Shame: the Core of Codependency
Frederick A. Levy LCSW


John's spine shrivelled as he slowly met Rachel's raging eyes. Still, he didn't know what he had done wrong, and asking her only brought more silent accusations. His heart raced; his palms moistened. John struggled to regain his composure, but with lightning speed he melted like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz.


Terrified, he recalled the same annihilating gaze in his mother's eyes, which still haunted him from the distant echoes of his childhood. He also heard his father, slurring his curses, pleading to the heavens for John not to have been born. At times like these, he could only hope to agree. Being unborn seemed the only solution to the pain of living.


John, an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACoA), was experiencing shame, which was rooted in his past. As a child, he had felt responsible for managing the family's agony. He had never rocked the boat, and had taken great pains not to upset anybody. When his alcoholic father used to erupt at his mother, John would make peace; even as an eight year old he had served as a one boy United Nations. He would also strive to excel at school, since the household seemed to breathe easier after he had received some special recognition for his achievements.


Over time, John came to believe that if dad drank, it was John's fault because he had not been an adequate peacemaker. Failing to anticipate his family's needs could panic him, and fill him with dread as though he had doomed his family to death.


Family discussions were a nightmare. His dad never took time to explain, since there was always someone to shame, humiliate and blame. As a result, they rarely resolved conflicts, and today's losers only plotted for the time they could pay their persecutors back.


As John grew older, he worked even harder to heal his family. But, he often felt confused. Unpredictably, his parents would become totally enraged and disgusted with him. Then, like a sudden hail storm, the fury would end and he would be their son again. He didn't realize that the rule of the house was alcohol; whether dad was high or hung over would determine if John was a hero, or someone about to be orphaned. He felt defective. Nevertheless, John resolved to be better; then maybe he could make his parents proud.


Eventually, John learned to keep quiet; too scary to share a feeling inside or outside the family if it could cause unending turmoil and chaos. Once, after his teacher had found him asleep at his desk, he began to share how his parents screaming had kept him awake the previous night. When her note of concern arrived home, John paid. Their beating hurt, but worse was the pain he could never share, that for years stayed locked inside, just beyond the reach of a hand.


Later, when John fell in love with Rachel, he did whatever he could to please her. He avoided conflict at all costs. She could be warm and kind, but she often seemed dissatisfied with him. Rachel's anger frightened him terribly. Sometimes, she would stay angry with him for days, but never say what was really troubling her. John would walk on eggshells, but somehow always managed to trip the wire that detonated the bomb.


John was feeling shame over his inability to guarantee Rachel's happiness. Since he loved her, he felt the need to anticipate and solve any problem she had before it appeared, much as he had with his family. Fortunately, after much painful soul searching, he realized that he didn't have to be responsible for Rachel to be worthy of her. He contemplated life after rescuing, and what his value as a person might really be. Then he could see a future, and for the first time in his life, John was included.


Copyright Fred Levy, LCSW all rights reserved