We are all bound to feel somewhat victimized from time-to-time. Perhaps we are unfairly treated by a boss or coworker, a lover was unfaithful, or we were lied to by a close friend. When events such as these occur, it is all too easy to fall into a place of entitled self-pity. We condemn the other person involved, because it easy and essentially leaves us blameless. It frees us up to dwell on the injustices of life for as long as we choose to. But most of us do not stop there – oh no, we seek out others who will listen to our side of the story – we seek out others who will reaffirm our pain. Who will say to us, “How could that have happened to you? You have every right to be upset!” So we settle into the ‘woe is me’ mentality, and sit comfortably amidst a pile of self-indulgent defeatism until we get distracted by something else.
Of course, if we actually take the time to step back and analyze these situations, we will find that there is one consistent, common denominator. What is it?
Well… it’s us.
When we undergo an experience that we feel is unjust and unwarranted, we have one of two options. We can either step up and express ourselves, explaining to the involved party why it is we feel we deserve a bit more respect, or we can sojourn in a deep puddle of inefficient misery. The choice is ours. Because in truth, we teach others how to treat us. Or at least, past a certain point, we allow them to continue treating us a certain way. Our confidence, energy, and attitude is the currency with which others will transact. We accept the treatment we feel we deserve. If we want to be treated with the admiration and respect that we show to others, we must have a firm grasp on our inherent value. Otherwise, we will continue to let others manipulate, mistreat, and exploit us – however unwittingly.
Why is Self-Esteem Important?
Merriam-Webster defines self-esteem as a confidence and satisfaction in oneself. Those who have an authentic sense of self-esteem typically have a fair amount of confidence in their own abilities, and an acute awareness of their own importance. For those who are fairly new to the recovery scene, the entire concept of self-esteem may seem rather elusive. After years and years of self-deception, moral shortcomings, and self-concerned depravity, any semblance of principled living has likely been entirely abandoned. We trade in our personal convictions for more booze, or sell our scruples for sex, or forsake our virtues for financial advancement. Whether we are recovering from a chemical dependency, a traumatic experience, or a behavioral compulsion, we have discarded our authentic selves somewhere along the way.
In many instances, individuals who struggle with addictive disorders (either chemical or behavioral), we begin behaving in ways that go against their ethical standards. They will lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, and do whatever it is they need to do to keep their obsessions and compulsions alive and obscured. Constantly contradicting personal truths will inevitably lead to a weakened sense of self-esteem, which will directly contribute to a faltering sense of self-worth. “I told my wife I would be faithful, and I want to be faithful,” a sex addicted man might think to himself. Yet on his way home from work he finds himself pulling into the strip club parking lot, and another bit of his remaining self-worth is chipped away. An inability to stop engaging in a certain activity despite steadily accumulating personal consequences will greatly effect self-esteem – and of course it will. “Why can’t I just stop drinking,” and alcoholic might think to himself. “I’m so stupid; so useless – if I was a real man, I would be able to quit on my own.” And he blacks out again and wakes up in the morning (or afternoon, as the case may be), shrouded in a thick blanket of self-pity and self-doubt and worthlessness.
Building Back a Sense of Self-Worth
In order to begin building self-esteem, we must get back in touch with who it is we truly are. Confidence resides at the root of a person’s entirety – it is crucial to keep this in mind. And what does this mean? It means that in building genuine self-esteem and recreating a stable sense of self-worth, we must heal thoroughly, from the inside out. We cannot merely invest in a new wardrobe and start volunteering and expect our dignity to be instantaneously restored. We must clear the cobwebs from every far-reaching corner of our untenanted souls, and begin to get to know ourselves in a way we never have. And once we know who it is we are, and what it is we are capable of, and what exactly it is we deserve, we will be able to show others how to treat us. We will feel worthy of respect and compassion, and it will be far easier for us to move on with our lives after experiencing a slight injustice.
Many of us look outside of ourselves for a sense of self-worth. We attach ourselves to romantic partners and expect them to bestow us with some significance; some sense of personal fulfillment. We may look to our careers, our material possessions, our bank accounts. We expertly convince ourselves that what we have defines who we are. Of course, this is not the case. We derive a sense of self-worth from self-compassion, acceptance, and a deep and authentic understanding of our own humanity. We make mistakes. We falter. We let down our loved ones; we let down ourselves. This does not make us bad. This makes us human. We learn from our mistakes and move forward, constantly striving towards self-betterment. And while we cannot undo the past, we can certainly lay the groundwork for the present and the future. We can identify our inherent worth and make it evident while nurturing and honoring our personal needs. We can learn to respect ourselves; to set boundaries, and to take responsibility for our part in things. It seems like a tall order at first, and we will need help in order to make a beginning. But once we are on the right path, all we must do is continue putting one foot in front of the other – one day at a time.