How low can you go? When negative self-worth perceptions become dangerous.

By Jeff Vircoe, Perspectives Editor

Five years ago, a sponsee and I embarked on a road trip to remember. In the beautiful mountains of Banff National Park we attended a roundup with a few hundred other friends of Bill W. Over the weekend in a postcard-perfect setting in the Rocky Mountains we jammed, hung out with good friends, hot tubbed and ate like kings. And we heard some pearls of wisdom.

At the main banquet, the guest speaker stood at the podium to share his story. He opened in a most profound manner.

“I ain’t much, but I’m all I think about.”

With that one statement, he captured one of the most common traits of an addict, one of the essential symptoms to qualify for this devastating illness: Low self-image.

Though the man used his description to humor the audience, if you break down his statement, you can see how much depth there is in a simple quip.

‘I ain’t much.’

How many times in your life have you stood in front of a mirror, a group of your peers or colleagues, behind your steering wheel, in the back of the class – wherever, and thought, ‘I just don’t measure up.’ We compare our raw insides with their polished exteriors and come up short every time.

Of course, low self image is not the sole domain of addicts. In her June 2013 column in Psychology Today, clinical psychologist and counselor Carole Bennett explains the problem.

“Low self-esteem describes a substandard evaluation or disappointing appraisal of ones’ own self worth,” says Bennett. She goes on to show how self-esteem starts in the early stages of childhood, and stays with people forever. Because it begins forming so early, our parents play a pivotal role.

“The parent or guardian who is the focal point for raising the youngster can literally have the power to either instill a sense of strong self-worth or one that is questionable or negative. In these early stages, everyone and everything can make an indelible impression,” she says.

The late distinguished humanist and psychotherapist Carl Rogers taught how children with low self-esteem rely on coping strategies that are counterproductive such as bullying, quitting, cheating, or avoiding. Although all children will display some of these behaviors at times, Rogers said low self-esteem is strongly indicated when these behaviors appear with regularity. Socially, children with low self-esteem can be withdrawn or shy and find it difficult to have fun, said Rogers. Although they may have a wide circle of friends, they are more likely to yield to group pressure and more vulnerable to being bullied. At school, they avoid trying new things for fear of failure, and will give up easily.

The effects of low self image, as children turn to adolescents, become even more complex. In the Journal of Counseling and Development (Spring 2003), clinical counselor Mary Guindon, Ph.D. asked school counselors for a list of characteristics which aptly describe students suffering from low self esteem. They provided a list of over 1,000 words, with the following being the top 10:

  1. Withdrawn/shy/quiet
  2. Insecure
  3. Underachieving
  4. Negative attitude
  5. Unhappy
  6. Socially inept
  7. Angry/hostile
  8. Unmotivated
  9. Depressed
  10. Dependent/follower

So where does this fit in with addicts? Well, most experts tell us that, by age 15, most teens are beginning to experience their first drinks and drugs. In those early episodes, often alcohol and drugs can seem like a powerful, appropriate gold mine for a replacement of low self esteem. It’s fun. All our friends seem to be doing it with impunity. We feel great when drinking/drugging.

“Well, when I was 13, I was chubby. I had glasses, I had braces. I was not cool whatsoever,” recalls Edgewood alumnus Chris. Now almost six years clean, she says at first, alcohol was the answer to all that fear, for sure. “When I started drinking, oh wow, I thought this is the stuff! I felt like I had power. Confidence. I could speak if I wanted to. I felt free. I had a voice!”

She’s not alone. The great lubricant alcohol seems to offer all kinds of magic to the thirsty.

Marti is a man with 26 years of recovery. He easily remembers what alcohol and drugs did for him in the beginning when it comes to self worth.

“It let me out of jail. It let me do the things that I was missing at 14, 15 years old that my friends were involved in. Dating. Going to dances, where I would be a wallflower, if I even found the courage to go – as soon as I drank, all the fear was gone in every area. I could talk, I was hilarious, at least I was told I was and I thought I was, and I found people were really attracted to me because I was confident. I found the confidence I’d been lacking since a very early age. That’s something that was missing. As soon as I drank, it just filled every piece of the puzzle.”

Small wonder people want to drink again as soon as possible.

“I was never going to let it go,” he says. “It was just the solution to everything at the time, and so as often as I could, I got into it.”

Most people put the bottle down as they age. Life gets in the way. Careers. Family. Not so for addicts. As they spiral through the stages of addiction, their low self image gets worse.

Edgewood teaches patients about the four stages of addiction – pleasure, relief, maintenance and escape. The anchor of low self image plays a part in all four.

Through the pleasure stage, they will occasionally act out in ways they regret, and dislike themselves. Embarrassed, ashamed, they try to exercise their will power to make sure it never happens again. By the relief stage, the lifestyle is more dug in. As the snowball of obsession and compulsion gather speed, good intentions and resolutions often fail. More people are hurt, beside the addict. By the maintenance stage, “Self image deteriorates to a level where dependents habitually regard themselves as worthless,” write Robert and Mary McAuliffe in their book The Essentials of Chemical Dependency: Towards a Unified Theory of Addiction. Serious secondary complications of chemical dependency frequently appear in the maintenance stage, they say. It’s no pretty picture. That great social lubricant has become sticky. Messy. Ugly. “Under the influence of delusion, (another essential symptom of addiction), dependents continue to make sporadic, desperate efforts to “get it together” and to “shape up” by sheer exercise of will power. But invariably they discover that they must continue or quickly resume their drug use in order to maintain the “normalcy” of their acutely dependent state. With the failure of these efforts their self-esteem drops lower.”

Finally they descend to the escape stage of addiction. Where oblivion and accompanying self-destruction are as much of a rewarding experience as they can hope for.

“When we fail to live up to our moral values, we lose personal integrity – we even lose our grip on our personal identity. We do not know who we are, where we are at or where we are coming from. We are nothing, nobody, so our life no longer has meaning or value. It is a sad, pathetic, tragic state. And the tragedy is made sadder and more pathetic because it is an innocent victim who suffers and dies,” write the McAuliffes.

The difference between addicts with low self image and those who have no substance use issues becomes clear. In 2011, in a story by Mark Ilgen, PhD and Felicia Kleinberg MSW in the magazine  Psychiatric Times reported that “individuals with a substance use disorder (i.e., either a diagnosis of abuse or dependence on alcohol or drugs) are almost six times more likely to report a lifetime suicide attempt than those without a substance use disorder. Numerous studies of individuals in drug and alcohol treatment show that past suicide attempts and current suicidal thoughts are common. Recent evidence from veterans indicates that men with a substance use disorder are approximately 2.3 times more likely to die by suicide than those who are not substance abusers. Among women, a substance use disorder increases the risk of suicide 6.5-fold.

Clearly, when it comes to addiction, low self image is nothing to brush off.

“We define chemically dependent low self image as the state or condition of habitually regarding oneself as of little value or personal worth and of having little self-respect or self-esteem as a direct result of one’s relationship to mood altering chemicals,” say the McAuliffes.

Addict or non-addict, one cannot begin to look at the definition of self image – the habitual picture we have of ourselves – without exploring terms like personal values. Morals. Happiness. Goals. How we measure the value of things, the standards we apply, our willingness to strive to find happiness, all come into play as we assess our worth.

“Our self-image or sense of self-worth is above all a result of evaluating what we do, have, and are, in light of our moral standards,” explain the McAuliffes.   

And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that someone using alcohol and drugs to excess can be expected to be operating with a warped perspective of all these key traits which establish one’s self image.d

Physically, mentally and spiritually, as the progressive nature of the illness sets in, evaluating skills are literally impaired. As we lie, cheat, deceive, and hide our problems, we do damage. We cross moral lines, doing things we believed we would never do.

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