Dealing with Low Self-Esteem and Shame, Part 3: Tools to Feel Valuable


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

Click here to read Part 1



People with addictions get high in order to prop up their self-esteem. Because they alternate between feelings of inferiority and superiority, they are often diagnosed as having a bi-polar disorder, formerly known as manic-depression. They have internalized a negative opinion of themselves that is so severe they are desperate for relief. For this reason, they resort to the quick fix provided by their addiction of choice.

Some addicts, of course, deny that they have any negative feelings about themselves. They point to all their worldly success as proof. They lack insight, however, into what makes them tick. As long as they believe their self-worth can be measured by externals, their knowledge of themselves will remain superficial. Some kind of crisis may prompt them to examine their assumptions and realize how insecure they really are. Then they may explore their motives for getting high and uncover some deficiency they have overlooked.

Recovery from addictions entails self-study. A mere determination to not get high again will fail because it relies upon willpower and lacks perception. It is the ego’s attempt to reassert itself as the CEO of the whole personality, the very attitude that brought about the downfall to begin with. Unfortunately, some people will go through several rounds of this vicious cycle before they come to their senses.

Beneath the practice of getting high lies a chronic state of discomfort. It is the ego’s dim awareness that it lacks a foundation, since it has tried to validate itself as if it were self-sufficient. Only when the ego realizes how much it depends upon a Source deep within can it shed its insecurity and feel valuable. In other words, when we recognize we are constantly being lived and inspired, then we can be confident we are important allies to the Source we all share in common.


Once we recognize that our low self-esteem and our shame are the result of our being disapproved by others, then we can look deep within ourselves for the affirmation we need. Here are some suggestions that may help lift us out of the gloomy pit. They may require some effort on our part, but we can’t afford to stay stuck in the muck any longer.

HUMOR: We may recall how the comedian Flip Wilson used to say on the TV program Laugh-In, “Here come de Judge! Here come de Judge!” It may help us to say it whenever we notice an inner figure condemning us.

BEFRIEND OUR INNER CHILD: The feeling of worthlessness usually originates in some childhood experience in which we were disrespected. It may take a while to remember, because we still don’t want to offend the person who hurt us. Or it may come back to us clearly. In either case, we picture ourselves as the child who was made to feel ashamed, and then we imagine ourselves comforting that child. We may need to repeat this exercise until we are confident we have become the mature adult who will hug us with genuine affection and kindness.

HANG OUT WITH HEALTHY PEOPLE: When we associate with hypercritical people, we are making it difficult to improve our self-esteem. If our friends are sarcastic, mean, or bitter, they will reinforce our own thoughts of self-loathing. We may have to deliberately find people who are positive, encouraging, and supportive, and then spend much more time with them than with the ones who only berated and defeated us. Perhaps in time we will have grown enough to withstand criticism, and we may even be able to help others heal their wounds.

Uncovering the Destructive Forces Inside You

It may come as a surprise to us that we have a dark side to our personality. It’s not obvious because it is invisible and it insinuates itself into our thoughts and feelings. As long as it remains hidden, it will have tremendous power over us. So we must find a way to expose it in order to be able to challenge it. Here are some suggestions:

Recall all the people, usually authority figures, who gave us a hard time. Record the accusations they made against us. For example, “You idiot. You lazy bum. You fat slob. You stupid jerk. You moron. You slut. You sex maniac.” Each of these labels reveals a particular vulnerability of ours. They hurt us because there may be a grain of truth in them.

Another way to expose our vulnerabilities is to examine the types of people we dislike. There is something about them that rubs us the wrong way. For example, we may be annoyed by people who are

    stupid pushy mean selfish
    lazy angry nagging disloyal
    stubborn indecisive silly conceited
    greedy unassertive moaning timid
    bossy prejudiced nosey nitpicking
    irresponsible complaining immature clumsy
    indulgent squealing ruthless demanding
    lewd foolish cruel abusive
    manipulative dishonest sloppy noisy

These attributes that irritate us do so because they reveal ways we are internally forbidden to be. For example, if we are irritated by people who are stupid, this tells us that being stupid ourselves would make others dislike us. As a result, we feel obliged to uproot even the slightest trace of these negative qualities from our personality.


A written record of our reflections is helpful because it enables us to extend our self-evaluation, that is, we can pick up where we left off. A written log also gives importance to our exploration, and it makes the self-destructive forces in us accountable. This record does not have to be neat, since we are the only ones who will use it.


By naming the side of our personality that demeans us, we detach ourselves from it. We might call it The Judge, The Critic, The Monster, The Tormentor, or some personal name that seems appropriate.


Once we give this side of our personality a suitable name, then we can discover its intentions and methods. Here are some questions to ask it:

    What do you want me to do? Why?

    What feelings or situations make you happy?

    What do you fear?

    What is your basic purpose or function?

    What can you teach me?

    When did you come into my life?

    What need of mine did you fulfill at that time?

    Who is your worst enemy?

    What makes you thrive?

    What do you look like?

    What do you have to offer me?

    What makes you angry, frightened or annoyed?

    What prevents you from getting your way?

    How do you treat other people?

    How can I get along with you appropriately?

    What is your real name?

These questions usually expose The Judge as an inner figure that says it wants to protect us. The problem is that it is overly protective and blocks our growth as a result. We need to learn how to moderate its influence so it doesn’t stifle us.

Click here to read Part 4

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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