How To Improve Self-Esteem for The Codependent

What is self esteem?

Simply put, self esteem is an evaluation of an individual’s worth or how a person judges him/herself.  In 1969, Nathaniel Branden, a California based, Canadian psychotherapist said it this way, “Self esteem is the experience of being competent to cope with basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness.”

Every human being is worthy of happiness.  The way we go about achieving that happiness could set us up for success or failure.  It has been my experience as a codependent that happiness cannot be true if someone else determines it for me.  This is all linked to self esteem.  Self esteem begins to take shape during childhood and is often difficult to change as we grow into adults, especially for codependents.

In this post I want to explore how codependents handle self esteem, some pointers for promoting good self esteem in children and recovering codependent adults and see how to track progress.  I will also share some personal experience with you relating to my own battle with self esteem.

Self Esteem and Codependency

Codependents usually have a delicate self esteem paired with a solid fear of being rejected or abandoned.  Their “esteem” is derived from another’s perception of them.  Codependents often follow an enabling way of life.  By solving other’s problems for them, “esteem” is boosted in an irrational and distorted way.  If something goes wrong in any situation, a codependent will take responsibility and bear the burden of guilt for others.  A codependent may also fear losing themselves in a relationship.  Giving up usual and familiar outside activities and/or friendships is usually an indicator that self esteem is being tested.  A codependent that frees up all the extra time spent with others to focus on one relationship eventually becomes enveloped.  A feeling of being needed trumps everything else.

The realization of codependency comes when someone in the relationship no longer desires the company of the other.  More often than not it’s not the codependent that makes a change which sends them into a confused, worthless, hopeless state.  Their “esteem” has taken a hit.  Regardless of how a codependent decides to gain their worth from within, the act of doing so should be nurtured by the surrounding support group.  Once this person learns how to invest in a relationship with his/herself, self-esteem begins to take shape.

Happy Woman in Field

Promoting Healthy Self Esteem

The sort of things a newly recovering codependent needs to learn are similar to what a child needs to learn about self esteem.  Promoting healthy self esteem begins by finding balance.  The goal is to help them feel capable and also loved, encouraged and enjoyed.  Here are a few pointers to aid in this promotion:

  • Watch what you say and how you say it.  Children tend to take things very literally and your tone of voice is a huge indicator of honesty for them.  A recovering codependent will be fragile while building self esteem.  Be honest without being harsh.  For example, “I see you had a hard time with that but I’m very proud of you for trying anyway.  Let’s practice and try again.”  Humor may also be helpful to lighten a mood and share your personal experience to let them know you understand.
  • Teach by example.  Children tend to mimic what their parents do.  If they see you get down on yourself they may end up doing the same without fully understanding what impact it is having on them.  Recovering codependents need to see that their role model is not a hypocrite.  Trust remains broken if that person is getting mixed signals.
  • Watch for signals that come from outside the home or recovery place that may impact self esteem.  We will deal with peer pressure throughout our whole life.  Encourage open communication to build that trust relationship while respecting confidentiality.

Tracking Progress

There are subtle ways to track progess during recovery.  Self esteem is built little by little and strengthened through rewarding, fulfilling activities.  A newly recovering person may want to stick to themselves and be overly critical when they make a mistake because they are so uncertain of everything.  They tend to quickly throw their hands up and walk away.  Acknowledge that change is hard.  Eventually, after some time and tears, they begin to truly enjoy certain things.  They will want to spend time with other people, especially people on their level who understand them.  This process will also take a look at strengths and weakness and view them for what they are.  Self esteem comes with understanding these strengths and weaknesses without getting upset at yourself.

There are a few assessments that can be taken to determine self esteem.  One is a self report inventory which is an emotional evaluation of one’s worth.  There is also one called Coopersmith inventory which is 50 questions that allow comparison between yourself and a situation presented.  The Rosenberg assessment gives situations and asks if you agree or disagree to measure self esteem.  You will find links to these throughout the website.

Taking It Personal

I have used this information to reflect on my first codependent relationship that I had to end.  I learned a lot about self esteem during the following events in my life.

My high school boyfriend and I dated throughout our junior and senior year and into the first year of college.  He chose a school out of town and joined the Penn State Marching Blue Band.  I chose a school 6 miles from home and struggled to make friends.  I lived to see him every weekend at football games.  All of my attention became focused on him.  I freaked out when I couldn’t talk to him regularly.  So I spend my time calling and emailing between classes and growing angry when he didn’t respond in a timely manner.  He was in class focusing on his future.  The fact that he didn’t respond right away had nothing to do with that fact that he didn’t want to talk to me.  But I took it personally.  I became addicted to figuring out how to get his attention all the time.  I even thought about transferring to Penn State so I could be closer.  I was extremely insecure with myself.  I had a hard time paying attention to what was going on around me and I missed out on all the fun college stuff like sorority rushing, meeting new people, attending my own school’s sports events, and figuring out where I could fit in.

My “esteem” was not coming from within.  Eventually I moved home and commuted so I could have a job and try to stay busy.  During Christmas break he confronted me about everything and our relationship changed.  That summer we decided it would be best not to see each other.  I faced that ultimate fear of rejection.  It became my mission to find the next person who could fill that hole inside.  There were a few prospects but it just wasn’t the same.  That was the same summer I met the most charming mistake I would make yet.  I felt on top of the world but was just digging myself into a deeper hole.  I totally lost my whole self over the next few years.

Once I decided that I was no longer satisfied with the situation, I became ready to find me.  An initial evaluation of my situation indicated that I experienced extremely low self esteem.  This most likely led me to be attracted to the relationship I found myself in.  It has taken just as much time if not more to rebuild that shattered part of me.  The void that I felt after these broken relationships could only be filled with ME.  If not for a strong support group and will to succeed, I would not have been able to write about this to help someone else out there.

So…what is your self esteem like?  How do you see yourself?  I’m sure there are things you like and don’t like and improvements you wouldn’t mind making.  The biggest question to ask yourself is “Where does my worth come from?”  I hope the information and personal experience I have shared will be helpful to answer this question.  Find that safe place for you within you.

3 Comments
  1. I have just listened to your podcast on boundaries….very insightful.
    I have always encouraged students to learn their “personal bill of rights” to help them know when to set a boundary…..extremely helpful in teaching my course Life Skills for Self-Management of Stress, Anxiety and Depression. Good luck with yours!

    • Thanks Karen! In general boundaries has become a huge topic, thanks for the feedback. Where can we find your course?

      William