Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD, LMHC

Psychotherapy, Sex Therapy, Couple's Counseling, Addictions Counseling, Psychological & Psychosexual Assessment and Polygraph Testing


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Negative Self-Esteem In Recovery
by Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD

The perception that one has of oneself (self-esteem) is very important to recovery. Unfortunately, it is very common to hear clients participating in therapy or in various 12-step meetings putting themselves down, even years into their recovery. Although we may not be aware of it, continuing negative self-talk and the lack of self-acceptance keeps the recovering person stuck in unhealthy patterns. These destructive patterns can have a great impact on the overall quality of life, including relationships, career success and financial status.

Since we know we need to build self-esteem, we often focus on strengthening our positive qualities. We put a lot of energy into carrying out affirmations, engaging in positive self-talk, performing good works for others, and utilizing other self-esteem building tools. From the very early days of AA, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob emphasized love, action and service as the keys for quality sobriety. It is clear that the founders understood that just putting the plug in the jug and starting sobriety was not enough. It is very easy to recognize someone in the program who is “dry,” yet really not sober and comfortable in their recovery. These people can be difficult to be around.

Two of the core issues of all addiction are low self-esteem and the lack of “a sense of self.” This negative feeling(s) is often described during 12-step meetings as “the missing piece” or the “hole in the soul.” It is a painful emotional state and drives addictive behavior. The use of alcohol, drugs, sex, etc., is an attempt to compensate and self-medicate this pain. We want to feel “normal” and fit in.

Building a Healthy Ego

An important component of recovery is the development of a healthy ego. The healthy ego is not to be confused with the egocentric and grandiose behaviors demonstrated when the addict is still acting out their disease. This unhealthy behavior is merely an effort to cover up or compensate for feelings of low self-esteem and shame. Many recovering addicts struggle with understanding the differences between these two very diverse ways of thinking and feeling about themselves. The recovering person can be so preoccupied with trying not to display an overblown ego that they are unable to recognize and accept their positive qualities. In an attempt to stay humble and sober, negative self-talk continues.

The healthy ego is developed through the process of taking positive and proactive action and, as a result, becoming comfortable with oneself inside and out. The healthy ego comes as a direct consequence of consistently taking positive action in life. Service to others, mirror work, making better choices, etc., all help the recovering person create a positive self-image and feel better about themselves.

As a person heals in their personal recovery program, they will inevitably feel the need to spend time getting to know their positive attributes. This process of honoring the positive is extremely important in achieving long term, quality sobriety. The process of creating a positive self-perception is not the act of an inflated ego; rather, it is a vital component of feeling good about oneself.

Often, in building a healthy ego and a positive sense of self, the recovering person may also work hard to rid themselves of their character flaws (the things they don’t like about themselves). Using prayer, positive self-talk, and acting “as if,” they hope to extinguish these negative parts of their character. An overly-rapid denial of these flaws may be a commonly made mistake. No matter how hard they work and pray, they often find that they cannot totally rid themselves of these unwanted flaws. As a result, they still don’t feel as good about themselves as they would like. We will explore this aspect of recovery in the next issue of Recover.


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Copyright © 2002 Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD. All rights reserved.
Revised: 01/09/09.


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