How to Build Self-Esteem During Recovery From an Addiction

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Self-esteem refers to an individual's overall subjective feelings of personal value and self-worth. It can have an effect on many areas of life, including substance use and recovery.

Low self-esteem has been linked to the onset of drug use, and research has also shown a connection between low self-esteem and behavioral addictions including internet addiction, eating problems, and compulsive buying. While alcohol, drugs, or compulsive behaviors can initially mask insecurities and even make people feel more confident, these feelings are short-lived.

Over time, grappling with the effect of addiction can harm a person's self-esteem and make recovery more difficult. Whether you're contemplating doing something about your addiction, or you're already on the road to recovery, these five exercises can help rebuild your self-esteem and improve your well-being and outlook on life.

Write Your Own Affirmation 

An affirmation is a simple, positive statement you say to yourself. While affirmations may not seem genuine at first, reciting them eventually does change the way you feel about yourself. Write an affirmation that reflects how you want to feel about yourself, for example: "I am proud of myself."

Repeating these affirmations can help transform negative self-talk into a more optimistic view of the self.

It is important to remember, however, that these affirmations take time. Give yourself a month of saying it out loud to yourself every day.

One study found that in individuals with low self-esteem, self-affirmations helped improve their attitudes toward health risk advice. This might be particularly helpful for people who are working to recover from a substance or alcohol use disorder.

Affirmations may help people feel more receptive and motivated to participate in treatment and recovery.

Forgive Yourself for Past Mistakes

People who have struggled with an addiction are often plagued by self-blame, which worsens low self-esteem. Addiction can really affect your judgment and impulse control, so you say and do things you later regret.

Beating yourself up about what you did in the past will only increase the likelihood of relapse, so now is the time to recognize and acknowledge what you did, let go of punishing yourself, and commit to doing things differently in the future. In other words, never let past wrongs define your present.

Research also supports the importance of self-forgiveness. Studies suggest that people who forgive themselves for past mistakes experience less anxiety and depression.


Taking responsibility for your behaviors, allowing yourself to feel remorse, and then looking for ways to do better in the future are some of the key steps in self-forgiveness.

Accept Compliments

Research has shown that people who have low self-esteem have a difficult time accepting and benefiting from compliments from other people. This is challenging not only for a person's self-esteem but also makes it harder for people who care about that individual to express their positive feelings for that person.

Why is it so hard for people with low self-esteem to accept a compliment? It happens in part because people doubt the sincerity of the compliments, a problem that is then compounded by feelings of embarrassment over the thought that they are being patronized.

People with low self-esteem often miss opportunities to build their self-esteem simply by acknowledging the kind words of others. Some things you can do instead the next time someone gives you a compliment include:

  • Resist the urge to dismiss it.
  • Assume that they are sincere.
  • Say thank you and enjoy the compliment.
  • Note how the compliment reflects your strengths.

Do Something Kind Every Day

Research also suggests that engaging in prosocial behavior, or actions designed to benefit others, can also play a role in improving self-esteem. One study found that prosocial behavior was actually a predictor for self-esteem, especially in women. Women who reported engaging in more prosocial actions also had higher levels of self-reported self-esteem. 

One way of increasing the appreciation that others express toward you is to do kind things for them. You don't have to make a grand gesture; something as simple as holding a door open for another person, giving up a seat on the bus, or giving someone directions if they look lost can elicit a genuine "thank you."

Even if the other person does not express their gratitude, you can bask in the good feeling of having helped another person. You may also consider volunteering to help others in recovery.

Start Making Changes

Self-determination can also play a role in improving self-esteem. Self-determined behaviors are those that people perform of their own volition as a result of conscious, intentional, self-motivated choices.

Self-determination is also an important part of recovery from substance and alcohol use. In order to achieve your recovery goals, you need to feel that you have the skills, motivation, and ability to succeed. When slips do happen, however, it can have a detrimental impact on self-determination and self-esteem.

It is important to remember that change takes time. Making self-determined steps in the right direction—even small ones—can play a role in boosting your self-esteem.

Everyone has things they would like to change in their own lives, or in the lives of those around them, but for people with addictions, change happens in stages.

If a major change seems like too much, break it down into smaller acts, and choose to do one a day or one a week, whichever you feel you'll follow through on. With each small change, inwardly celebrate your success in moving toward your goal.

A Word From Verywell

Addiction can make it hard to feel good about yourself and your abilities, especially if you find yourself focusing on past mistakes. Self-esteem can be an important part of the recovery process, so finding ways to build your belief in yourself can make it easier to appreciate your strengths and take note of all of your progress.

Self-help strategies can be a good way to start improving your self-esteem. If you continue to struggle with low-self esteem, talk to your doctor or mental health professional. They can recommend treatments that may help, which may include psychotherapy or medications to treat underlying feelings of depression or anxiety.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.