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
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
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