Charlotte Traynor, now 40, lived what she describes now as an idyllic childhood. Except for the fact that her father, a United States Marine, was away often when she was a child, she grew up in a loving, tight-knit household. Her mother showered her with attention, and she had plenty of cousins and friends who surrounded her.
And yet, Charlotte says, “something felt like it was missing.
“I felt like everyone was smarter than me, prettier than me, richer than me, more talented than me. I felt like I need attention to feel worth anything.”
At 35, Charlotte was diagnosed with depression and borderline personality disorder. She was also a sex and love addict.
For four years, Charlotte weaved in and out of sobriety, staying clean for several months at a time only to relapse again and again. Now, just months after turning 40, Charlotte is celebrating over a year of sobriety.
For Charlotte, learning how to use coping skills other than seeking the attention of men was the easier part of recovery. “What I still fight to figure out every day,” she says, “is how to love myself.”
For those who have suffered severe addictions, guilt and shame are normal and common emotions felt during every phase of recovery. Even more so for people like Charlotte, who had a hard time liking herself even before addiction, and who now struggles with remorse, shame, and regret.
“I have to remind myself that in the days before I was in active addiction, there was nothing about me that I should have hated or been ashamed of,” says Charlotte. “I also have to repeat to myself that even when I was using, those behaviors don’t define me either. I was sick. I’m not a horrible human being. Being an addict doesn’t make you bad – it makes you human.
“I’m aware of every day of the tools I need…to love myself, to forgive myself, to accept myself.”
Understand your disease
Addiction is a disease of the brain. When you were in active addiction, you didn’t think properly, and you reacted to situations in a way you might not have if you weren’t addicted.
Understanding that the disease, like Charlotte said, doesn’t make you a bad person, will help you forgive yourself after reflecting on your behavior. You might have acted like a bad person, but it still doesn’t mean you are one.
Be nice to yourself
Negative self-talk (saying things to yourself like, ‘I hate myself!’ or ‘I can’t ever do anything right!’) is toxic. When you talk this way to yourself, you are limiting your ability to talk yourself up and believe in yourself and your abilities. It makes you feel smaller and diminishes any good work you have done. Would you let anyone talk that way to someone you love? Why then, would you talk to yourself that way?
In order to minimize negative self-talk, you can practice the following:
- Give your self-talk a timer. If you can’t help but be critical of yourself, limit it to one hour a day. This will give yourself a break from the hard time you’re giving yourself.
- Change your negativity to neutrality. When you’re tempted to say, “I can’t do this! This is too hard!” change it to “This is challenging at the moment.” Another idea is to soften the words you use. Instead of saying “I hate this,” try saying, “I would prefer something else.”
- Use a stop sign. Some experts recommend visualizing a giant red stop sign when you’re starting to catastrophize or think terrible things. This method is intended to stop your thought dead in its tracks.
- Be a friend to yourself. Many of the things you tell yourself you would never think to say to a friend. Be the kindest person you know. Charlotte, for example, keeps a card in her wallet that her niece created for her. It says “Life is too short to be your own bully.”
- Replace bad with good. This isn’t just limited to negative self-talk. If you find you’re hungry and you’re eating a lot of junk, replace that soda with a glass of green juice. In the same vein, take a negative thought and turn it into something positive. “I’m never going to do this!” can turn into “Look how hard I’ve been working, and how far I’ve come.”
- See a therapist. Therapists are trained to help you master specific skills that help shift your perspective and see things in a more positive light.
Make amends with people you’ve hurt
This isn’t easy, but it can be done. Not everyone you apologize to will be quick to forgive you, but sometimes, the effort on its own does wonders for you. There is a difference between just apologizing and actually making amends, though – when you apologize, the words are much more meaningful when you take action to change or rectify the regretful things you’ve done.
Plan for the future
There’s no going backwards, and you can’t change what’s already done. But you can certainly move forward, and you can focus on what’s yet to come in your life. Lay out a plan for the next 30 days, the next six months, and the next year. As you check off these items on your list, you’ll dramatically increase yourself self-esteem, and you’ll give yourself something new and healthy to think about instead of focusing on the past.
Take care of yourself
This is the most important tip on this list. Take care of yourself. Nurture your body. Eat a healthy diet. Start an exercise plan if you haven’t already. When you’re active, eating well, and sleeping properly, your energy levels will increase and your self-esteem will too. At the same time that you’re taking care of your body, make sure you’re taking care of your mind. Practice yoga, mindfulness or meditation, all of which will help build your confidence and teach you how to love yourself.
No matter what happened in the past, you have every right to find joy today. You can live a healthy life despite the ghosts of your past.
If you’re having a difficult time respecting or loving yourself in recovery, we can help you.