Authenticity is the opposite of shame. It reveals our humanity and allows us to connect with others. Shame creates almost all codependency symptoms including hiding who we are, sacrificing our needs, and saying yes when we rather not – all to be accepted by someone else. It warps our communication and damages our relationships so that we control, patronize, criticize, blame, deny, withdraw, attack, and make empty promises to keep a relationship and reassure ourselves we’re okay even when we don’t believe it.
Hiding Who You Are
For most of us, our self-doubt and hiding have been going on for so long that by adulthood, we’ve lost touch with who we truly are. We’ve grown accustomed to behaving in certain predictable roles that worked in our more or less troubled families, in school, and in our work. In the process, we sacrifice a degree of freedom, spontaneity, vulnerability, and parts of ourselves. When we marry, for most of us, our personality contracts further into the role of husband or wife, father or mother, and what is acceptable to maintain the marriage.
Even if things look okay on the outside, if we’re fortunate enough not to be in an abusive relationship or one burdened by addiction or dishonesty, we may feel a malaise, an uneasy dissatisfaction, and not know why. If we once shared vibrant love with our spouse or used to have a joie de vivre and hope for the future, we might feel trapped and wonder where our passion and enthusiasm for life went. What happened was, we started shrinking and stopped risking being ourselves.
Falling In Love
Sometimes, when people fall in love, they open up. Loving and feeling accepted in the eyes of our beloved catapults us out of our ordinary personality. We feel expansive and come alive. We rediscover our true selves through the process of being vulnerable and revealing parts of ourselves that we don’t usually experience. Doing so is why romance makes us feel so alive.
Before too long, we discover things we dislike in our partner. Our feelings get deeply hurt, our needs conflict, and we disagree and disapprove. In an attempt to make love last, we start keeping things to ourselves, withdraw, manipulate with words and deeds, or even try to change our partner into the person we imagined he or she was. As things pile up, the risk of being vulnerable and honest with each other looms larger. Even if words of love are spoken, passion and intimacy have vanished. Couples yearn for connection, but feel empty and lonely without intimacy, due to their fear of rejection and loss. We endure, or if the relationship ends, we hurt. Breakups can activate shame, chip away our self-esteem, and raise our defenses, making being so vulnerable again all the riskier. What a conundrum!
Authenticity Requires Courage
Authenticity and intimacy require courage. Each move we make toward authenticity risks exposure, criticism, and rejection, but facing those risks also affirms our real selves. There’s no question that rejection and loss hurt, but paradoxically, risking vulnerability makes us safer, and our defenses weaken us. Healing our shame, building self-esteem, autonomy, and our ability to be assertive and set boundaries can make us feel more secure. When we’re authentic, it invites our partner to do the same. It keeps love alive, and we’re more likely to get our emotional needs met. We not only feel stronger when we’re honest, but it also begins to heal our shame. It also avoids the myriad of defenses and the misunderstandings and conflicts that they create.
How to Be Authentic
Sharing our vulnerability with others requires courage twice. First, we must be honest with ourselves and be able to feel our emotions and identify our needs. Some of us have become numb to our feelings and are clueless about our needs if they were shamed in childhood. When one feeling is unacceptable, they all more or less shrivel. As a consequence, we start to shut down our aliveness. When we don’t acknowledge our needs, they won’t get met.
Identify Your Feelings and Needs
The first step is being able to name what we feel and need in order to communicate effectively. People often say that something made them “upset.” I have no idea whether they were angry, worried, or hurt. Emotions can be confusing. For example, often hurt masquerades as anger, resentment camouflages guilt, rage conceals shame, and sadness covers anger. A key symptom of codependency is denial, including denial of feelings and needs (especially emotional needs). Being authentic with our rage that’s really a defense against shame damages our relationships and pushes others away – usually the opposite of what we really want. Similarly, if, like many codependents, we believe we should be self-sufficient, we might not honor and ask for our needs for closeness or support. As a result, we end up feeling lonely and resentful. Journaling is a great way to decipher our true feelings.
Honor Your Feelings and Needs
We must be able to acknowledge and honor our feelings and needs if we’re going to risk exposing them to others. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, many codependents have internalized shame. We’re also unaware of the shame that conceals and derides them. Working with a skilled therapist will help you be able to feel again and accept your needs without self-judgment. (taming your inner critic is an essential step in self-acceptance.
Improve Your Self-Esteem and Boundaries
It takes courage again to take the ultimate risk of sharing what we feel and need. Without self-esteem and boundaries, we take things personally and collapse into shame. Our prickly defenses immediately get triggered and destroy the emotional safety we’re trying to create. On the other hand, we derive courage from risk-taking. Taking the leap to being vulnerable builds self-esteem and empowers us. With greater self-esteem and connection to ourselves, our boundaries improve. Flexible boundaries also enable us to discern when, where, how, and with whom we’re vulnerable. We’re aware that we’re separate from others and are able to allow their reactions.
Learn to Be Assertive
There are constructive and destructive ways to communicate our vulnerability. Most of us lack those role models from our families where communication is learned. Developing assertiveness skills not only builds self-esteem but enables us to communicate in effective ways that promote connection. This is especially important when we want to share “negative” feelings about things we dislike or don’t want. Additionally, when we’re able to set limits and say “No,” we’re more generous when they say it to us.
We can’t control other people’s reactions, so we also must know that we can nurture and sustain ourselves. This increases our autonomy. Most codependents don’t have good parental models of nurturing. Having supportive relationships and the ability to comfort ourselves make us less codependent on others.
Working with an experienced psychotherapist is generally necessary to undo our old negative programming, and support us in trying new behavior. Attending Twelve-Step meetings helps. Once we start living authentically, whether or not we’re in a relationship, we regain our zest and joy of living. The words of a recent client sum up his experience:
[Therapy] helped me get to the root of the problem, toxic shame, and how to extricate it and replace it with authentic love towards myself. I developed a new-found sense of independence and confidence. I began to approach life boldly, freely expressing my feelings without judgment. Because of this, all the things I wanted but did not know how to get started to be apparent in my life as a natural consequence of being authentic and loving myself. Thank you for helping me get this new beginning in life.
Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and author of Codependency for Dummies, and Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. She’s an expert in relationships, codependency, and addiction, having worked with individuals and couples for 27 years. She maintains a private practice in Santa Monica, CA, and coaches internationally. For more information, see http://www.whatiscodependency.com.