Book Review – Conquering Shame and Codependency


Conquering ShameTo follow up my interview with Darlene Lancer, I decided to review her book Conquering Shame and Codependency. Having personally spoken with the author recently, I could almost hear the voice of the author come out of the pages as I reread parts for this review.

Feel free to also check out the interview with Darlene Lancer.

Overall, this book is well-researched and has the not-so-obvious insights I enjoy when I invest the time for self-improvement. I would recommend this book to those who struggle with codependency issues and are having trouble putting their finger on “why”. Yes, it has to do with your childhood as most counselors will tell you, but this book shows how the “separation of self” actually occurs due to shame. The concepts are easy to digest, and it’s presented in a way that makes it easy to see how this might have happened in your life.

The book opens with a discussion on shame and how it underlies addiction. Shame is a natural part of life, but culture can shape how we use it. For example, in China shame is the beginning of integrity. But in the west, we tend not to share our shame in spite of the fact we sometimes never forget our shameful experiences. Nonetheless, we need to be fortified with coping skills to be resilient to shame. “Becoming independent and self-supporting is a milestone that, if not reached, can trigger a sense of failure for not meeting societal norms for success.”

The book explains that there’s a common confusion between shame and other things, likes shyness or guilt. Guilt, while perceived as negative, can actually be an indicator of something that needs corrected. The difference is that while guilt is awareness that SOMETHING WE DID WAS WRONG, shame is a belief that there’s SOMETHING WRONG WITH US.

We also learn in Chapter 1 that too much shame, or shame about the “wrong” things, sabotages relationships and can lead to anti-social behavior, addiction, and codependency. And when shame becomes chronic, it can take over our identity and our ability to enjoy life, chipping away at the trust we have in the world and ourselves. It’s the feeling of being a bad or unworthy person. Chronic shame no longer needs an external event to be triggered. This is when shame becomes a paralyzing problem.

“Whatever we feel ashamed of, at its foundation is an often unconscious belief of inferiority or unacceptability – of being unlovable.”

Another statement that rang true for me is that we imagine others see and judge us as we judge ourselves. Often we think people are judging us or judging our loved ones when they’re not. It’s reminiscent of Don Miguel Ruiz’ The Four Agreements, the second of which is Don’t Make Assumptions.

In later chapters, the author describes the effect that chronic shame has on the developing self. Essentially, if parts of us are denied, rejected, ignored, or invalidated, or if we go through a traumatic event, we may cope by creating unreal identities (Ideal Self) which we then try to actualize instead of actualizing our True Self.

Our True Self thrives in warmth, nurturing, and affirmation, When we don’t receive these things, our True Self recedes and becomes overshadowed by shame which we internalize over time. “Our ideal self reflects on how we think we should be in order to survive in the family, but instead of protecting our real self, the ideal self further alienates us from who we really are….” “From childhood onward, the Critic expects the unattainable by insisting that we suppress authentic feelings and traits that conflict with our internal ideal. We conform to who it thinks we should be and what it believes we should feel, think, do, and need.”

The interesting correlation the book draws is how this shame and separation of self actually precipitates codependency.

“The codependent self is out of touch with the real self. A codependent is someone who can’t function from his or her innate self, but organizes thinking and behavior around another person(s) success, process, or substance; whether addicted to a person, a process (such as gambling or sex), or a substance (such as food, drugs, or alcohol), they all share symptoms and characteristics. The difference is the object(s) of a person’s dependency. Codependency is a disease of a lost self, depriving us of vitality, spontaneity, and self-fulfillment.”

There’s also discussion about intergenerational codependency; it happens especially when one or both parents were codependent. Neglected parents often become overinvolved, and parents that are controlled become too permissive. As a consequence children develop codependent problem around autonomy, boundaries and / or self-trust.

When we deny shame instead of integrating it, it gets triggered and we become vulnerable to getting entrenched in it. We might act out, withdraw, become aggressive, project, or avoid altogether, but the shame doesn’t go away.

Part of Chapter 3 discuss how we cope with this downward shame-spiral, namely by adopting specific personality types, and for codependents, the pervading personality type is called The Accommodator. Those who are addicted to love, romance, or relationships closely resemble the stereotypical codependent. “Accommodators yearn for happiness and validation with one significant person with whom they can merge to finally achieve wholeness.” They don’t believe they have rights, and feel guilty stating their needs, of which they’re mostly unaware. This denial of self-interest and fear of conflict and abandonment makes setting boundaries extremely difficult for Accommodators, which allows others to easily abuse and exploit them.

This section explains why codependents express their frustration through passive-aggressiveness rather than directness, because they, “are usually reliving the experience of being shamed as a child, enacted by a partner whom they see as their parent. Emotionally trapped in their past, they’re unable to access their power as an adult, further stunting their ability to assert and protect themselves and stop the abuse. Instead, to keep peace, they placate, appease, and communicate indirectly in ways that are dishonest, manipulative, and passive-aggressive. Their aggression is directed at themselves and is expressed indirectly toward others through control, criticism, complaints, and passive manipulation.”

In the process of healing, the codependent must drop his or her external focus, which often results in emptiness, since she was used to getting validation, attention or recognition from the outside. There’s suddenly a void, a void formerly filled by drama, and just as an addict faces the loss of his drug of choice, the codependent faces a lack of meaning.

To move passed this, “The objective is to voluntarily experience the emptiness that occurs by intentionally not trying to escape despair. Abandon hope as well… and allow a humbling powerlessness to occur.” This forces a person to get something from herself and get less from the outside. Once expectations are more aligned with reality, change can happen.

Meditation was mentioned as a healthy exercise to start getting more aligned. I’m always interested to see this technique mentioned as I read books on the topic, as I came to the same conclusion on my own years ago. Of course, if feelings are too intense to process on your own, the author recommends seeking professional help.

As one faces the void of emptiness after giving up external focus, there are a host of common issues they may come upon, such lack of self-trust, feeling unimportant, guilt or anxiety, perfectionism, various forms of controlling, the “tyranny of the shoulds”. With some searching, one finds that these issues are largely due to the Inner Critic. Once one can “examine and release the Critics’s admonishments, their energy returns, their mood lifts, and their real self is free to enjoy the present.”

At the end, Darlene lays out an 8-step process for recovery. The steps involve increasing self-awareness to connect with the True Self, processing one’s shame, and build self-esteem and self-love. Many of the steps circle back to an Inner Child healing technique whereby the subject writes in the voice of the Inner Critic with the dominant hand, and responds with the non-dominant hand.

There are dozens of steps and exercises to go through in this section. To name a few of the exercise headings, “Review each day and write about your personal interactions. Write about your feelings.” “Notice when you’re having a shame attack.” “Each time you’re self-critical, give yourself a signal.” “List the ‘shoulds’ and expectations you have for yourself and your family.” “Is there a similarity between what your Critic says to you and what you say or think about others.” “List some of the family mottos.” “Was there a family secret no one talked about, either within or outside the family.” “List blaming and shaming messages you received in your childhood.” “Write a letter to the person who shamed you, recounting what was done to you, how you felt at the time, and how it has affected your life.” “ What were your critics intentions, motives, and desires with respect to each of your flaws.” “Test the validity of your critics assumptions and beliefs.” “Write down triggers – occurrences that repeatedly cause you to experience shame and shaming messages.” “Try being vulnerable with someone you trust.” “ Create affirmations that contradict your shaming messages.” “What would be the consequences of shame-based beliefs about yourself?” “Meditate.” “ Notice when you feel self-pity or like a victim.” “Tell yourself loving messages.”

If you want to hear more from the author, feel free to check out my interview with Darlene Lancer.

Have you read the book? Was it helpful to you? If you haven’t read it, do you think it sounds helpful? Comment below!

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3 Comments
  1. This is an excellent review and makes me really think about some of the clients I work with as well as some of my patterns of behavior. Thank you for the review and I am ordering the book!

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