By Jeff Vircoe, Perspectives Editor
At Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, one counselor in particular is the go-to person for all things to do with the Essential Symptom of Low Self-Image.
Addictions counselor Patty Robertson has been standing at the front of the podium in the lecture hall six times a year for nine years, providing the 80 patients in residential treatment an hour long talk on the topic. A topic of which she is no fan.
“I hate it. It’s painful. It stinks,” says Robertson, who has worked with addicts and their families at Edgewood since 2005. “Because it hurts. Low Self Image hurts. I remember my own pain in it. I recognize my pain in listening to the suffering of others who are in it. So it hurts. It’s going to bring up stuff.”
But she buckles up and delivers the lecture just the same, helping others make peace with the dark side of their truth. How they talk to themselves. What they think of themselves. How they struggle to find hope.
How important is it to start working on self image issues?
I think it’s really important. It’s hard to say when you’re looking at all the pieces of the pie [Edgewood’s chart of Essential Symptoms]. They are all significant up there. But, for me, this is one I really identify with. For me, this is where the delusion and the defenses and mental obsession … gosh, they all fit in with this. They really come together to hold that low self-image.
The way it fits in with addiction is when I do things that don’t jive with my values, then I have low self image of myself, and in addiction what I do is personalize it, take it on as if there is something bad, wrong with me, I’m weak. Those kinds of things. Rather than recognizing that I have a disease that I’m powerless over, I’m beating myself up and holding myself of low value. And that creates feelings that I’ve got to use at. Also once I start using and living that kind of addictive lifestyle – living in my disease – I’m continuing to do things that make me feel less self-esteem because I’m doing things that go against my values, right? So it’s a vicious cycle, both directions.
How is the problem of low self-worth different for addicts versus someone who is not an addict?
Well, because an addict is going to use and kill themselves. It’s that simple.
Perhaps those people who have this chronically low self-worth are actually mood-altering in some way, shape or form, and they are addicts and just haven’t been identified. To be that pathologically attached to it says something.
How do the 12 Steps improve low self-image, or do they?
Absolutely they do. Step One is about accepting reality. Without judgment. Being detached. In that acceptance and letting go of judgment of myself and accepting myself – here I am an addict – there’s the start of it. But then there’s this process of going through the steps. Step One through Five [are] where I can see myself with perspective, compassion, humility. I let go. I have to let go of my grandiosity and my low self-image. Step Five, for me, was very much about let God tell me the truth, rather than make up my own truth that I have to do all these warped things in order that I can mood alter.
The community aspect of recovery means an addict will get plenty of feedback to smash that delusion, right?
It’s also very loving. It’s a fellowship.
For me in my program, when I go, it’s like people who can look at me with understanding when I’m being too hard on myself. Or they’ll share they’ve done exactly the same thing I’ve done and mirror me and I haven’t realized. One of the components of compassion is about recognizing [that] I’m not alone in doing this. I’m not alone in feeling this way. There’s a huge letting go in that. There’s a surrender in that.
Clinically speaking, is it worse to think too highly or too lowly of yourself?
I don’t know which is worse. They’re both distortions of the truth. We are given the truth for a reason. Our Higher Power created us this way, our reality this way. When we are distorting anything, we are living in a lie. That’s just my opinion. My gut response to it.
Plus, one lives inside of the other always. I think it’s just grandiosity, and you can be off in any way. It’s like when [I] do the King Baby stuff, if I’m all full of myself, what is that saying? [I am] just [an] ego maniac with an inferiority complex.
So what would a healthy image of one’s self look like, then?
The truth. Humility. And being on a dedicated spiritual journey, which we are. Improving my conscious contact. What that means is to know my essence. What is the reality of who I am? My essence is that I’m made of stardust. My essence is that I am love. And connected with all love. I am part of something divine. So that kind of honesty, but really engaged in that spiritual journey.
What is the difference between low self-worth and really low self-worth?
It’s hard to say. It’s almost like, ‘What’s my bottom?’ But the pathologically low self-worth is going to lead to suicide, to picking up, the next step towards self destruction. ‘I’m having an off day,’ or ‘Oh, my hair is bad today,’ or ‘I’m a little self-conscious,’ – the things that make the difference are: Am I talking about it? Am I reaching out? Am I asking for support? Am I willing to believe in something greater than myself that restores me to sanity and tells me the truth? Or am I just going to keep on motoring in my mental obsession and it just keeps becoming worse and worse and worse and I am refusing to ask for help? Then it starts having negative life consequences.
Have you ever met someone new to treatment that had a really healthy self-image?
No. Never. Addiction and low self-image are inseparable. It’s a symptom.
How do you convince someone trying to get sober that they are not all bad?
I don’t think I can convince them on my own because of the delusion and how powerful the disease is. The way addicts blow off compliments and feedback, sometimes it takes everybody in a group giving [the addict] feedback before they start to shift their thinking. Low self-image is a delusion. It takes a power greater than ourselves to restore us to sanity. I don’t think I can convince them. It’s a big lie.
With me, I would go through life looking for data to prove my own worthiness. That was my mindset all the time. Anything that could happen I could twist and turn to prove that I was no good. But with the shift, it means I have to be open, I have to be willing, I have to be curious about getting honest. I have to have support around me and I have to listen to it and be willing.
Maybe you’re looking at me right now nodding, not because you think I’m an idiot but because you’re actually agreeing with me. I have to have perspective, other than my own, and be willing to be open to it.
So one person just telling me over and over? I could write one person off more easily. But if I’m sitting in a circle with nine other people and they’re all telling me, and I’m the only one who is descending? It’s tougher.
There is a saying that you cannot think yourself into good actions but you can act yourself into good thinking. It is not just about getting it together in your head. At some point you have to start taking the willingness into good actions to build your self-worth too, right?
I agree with that, too. In treatment, though, it means being willing to talk. There is the start. There is the first behavior.
I also really think it is a spiritual gift. It is something bigger than us, operating through us to help [us] be more open, and then be able to say the thing that happens to tweak [us]. And then being willing to do something differently.
What can one do to improve their low self-image in early recovery?
Well, I think meetings, and having a sponsor, and following through on all your aftercare plans. For me, some of it was being open to help in a lot of different ways. Connecting with beauty and creativity and spirituality in a lot of different ways. I went to retreats. I read things that I never otherwise would have read. Actually doing things to be kind to myself and take care of myself. Everything from setting boundaries to learning Reiki. I got into essential oils. Doing my yoga. Doing Tai Chi. Prayer and meditation. Journaling. Reading. Painting. Slowing down, letting myself get connected to nature. That was important. Listening to my heart. Developing my intuition.
But that’s just how I am. I am more contemplative with things. Other people may be more active. Or maybe it’s playing music. I mean I have interest in all those things, but there are certain things that I connect with more than others. It’s just developing, giving myself permission to really listen to that part of myself.
How is this lecture received by those in treatment when you give it? Is there defiance? Are there questions? Do they challenge you?
It’s interesting. I start this lecture differently than how I used to before my recovery. I mean, I’m always nervous when I lecture for them, right? So I usually tell them that. But it was only a couple of years ago I realized I hate this lecture. I hate it. It’s painful. It stinks. Because it hurts. Low self-image hurts. I remember my pain in it. I recognize my pain in listening to the suffering of others who are in it. It hurts. It’s going to bring up stuff. I approach all my lectures like this now. They all stink.
But then, part of the lecture is when I’m talking about things I’ve done that don’t live up to my ethics, my values. It’s painful. So I tell them that’s why it stinks.
I tell them what works with me is to connect with them. I tell them that when I feel connected with them I’m not as nervous. And when I start talking about this painful stuff and I know they understand me, I know I am not alone. And I start feeling better. So, it’s all about me at first. [laughs] When they hear that, they start using [it] too. They get really quiet sometimes with this [lecture]. Because they’re hurting. They’re just hurting. I get a few questions, not many. I’ll elicit their responses at certain points in the lecture, but it’s more [that] they get quiet. They’ll have to go to the bathroom a bunch of times. They don’t usually act out that much. In some lectures, on some topics, they’ll get all interested in fixing something, or get into questioning it. But they don’t usually question this at all. They don’t usually get into all fixing it at all. It’s more stunned silence. In the end, I usually have someone come up and read this really beautiful piece by Henry Nowen.
Do you see residual of this lecture in group therapy or on Significant Event Sheets the next day?
Oh yeah, yeah. It knocks them for a loop [in] group. Usually, people tell me that. It might be in their Sig Sheets too, oh yeah. But, I can tell, it touches them in lecture, too. They get quiet. They feel sick to their stomach like I do. It makes me feel better knowing they feel sick too. [laughs]