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Unraveling Shame and Co-dependency

Jonathan Riley

Just because someone is “family” doesn’t mean you have to tolerate lies, chaos, drama, manipulation and disrespect.” – Anonymous

According to Mental Health America, codependency is a learned behaviour that often starts very early in life and is passed down within families. In fact, it is common to find multiple generations of codependent parents raising codependent children. Codependency is when people place other people at the centre of their lives, struggle and strive for the approval of others, and have no sense of self. Codependents are also people who struggle with setting boundaries and have extreme difficulty expressing or identifying what they want and need.

Most codependents are exceedingly shy, and avoidant of intimacy and vulnerability, making it hard for them to form healthy relationships; they tend to attract abusive personality types like narcissists and borderlines. Codependents are clingy in relationships, easily manipulated through guilt, obligation, and fear, and have a tendency to think in “black and white” or “catastrophic” terms (Lancer, n.d). In addition, codependents are constantly anxious for no apparent reason, are prone to depression and impulse control issues, are frequently addicted (to sex, gambling, drugs, food, etc), and generally struggle to do things that other people appear to find simple.

Shame for codependents leads to self-destructive thoughts and negative self-evaluations, which produces low self-esteem. According to Lancer (2019) self-esteem isn’t so much a feeling, but how we think about ourselves. When we have toxic shame and make a mistake, whether real or imagined, our feelings of shame become exaggerated and irrational. If we don’t believe we’re worthy of love, we must control what we show to others. We don’t communicate what we feel or express our needs and wants. Instead, we have hidden expectations and manipulate, hint, or become passive-aggressive. When we can’t be ourselves, our authenticity is affected, communication becomes dysfunctional and intimacy suffers as a result.

Internalised shame lurks in the subconscious of codependents, undermining self-esteem and wreaking havoc in their lives. For most people shame passes after an embarrassing incident, but for codependents, shame is internalised from childhood experiences. It sits there waiting to be activated and persists long after the event, like an open wound that has never healed. You are ashamed of who you are. It is all-pervasive, paralyses spontaneity, and defines you. You don’t believe that you matter or are worthy of love, respect, success, or happiness. Instead, you think that you are bad, defective, inadequate, a phony, a failure, or worse. Chronic internalised shame makes ordinary shame feel more intense and last longer, and it creates shame anxiety largely about being acceptable to yourself and other people.

Internalised shame causes low self‐esteem and most codependent symptoms, such as pleasing, addiction, control, caretaking, depression, lack of assertiveness, intimacy problems, and perfectionism. Internalised shame creates a chronic sense of inferiority. You may envy and compare yourself negatively to people whom you admire. You may believe you’re never enough, that you’re not doing enough, attractive enough, smart enough, or good enough. On the other hand, because shame is painful, you may be unconscious of your shame and think you have good self‐esteem.

Codependents often suffer from “shame anxiety,” a fear of being judged or rejected. To cope and to get what they need and want, they attempt to manipulate and control others. This becomes a necessity when we depend on someone loving us or just staying with us to feel okay about ourselves or just to feel safe. Being alone for some people triggers feelings of shame, fear, and loneliness, while others manage fine on their own, yet others are very reactive or lose themselves in relationships. This is because their mood and happiness are dependent on someone else, and their self-esteem is based on other people’s acceptance. They then have to manage other people’s feelings and behaviour. As a result, people seek love, self-esteem, and a sense of belonging by pleasing others and giving.

Many codependents are perfectionists. In their minds, they must be perfect because the alternative is that they will “look bad” somehow or feel like a failure. Mistakes or flaws create great discomfort due to shame arising within. They may feel anxious, angry or driven to fix something when really, they’re attempting to fix their own inner, unconscious sense of inadequacy. They live with the “tyranny of the “should’s” fed by shame, anxiety and perfectionism. Making mistakes, being human, and feeling ordinary, are not acceptable; these are experienced as shame.

Ultimately, self-compassion is the real antidote to shame, which we will explore over the next five weeks. However, in order to truly recover from the negative outcomes of shame, we must acknowledge that those shame messages that we internalised from earlier experiences really aren’t true.


Kämmerer, A. (2019, August 09). The scientific underpinnings and impacts of shame. Retrieved from

Lancer, D. (2019, September 19). How shame feels and what makes it toxic. Retrieved from

Lancer, D. (n.d). Codependency and hidden shame. Retrieved from