“I had found the enemy — and it was me.”
So writes Darlene Lancer in Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.
Sometimes there are true external foes that we must fight and defeat. But quite often, when we take a hard look at a situation, we are indeed our own worst enemy. How often do you wish you could silence that ever-judging internal self-critic who holds you repeatedly up to the gold standard and always finds you wanting?
The true enemy for many of us, Lancer writes, is this type of internal shame. “Shame,” she notes, “destroys our dreams and stifles our talents, and as much as we want to love and be loved, it sabotages our relationships.”
It is the shame and subsequent disconnection from the so-called authentic self that form the basis for codependency and addiction, Lancer argues. By beginning to address this underlying issue, she writes, we can begin to step away from unhealthy relationships and towards a truer, more autonomous existence.
Lancer speaks from experience, both personal and professional. She opens with the story of coming to terms with a codependent relationship that had left her isolated and out of touch with friends and family, as well as distanced from her own feelings. Through realizing that she was being ruled by shame, and by finding in this process a deeper self-knowledge, Lancer was able to leave both a destructive relationship and her former profession (to become a therapist, which she has been for the past several decades).
“Shame isn’t discussed much publicly, and it’s the elephant in the therapy room that isn’t addressed,” she writes. So the book begins with a frank discussion of shame, its cultural underpinnings, and its closest cousins — shyness, humiliation, embarrassment, and guilt.
While guilt and shame may seem synonymous, Lancer makes an important distinction. Unlike guilt, where we feel bad about something we have done, shame means we feel that we ourselves are bad. Lancer offers us a taxonomy of shame, describing the different types — from existential to narcissistic — and describes how they are experienced, whether acute or internalized.
To really understand our shame, no matter which type, requires a look in the rear-view mirror. As Lancer points out, “Even if we grew up in a fairly healthy family environment, most of us can trace the roots of our shame to our childhood.” Citing the work of notable figures in the field of psychology and psychoanalysis, she writes that if parents or parental figures deny, reject, or ignore parts or all of our real self, “we adapt in ways that help us survive in our family environment by creating ‘unreal’ identities.” These identities, she writes, “take us away from our real self.”
Among these unreal identities is being codependent. Out of touch with the real self, the codependent person “organizes thinking and behavior around another person(s), process or substance.” Hence “freeing the true you” in the title.
Unfortunately, though Lancer provides extensive information on the different types of shame and its various manifestations, I was surprised to find the promised eight steps to freeing yourself all crammed into the last chapter.
I was also a bit skeptical when Lancer calls these steps “concrete,” then writes that step one is “find your true self.”
I don’t know about you, but I consider concrete steps to be things like “cream together half a cup of butter with one cup of sugar” or “use a Philips screwdriver to attach bracket as shown in figure A.” People go to psychoanalysis four days a week for years to find their true self. Step one of eight? Really?
Still, Lancer does offer exercises and suggestions for getting through this step and getting in touch with your “true” self. These include taking the time to regularly examine your own needs, writing down your core values and reviewing whether your interactions with others are in accordance with these values, writing about your feelings, and organizing your priorities. And, to be fair, Lancer herself concedes at the opening of her book that “to fully recover, it’s essential to do this work with a trusted and experienced sponsor, counselor or psychotherapist.”
So on the one hand, the book and its title set up a promise that cannot quite be delivered. On the other, if you begin to work through Lancer’s exercises on your own, you will likely gain self-knowledge. Think of the book as a launch point for eventually getting closer to your authentic self, rather than an immediate solution, and it may just help you with some codependency issues.
Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You
Hazelden, June 2014
Paperback, 180 pages