How to Build Self-Esteem in Addiction Recovery

How can you build self esteem after addiction? Olivia Pennelle explains how journaling helped her build her self esteem in recovery.

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After addiction, your self-esteem can be in the gutter. Olivia Pennelle explains how she built her self esteem back up in recovery.

After the initial glee of waking up without a hangover wore off, I realized I was left with myself. I hit the reality of recovery with a thud: stone cold sober, no direction in life, and thoroughly depressed. Not only did I lack an identity—because I’d been too busy drowning myself into oblivion for ten years—I also lacked any kind of self-esteem, and my self-worth was circling the drain.

Now what? I asked myself.

In the early days, my first sponsor suggested I begin journaling each day. She told me that it would help me immensely. I didn’t realize at the time, but this practice has contributed toward building my self-esteem over the last six years. I still do it occasionally today when I’m particularly critical of myself, and it’s one thing I recommend to those in early recovery as a critical practice for building self-esteem.

It seemed like a simple idea, to arrange some words on a piece of paper each day, but I had no idea where to start. She suggested I start by writing my thoughts and feelings at the beginning of each day, and then to make a note of what I planned to do that day. At the end of each day, she asked me to reflect on how my day had gone and, most importantly, to write a list of everything I had done right that day.

Simple, right? I’m afraid that wasn’t the case. It was a hard practice. Throughout my whole life, I had never truly acknowledged any sense of achievement—I just sorted of bumbled through life, with people growing increasingly disappointed in me. I garnered the nickname, Liv the liability.

I think what was most challenging, aside from acknowledging achievement, was that I felt so completely numb to my body and my mind. I had no idea who I was, never mind trying to get in touch with my thoughts and feelings!

She started me off by making a few suggestions for the list—she called it “the credit list”. Reminding me that I’d met my goal of being sober for the day; I’d taken the time to sit down and reflect; I’d attended a meeting; I’d cared for myself by showering, exercising, following my doctor’s guidelines, eating well, going food shopping, and taking a rest when I was tired; I did some service; I showed up to work; and I was living healthier life.

While the practice itself was difficult—and I often took forever to write a list—this was the most revolutionary practice of my recovery. I started to see what I was capable of. I discovered my strengths and values: resilience, determination, integrity, honesty, justice, and my care for others.

But I reached a point where I couldn’t go any further. As this practice had enabled me to be honest with myself and be true to my feelings, I realized that my journey had reached a cross roads. I no longer felt aligned with the values in AA, and I didn’t find the program to be contributing toward the practice of building my self-esteem and growing into the woman I was becoming. It didn’t make sense to me to be looking at my credits each day, but to be also looking at where I was defective. That wasn’t helpful to me and I felt constrained.

When I left AA last year my self-esteem took a wobble. But what happened as a result, is that I flourished. I started to make decisions based on what was right for me, rather than what was suggested. I stopped looking at myself as defective and broken, and instead looked at my attributes. I started to truly love who I had become and stand in my strength as a woman in a self-directed recovery.


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Olivia Pennelle (Liv) has a masters in clinical social work from Portland State University. She is a mental health therapist, writer, and human activist. Her writing has appeared in STAT News, Insider, Filter Magazine, Ravishly, The Temper, and Shondaland. She is the founder of Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, Life After 12-Step Recovery, and Tera Collaborations. She lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Instagram @Livwritesrecovery and @teracollaborations

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