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Can Low Self-Esteem Lead to Substance Use? Exploring the Link Between Self-Esteem and Substance Abuse

Low self-esteem, a perception that one is inadequate, unlovable, unworthy and/or incompetent. It often stems from exposure to dysfunctional behavior as a child. When children bear the brunt of anger, abandonment, abuse, neglect or continual negative criticism, it can lead to feelings of low self-worth.

Low self-esteem isn’t limited to individuals who have suffered trauma in childhood. Any demoralizing experience, anything from getting fired from a job to breaking up with a significant other, can adversely affect a person’s self-image. These negative events are a part of life, but for some adults, it becomes more difficult to rebound, resulting in low self-esteem.

People with chronic self-esteem issues may take on behaviors that reinforce their feelings of inadequacy, including drug abuse because they believe they have little to live up to. When people use drugs or alcohol as an artificial boost to low self-esteem, they’re attempting to function in situations where they lack confidence.

Unfortunately, drug use can also lead to self-esteem issues, catching users in a vicious cycle. Someone may feel powerless to their cravings or guilty about the effects of their addiction on those around them. For many, it can seem impossible to get out of this routine and into a healthier lifestyle.

Signs of Low Self-Esteem:

What does low self-esteem look like?  Some signs of low self-esteem in adults might include:

  • Feeling self-conscious and constantly comparing yourself to others.
  • Hyper-obsessive about relationships with others
  • When faced with setbacks, feelings of self-defeat are common
  • Chronically indecisive, even with small things like deciding where to eat.
  • Apologizing for everything, even when an apology isn’t necessary or warranted
  • Shopping based on what other people will think rather than what you actually want
  • Unable to accept compliments, instead attributing things to luck, genetics or factors out of your control
  • Checking your phone constantly in social situations, even if you have no messages
  • Telling lots of little white lies to make yourself look more impressive or important than you feel
  • Physical symptoms, from fatigue and headaches to insomnia, depression and anxiety

The Link Between Low Self-Esteem and Substance Abuse

What do self-esteem and substance abuse have in common? A lot, according to Stephenie Teague, the Executive Director at Gateway Carbondale.

“I think that there is definitely a correlation [between low self-esteem and substance use]. Many people who identify with substance abuse disorders also have a history of trauma, and most people who have suffered childhood trauma also identify [as having] low self-esteem,” says Teague.

“Especially for young people, used to fit in with a peer group is a risk for someone suffering from low self-esteem. Substance use also helps to dull the pain of loneliness and feelings of low self-worth.”

That perception that a person is unworthy or unlovable builds a bridge between low self-esteem and addiction. To decrease the tendency towards drugs, it’s only logical that recovery must also focus on self-image.

How Professional Addiction Treatment Programs Can Help

Addiction recovery is difficult by itself. When you add the additional challenge of conquering low self-esteem, it may seem insurmountable. Nevertheless, self-esteem and addiction recovery are not mutually exclusive concepts.

With personalized addiction treatment programs, people who have low self-esteem and substance abuse disorders can enhance relationships by improving their coping and communication skills. Rather than reacting to preconceived notions, each person can learn how to resolve their disagreements with others in a healthy, productive manner.

To develop a healthy self-image, many recovery programs may focus on improvements through:

  • Becoming aware of negative self-talk
  • Challenging negative or inaccurate thoughts
  • Identifying troubling situations or conditions
  • Encouraging exercise, which can boost mood
  • Focusing on what you can change in your life
  • Celebrating small accomplishments
  • Surrounding yourself with a positive support network

Rebuilding self-esteem is not an overnight process — it’s one that can take months of dedication and mindfulness. Therapy — the ability to talk through past events and relationships — is also a key part of the solution. Fortunately, the steps to recovery will get easier with practice. As one’s self-image improves, their confidence and well-being will also strengthen.

About Gateway

With several locations throughout Illinois, Gateway has the resources to help you or someone you love start healing. We offer numerous levels of care and customized addiction treatment options, including:

Additionally, our drug and alcohol rehab centers all offer evidence-based addiction therapy services. For individuals with co-occurring mental health issues, Gateway also offers dual diagnosis treatment.

Do you or someone you know suffer from low self-esteem and a substance use disorder? Gateway can help get life back on track. To contact Gateway, call 877.505.4673 today.

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