Self-esteem is something that develops through our relationships, especially with the people closest to us. It can make the difference between being treated well or poorly. In short, it means everything to your overall well-being.
This is a prepublished excerpt from the book “Raised in a Bottle,” which is scheduled for release in Summer 2021. If you have questions regarding publication, use of content, or speaking engagements, please reach out directly to firstname.lastname@example.org
No one is born with self-esteem.
Self-esteem is something that develops through our relationships, especially with the people closest to us. Its development, in one direction or the other, is an ongoing process: It is either strengthening or weakening.1 Your self-esteem follows you around and influences everything in your life, including friendships, romantic relationships, and relationships in general. It helps determine whether you pursue your interests and choose good things for your life, whether you feel deserving of comfort and success and nourishment. The status of your self-esteem can also affect how people behave toward you; it can make the difference between your being treated well or poorly. In short, it means everything to your overall well-being.
“I started to play handball, and I made some friends who came from normal families. It was very confusing for me, but I built up two identities. One was the handball player who went to great effort to hide her family. The other was the nice girl who hung out with some of the cool kids at school, where she didn’t have to hide her family. But both identities felt wrong, and I was never quite at home with myself. I was always vigilant and a step ahead. I was unsure of myself, and although I hid my insecurities behind a strong facade, a hard shell, deep down I was a frightened child with very poor self-esteem. I felt ugly, fat, and worthless.”—Lene
If, when you were a child, it seemed as if no adult was ready to help you in difficult situations, that feeling planted the seed of low self-esteem. Clearly, it was not OK that you didn’t get tucked into bed, that your birthdays always ended in chaos, that your mother drank herself into a stupor every Christmas Eve rather than celebrating the holiday with you. The problem is, if there was no third party around to witness your situation and say or do something about it, you had no way of knowing that it was abnormal, unacceptable behavior on your parents’ part.
Nearly all people raised in a home shaped by addiction have problems with self-worth. You aren’t alone.2 You are lovable! You are interesting! You are strong! And poor self-esteem is not a part of your personality, but rather a problem you are willing and able to tackle. The task now falls to you to do the work. While you may feel weak and insecure, in reality you have massive inner strength that is important to recognize and associate yourself with. As the child of someone with an addiction, you have emerged from one of the most devastating upbringing conditions that can afflict a family.
To be realistic, it is unlikely that all the news from your past is bad. You couldn’t have survived childhood and adolescence in a family with substance abuse problems and made it to adult life without having some resources to draw upon. True, you may not have had supportive parents, but there may have been other positive influences—a grandmother who pampered you and welcomed your visits, or someone else who nurtured your development in some way. You may have had a sort of second home with the family of a close friend. Any such relationships can be resources for you to draw on as you revisit your history. Take stock of any such resources you had, as well as those you have now.
Perhaps you’ve never thought of yourself as a strong and resourceful human being, but you are. Going into therapy or reading a book like this is not a sign of defeat, but an indication that you are sincerely trying to find your core and get in touch with your strength. In a way, that process can actually be refreshing, since it distracts you from constantly thinking about what others expect of you and hoping you meet those expectations.
Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence
Self-esteem is about your right to be, the intrinsic value of your own company and your own existence. What value do you have in just being who you are, without doing something in order for someone to like you? To what degree do you feel you have the same rights as other people?
Self-confidence, by comparison, is confidence in your own abilities, and in knowing that you are good at something, that there is something you have mastered. Although someone who was raised in a home shaped by alcohol abuse is likely to have low self-esteem, she might also have varying degrees of confidence. One person might know that he or she is good at certain tasks or kinds of work, while someone else’s low self-confidence might jumble the picture, skewing her assessment of her own performance in one direction or another. And a sense of confidence can wax and wane and even swing wildly, changing from high at one moment to low at the next.
Your degree of self-esteem is what is expressed when you are not playing a role, when you step up for yourself or reach out to meet people—for example, when you visit your in-laws for the first time, or are introduced to new friends, or get into a situation in which other people know each other but no one knows you. Such circumstances will let you know whether your self-esteem is high or low. If you feel as if you no significance and don’t have the same status as the people around you, those are signs of low self-esteem. Your background lacked the sorts of positive experiences and feedback that would have given you a higher regard for yourself. You never internalized the idea that your presence and contribution to what goes on around you could be of value.
When low self-esteem is part of one’s life, shame is too. Do you consider yourself to be as valuable as anyone else, and do you feel relaxed in the company of friends? Do you know how to settle in, say what you want, and feel that what you say is just as important as what someone else says? Or are you self-defeating, always trying to adapt rather than participate?
If you never learned what the norms for interaction are, you may find it hard to state your opinions and dare to be yourself. You may crave recognition, but when you are praised you have a hard time taking it to heart. Receiving praise is not consistent with the image you have of yourself, so you may not understand or trust why someone would give it.
This may be due to embarrassment, but it could also be because you cannot truly see your own value. The result may be that you find it difficult to be in the spotlight, so you sometimes get over apologetic or do silly things to divert attention from yourself. You might say yes more often than no, and cover up your feelings if other people upset or injure you. You may get the idea that people really only like you because they don’t know you.
Keep this in mind: The emotions you suppress because of low self-esteem, combined with all the inner needs that go unmet, will only stunt your self-esteem further. The exercises in this book are specifically designed to help you feel and acknowledge your emotions in order to help you build your self-esteem and meet your own inner needs.