By Darlene Lancer

Normally, shame passes after an embarrassing incident, but for codependents shame is internalized from experiences in childhood. It sits there waiting to be activated and persists long after the event, like an open wound that has never healed. You’re ashamed of who you are. It’s all pervasive, paralyzes spontaneity, and defines you.

You don’t believe that you matter or are worthy of love, respect, success, or happiness. You think that you’re bad, defective, inadequate, a phony, a failure, or worse.

Chronic internalized shame makes ordinary shame feel more intense and last longer, and it creates shame anxiety largely about being acceptable to yourself and other people. Extreme, prolonged shame can lead to hopelessness and despair or cause psychic numbing, being dead inside like a zombie.

Internalized shame causes low self‐esteem and most codependent symptoms, such as pleasing, addiction, control, caretaking, depression, lack of assertiveness, intimacy problems, and perfectionism. Core feelings that stem from low self‐esteem and internalized shame are listed in the following table.

Core Codependent Feelings
Low Self-Esteem Shame Fear Guilt
You Lack: You Feel: You Fear: You Feel Guilt About:
Self-confidence Unworthiness Abandonment Your feelings
Self-trust Unlovable Rejection Your actions
Self-acceptance Anxiety Making mistakes Your needs
Self-responsibility Unimportant Criticism Others’ feelings
Self-efficacy (agency) Undeserving Failure and success Others’ actions
Self-respect Self-loathing Intimacy Others’ needs
Self-value/worth Judgmental Own power Others’ problems

Internalized 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. Because shame is painful, you may be unconscious of your shame and think you have good self‐esteem.

You may boast or feel self‐important and superior to those you teach or supervise, people of a different class or culture, or anyone you judge. By devaluing others, you boost yourself higher to deny and hide your shame from yourself. Most codependents fluctuate between feeling inferior and superior.