Most of us feel embarrassed at some point or another. Embarrassment is a common response to something we believe threatens the image of ourselves that we’d like to present to the world. The key with embarrassment is that it is both situational and morally neutral.
If you get caught burping, find you have a pimple on the end of your nose, or someone finds out your uncle was once in prison, you may be embarrassed about these things in the moment, but none of these things nor your embarrassment have any relation to your core values and beliefs.
Shame, on the other hand, while often used synonymously with embarrassment, is a very different emotion.
For example, if you mispronounce a word at a party and people laugh, you’ll likely feel embarrassed. However, you’ll also likely remember the correct way to pronounce the word and avoid the situation in the future. On the other hand, if you catch yourself treating someone badly or you fail to do well on a test or get a job and you then see yourself as a “bad” person or “not good enough” because of it, that is the shame of not living up to your own standards of being a “good” person.
Unlike embarrassment, shame is often attached to thoughts and feelings that remain hidden from the outside world. Shame isn’t always situational. And shame is intertwined with our moral character, resulting from the perception that our thoughts or actions are not in alignment with own own beliefs, values, and personal standards.
Unlike temporary embarrassment, shame can also lead to additional self-destructive thoughts and negative self-evaluations, which in turn lead to low self-esteem.
Moreover, shame, unlike embarrassment, is deeply tied to codependency…
Internal Shame and Codependency
As Darlene Lancer has pointed out in her book, Conquering Shame and Codependency, many of the symptoms of codependency are either caused by shame or are defenses to feeling shame.
For people with codependency, the sense of not being a “good” person, or of not being “good enough,” or of not living up to their own standards can be a deeply rooted feeling that often stems from repeated childhood incidents and experiences.
In fact, most codependents grow up feeling ashamed of their wants, feelings, and/or needs, often due to emotional abandonment experienced as children. As adults, they then often devalue and deny those wants, needs, and feelings in order to avoid their own shame.
If childhood shame has never been addressed or examined from the perspective of an adult, it all too easily acts as a trigger just waiting for something in life to bring all those feelings of shame roaring back to the surface.
This constant or ever-present shame – sometimes referred to as toxic shame or internalized shame – prevents individuals from being able to feel loved, respected, appreciated, or happy. They simply cannot accept these feelings, as they see themselves as not being worthy of these positive life experiences.
This inability to allow oneself to feel these positive emotions due to the constant message of their own internal shame playing like a looped tape in their own minds is what leads to low self-esteem, the need to always be better or be “perfect,” the desire to control oneself and others, the need to constantly take care of and please other people, and, quite often, addiction as a means of controlling, denying, or diminishing those shameful feelings.
Given this link between codependency and shame, it should be apparent that recognizing, acknowledging, and working through our own internalized shame is the first step towards reclaiming our relationships and our lives.
We need to overcome our internalized shame before we can learn to set healthy boundaries, be assertive about our needs, and avoid pleasing others at any cost.
Yes, seeing our shame can, in and of itself, feel like yet another shameful experience. But, learning about and recognizing our own internalized shame is the beginning of healing. And, remember, you don’t have to go through this alone… Nor should you!
Remember, if you long for healthier, more loving relationships, the first step is to learn to create that relationship with yourself. And doing so requires you to acknowledge and work through your own internal shame.
Are you, or is someone you know, codependent? Have you been able to recognize and come to terms with your own internalized shame? What did it take for you to do so? Do you have questions about the link between shame and codependency? If so, what are they? Be sure to share your thoughts and questions using the comment section below so we can all learn from and help each other…