Low Self‐Esteem and Codependency

By Darlene Lancer

Whereas shame is a feeling, self‐esteem reflects how you think about yourself. It’s a self‐appraisal. Selfesteem is your real opinion of yourself. Your self‐esteem may be high or low, but isn’t based on what others think. Instead of Self‐esteem (a capital “S” to emphasize self‐evaluation), codependents look to others for their value and validation.

Other people and things make them feel good or bad. You can say that codependents are “other defined.”

You know how it feels to complete a difficult project, win a competition, or just have a great day with your friends. People with high self‐esteem feel that way most of the time. Most people feel dejected when they’re reprimanded by their boss, have a financial setback, or become ill, but these feelings are transient and don’t reflect true Self‐esteem, positive or negative.

Good self‐esteem doesn’t vary significantly with external events. You won’t feel bad about yourself when bad things happen because they’re external and not a reflection of your essential Self. You know that you have the resources to recover. But when people with low self‐esteem suffer loss or disappointment, they feel defeated. The following table compares the signs of high and low self‐esteem.

Signs of High and Low Self-Esteem
High Self-Esteem Low Self-Esteem
Know you’re okay Feel “not enough”; compare and improve self
Know you have value and matter Lack self-worth and value
Feel competent Ask others’ opinion
Like yourself Need others’ approval and are self-critical
Exhibit honesty and integrity Defer to, agree with, and please others
Trust yourself Doubt self and feel indecisive
Compassion for others Are critical of others and are sensitive to criticism
Show responsibility to self and others Discount own feelings, wants, and needs
Accept praise and attention Deflect or doubt praise and dislike attention
Are hopeful Lack confidence and self-efficacy
Respect and compassion for self and others Lack self-respect and self-compassion

If you’re codependent, your self‐esteem is probably low. You may base your self‐worth on money, beauty, prestige, or by excelling at something — even being a great parent — yet none of this is self‐esteem. How will you feel about yourself if you lose your money, looks, prestige, or if your child becomes a drug addict?

There are successful, beautiful celebrities who dislike themselves, and average, ordinary people with high self‐esteem. Nor is true self‐esteem based upon performing well if your actions are motivated by a desire to win others’ approval or recognition — thus the expression, “You’re only as good as your last performance.” You’d be seeking “other” esteem. You may think highly of yourself, not realizing it’s all based on these externals.

Because they’re disconnected from themselves, codependents typically have difficulty with self‐trust and following their inner guidance. You may be confused or unable to make up your mind, always asking someone else’s opinion. You may not know what you really want and defer to others in order to be liked and loved. When you know your needs and desires, you may dismiss or talk yourself out of them, or go along with someone to avoid conflict — especially in close relationships.

Low self‐esteem can make you super‐critical, so that you find fault with just about anything concerning yourself — how you feel, act, look, and what you need, think, say, or create. You may even hate and loathe yourself. Like most people, you probably don’t realize the extent of your self‐judgment. It makes you sensitive to criticism and feel criticized when you’re not. When you receive praise, attention, compliments, or gifts, you’re embarrassed and make excuses because you don’t feel deserving. Being self‐critical also makes you critical of others.

Don’t be discouraged. There’s hope. Your self‐esteem is learned, and poor self‐esteem can be transformed into self‐worth.