self-esteem

Thoughts on Self-Esteem, Self Image, Addiction and Recovery

The Legend In Our Minds

Most of us have heard the expression “He's a legend in his own mind.”  Although we don't usually think of this as being accurate (or nice), the fact is that we are, in a sense, all legends in our own minds.

We all have a self-concept, a collection of mental images.  Our self-concept (Legend) is our answer to the question, “Who am I?”  It tells us what we like, how we're like — or different from — others, where we belong in the world and our community, and what we've been like in the past.

Recovery is an uphill climb. Sometimes our internal view of ourselves sets the stage for how steep that climb might be.

Recovery is an uphill climb. Sometimes our internal view of ourselves.. the “story” or “Legend” within our own minds, sets the stage for how steep that climb might be.

The Personal Legend

This personal Legend is how we usually think about ourselves.  The details can change, but for most of us the underlying story remains the same.  Sometimes our Legend even approaches reality, but since it is our Legend, not necessarily fact, and because it is shaped by the way we think about our past and our present, it sometimes becomes a bit twisted, and at times even just plain wrong.

Our self-concept, or self-image, is mostly shaped by our understanding of the things that have happened in our life: the things we have done and the things that were done to us.  For that reason, it's not uncommon for a person (especially an addict) to end up with one of those twisted Legends.

Twisted Legends : A False Sense of Self

Much of our Legend is shaped by what we believe others think, or thought, about us.  If we were treated badly, especially as children, if we failed to get the love, nurturing and gentle attention that we needed, if we were emotionally or physically abused, or had addicted parents who were unable to fulfill our needs because they were themselves impaired, our self-concept may become twisted and cause us to believe things about ourselves that aren't true.

Our Self Concept shapes our Self Esteem

That's not good because our self-concept shapes our self-esteem (what we think of our Legend).  Unconsciously, we give ourselves a sort of grade.  If we see ourselves as competent people and value ourselves for who we are, instead of who we wish we were, we usually get a pretty high grade.  But most of us addicts look at the Legend we have constructed for ourselves and think that we are inadequate, incompetent, and unlovable.  Most likely we picked up this idea from people who themselves lacked a healthy self-concept, and we have since viewed our lives and our behavior in that light: “I'm not good enough.”  “No one will love me unless I _________.”  “I deserve whatever I get.”  “I'm no good.” “I don't deserve to be treated well.” “I don't deserve to treat myself well, because I'm a piece of junk.”

And a common way to handle that pain is “I can’t stand this, I’ve gotta get high!

Realizing Self Worth as a Step Towards Recovery

Well, guess what.  God doesn't make junk.  Regardless of how much we believe our Legend, if it's telling us that sort of stuff it needs to be re-written.  We'll cover that next.  For now, just remember:  Good self-concept = good Legend.  Bad self-concept = bad Legend = poor self-esteem.  Poor self-esteem makes it impossible to re-write our Legend.  We need to question all those bad beliefs we have about ourselves.  Are they true?  Who says so?  Who told us that to begin with?  Could they have been…wrong?

Why Does Sharing Experience, Strength and Hope Work?

In order for me to recover, I have to understand at least some of the ideas flitting around in my head. Telling someone else is the best way to get the mess organized. Saying what’s happening to me in a way that others can understand — putting it into words and sentences — removes the secrecy, the mystery, and clarifies things in my own mind. My thoughts have to stop running around in circles (at least a little bit), and that allows me to see through my own mental static. But there is another powerful reason for sharing our experience, strength and hope.

No one gets into recovery by accident.  We used alcohol, other drugs or behaviors — often all three — because they made us feel better about ourselves.  After they stopped working we kept using them because we were physically and emotionally addicted, and because we didn’t know what else to do.  Eventually something happened that made us willing to take a terrified leap into the unknown, because we could no longer tolerate what was going on in our lives. I didn’t get up one morning and say to myself, “Hey, it’s nice out; I think I'll go to detox!” Neither did you.

But what got us into recovery doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we have to repair the damaged thinking that made acting out our addictions seem preferable to facing reality. As many have said, “I’m not responsible for being an addict, but I am responsible for my recovery!” Back then, we didn’t know any better; now we do.

And that’s where the experience, strength and hope of others matters. In order for us to have faith in the program, we have to see that it works. Listening to other addicts tell how it was with them, what worked for them, the results and their hopes for the future — or maybe just how scared they are — tells us that we're not alone, and gives us hope. I may not believe that I can do it, but if I see and hear that there are people who felt the way I felt, who had many of the same or similar experiences, who suffered the same shame, guilt and despair, and that they've managed to get beyond all that, turned their thinking around and begun to live, then just maybe I will begin to believe that I can do it too.

Further into our recovery, we may listen with a changed ear and be able to hear how we can apply the experiences of others in our own lives. In the beginning, though, we simply need the reassurance that we are not the only ones who behaved the way we did, that others have recovered successfully and are willing to share what they’ve learned, and that we are not alone.

That's why we're told to identify with the lives and feelings of others, and not compare. The details don't matter. The feelings, fears, and humanity that we share with our fellow addicts are the keys.

Experience. Strength. But, most of all, HOPE!

Self-Image For Addicts

We need to remember that much of what we now know about addiction was not even dreamed of in the philosophy available to those who founded the 12-Step organizations.

While obviously respecting the Steps, Traditions and the groups, Digital Dharma has posted this essay about considering ourselves and our addictions with a bit more clarity in the light of modern knowledge:

“I was considering the way some of us in the rooms seem to think of ourselves, based on the way we talk. We say, ‘I’m not a bad person trying to get better, I’m a sick person trying to get well.'  Then we continue talking about our shortcomings and defects of character. We say things like ‘I’m an alcoholic, and my problem is Bill.'   (I don’t measure up; I’m defective; I’m a problem.) That is not an affirmation….”

Read More on Digital Dharma…