Codependents often have trouble being open, honest and assertive with intimate partners says Darlene Lancer, an author and marriage and family therapist. In trying to manage, control and manipulate others, often by "people pleasing" or giving advice, codependents can "turn themselves into pretzels," says Lancer. Now, in her latest book, Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You, Lancer addresses the role of shame and especially childhood shame experiences in codependency.
Martha Rosenberg: Your recent book about shame and codependency brings to mind popular books written by John Bradshaw on the topics 25 years ago, some of which even became PBS specials. What new perspectives does your book bring to the topic?
Darlene Lancer: Bradshaw and I certainly agree that shame and codependency are caused by emotional abandonment in childhood but my book goes into greater depth about how they weave their way through the symptoms of codependency and relationship problems in lives of adults. It also provides steps for healing, drawing on the work of many analysts and therapists. The way that shame and codependency are regarded in healing communities has also changed since Bradshaw's time because of a great focus on trauma and healing from PTSD. The work of Brene Brown has also brought new awareness to the issue of shame.
Martha Rosenberg: What are some of the ways children experience and incorporate shame during their childhoods?
Darlene Lancer: Parents can shame their children's needs, feelings and even interests. For example, if a child is told not to cry and "you're a big boy now," his need for comfort when he is in distress will be shamed. A PBS program showed how different mothers of distressed 2-year-olds reacted. Some did not hold or even look at their children, probably because they were not comforted themselves as children. If a child displays an interest in sports or culture or music and the parents do not approve of it, his interests can be shamed.
Martha Rosenberg: What about parents who tell their kids, especially boys, "I'll give you something to cry about?"
Darlene Lancer: Yes, certainly telling a child he shouldn't feel certain emotions and that there is no justification for them like "don't feel sad" or "you shouldn't feel angry," produces shame. So do characterizations like "I can't believe you got a C on that paper," "what kind of a man are you?" But too much praise can also bring shame because the expectations are so high, the child can become afraid of failure. If a child does experience failure, parents might try diminish it by encouraging the child to ignore the feelings rather than validate the feelings of failure for the child, who then becomes ashamed of shame and doesn't learn to cope with failure. I have had clients who received no comments from a parent at all--not positive or negative which can also be shaming.
Martha Rosenberg: If parents tell a child "good boy" or "good girl" too frequently, couldn't that also convey that the child is being judged?