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Rebuilding Self Esteem & Managing Guilt

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The money we have spent, taken away from other priorities to buy our drugs, our life-sustaining medicine as we see it in active addiction, can be nauseating.  We may have stolen from loved ones, forged checks, taken valuables, even committed thefts of people we don't know, stealing from stores to exchange goods for money, possibly exchanging your body for drugs or money, losing a job or not looking for a job because you need your days and nights to chase drugs, the financial funding of our addiction can absolutely be an issue giving us extreme guilt and shame.  And that is just one.

The emotions and opinions of our loved ones, who are sick with worry, consumed with fear, and looming with disappointment, is something we may think can never be fixed or changed, that people will forever think ill of us for what we have inflicted on others.  The health effects of active addiction can be shocking.  Infections of the skin or limbs, infectious diseases like AIDS or Hepatitis, not eating right or eating at all, and the long-term effects throughout our body's systems from the drug itself, can lead to lifetime battles that cannot be reversed.  Legal problems, arrests, convictions, incarceration, tears apart your family, soils your record which will follow you through life, affecting employment, child custody battles, divorce, loss of assets; it is a devastating consequence of addiction.  The guilt you feel as a parent, if you have lost custody, your drug use known to the courts, barriers put in place making it a challenge to be up against even when in recovery for a long period, can be overwhelming.  These are all extremely stressful results of our addiction that can provide us with enough guilt and shame to last our lifetime, even when in recovery.  Many addicts succumb to these difficult consequences and effects of our addiction, and decide to remain in active addiction, for they see it as impossible to overcome these obstacles that are a result of our drug use.  It is easy to look at the big picture and think nothing can be done about the damage, so we crumble and relent. 

Once we start acknowledging these affects and accrue years of shame and guilt, it becomes habit to think negatively about ourselves, place blame on ourselves and have little to no respect at all for ourselves.  This is the mindset of a typical addict.  It is easy when we have to deal with such consequences   , to lose sight of it being a disease that we have.  It is also the reason society loses sight of addiction being a disease as well.  It very well may be that addiction is the only disease to affect so many areas of our life beyond that of our physical and psychological health.  It is indeed difficult and there are enormous challenges to face in recovery, some for more than for others, but no doubt a major aspect of an addict when pondering the decision of whether or not to attempt recovery and sobriety. This is why in order to succeed in recovery, it is crucial to believe and develop the mindset of being worthy of help, being worthy of treatment and being worthy of a better life.  Achieving this belief and having love for ones self starts with addressing your own self-esteem and self-worth.  To change a pattern of thinking that has become habit, therefore natural, cannot happen without change and effort, a commitment to caring about ones self enough to seek help. 

Accepting that we cannot change what our addiction has caused, but we can change what it will continue to cause.  You have the power to stop your addiction in its tracks and change the course of your life, the consequences of your addiction and the effects on your family and your health.  This acceptance has to take place for a person to want help and accept help, to enter recovery and become clean and sober.  It cannot be forced upon a person; it has to be a decision based on acceptance and a willingness to change.  An addict has to be able to see that they do in fact have a future and that their future can be better and more fulfilling than the past, which is within their control if they allow people to help them become well. 

This requires the focus to be on the present and future instead of the past.  You can acknowledge and have sorrow for the negative consequences which have occurred, but wallowing in it and allowing yourself to be consumed by it has to stop.  You have to focus on what needs to happen today, to enter recovery, enter treatment, become clean and sober, and set goals for the future that are attainable and healthy.  This IS possible.  This change of attitude and focus IS within you.  As many addicts know, there is practically nothing that will magically make us clean.  We have to decide that we alone want this, that we deserve this and that we want to live a healthier, more fulfilling life.  As a parent, people believe that our children should be enough reason for us to stop using drugs and get clean, but this is not the reality, as many, if not most addicts are parents. 

Until we decide we are worth living, worth saving and indeed want help, then our recovery attempts will likely result in relapse time and time again.   Putting yourself first and changing your thinking from having low self-esteem to thinking you are worthy of a better life can be challenging but we can change this pattern of negative thinking.  Although, it won't occur overnight, and it will take a commitment to practicing a lot of positive self-talk and self-care, you will gradually see your emotions and thoughts about yourself becoming healthier and more automatic.  Once you make the decision on your own to get clean and sober, you have to be committed to make an effort every day to stay in recovery. 

This effort includes practicing recovery-related activities, be it reading recovery-based books or articles, spiritual guidance and prayer, meditation or other stress-relieving focus strategies, and healthy habits for your body such as eating well, staying hydrated, avoiding harmful substances or mind-altering substances, and positive reinforcement activities like daily quotes, affirmations and communication with someone who supports you, like a sponsor, family member, friend or support group member.  We have to be active in recovery like we were active in our addiction.  We have to work at it, work on our emotions, communication, relationships, stress-relief, motivation and goals.  If we are to recover from our disease, all contributing factors must be attended to and recognized, addressed and continually worked on.  Changing habits that are unhealthy takes dedication and action, and won't happen without conscious effort. 

In order to achieve this major change in our every day lifestyle, the first step is achieving the belief that we are worthy of recovery and help, that we deserve to live a fulfilling life of successes, happiness, health and love.  And believe it or not, there are many ways to getting to this place of self-love and self-acceptance.  We have to get beyond our mistakes, take responsibility for anything that occurred as a consequence to our addiction, and be able to move on, with determination and the drive to survive and live well. 

Self Esteem

Self Esteem is a realistic, appreciative opinion of oneself.   It is accurate, honest, and positive.  There are extremes of self-esteem that can be unhealthy and damaging.  One is self-defeating shame, which is most common in addicts.  This means that a person believes they are less than human, unappreciative of themselves, focusing on negative faults and mistakes made and not being content with who they are.  Healthy self-esteem is one realizing that they will make and have made mistakes but that they are content in who they are.  The other extreme is self-defeating pride.  This is someone trying to be more than human, arrogant, and narcissistic and the belief that one is better or more important than others.  Self-defeating pride is often caused by insecurity and a lack of respect or acceptance from others, often parents, thus making up for that by holding oneself in a higher regard than others.  Extremes will not provide self-esteem and are not healthy.  A balance of realizing your faults but choosing to focus on and accept that you have positive attributes as well is what is required for one to have healthy self-esteem.  This topic can often be confusing and complex and is falsely viewed as a range of high or low, when it is better to think of self-esteem as a balance. 

The goal in finding this healthy balance in our opinion of ourselves is having the ability to separate our worth from our external influences.  External influences are comprised of circumstances & events that have occurred, an example being if one has been abused in some way as a child, if one has grown up in poverty, lack an education, lack money or assets, these are all external circumstances that have no bearing on what you are worth as a person.  Other externals that can influence a false sense of worth are marriage, beauty, criticism from others or self, your occupation, performance in school or on the job; if you link your self-worth with an external, like a job or a marriage, then when that job or marriage is not going well or ends, you will be devastated into believing you are not a good person, not smart, not worthy of love, etc.  It is unhealthy to judge your core value by linking it to external factors, since these factors can change without any wrong doing on your part.  

It is also wise to not judge your core value according to your feelings.  It is okay, healthy and human even, to have major fluctuations in feelings and emotions, like disappointment, anger, anxiety, sadness, but it is crucial to not allow those emotions to affect your core value as a person.  Instead, look at what is causing these emotions and even if it is in part to your own behaviors, which is okay too.  This is another area of self-esteem, being able to judge one's behaviors without judging oneself.

Perhaps this is the most difficult aspect of self-esteem as an addict and with reasonable explanation.  We are judged by our behaviors by others & society.  Our behaviors are directly linked to how others may think of us.  But we do not have control over others' beliefs, values, prejudices or judgment, we only have control over our own.  It is reasonable to look at our behavior and be critical of mistakes we have made, failures in areas like marriage or a job, but equating that as meaning we are bad as a person is unhealthy, false and unreasonable and can lead to feeling inferior, self-hatred and depression.  Judge the behavior; do not judge your core worth by it.  There are consequences to our mistakes and behaviors, and we must learn to accept these consequences, no matter how difficult, but do not use that to determine your self-worth overall. 

You may ask how you can achieve this, how to go about it and where to start.  The answer is to first acknowledge that you are human, and all humans make mistakes, but that does not mean you are a less worthy person than another.  Mistakes may vary in severity and consequence, but it has no bearing on your worth. 

The second is to focus on achieving a healthy self-esteem.  Some self-esteem boosting tools may seem like very basic common sense, but they work and they have been used in countless rehabilitation centers in everything from addiction to eating disorders. 

Below are some daily practices that can help you gain positive self-esteem, motivation and focus.      

1.  Take Good Care of Yourself

Nourish your body by eating well and when you are hungry.  Avoid overindulgence of anything like caffeine, sugar or starch that can have a negative affect on your physical energy.  Take a walk, exercise, even for a few moments a day to circulate your blood and energize your body.  Do something you love every day, or begin trying to.  Make a commitment to take time for yourself to enjoy an activity or relax when needed.  Surround yourself and spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself.  Address health problems or concerns with visits to healthcare providers.  These are all things we avoid in active addiction because our addiction consumes and dictates our time and what we do with it.  You may even have difficulty thinking of an activity that gives you joy because it is a good possibility that you haven't had time to do anything you enjoy in a very long time. 

2.  Practice positive self-talk

Work on changing negative thoughts about yourself to positive ones. You may give yourself lots of negative self talk. Many people do. This negative self talk worsens your low self esteem. You can decide now not to do this to yourself. That’s great if you can do it. However, negative self talk is often a habit that is hard to break. You may need to work on it more directly by changing these negative statements about yourself to positive ones. Begin this process by making a list of the negative statements you often say to yourself. Some of the most common ones are:

Nobody cares about me

Nobody loves me

I can't do anything right

I am stupid

I am worthless

I have never accomplished anything

The list could get very long the more time one has repeatedly practiced negative thoughts.  This can be changed by then developing a positive statement that refutes the negative one. For instance, instead of saying to yourself, “Nobody likes me” you could say, “Many people like me”, or even be more specific and name people.  Instead of saying, “I am ugly”, you could say “I look fine”. Instead of saying, “I never do anything right” you could say “I have done many things right.” You could even make a list of things you have done right. It helps to do this work in a special notebook or journal, dedicated to your recovery.  Recovery practices like this which are designed to change your long-engrained habits necessitate action on your part.  You must commit to practice recovery and work on your habits so that you develop healthy thinking and increase self-esteem and self-worth.  Taking away and abstaining from a substance will not change habits of thought.  Once you have developed positive statements that refute your negative statements, read them over and over to yourself. Read them before you go to bed at night and when you first get up in the morning. Read them aloud to your partner, a close friend or your counselor. Make signs that say a positive statement about you and post them where you will see them–like on the mirror in your bathroom. Then read them aloud every time you see them. You can think of some other ways to reinforce these positive statements about yourself.

3.  Complete an Attainable Goal

This can be difficult because with addiction, our motivations for activities not related to our addiction are placed on the back burner and forgotten about, ignored.  It may take some deep thought to come up with a goal, but that is the point, to search our motivations that have long been forgotten.  The key to beginning this in recovery is making sure the goal is measurable with a clear ending, attainable & achievable in a timely manner.  Start small.  Like making your bed in the morning, taking a walk in the afternoon, doing laundry, sending someone a card or letter that you've been meaning to thank or talk to, organizing a drawer, anything that is reasonable and attainable.  Once you finish an activity that you set out to accomplish, you will feel good about yourself for having done it.  Again, this may seem simplistic but these are all activities that you may have not done while in active addiction. 

4. List Your Accomplishments

Sit down and write out everything that comes to mind that you have ever achieved.  It does not have to meet any expectation or measure to anyone but you.  Start simple and small, with daily goals you have met and then you can explore accomplishments that you find of value.  This can be as easy as listing that you've provided shelter for your children, having your children, getting clean, not using yesterday, not using today, getting a job, helping someone, being a good friend, a good parent, a good sister, brother, etc., cleaning the dishes, doing groceries, any goal at all that you set out to do and you completed is an accomplishment that you should acknowledge.  Every goal in the step above, once completed can be listed. 

When we complete tasks, big or small (as determined by you) will promote positive emotions, thoughts, and self-esteem.  There are numerous ways you can achieve a quick self-esteem boost that can develop into healthy habits every single day.  Talking with a friend on the phone or in person may make you feel good, reading a magazine, looking at old pictures, watch a funny movie or show-something that makes you laugh, wear something that makes you feel attractive, make a list of all your positive assets, there are simple boosters in every day that can help us reach a habit of positive self-esteem. 

Dealing with Feelings of Guilt

As discussed, the burden of guilt we have deeply influences how we feel about ourselves and affects our ability to seek treatment and allow others to help us get well and stay well in recovery.  Learning how to deal with guilt is crucial to maintaining sobriety and managing relapse prevention.  Sometimes feelings of guilt can develop from the most meaningless things in your life, and sometimes for events that severely impacted others that you care about.  The degree varies but the feeling overall is the same.  The purpose of guilt is to alert us when we do something wrong, make a mistake, so that we can develop a better sense of our behavior so that we can avoid making the same mistake again;  and most of the time, when we do repeat a mistake, the feeling of guilt increases. 

Below are some tips for analyzing what causes your guilt and how to deal with it:

1.  Recognize the kind of guilt you have & its purpose

If you feel guilty for focusing on something more than your family, like work or hobbies, or saying something hurtful to friends or family, that is a warning sign with purpose; change your behavior or you risk losing your loved ones or friends.  You can ignore this warning sign of guilt, but you do so with a risk.  This is considered "healthy" guilt or "appropriate" guilt because its purpose is to try and redirect our actions and behaviors, which can result in great consequence.  There is rational purpose to these feelings of guilt, which is that there are risks and loss associated as a result.   

There then is the other kind of guilt which occurs when there is no need for our behavior to change, and no great consequence.  Examples would be a first time feeling guilty about having to go back to work full-time fearing it will have negative effects on their child.  There is no consequence to this behavior, but women still feel guilty and this is labeled as "unhealthy" or "inappropriate" guilt, because the emotions of guilt serve no rational purpose or risk.  The purpose of being able to distinguish between what is appropriate guilt versus inappropriate guilt is to know what needs attention and begs for a change in behaviors and what does not need changing and does not pose a risk. 

2.  Make amends & changes as soon as possible

When you have guilt that is appropriate or healthy, having a definable consequence, taking action to change your behavior should be done as soon as possible.  Healthy guilt is trying to tell us that we must change and do something different in order to repair relationships that are important to us or unhealthy habits that are dangerous.  While we may already know what the lesson is that our guilt is trying to tell us, unless we truly learn that lesson and change the behavior that caused it, the guilty emotions will return over and over again.  The goal is to make the guilt diminish or go away, which can only be done if we make amends and change the behavior we engage in.  Many people are simply gluttons for self-punishment and in this case, we have ongoing guilt even when behaviors are changed, which is a heavy burden to have.  Correcting guilt that is ongoing as a result of a behavior that you have already corrected, or amends that needed and have been repaired, requires one to then focus on the self-esteem building tips and activities, so you can acknowledge and be proud of what you have accomplished in repairing your behaviors and actions.

3.  Accept your mistakes & consequences but learn to move on

Once you have done something wrong or hurtful, it is done and cannot be taken back or changed.  What CAN be changed is how you handle this moving forward and making changes so that this mistake does not happen again.  The more you focus on wishing you had done something different about an action that has already occurred, the more it will interfere with your relationships and feelings.  You can change behavior now, make amends now, apologize now, but you cannot change the past.  Accepting this is part of your overall recovery and emotional health.  Accepting it but not doing anything about it though, will obviously keep guilt and negative feelings going and cause chaos in your relationships.  So the goal is to recognize what happened, accept that it is done and cannot be changed, but make changes and amends so that it will not occur again, and then move on. 

* A key factor in this situation when it comes to a recovering addict, is that you must also accept that others you have affected by your mistakes may take a longer time in accepting and moving on than you yourself will.  You have to let go of the fact that you cannot control somebody else's emotions related to your mistakes, but as long as you know you have made amends and changed the behavior which caused consequences, then you have to accept that you have done everything you possibly can and move on yourself, but also accept that others will do so in their own time. 

4.  Learning from our past behaviors

Guilt's purpose isn't just to make us feel bad.  It is purposeful so that we learn a lesson.  If we do learn what that lesson is, then we are less likely to repeat the mistake or action in the future.  If you say something hurtful to another person, the guilt tells you that a.) you should apologize immediately to make amends and correct the situation and then b.) the lesson is that you should think a little more before you speak, and especially if you are in a state of anger. 

5.  Perfection does not exist

Even people who may appear to you to lead a perfect life with little mistakes, are indeed not perfect nor do they live guilt-free lives.  Striving for perfection in any part of your life is bound to lead you with a heavy burden of negative thoughts and guilt, for it is simply impossible to attain.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, makes mistakes and we all go down a path at some point in our lives that cause guilt and from which we eventually learn lessons.  The point of it all is to realize when you do make a mistake and accept that you are human, not perfect, and will likely make mistakes in the future too, although hopefully different ones.  But even if you repeat a mistake, you are bound to eventually learn the lesson from it and not repeat it.  When it comes to addiction, we as the addict tend to look at everything involved in our use of drugs, as being "mistakes".  Some are but some are also symptoms of a medical disease, which often gets lost among our emotional response to what we do.  Really looking at what is appropriate guilt and what is related to the disease of addiction is important in how you will end up feeling about yourself as a person. 

Even guilt caused by parts of our disease does have a lesson and mostly will need action, amends and changes to be made, because the truth is that our disease is the only disease that causes measurable damage and hurt to others.  That will require amends and change, but acceptance and moving on from all of your mistakes is where your ability to lessen your burden and negative feelings about yourself will come from.  Don't spend months and years battering yourself for "having been a better person" or for "having known better", because those are not true statements because you are not perfect.  Nobody is. 

Knowing all of these tips will help you cope with your guilt in a healthier way.
































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Erika Cormier, author of  the memoir, "As the Smoke Clears", understands first hand that addiction isn't always a "visible" disease.  She has dedicated her life to helping other women suffering from addiction and has drafted a bill to place caps on the high cost of outpatient addiction-related services.

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