By Jenni Deming
Just hearing his name conjures up good feelings. You can almost see him putting on his cozy sweater, tying up his sneakers and speaking wisdom with his characteristically calm voice.
Now imagine growing up with everyone’s favorite neighbor as your parent or closest friend. You’d have a self-esteem guru by your side, reinforcing your value on a daily basis. He’d be there when you were scared or sad. When you hated your body or failed a test. When you suffered too much or were teased too severely.
You’d have … inner peace. (Or at the very least, some serious coping skills.)
But most of us didn’t have a Mr. Rogers in our early lives — or at least not for any length of time. He lived in the land of Make Believe, and we lived in the real world. We had to navigate the traumas, abuses and anxieties of youth and young adulthood without the gentle guidance many of us needed.
Numbing the Pain Away
As adults, these early insecurities often follow us around like tattered childhood blankets. We tell ourselves we don’t have the time or energy to devote to our much-neglected inner lives. Plus, we think we’re mostly okay. And so we turn to numbing behaviors instead.
In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, researcher Brené Brown explains:
“For many of us, our first response to vulnerability and pain … is not to lean into the discomfort and feel our way through but rather to make it go away. We do that by numbing and taking the edge off the pain with whatever provides the quickest relief. We can anesthetize with a whole bunch of stuff, including alcohol, drugs, food, sex, relationships, money, work, caretaking, gambling, staying busy, affairs, chaos, shopping, planning, perfectionism, constant change and the Internet.”1
In other words, everyone numbs to some degree. But when the numbing turns into a way of life, addiction can take hold. Instead of facing our hurts, we fill the voids with alcohol, drugs or any assortment of things to “safeguard” our fragile hearts.
It starts out innocently enough — you start drinking more heavily or taking a few more pills. But the highs become more elusive, and the pain becomes more glaring when you’re not floating in a fog of amnesia.
At least when you’re buzzed, you momentarily feel better. Until you don’t. Then the shame sets in, and the only solution is more numbing. More drinking. And more yelling at your kids, missing work deadlines, bailing on friends and hating yourself. Chaos becomes a constant.
You hate the cycle, and you hate what it’s done to you. But you don’t know how to get off this nauseating merry-go-round in one piece.
Regaining Your Self-Worth in Recovery
Addiction is a disease. That’s a fact. It’s not something anyone chooses. And like mental illness (which often accompanies addiction), it’s hard to see your way out alone. Especially when you’re reeling from the stigma of the addiction itself.
But you can choose to get treatment. You can choose to heal. And you can choose to finally face the hard emotional wounds that keep dragging you down. With the right support systems in place, you can even begin to view your difficult past through the lens of compassion. Richard Rohr describes it beautifully in his book Everything Belongs:
“What a shame [the alcohol-addicted individual] lost his marriage and hurt his kids. He wishes he could undo it. But because of that experience, his heart was finally broken open. Now he can go back to his wife and children with compassion and freedom. Isn’t that better than so-called ‘doing it right’ and becoming more rigid, self-righteous and ignorant with each passing year?”2
It’s not easy to show yourself love after such a turbulent experience. Especially when you feel like you’re to blame for everything. But the truth is, you aren’t to blame. Maybe you did some bad stuff, but you aren’t a bad person. Addiction chose you, not the other way around.
Once you begin the inner work of recovery, you can view everything with new eyes — loving eyes. Vicki R. writes about this powerful realization in her Heroes in Recovery story:
“My experience of recovery is that it is serious and hard work on a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute basis. I felt I was rewiring my brain from the inside out. Special care and dedication were required. A softness and compassion for myself that I had never exhibited had to be learned and applied as I relearned how to live life in a new way. I felt like a child. I felt like I was seeing and experiencing things for the first time, with new eyes. I felt like I was rising from the ashes of my former self.”
Kicking addiction is a profound achievement, but perhaps a bigger achievement is reestablishing your own self-worth. Recovery isn’t just about “getting clean.” It’s about giving yourself the grace to move forward.
It’s about recognizing the amazing person at your core and loving that person no matter what — even during a relapse. And letting others love and support you through the ups and downs as well. That takes time. And it takes unlearning the lies you’ve told yourself and others have told you along the way.
Practical Steps to Improve Your Self-Esteem
Loving yourself starts with retraining your brain and changing your behavior. Here are some helpful strategies from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) you can begin today:3
- Stop the negative self-talk. When you feel it coming on, ask yourself: Is this true? Would I say this to a friend? What’s the point of thinking this? Often these three questions will tip your brain off to the fact that these thoughts aren’t worth your time. Eventually, you’ll learn to stop them before they start.
- Practice positivity. What are you doing to show yourself compassion? Write 10-15 positive traits about yourself, and go back to this list whenever you feel a wave of shame wash over you. Or keep a positivity folder in your email. When someone compliments something you said or did, file it away. Reread these on hard days — like when your jeans don’t fit or a coworker is overly rude.
- Surround yourself with good people. We’re humans. And humans need other humans to support them. If you’re struggling with addiction and depression, you may be isolating yourself unknowingly. Seek out a friend, therapist or 12-Step program to provide objective accountability and grace-filled reminders.
- Take care of your body. That means more than eating your fruits and veggies. It means getting out into nature. A so-called forest bath can open up your senses and calm your inner dialogue. Regular massages, acupuncture sessions and yoga classes are also fantastic ways to relax and connect with your body.
- Practice mindfulness and meditation. You don’t have to sit around cross-legged for hours to meditate. Mindfulness is about centering, which means you stop doing and start being. If you find yourself worrying during these quiet moments or venturing into negative headspace, try a guided meditation app to help you through.
And if all these strategies fail, ask yourself a final question: What would Mr. Rogers say?
“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.” – Fred Rogers
1 Brown, Brené. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City: Hazeldon, 2010. Print.
2 Rohr, Richard. Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003. Print.
3 Copeland, Mary Ellen. “Building Self-Esteem: A Self-Help Guide.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Accessed October 11, 2017.