CNM 014: Shame and Codependency – with Darlene Lancer

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In this episode, I interview therapist, trainer, speaker, and author Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT about her book Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps To Freeing The True You. Darlene brings a world of experience not only as a codependent, but as a renowned codependency expert.

Interview With Darlene Lancer

Question: In the first chapter you spend some time helping us understand shame, and specifically that internalized, chronic shame is actually a major culprit and pervasive symptom of codependency. And yet we confuse shame with things like shyness, embarrassment, and particularly, guilt. I hear the word guilt come up a lot with codependents, so can you help us understand the real difference between shame and guilt?

Answer: Toxic shame starts in childhood. One of the symptoms of this is prolonged, irrational guilt.

Guilt is actually healthy and can build your self-esteem, because with healthy guilt you’re motivated to make amends or change your behavior as you’re thinking about your impact on others. You feel empathy, and feel that you’re redeemable and empowered.

However, with shame there is a judgment on oneself. I didn’t just DO SOMETHING WRONG, there’s SOMETHING WRONG WITH ME. And what happens to codependents is that they do something they feel guilty about, then they take it a step further and say, “How could I do that? That’s so stupid!” Shame is more internal, and we want to hide it to save face. That’s when egocentricity happens. Instead of empathizing with others, the focus becomes “what do others think of me?” And instead of promoting self-esteem, you feel worse about yourself and irredeemable. You feel there’s nothing you can do about it because YOU are the problem, so the only thing that can result are negative things such as anger, aggression, withdrawal, pathological symptoms, antisocial behavior – you feel powerless. And this can cause depression, addiction, and all sorts of things.

For most codependents, especially before recovery, guilt spills over into shame.

Question: You discuss how shame leads to a separation of “self”. On one hand you have your True Self, and on the other you have your Ideal Self, and somewhere in the middle is your Inner Critic. How does this separation of self actually happen, and where does the Inner Critic come from?

We all have a super ego, it’s part of natural development of the personality and helps you to conform. Parents socialize their children. In the west it’s done more with guilt, and in collectivist cultures like Latin America or Asia, shame is more widely used to shape children’s behavior. With dysfunctional parenting, other things engender shame so that they feel they’re not good enough. Messages from parents, verbal and nonverbal, can tell a child that there’s something wrong with them. But a child needs to feel accepted for who they are, not just for pleasing their parents for doing something good, but just because they are a human being. Children in dysfunctional families grow up with this feeling that they’re not acceptable.

In order to feel safe in that family they start adapting to what the parent wants or what they imagine they should be – the good boy or girl, the athlete, top students, depending on the individual. These ideals of how they think they will be accepted become the focus, and rather than striving to actualize the True Self, they try to become who they think they SHOULD be, the ideal way they think they need to be to survive in this environment where they don’t feel wanted or accepted.

The Critic can be, for example, the voice of the parent that gets internalized, and starts reprimanding them to be more and more like their ideal, and the True Self recedes. The True Self is more connected to the child’s needs, wants, and feelings, and it’s very spontaneous. But as a child in a dysfunctional family gets older, they start repressing and conforming to what they think they need to be, and they learn to disown their needs, feelings, wants, and start to develop this false, Ideal Self.

Question: You discuss how we cope with shame by adopting different personality types, labeled as The Master, The Bystander, or The Accommodator (which makes up the majority of self-identified codependents). Can you describe what this personality type looks like and why?

Children will develop these ideals based on their personality, culture, family, and the personality types are just constructs to help people think about them. Everyone has somewhat of a combination of all of these types. The type that most codependents would self-identify with is moving toward people and compliance – The Accommodator. And that’s because these people realize that the best way to be safe and feel loved is to be loving, and so they idealize love and the need for a relationship, they seek affection and approval from others more than other personality types, and this is their measure of self esteem. If they can get someone else’s love or approval, then they feel okay. They seek it on the outside to make up for what they don’t feel on the inside.

Everyone of course has this need, but in this case it’s taken to an idealized extreme. They give up themselves and maybe even their passions or interests to go along with someone else. The highest value for this type is the connection to the other person, and it gets hard to assert themselves if it’s in conflict with someone else’s need. In fact, people in abusive or even physically violent relationships have a stronger need for connection than they fear abuse, and they will ignore their own safety and well-being to stay connected to the abuser. So in the cycle of violence, typically an abuser will become remorseful and apologetic at times, and then they’re so relieved that now the bond is reconstituted.

Question: You discuss the emptiness and void codependents feel when they finally decide to give up their external focus on helping or trying to change others, and how they can suddenly be met with the shame and inadequacy they’ve been avoiding or projecting. Your subheading in Chapter 4 is called Facing the Void, in which you describe that once a codependent reaches this stage of emptiness, it’s healthy to “sit” with the emptiness and despair, accept it, and even meditate on it. The question is – are codependents typically able to work through these feelings and emotions on their own, or do they usually end up requiring counseling or outside help to get passed this?

What’s needed is a container – a psychological term that means the presence of someone else. Typically people don’t “feel” this emptiness because they go from one person to another, or one addiction to another, and they take their eyes off someone that they’re involved with and then go to compulsively exercising or shopping, eating, working or some other type of addiction. The brains needs stimulation, and if it doesn’t find it in one area, it will substitute it for something else at the same level. Underneath this addiction is emptiness, and so codependency underlines addiction.

It’s very difficult to process this on your own, because people tend to want to be distracted. That’s the whole thing with codependency – you don’t want to look within. It’s like living from the outside in instead of from the inside out. They’re afraid of that; there may be a lot of sadness or anger underneath it, and if you can sit with it long enough it will transform. I’ve seen it happen with clients where they’re feeling ashamed and they get into their emptiness, and next thing you know, they’re feeling bliss, but it’s very hard to do.

Question: In Chapter 5, you list several symptoms of codependency, including denial of needs and wants. What would you say to someone who has plenty of codependency symptoms; they’re still very externally focused, and so they deny that they themselves have a problem?

That’s a good question because denial is the hallmark of addiction. I devote a whole chapter to denial in Codependency For Dummies because breaking through denial is difficult. Someone else can’t do it for you, they can only help you think about the consequences of your behavior. Typically, codependents want to fix someone else’s codependency. They can be very indignant because they feel ashamed.

Denial is interesting because it’s like asking someone, “how do you know what you don’t know?” If you’re in denial, how do you know? In Codependency For Dummies there’s a questionnaire for people to ask themselves, for example, “Do you rationalize someone’s behavior? Do you think about a certain time in the future when things will be better? Do you minimize someone’s behavior? Do you spend time thinking about how you’d like things to be; if only he or she would change or get a job, etc? Do you make a lot of concessions, thinking that the relationship or someone else’s behavior will improve? Do you give a lot of advice and get resentful when people don’ take it? Do you constantly believe promises and occurrences that are broken? These might be some clues.

Question: In the final chapter, you lay out eight steps to free your true self. Where do people tend to get “stuck” in this process and why?

Everyone’s different. A lot of times people don’t want to do the work to begin with, so they may just not want to take the time. I think the thing that’s hardest is self-love, really being kind to yourself. For years people would tell me I needed to love myself, and I had no clue what that meant. I have a blog called 10 Tips to Self Love and Compassion, about honoring your commitments to yourself, standing up for yourself. It’s hard for codependent to learn to be assertive. It takes a while to do this and set boundaries.

Your communication is learned in your family, and it’s usually dysfunction in codependent homes. It’s something that’s not that hard to learn if you put your mind to it, and becoming assertive is one of the single best ways to raise your self-esteem, and it involves taking risks. Change is not easy; it might be uncomfortable, or provoke fear or anxiety. But that’s what’s required – it’s really changing your whole personality in a way. That’s where people need support. First of all, they get stuck in their own way of thinking, which is what’s gotten them in trouble in the first place. And then they need encouragement and support to take these risks, and hear how other people did it successfully, and that builds self-esteem. So it requires action. Insight and awareness are important. And then it requires action; learning new skills, and being kind to yourself, developing interests outside of your significant other, being kind to yourself. I have clients that are kinder to their pet than they are to themselves. They wouldn’t think of talking to their pet the way they talk to themselves.

Question: In light of all your expertise, what’s your biggest piece of advice for codependents?

When you feel that you’re in a negative mood, you have to stop and ask yourself, “what do I need?” This is one of the hardest things for codependents; identifying their needs and fulfilling them. They’re so focused on other peoples’ needs and wants, and they’re so removed or alienated from their true self, that many times they don’t even know what they need, or they just want someone else to make them happy. Some needs require another person, but by and large there’s a lot that we can do for ourselves. Take action and learn to be assertive. Set boundaries, honor your feelings, and support yourself little by little to be more authentic.

(End of Interview)

Like what Darlene has to say? Our full review of Conquering Shame and Codependency can be found here.

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About Darlene Lancer

Darlene LancerDarlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s the author of two books: Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies. Her ebooks include: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem – The Ultimate Guide to Stop Self-Criticism, How to Speak Your Mind – “Become Assertive and Set Limits”, Spiritual Transformation in the Twelve Steps, and Codependency Recovery Daily Reflections: Facebook’s Best. Ms. Lancer has counseled individuals and couples for 27 years and coaches internationally. She’s a sought after speaker at national conferences and in media. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own, and, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.” Find her on, Twitter @darlenelancer, and Facebook. You can contact her at

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