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Self Esteem – How Does It Relate to Addiction?

Man contemplating

Does it matter what others think of us? Apart from people affected by certain mental illnesses such as psychopathy, almost every one of us is affected to some extent by the opinions of others. Low self-esteem can lead to addiction and it can also reinforce it. 

We Need to Relate to Each Other 

Very few of us are immune to the opinion of others. We may think we are, but in truth, our sense of well-being largely derives from the way others respond to our behavior. We need constant validation to keep a healthy sense of reality. We cannot exist alone for long because like it or not, we depend on each other for our existence as humans – procreation is just one obvious example but there are many lesser ones – shared emotions such as joy and grief, shared efforts to fulfill our basic needs for safety, sustenance, and shelter.

As John Donne so memorably put it, ‘involved in mankind’. We need to interact. It is the role of our fellow men and women, whether they know it or not, to constantly give us indications – the nodded head, the smile of recognition or even the disdainful glance are all necessary feedback that we crave, perhaps unconsciously, to keep us on the right lines. 

Contributing Factors to Addiction 

Addicted people can usually look to a number of factors that contributed to their condition – family history of substance abuse, childhood trauma or stress at work are common examples. Another factor can be low self-esteem – often seen as the lack of confidence in one’s ability to cope with life. People growing up with low self-esteem for whatever reason may discover that a certain substance or behavior gives them confidence, and this can quickly turn into dependence. Thus, a socially inept person can find that alcohol helps them to interact with others. 

The Double Impact of Low Self-Esteem 

Using addictive substances and behaviors to boost confidence is just one side of the problem. When addiction comes into the picture, there is a ‘double whammy’: 

People who struggle with self-worth will be drawn to repeat their behavior so it becomes an obsession. This in turn will lead them into unacceptable behaviors (such as stealing to obtain money to fund their habit) and this will negatively impact their already damaged self-esteem. 

Not a Direct Cause 

Low self-esteem is therefore not a direct cause but a contributing factor to a person’s addiction, probably along with many others. 

What Is Low Self-Esteem? 

Low self-esteem is a feeling that one is inadequate, unworthy of love, and generally the cause of unhappiness in others. It can be the result of experiencing dysfunctional behavior as a child. Bearing the brunt of abuse, neglect, or unfair criticism in childhood can often produce feelings of low self-worth. Traumatic events in adulthood can have the same effect – losing a job, for example. 

The Victim Role 

When someone grows up with feelings of low self-esteem and inadequacy, these become a familiar state, a kind of victimhood, that a person may either seek to alleviate by using drugs or alternatively, seek to reinforce with drugs because it is a familiar feeling. ‘I’ll never be any good so I might as well use drugs’ is a common attitude that gives addicted people the excuse to continue their habit. 

Identifying Low Self-Esteem 

Signs of low self-esteem include the following: 

  • Social unease and self-consciousness 
  • Feeling defeated when faced with a challenge 
  • Indecisiveness when making choices 
  • Apologizing too much 
  • Inability to accept praise 
  • Giving a false impression of oneself to look better 
  • Putting other people’s expectations before own needs 
  • Obsessing about relationships 
  • Chronic tiredness, anxiety, and feelings of depression and loneliness 
  • Not asking for help. 

What Can I Do to Improve My Self-Esteem?  

It is possible to change one’s self-image and this amounts to making small choices that each give priority to one’s own needs and self-care, such as: 

  • Become aware of your own needs, wants, and boundaries 
  • Prioritize self-care (sleep, nutrition, exercise, counseling if needed)  
  • Take time off to do the things you yourself enjoy 
  • Spend time with people who are supportive and understanding 
  • Give of yourself and try to help other people 
  • Challenge negative thoughts about yourself. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs 

American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed his hierarchy of needs in the mid-twentieth century. Successful recovery from addiction may be said to happen when all five stages of human needs have been achieved: physiological, safety, belonging, esteem and fulfillment. Of course, recovery involves a lot of other things besides, but Maslow showed us very clearly how difficult it is for a human being to reach true fulfillment unless he or she has met their needs for personal self-esteem. 

Maslows hierarchy of needs

Self-Esteem Needs To Be Worked On 

Good self-esteem does not just happen, it comes as the result of steady work. A lot of addicted people get into habits where they compromise, cut corners and basically begin to indulge in behaviors that they know to be unacceptable – lying, cheating, and petty theft for example. This all contributes to a person’s low self-esteem because we are basically moral people, and we know when we are not living up to our own standards. When we sober up, we need to learn again to do things the right way. Everyday life is just a series of choices, big and small and we need to get into the habit of choosing on the basis of what will be good for our recovery and our self-esteem. 

Learning to Make Good Choices 

There are exercises we can do to help us re-learn good habits by making the right choices. Here are a few practical steps: 

  • Self-forgiveness: recognize your past mistakes and understand how they happened. If possible, discuss them with a sympathetic person. Tell yourself that your mistakes are not because you are a bad person but because you could not handle correctly the challenges you faced, due to events beyond your control – childhood trauma or addiction, for example. 
  • Instead of punishing yourself, work at caring for yourself. Start a routine of self-affirmation: look in the mirror each morning and tell yourself ‘I am a good person who made mistakes, but I value myself now and can do better. ‘ Actually hearing yourself say this reinforces the feeling over time. 
  • Get into the way of accepting compliments: instead of belittling yourself or putting it down to luck, practice saying ‘thank you, I am glad I was able to do that or some such words. 
  • Help somebody else and make such acts a habit – simple acts of kindness can help us to feel good as much as they help others and they cost us nothing.  
  • Ask for help. People with low self-esteem are reluctant to ask but doing so, and receiving help from others, reinforces our sense of personal worth and competence. 

At Castle Craig Hospital we are used to treating addiction concurrently with all presenting symptoms and our treatment program is designed to address the contributing factors. 

If you recognize issues of low self-esteem featured in this article or if you are worried that you might have an addiction problem, we are always ready for a chat. Call us in complete confidence at 0808 271 2384 

What Is Self-Esteem?

  • How we feel about ourselves 
  • How much we like ourselves 
  • General judgment of ourselves 
  • An image of ourselves that we develop through different experiences (childhood experiences, success and failure, how we were treated by others). 

Why Is Self-Esteem Important?

  • Self-esteem is essential for good physical, emotional and mental health. 

Characteristics of Self-Esteem

High self-esteem – I am important, I allow myself to ask for help, and I have confidence in myself and my abilities. 

Low self-esteem – I am not important, I do not trust others, and I feel lonely and isolated. 

What Can I Do to Improve My Self-Esteem?

  • Pay attention to your own needs, wants, and boundaries 
  • Prioritize self-care (sleep, nutrition, movement, etc) 
  • Take time to do things that you enjoy 
  • Spend time with people who are supportive and understanding 
  • Look after your living space and environment 
  • Do something kind for another person (check in on a friend, make a small donation to charity) 
  • Become more aware of your self-talk (practice kindness and compassion towards yourself). 
  • Practice positive affirmations 
  • Write down 3 things you are grateful for

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Last updated & clinically assessed 10 October, 2022