Dealing with Low Self-Esteem and Shame, Part 1


This article is the first part of a four-part series on low self-esteem and shame, written exclusively for by Richard Harnett.

Narcissism, or self-centeredness, has become quite prevalent among us today, and people who get high with chemicals or other addictions are likely to display this disorder. They may be comforting themselves and feel entitled to indulge. Or, since they tend to be hypersensitive to criticism, they may be trying to soothe their injured pride. Narcissism refers to "a state in which the individual has a heightened, exaggerated awareness and estimation of the self, negates the existence and value of others, and perceives only people who focus solely on their needs and will act as a source of pleasure to be used and discarded with ease" (Hatterer, pg. 21).

There is another kind of self-centeredness, however, that can play a role in addictions, and it is negative narcissism. It is defined as

"a state of exaggerated underestimation and negation of the self with unrealistic ideas of inadequacy and self-accusation accompanied by unrealistic overevaluation of others" (ibid, pg. 21).

In chemical dependency treatment facilities, it is referred to as low self-esteem. Those of us who suffer from this personality disorder are inclined to be very self-critical and especially afraid of disapproval by others. Careful examination will reveal the presence of an internalized voice which we might call The Judge. Getting high will alleviate the oppression from this inner figure for a while, but it may also become one of the accusations The Judge hurls at us. "You got wasted again! You’ll never amount to anything." Until we find a way to honestly respect ourselves, we will remain vulnerable to the dreadful feeling of disgust that The Judge instills in us. And we might also be tempted to pick up and get high, just to make the bad feeling go away.

So let us examine this form of self-loathing and find healthy ways to deal with it, so that we can grow and be happy and peaceful. We will need to overcome our reluctance to explore it, but unless we do so, it will only continue to torment us. We have suffered enough already, so now we will marshal as much courage as we can. We want to heal this deep-seated wound and regain a sense of approval of ourselves.


The Judge is an internalized voice of some authority figure in our past that continues to find fault with us. Psychoanalysts call it our superego, the part of our psyche that restrains our impulses. The Judge speaks to us loudly and in a demeaning manner. It assumes complete authority over us, it mocks us and calls us despicable names. Here are some examples of what it says:

  • You idiot! You jerk! You moron!
  • You are a mistake! You are good for nothing!
  • You are disgusting! You’re an ugly bag of dirt!
  • You are useless! You can’t do anything right!
  • No one wants you! No one appreciates you!
  • No one loves you! You deserve to be ignored!
  • You’re nothing but a puny weakling!
  • You’re bad and evil incarnate!
  • You’re pitiful! You’re contemptible!
  • You’re insignificant and worthless!
  • You should be ashamed of yourself!

Not only does The Judge scorn us with these statements, but we suspect everyone around us feels the same way about us. The Judge berates us with this condemnation repeatedly, until we stop trying to get a word in edgewise. We simply succumb to this oppression and wait for an opportunity to comfort ourselves in some way by getting high.

Some people do not recognize such a figure as The Judge inside them, and this may be due to the presence of someone external who plays the same role. They may have a parent, spouse, or boss who puts them down and makes them feel worthless and rotten. The effect is the same, they lose all their self-respect and confidence.

The Judge is a type of inner Tyrant that has outlived its usefulness. It oppresses us because it is excessive. At one time it may have helped us learn self-restraint, but now it goes too far and finds fault with everything we do. We need to challenge its authority and its verdicts. "Who died and put you in charge? Just because you say I’m no good doesn’t make it true."

Click here to read Part 2

Richard G. Hartnett, MA, MS, LCADC is a former Jesuit priest who now lives with his wife, Kathy, by a lake in northwestern New Jersey. He has served as the chaplain at Hazelden New York, pastoral counselor at the Chemical Dependency Department of the International Center for the Disabled in NYC, and continuing care counselor at the outpatient Chemical Dependency Program of High Focus Centers in New Jersey. Currently he maintains a private practice in New Jersey. He is the author of The Presence at the Center, Renewing Your Fourth Step, The Three Inner Voices: Uncovering the Spiritual Roots of Addiction and Recovery, and Sobriety and Inspiration: Entrusting Ourselves to the Source of Our Healing and Creativity.


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