Violent tugging from the back of the throat. Eyes burning with the threat of tears. Two young children stare with doe eyes as they try to process the news, “Your dad committed suicide. You won’t ever see him again.” Which turns into the lifelong echo…

Addiction Masks Low Self-Worth: It Starts in Childhood “Daddy didn’t care about you enough to stick around.”

Childhood trauma such as this often damages children’s self-worth even after they’ve grown into adults. Unfortunately, addiction is a common maladaptive side effect. Those two kids left without a dad? Their next twenty years are spent bottling up the realization that they weren’t good enough. And somewhere along the line, they find that alcohol and drugs have a handy way of numbing that feeling. After all… it’s hard to feel worthless when you can’t feel anything at all.

There are plenty of other reasons people learn to devalue themselves (more on that later). Regardless, adults with poor self image endanger themselves and others when they discover that substance abuse alleviates that dull ache of inadequacy. That addiction can mask feelings of low self-worth.

Blaming Yourself Drives Self-Defeat

Many believe that looking within is the best way to address problematic thinking. We’ve all heard the saying, “Just suck it up and pull yourself up by the bootstraps!” But this is not true for most individuals who struggle to see their own inherent value and don’t have access to coping tools. It is not always easy to parse nurture from nature. Instead of acknowledging the role an unhealthy environment in the formation of addiction, some addicts become overwhelmed by feeling personal responsibility for all their flaws.

“I know my drinking problem is dangerous and stupid… I don’t even know why I do it. But I can’t blame anyone else but myself. I’m pretty much a failure because I can’t see any other way out.”

Rather than looking within for the source of addiction, it is prudent to direct one’s gaze backward in time. Become an impartial observer that withholds judgment. Although adults are certainly culpable for their behaviors, it is self-defeating for addicts with low self esteem to blame themselves for having a problem.

Hold a Mirror Toward Your Past

Sometimes the only way for addicts to move forward is to lift the rug and boldly face all the pain they’ve been sweeping under for years. Before that is possible, an addict must acknowledge that their substance abuse has been a way to weigh that rug down when the pain rattles around and threatens to escape.

Addiction Masks Low Self-WorthAlthough scary at first, it’s actually very freeing to turn the mirror toward the past rather than within. It introduces self-compassion for addicts who, until now, were resigned to blaming themselves and feeling worthless as a result of their behaviors. This is only possible with the mental clarity that sobriety brings, and early recovery is the best time to start addressing these problems of low self-worth.

Psychologically Formative Years

There are many ways that seemingly “forgotten” or “forgiven” events from childhood can drive people to addiction. Since these are the years that shape how we see ourselves and the world, childhood creates subconsciously learned thought patterns that survive into adulthood. Although lack of control is in some ways inherent in childhood, certain experiences can imprint that feeling deep enough to the core that they become devastating. 

Overwhelming Loss

Any major form of loss can lead to low self-worth, especially if the loss occurred in childhood. Children don’t have any frame of reference for why things happen. So they often internalize events that are beyond their scope of understanding. Feeling overwhelmed by loss usually translates to: (1) “I wasn’t good enough,” (2) “I could have done more,” (3) “Why wasn’t I there for them,” (4) “I should have / could have / would have…” When viewing all of these statements together and looking at the bigger picture, addicts can begin to accept their own grieving process rather than drowning it out with substances.

Any Form of Abuse

Abuse is pretty obvious to most people on the outside. But frame of reference is everything, and victims often don’t seem themselves as victims. For example, the average person has a really hard time understanding why battered women stay with their abusers. But the woman in each scenario only sees the man she loves/married/whatever passing judgment on her, and finding her lacking. Same with the children of abusive parents. That distorted frame of reference shapes low self-worth of abuse victims.

Social Ostracization

Introvert, extrovert, it doesn’t matter. No matter how you try to spin it in terms of personality types, humans are ultimately social creatures. When a person is “outcasted” or “doesn’t quite fit in,” it can have devastating effects on their sense of self-worth. This is a common result when families move and children have to switch schools. It can also happen when a person falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, or simply has a “quirky” personality.

Unhealthy Family Dynamics

Many factors play into this. It’s a messy combination of parental presence, masculine/feminine influences, power roles, punishment structures, order among siblings, extended family influence, and more. Family dynamics may not seem so important in adulthood, but their scope has far-reaching consequences. They play a huge role in shaping how children perceive themselves and their role/value in the world. Children who lack support, guidance, and reassurance that they matter are at risk of having low self-worth as adults.

Booze and Dope Mask Low Self-Worth

It’s no secret that getting wasted, in whatever form, is an immediate stress reliever. And for some people it’s really not that destructive in the grand scheme of things. Most adults had some wild days in their twenties and came out the other side without a hiccup. Unfortunately, this normie narrative convinces many addicts that their disease is also a normal phase of life.

It’s not. When a person begins leaning on substances as a way to feel comfortable in their own skin, getting loaded transcends the harmless act of “taking a load off” after a long day. It becomes the crutch that cripples the more an addict uses. Booze and dope are not harmless distractions for people who rely on them as coping tools, and low self-worth is a huge risk factor for developing substance abuse. Over time, addiction becomes a mask for festering problems that are too overwhelming to face for real.

Substances aren’t the only masks that people use to hide low self-worth, and there are a few behavioral patterns that may bury that problem even deeper.

Narcissistic Behavior is a Defense Mechanism

Addicts are notorious narcissists. Or at least we’re told that by people who have been burned by the disease’s behaviors.

But this is not a full picture of addiction. The selfish, hurtful actions of addicts in the midst of their disease rarely come from that person’s true values and personality. They adopt this narcissistic armor as a side effect of chemical dependence.  This is where we start seeing semblances of “rock bottom,” and it’s not a pretty sight. Here are some examples of narcissistic rock bottom behavior:

  • Breached Boundaries

    All of the “never in the house,” “never with needles,” and “never at work” promises are thrown out the window. Suddenly their habit has become more important than their word. This can be particularly hurtful because it feels like a betrayal of trust.

  • Lack of Responsibility

    Addicts commonly adopt a “me first” attitude and become neglectful of their commitments. Losing child custody, losing a job, and dropping out of school are common manifestations of this.

  • Refusing to be Accountable

    Almost all active addicts believe they can control their habit, so they put up blinders to consequences in order to maintain that illusion. “It was not that big of a deal,” is minimizing. “That wasn’t even my fault,” is shifting blame. The list of self-delusion goes on.

Rock bottom looks different for everyone. But there is always the opportunity for giving up these narcissistic disease behaviors, taking off the mask that drugs and alcohol provide, and facing the root of the problem. Often, that buried root is a lack of self worth.

Don’t Get Discouraged: Help is Out There

Whether you’re an addict or a loved one, just remember: the disease’s behaviors are just that. The behaviors of the disease. No matter what form the mask of addiction takes, the fact remains that the person suffering is still in there somewhere.

Addiction Masks Low Self-Worth

Sometimes it just takes a little coaxing to get them out and make sure they get the help they need. Adults with unresolved childhood issues are not always cognizant that the pain buried deep within their past is driving their current substance abuse problem. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Addiction therapy can make all the difference. If you think your addicted loved one is ready for help, contact our admissions staff for detox: 855-737-7363