Many studies detail the link between low self-esteem and substance abuse. Adolescents in particular are susceptible to substance abuse resulting from low self-esteem, while those with high self-esteem are less likely to use drugs or alcohol. But what exactly is self-esteem, and how does it affect whether or not you’ll abuse drugs or alcohol?

What is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem is one’s sense of personal value. How we feel about ourselves is based in part on our daily experiences: acting, thinking about our actions and considering the way others perceive those actions.

People with high self-esteem know themselves accurately and recognize their own strengths and weaknesses. They trust their decisions and have confidence in themselves and their worth.

People with low self-esteem believe they’re unlovable, incompetent, or unworthy. Characteristics of low self-esteem include:

  • Believing you’re not important
  • Expecting others to humiliate you
  • Not trusting other people
  • Feelings of loneliness and separation from others
  • Being constantly influenced by negative thoughts and feelings
  • Needing constant external positive experiences to overcome negative thoughts and feelings

Low self-esteem reduces your quality of life and can lead to—or be caused by—anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other mental illnesses. It can also lead to substance abuse.

The Link Between Low Self-Esteem and Substance Abuse

The link between low self-esteem and substance abuse is the subject of a large body of research that shows people who have low self-esteem often use drugs or alcohol to feel better about themselves, if only temporarily.

But drugs and alcohol rarely improve your self-esteem. On the contrary, they more often lead to feelings of failure and loss of control, according to a study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors. They can lead you to do things that lower your self-esteem even further.1

Self-Esteem and Depression

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration stresses that low self-esteem often co-occurs with depression.2 Depression itself is a factor for substance abuse, and the link between low self-esteem and substance abuse may be due in part to feelings of depression.

Seeking help for depression can dramatically improve your quality of life—and your self-esteem—and reduce your risk of a substance use disorder.

How to Improve Your Self-Esteem

Man writing at a desk

Increasing your self-esteem can improve your life and reduce your risk of developing a substance use disorder. Here are a few things you can do each day to help improve the way you feel about yourself.

  • Take good care of yourself. Treating yourself well can help you feel better about yourself. Eat healthy food, exercise and practice good hygiene.
  • Have fun. Spend time doing things you enjoy to improve your mood and your feelings about yourself. Make a list of things you like to do, and make a point to do at least one of them every day.
  • Use your talents and abilities. Put your talents and abilities to work to improve your self-esteem. Maybe you’re artistic, or musical or athletic. Maybe you’re a good writer, or you’re funny or you’re good at organizing. Whatever your skills, use them.
  • Spend time with the right people. Toxic relationships can do a number on your self-esteem. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself, and dump the people in your life who make you feel bad about yourself.
  • Surround yourself with beauty. Do your best to make your home a special place that reflects who you are. Make it a place where you feel unique, comfortable and in control.

Break the Link

The link between low self-esteem and substance abuse can be broken if you take steps to raise your self-esteem. Getting professional help for both low self-esteem and substance abuse can help you avoid addiction and dependence and improve your quality of life.