Shame and Codependency
What is shame, anyway?
Shame is guilt, internalized. You feel guilty for something you did, but still recognize that you, yourself, are an inherently good person worthy of love. You feel shame about who you are. When shame rises from a fundamental underlying belief that you are unworthy of love, rather than in reaction to external events, it has become internalized. When shame becomes internalized, it becomes toxic.
Toxic Shame: In most cases, shame becomes internalized or toxic from chronic or intense experiences of shame in childhood. Parents can unintentionally transfer their shame to their children through verbal messages or nonverbal behavior. For an example, a child might feel unloved in reaction to a parent’s depression, indifference, absence, or irritability or feel inadequate due to a parent’s competitiveness or over-correcting behavior. Children need to feel uniquely loved by both parents. When that connection is breached, such as when a child is scolded harshly, children feel alone and ashamed, unless the parent-child bond of love is soon repaired. However, even if shame has been internalized, it can be surmounted by later positive experiences.
If not healed, toxic shame can lead to aggression, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and addiction. It generates low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, perfectionism, and codependency, and it limits our ability to enjoy satisfying relationships and professional success.
Life With Internalized Shame
Living with intense amounts of internalized shame can make every day a constant struggle. In many instances, the shame creates anxiety around day-to-day activities and depression can occur frequently, resulting in a state of seeming paralysis or stagnation. Someone suffering from toxic shame may constantly feel like a failure and as a result, they experience anxiety about doing anything, because they are afraid of failing and proving themselves correct. But this inaction, or paralysis, is a self-destructive behavior that often hinders them from taking the steps they need to in order to succeed, and when they refuse to act, they still feel like a failure and create a self-fulfilling prophecy, which once again triggers their underlying shame, resulting in a shame cycle that spirals into depression. These cycles can often lead to addictive behavior.
Aggressive emotional outbursts may also occur when the underlying shame is triggered. The person feels emotional pain which leads to an eruption of anger, after which they often feel a sense of guilt for their outburst and another shame cycle begins.
Shame is pervasive and can affect multiple facets of a person’s life including their thoughts about themselves in relation to their career, their appearance, their relationships, their friendships–it seeps into every aspect of their lives.
Internalized Shame and Relationships
When someone feels inherently unworthy of everything life has to offer, the only way they can find worth is by seeking it through approval from another, often a romantic partner. This is where codependency becomes an issue. Partners are often placed on a pedestal because the person suffering from shame has such ingrained feelings of worthlessness that they can’t believe someone would love them. In many cases, this too results in self-sabotaging behavior and the relationship falls apart.
Codependency: a pattern of behavior in which you find yourself dependent on approval from someone else for your self-worth and identity.
“Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy clinginess, where one person doesn’t have self-sufficiency or autonomy,” says Scott Wetzler, PhD, psychology division chief at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “One or both parties depend on their loved ones for fulfillment.” –Are you in a codependent relationship?
In codependent relationships, one partner will often sacrifice his or her own emotional needs for the sake of the other, because they rely on the other’s approval to feel good about themselves. It’s important to encourage your loved one’s emotional independence and identity. Support them in their efforts to heal themselves and give them a healthy amount of space, allowing them to cultivate their own identity.
The Other Half of Codependency
Previously it was thought that codependency was specifically a part of an addiction dynamic, and those who grew up in an environment where one parent was an addict would display codependent tendencies of needing to “rescue” others as a way of reenacting attempts to rescue the addicted parent. Now it’s widely recognized that codependent dynamics are generated by much broader circumstances as noted in the section above about shame, and that codependent dynamics aren’t so much about rescuing another as they are about earning love and proving worth.
People who exhibit codependent relationship often end up attracted to individuals with addictions, mental illness, avoidant attachment personalities, or a sufferer of some other issue that consistently prevents them from providing another individual with a healthy, whole relationship. This dynamic feels familiar to someone who was primed for codependency as a child because it mirrors the same family dynamics that they grew up with. This feeling of lack or need for self-sacrifice is what was modeled for them by their parents, and they learned that this is what love looks like, so they are attracted to that same vibrational frequency in future romantic partners until the underlying core wound is addressed.
Codependency in romantic relationships is one of the most common issues we have in our society and romanticized notions of it can be found throughout pop culture, mainly in storylines where a man rescues a damsel in distress or where a woman’s love somehow redeems an otherwise disaster of a partner.
While it’s true that love can heal and unconditional love is the environment in which every wounded person can begin that process, it can’t be forced on them. The person in need of constant rescue or redemption can’t achieve this from outside means. They have to rescue and redeem themselves.
The dynamic inherent in codependent relationships is that someone is giving and the other person is taking. In healthy relationships, both partners give and receive equally. No healthy partnership will require you to rescue, redeem, or otherwise sacrifice yourself in order to be happy.
And this can go both ways! The most common codependent relationship dynamic I’ve seen is a man in need of redemption trying to earn love by financially rescuing a damsel in distress, who believes she can redeem him with her love and finally earn the kind of deep connection she’s been craving. She gives love and gives love and becomes resentful because she’s not receiving the connection she desires. He provides and provides, and feels financially drained and under appreciated for his efforts to financially rescue her and becomes resentful.
He doesn’t know how to connect the way she wants because he’s not connected to himself–hence why he’s in need of redemption, and she can’t appreciate what he provides for her because she’s never provided it for herself. They can’t save each other, no matter how hard they try, because they can’t even save themselves. They are both codependent, self-sacrificing givers as well as takers, in inconsistent and unbalanced ways.
If you find yourself in the kind of dynamic where you are constantly giving and unable to receive what you need in return, you have to start asking yourself what you are looking for and why you’re attracted to people who are incapable of giving it to you. Why do you need to fix or rescue people? What childhood relationship does this dynamic mirror? Which family member were you always expected to fix or rescue?
You’ll want to start recognizing the unhealthy, codependent dynamics involved in that relationship and your subsequent ones, and learn how to look for red flags. You were taught to normalize red flags as a child, because you had to in order to survive, but that coping mechanism is no longer serving you in your adult life.
Mark Groves, @createthelove on Instagram, is a great source for information about overcoming codependent dynamics in relationships.
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