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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Observations on shame: Shame and codependence













In my previous entry on shame, Observations on shame: "The Shame Cycle", I touched upon a destructive force called shame and how it keeps us in a negative rut or cycle.  In this entry, I will again talk about shame, but I will focus on a particular effect of shame in our lives.

We look at this cartoon and we laugh a little bit about how absurd it is.   The kid in this cartoon blows a small mistake--dropping lunchbox on the way to school--out of proportion.  Instead of just accepting that he made a minor flub, he takes on the role of the black sheep of the family over it.  In other words, he makes it about his role in the family.  His own personal shame is causing him to view the situation improperly.   In AA, this would be considered or referred to as a form of "stinking thinking". In other words, he is viewing the situation through the lens of his role in the family due to his own unspecified personal shame.  The irony is that his counselor, Dr. Baer, probably picked up his lunch and is laughing about this small incident has thrown him into a crisis of codependence.

The panel above in black in white we see as absurd codependence based on shame.  However, when we go through our everyday lives without truly having processed our history, are we that much different than the little boy who 'disgraced his family' by losing his lunchbox?  I contend that many of us, if confronted with in black and white with our own words and behaviors would see codependent behavior fueled by shame.

So what exactly is connection between shame and codependency?  I will first digress and differentiate between shame and guilt.  From the May 30, 2013 Psychology Today online article "The Difference Between Guilt and Shame" comes the following:

Guilt: a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
Shame: the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.
For the sake of discussion, I will refer to shame and guilt interchangeable as each can be equally disabling.   Anyway, the connection.

Shame --> Damaged Self-Esteem or  Doubt --> Strong Need for Confirmation and Approval  --> Doing What it Takes to Get or Retain that Approval = Codependence which manifests itself in basing some or part of our actions and behaviors on fulfilling that need.

Examples of shame/guilt leading to codependence:

Example 1:
You go through a divorce and in the process, cause pain for the children.  You feel shame or guilt over a failed marriage and the hurt that is causing your kid(s).  This is especially true if your kid(s) are acting out.  You know from your religious/moral background and upbringing what is acceptable behavior for your children.  Also, you know on some level what boundaries they need.  But your guilt or shame bleed into the situation, leading to lowered esteem or doubt and you begin to question what you 'know' or were taught.  Kids are very intuitive and they can sense this and they start probing for weak spots.   When they find the weak spots, they exploit them, often with questioning of authority and misbehavior.  This doubt on the parent's part and adjustment to settle down the situation.  Hence, the divorcing parent becomes embroiled in codependency with his or her kids.

Example 2:
Someone close to you--mom, dad, brother, friend--dies at an early age or commits suicide.  On some level notice he or she was having problems beforehand, but it didn't necessarily click the magnitude of the problems.  In hindsight, it seems as if warning signs were there.  When we are trying to get by everyday, not everything is clear.  Someone says they are unhappy or aren't feeling good.  But, we know like with cold, the appearance of  'symptoms'--such as tiredness or slightly irritated throat--beforehand doesn't always portend a cold.  Similarly, if the loved one had sent such signals beforehand and pulled through, it is easy to see the sickness or depression as just another bump in the road.  Anyway, guilt over "not being there" the way we THINK we should have can be very disabling.  This can spill over into other areas of our lives.  Well-meaning family can give us 'advice' going forward and being in a weakened state and feeling bad, we may seek their validation or approval and it can be easy to slip into a pattern of orienting our actions to please them, rather than doing what we need to for ourselves.  This is especially true if the family member(s) are opinionated and tend to be controlling.  In other words, they use your shame or guilt against you.

Anyway, the keys to keeping shame or guilt from bleeding into codependence can be found in answering the following questions:


  • Do you find yourself extensively stressing over whether the other party(s) approve your choices/actions.  That is to say, are you more focused on whether a choice or action is the best or most logical choice OR are you focused on defending the choice or action to others?
  • If saw this exact situation playing out with strangers would how would you assess or advise in the situation?  If your assessment or advice is different than that which you'd give yourself, then chances are you are blocked by your own self-doubt.
  • Are you willing to do the unpopular thing, which you 'know' to be the right thing, or does the fear of being 'unloved' tend to get in the way?

Shame can keep us from making or repeating bad choices.  Guilt, when not displaced, can also redirect us to doing the right thing in the future.  In and of itself, neither is necessarily a bad thing.   However, each can be a destructive feeling or force if they bleed into our relationship with others.  While each can give us guardrails in our dealings with others, they shouldn't control or interfere with how we interact with others.  It is important to look beyond them and look to what specific circumstances and dealings with others dictate.