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How Service Leads to Self-Esteem

Issue 8

I remember the day I realized I hated myself.

I was about 90 days sober – and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I sat there ugly crying and shared with a group of people my feelings. I had no idea how long I had actually disliked myself because I had been disconnected from my feelings for years. I had hidden it for so long. I hid it behind alcohol, men, my career, and my ambition. I covered it with designer clothing and material objects. I had convinced myself that I was in fact happy, and a strong independent woman. In many ways it was true; I had created an incredible life. But the real truth was that on the inside, I felt like I was unlovable and unworthy of living a happy life. My recovery journey has brought me to fall in love with myself.

During using, self-esteem plummets. We put ourselves in circumstances that bring down our worth. Some of us had little self worth to begin with, and years of active using made it worse. For others, self worth was taken away from the actions that came with using. From being called horrible names by people to participating in activities that went against our true values, in active addiction, we often found ourselves lost from our true essence. In the journey of recovery, we get to find that again.

If you’re in recovery, you’ve probably heard a saying to the effect of “self-esteem is built by taking esteemable actions.”

What does this mean? It means that through one action at a time – small or large – we can build our self worth. Paying a bill on time, returning a shopping cart, and not calling out of work sick may sound simple to some, but they can truly be life changing. While there are many actions and practices that build self-esteem, one area that is particularly beneficial is being of service to others. Being of service builds connection, community, gives purpose, increases happiness, and is good for physical health. Science and technology are catching up to what many great philosophers and spiritual leaders have said for years – altruism leads to greater happiness. There is great joy in helping someone else and giving back. In fact, MRI studies are now showing that altruism actually sparks some of the same brain receptors and chemicals that are associated with pleasure.

Someone early on told me, “you can always do the dishes.” What she meant was there is always somewhere to be of service no matter where you are – even a dinner party. This remark changed my life as it brought me a new sense of understanding that service can be done anywhere. Being of service can come in many forms. From small moments to large actions, it will bring you to a better life.


Start simple with small acts of kindness. Put away your shopping cart at the grocery store, hold the door for someone, give a compliment. Small things lead to big changes.

Volunteer your time. Get involved in something that matters to you. Recovery community centers rely on volunteers. There are nine recovery community centers in Maine, and more opening!

Listen. Listening is a skill that we don’t use as often as we think we do. Taking the time to just let someone share what is going on in their life with no outside distractions is a powerful way to be of service.

Building others up. Supporting the people in your life, whether your family members or at your sober house, can help them feel better and you feel better. Affirm the good they are doing. Help by giving a ride to a job interview. Words of encouragement go a long way.

Today, service is a part of my daily life. It’s been crucial in my own journey of self worth and recovery. Find ways to implement service in your own life – and just know – you can always do the dishes!

Sarah Kelly
Sarah Kelly
Sarah Kelly, owner of Sarah Kelly Coaching, is a National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC) and Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) Certified Recovery Coach. Sarah is an active member of the recovery community.

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