Addiction to drugs or alcohol has a profound effect on our self-esteem. Many of us in recovery struggle with building self worth after we stop taking drugs or drinking. How can we value ourselves after all of the terrible things we did? How can we be self-confident after we have let everyone down, including ourselves? Building self-worth takes work and patience when many of us don’t even think we are “worth” it. Depression and negative self-talk are common in early sobriety. But there is hope. With practice and a few daily actions we can start respecting ourselves and even perceive our dark past as a necessary step towards becoming our best selves.
“When I first got sober I just couldn’t stand my own reflection. Living with my actions in the past seemed unbearable.”
How do we stop the internal self-talk? How do we start feeling capable and confident?
One way to gain self-confidence is to practice contrary action. When we are in contrary action, we do the look honestly at our normal actions that need improving, and do the opposite. For instance, if someone is always 10 minutes late, he or she would make a conscious effort to be 10 minutes early for all appointments. This can sound daunting, but with practice, being early becomes habit and takes no extra effort at all.
Contrary actions sounds like a simple enough concept, but it takes work. How do we know which behaviors we need to change? Certainly some behaviors are glaringly inappropriate. Temper tantrums, yelling, or hurting others in any way are obvious behaviors that need to be amended. But what about the subtler habits we have that we may not even see as bad?
One way to learn contrary action is to emulate the behavior of someone you admire.
This technique requires that you write the following things down:
- Who is someone that you look up to or admire? It can be someone that you know or someone famous, or someone in history or a character in a book. You are probably thinking of that person right now.
- Write down 3 things that you admire about this person. Note: Some say that the first three qualities you list are qualities that you already have and can expand upon.
- For each quality that you listed, write 5 things that you can do to cultivate that quality in your life.
Here is an example:
I admire Oprah Winfrey
She is trustworthy, strong and she helps others.
How can I be trustworthy:
- I can arrive 5 minutes early for all appointments
- I will never gossip or share people’s secrets
- I will keep my promises NO MATTER WHAT
- I will make a calendar so I don’t forget appointments
- I will be honest without worrying about the consequences
This may look like a daunting list. You may be thinking, ”How can I do all these things?” The key to changing our behavior starts with just a little willingness. Am I willing to try to change? Do I believe that my prior behavior has served me badly? If the answer to these questions is “yes” then you are well on your way. Our thoughts and behaviors have been with us our whole lives. They cannot be changed overnight. We make a beginning and keep trying. A good way to start is to pick one action and work on it for a few days. For instance, you may try for 3 days to show up 10 minutes early to work. The beautiful thing about this technique is that it works to make us feel better about ourselves. Every time we act in a way that we believe is better, we feel good, so we do it again and again. At some point it no longer feels like work! It becomes our natural behavior.
Another way to change the behaviors we have that lead us into addiction is through twelve-step work. In twelve-step work, we are able to see our shortcomings very easily. In the fourth step we each take inventory of our resentments, fears and relationships. We look at our behavior and take responsibility for our actions in the past. After such an inventory we can clearly see what needs to changed in our mindset so that we can have healthy interactions with others and find happiness. We make a list of contrary actions we need to take and try these a few at a time. As with the technique above, it is something we do slowly and steadily. If we falter or revert to our old behavior, we don’t beat up on ourselves. We honestly look at what happened and resolve to do better the next time. We are human, after all, and need to remember that we are not perfect.
“I thought that looking at my shortcomings was going to make me feel even worse about myself. But with contrary action, I realize I can depend on myself because now I am dependable with others. I can trust myself because I am honest with others. I actually like myself now….which is something I never thought I could say!”
The results of consistent contrary action can be nothing short of miraculous. When we behave the way we believe we should, we start to like ourselves. New self-confidence grows as we find new freedom and happiness in recovery. We truly become the people we were always meant to be.
“Have confidence that if you have done a little thing well, you can do a bigger thing well too.”