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What is Self Esteem?

The Role of Self Esteem in Addiction and Recovery


Updated August 31, 2012

Self esteem is a phrase used to describe positive feelings about yourself. These positive feelings are generally understood to arise from a positive self concept – an underlying core belief that you are generally a good, lovable, and worthwhile person. Self esteem is also related to having a strong sense of yourself as competent, capable person who has strengths and abilities that contribute to the world or to other people’s experience in some way.

Although based on positive feelings about yourself, good self esteem is grounded in a realistic and balanced view of yourself, and is integrated with another aspect of how you feel about yourself, known as self acceptance. Self acceptance means you accept your limitations, both as a human being – for example, all humans make mistakes, and as an individual – for example, you might not be very good at math, but you can still consider yourself to be intelligent.

There is a difference, therefore, between healthy self esteem, and unhealthy, unrealistically positive feelings about yourself. Unrealistically positive feelings can range from a failure to recognize your own limitations, to a narcissistic self concept, in which you see yourself as better than others, believe you are devoid of any human or individual weaknesses, or have an exaggerated view of your own accomplishments.

False Confidence From Drugs Like Alcohol, Cocaine and Meth

Some drugs, such as alcohol, cocaine and meth, give an artificial boost to your feelings of self esteem. Many times, people who takes these drugs have low self esteem, and find that the drugs give them a kind of false confidence, that can help them in situations where they feel held back by their lack of self esteem, such as in social situations. These feelings are not true self esteem, but are a result of the effects of the drug.

When people become addicted to drugs that give an artificial boost to self esteem, they become dependent on the drugs in order to function in the situations where they lack confidence. Not having the drug can make it even harder to function in these situations, worsening self esteem. An important part of recovery for these people is to build self esteem, which can be done in several different ways.

Why Do Some People Have Low Self Esteem?

Everyone has times when they feel bad about themselves or things they have done. This is a normal part of developing a realistic self image, that includes normal human limitations and failings. It also helps us to control our behavior, so that we can develop reciprocal relationships with other people, for example, it is normal to feel bad about an act of selfishness or greed, and these negative self feelings help us learn to be kinder and more considerate in future interactions.

People who have chronic low self esteem are different. They feel bad about themselves, no matter what they do. Often, this is the result of being emotionally abused in childhood, for example, having a parent who was constantly critical or belittling, no matter what the child did. Physical and sexual abuse are also damaging to the development and maintenance of healthy self esteem. In these situations, people “learn” that they are an inadequate person, even though they may in fact be just as competent and good as anyone else. With nothing to live up to, people with chronic self esteem may stop trying to be good at anything, and may even take on behaviors that reinforce their feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, or “badness,” including drug use.

Self Esteem and Overeating

Another addiction where self esteem plays an important role is food addiction. Research has shown that low self esteem is a crucial factor in why women overeat. Often abuse during childhood also plays a role in developing a negative body image, low self esteem and overeating. Therefore, building self esteem is an important part of overcoming the urges and behaviors involved in binge eating.


Dunkley, PhD, D., Masheb, PhD, R. & Grilo, PhD, C. "Childhood Maltreatment, Depressive Symptoms, and Body Dissatisfaction in Patients with Binge Eating Disorder: The Mediating Role of Self-Criticism." Int J Eat Disord 43:274–281. 2010.

Fairburn C., Doll H., Welch S., Hay P., Davies B. & O’Connor M. "Risk factors for binge eating disorder: A community-based, case-control study." Arch Gen Psychiatry 55:425–432. 1998.

Glassman, L., Weierich, M., Hooley, J., Deliberto, T. & Nock, M. "Child maltreatment, non-suicidal self-injury, and the mediating role of self-criticism." Behav Res Ther 45:2483–2490. 2007.

McCord, Ph.D., J. "A forty year perspecitive on effects of child abuse and neglect." Child Abuse and Neglect 7:265-270. 1983.

Rice, PhD, C. et al. "Self-reports of physical, sexual and emotional abuse in an alcoholism treatment sample." Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 114-123. 2001.

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