
  • Compliment Yourself – Negative self talk can be a major contributor to low self-esteem. Consider listening in to the voice in your head. What does it say about yourself? Instead of constantly beating yourself up about failures, try looking for things to commend. Instead of saying ‘You never get anything right’, try saying ‘It’s okay to make mistakes. What’s important is that you’re trying.’
  • Take Time for Self-Care – Things like going out shopping, watching a movie, or treating yourself to your favorite ice cream all seem like indulgences, but these little acts of self-care can change the way you perceive yourself. By giving yourself a break from the scenes of everyday life, you can reset mental state and manage stress.
  • Do Something Nice Every Day – Making others happy can make you happy, and that’s an inherent mechanism in the human psyche. Try to do something nice for someone every day – whether a stranger or someone close to you. Leave a note, help with a bunch of heavy boxes, or simply offer a smile of encouragement. Being nice can do wonderful things for your mental health and your sense of self-worth.

The Link Between Self-Worth and Drug Use

It’s no secret that self-esteem plays a role in the development and persistence of a drug problem. Causing an individual to think less of themselves, these painful thoughts are often temporarily washed away by the high of illicit substances and alcohol. But the results are short-lived. Fortunately, there are proven ways to combat these negative self thoughts, making it possible for individuals to see their worth even after a substance use disorder has formed. And although it’s not going to be a bump-free journey, it’s very possible for dedicated, determined individuals to overcome their shame and guilt to experience true self love. With this discovery, patients should be empowered to kick the habit, allowing them to live free from addiction and dependence while pursuing happier, healthier life goals that they can be proud of.


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