Interview with Addiction Counselor: How to Develop Self-Esteem in Recovery

If you haven’t been to Duffy’s, I’d like to introduce you to one of our counselors, Christy. Christy is an art therapist with an incredible amount of wisdom. A lot of times, I think we view wise people as somber, quiet individuals who don’t enjoy life, but not Christy—she embodies fun!

I had the opportunity to pick Christy’s brain the other day over a classic and often misunderstood topic: self-esteem.

Q: Describe “self-esteem.” What is it? Why is it important?

A: Self-esteem is something people talk about a lot, but often aren’t sure what it really means. I used to assume that self-esteem came from doing good things, and was based on external approval for making people happy and being nice. In a nutshell though, self-esteem is what you feel and think about yourself, and it comes from your own experience.

For example, if you have low self-esteem, it could be something you learned growing up. Maybe whatever you did was not good enough. And you always have this feeling that it’s not enough, and everything is going to fall apart, no matter how successful to the external world you are.

Similar beliefs are hidden beneath the more obvious symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse. When you stop drinking and using, and notice that you don’t really treat yourself very well and don’t like yourself very much, you find beliefs that go back a long time. These old beliefs need to be looked into in recovery, as well as the destructive behaviors and consequences that resulted from drinking and using.

Self-esteem is important when it’s reality-based. Good self-esteem allows you to accept your limitations as a human being and also allows you to celebrate being alive. The kindness and care of a good treatment program allows you to sift through your experiences and find mistaken beliefs, then offers you the choice to let go of them and make room for real self-worth to grow.

“We have worth just by being here.”

I think that we’re already valuable and worthy when we come into this world. And then we start learning that we need to achieve in order to be okay. The “normal person” we learn to be is expected to produce things of value. But the idea of having worth just by being here is pretty foreign to a lot of people.

Q: So, where do you even begin to develop self-esteem?

A: A guest showed me a book, it’s a parable with drawings, called The Wall. In the story, a woman feels the need for protection from expectations and criticisms, so she builds a wall around herself to help her feel safe. The building of the wall takes time and before she’s even aware of it, she’s separated herself from life. She wonders how things got so dark and lonely. Addictions flourish in that hidden place, and self-esteem is diminished or lost. Opening up to self-esteem in recovery is a piece-by-piece process of dismantling that wall.

“Recovery gives us the ability to see that our fortresses have turned into prisons.”

To dismantle an old structure, a lot of old thinking must change. If you want to come out of the dark, start to recognize your estimable self. Begin to identify your present needs and make reasonable choices to take care of them. If the wall doesn’t crumble fast enough, no amount of yelling, pounding, crying, using or drinking is going to do it. Back up, perhaps, or turn around and walk the other way. Be creative. Can you open a window or a door? Start taking that wall down. Recovery gives us the ability to see that our fortresses have turned into prisons.

Honest self-esteem is a new form of self-awareness that accepts being human. The way to change is by noticing what’s going on right now, right here in you. You have to be clear-headed enough to recognize your thoughts, feelings and choices. Simply pay attention, and notice what you do—not comparing yourself to others, just noticing. I believe it’s possible with a lot of support.

In the treatment setting, we give support and teach how to be kind to yourself rather than harsh. Duffy’s is not an environment where you’ll get a lot of criticism. There is laughter and warmth.It’s a really concentrated opportunity to do creative problem solving, to talk about your thoughts and feelings and share them (which people don’t often do) with a peer group. And you’ll realize you’re not alone.

Step-by-step, letting more life in, you begin to ask yourself, what are the things that matter to me? And how do I live that? Is this thing that I’m holding myself up to something I can stand behind and believe in? Do I feel good about what I’m doing; does it match my values?

Then, you can recognize and respect yourself as a worthy person because you’re starting to live true to your values and principles.

Q: A lot of times, we never think about what we value or why we believe what we believe.

Absolutely. We’re not a reflective society, we’re a go-get-’em society. We’re always looking for the next thing—a lot of go-go-go and do-do-do. But you have to schedule some down time. It’s important to get back to the basics of being the person you are.

Q: What are some other practical tips for building self-esteem in recovery?

  • Find and spend time with people who inspire you and share your values.
  • Take time to reflect and to be still, and learn to be ok alone.
  • Make small daily changes. Pay attention to the progress you make.
  • Pray and meditate a lot. See what your higher power might be saying.
  • Take care of yourself. If you’re tired, take a nap. If you’re hungry, eat a healthy meal.
  • Do something creative, something that gives you pleasure (e.g. knit, play basketball).
  • Search to find experience that teaches you about yourself, about being human.
  • Be grateful for something every day. Write it down, or share it.
  • Just simply spend time with another person.
  • Practice courtesy by being respectful of yourself and others.

Overall, I’ve learned that living my life, making good choices, noticing when I blow it and not hating myself for that, raising self-awareness—these all give me hope for change and help build a strong sense of worth. Self-esteem thrives on living life from the center of our being where it is and always has been, good.

Christy used to be a chef, but carpal tunnel forced her to switch careers. So, she finished her BA and MA in psychology, with a focus in art therapy and minor in philosophy.

In addition to her own story, Christy has worked with addictions and recovery for over 20 years and has been at Duffy’s since 2010. She loves how amazing and powerful art therapy is in the healing process. And she feels blessed that each day she gets to participate in the changes that happen in our guests’ lives.

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