Addiction is a form of self-abuse often driven by a pervasive sense of unworthiness or a false sense of self-worth. Consequently, recovery from addiction involves forming a healthier understanding of the self.
Addiction expert Stephanie Covington believes that addiction can be understood as a disorder of the self. In many cases, she writes, a conflict exists between the “outer self,” the role an individual plays in society, and the “inner self,” the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes of a person.
Addicted people frequently have a false sense of self-worth combined with extremely deflated self-esteem, which leads to adopting harmful coping mechanisms such as drug and alcohol misuse to mask negative feelings about themselves. By learning to practice self-care and to extend love toward themselves in recovery, patients begin to cultivate feelings of self-worth, strength, and resiliency.
Thus, self-compassion and self-care are important aspects of treating addiction. Taking care of oneself sounds easy enough, but for many patients, learning to love themselves in recovery can be one of the most challenging tasks they face in treatment. When acquiring and abusing substances is the priority, people in active addiction tend to neglect to do the things that keep them physically and mentally healthy.
All too frequently, severe trauma is a major cause of substance use disorders. Sexual trauma, in particular, tends to intensify feelings of worthlessness and a deflated ego in the victims of sexual assault. The famous Adverse Childhood Experiences study found multiple, dose-dependent relationships between severe childhood stress and all types of addictions, including overeating. Adverse childhood experiences measured included emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, neglect, having a mentally ill or addicted parent, losing a parent to death or divorce, living in a house with domestic violence, and having an incarcerated parent.
Learning self-love does not mean becoming selfish. Rather, showing love and respect for yourself deepens your ability to be compassionate. Treating yourself with compassion increases empathy for others as well. It is hard to care for others if you don’t care for yourself first.
Preventing a false sense of self-worth and nurturing a healthy self-esteem starts with the body. Eating healthy, nutritious food and getting enough rest and sleep while staying physically fit are the elements of a solid foundation in self-care. Processing and verbalizing feelings with trusted friends, family members, or therapists are part of emotional self-care. Spiritual self-care might be achieved through meditation or prayer, by working for a worthy cause, or by spending time alone in nature. Social self-care is critically important, too. A successful recovery from addiction relies on discontinuing toxic relationships and spending quality time with individuals who uplift and support you, such as friends, family, or even your sponsor.
The importance of nurturing a healthy self-illustrates that recovery from addiction requires more than simply giving up substance misuse. Treatment must also attempt to recover the authentic self of the addicted person.
Dr. Philip Hemphill is the chief clinical officer of Lakeview Health. “In residential treatment, we want to give patients a full body–mind–spirit experience,” he says. It is a comprehensive re-calibration that goes beyond the cessation of substance abuse. “At Lakeview, we address all aspects of a patient’s life, not just the addiction,” says Hemphill. “People need to fashion a better identity for themselves; they need to change how they live their lives and who they believe they are.”
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