At the center of many mental health issues — including addiction and codependency — lies shame.

Shame is so painful to the psyche that most people will do anything to avoid it, even though it’s a natural emotion that everyone has.

It’s a physiologic response of the autonomic nervous system. You might blush, have a rapid heartbeat, break into a sweat, freeze, hang your head, slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact, withdraw, or even get dizzy or nauseous.

Shame is a powerful driving force in many people’s lives, and the hidden shame we learned in childhood can have powerful effects on our adult lives and relationships. That said, there are ways to overcome shame and codependency.

Whereas guilt is a right or wrong judgment about your behavior, shame is a feeling about yourself.

Guilt motivates you to want to correct or repair the error. In contrast, shame is an intense feeling of inadequacy, inferiority, or self-loathing. You want to hide or disappear. In front of others, you feel exposed and humiliated, as if they can see your flaws.

The worst part of it is a profound sense of separation — from yourself and from others. It’s disintegrating, meaning that you lose touch with the other parts of yourself, and you feel disconnected from others.

Shame induces unconscious beliefs, such as:

  • I’m a failure.
  • I’m not important.
  • I’m unlovable.
  • I don’t deserve to be happy.
  • I’m a bad person.
  • I’m a phony.
  • I’m defective.

As with all emotions, shame passes. But for people with addictions, codependency, or both, it lingers — often subconsciously — and leads to other painful feelings and problematic behaviors.

You’re ashamed of who you are. You don’t believe that you matter or are worthy of love, respect, success, or happiness. When shame becomes pervasive, it paralyzes spontaneity.

A chronic sense of unworthiness and inferiority can result in depression, hopelessness, and despair, until you become numb, feeling disconnected from life and everyone else.

Shame can lead to addiction, and is the core feeling that leads to other symptoms in people with codependency.

Here are a few of the other symptoms derived from shame:

For people with codependency, shame can lead to control, caretaking, and dysfunctional, nonassertive communication.

Shame creates fears and anxieties that make relationships difficult, especially intimate ones. Many people sabotage themselves in work and relationships because of these fears. You aren’t assertive when shame causes you to be afraid to speak your mind, take a position, or express who you are.

You blame others because you already feel so bad about yourself that you can’t take responsibility for any mistakes or misunderstanding.

Meanwhile, you apologize like crazy to avoid just that!

Codependency makes people afraid to get close because they don’t believe they’re worthy of love, or that once known, they’ll disappoint the other person. The unconscious thought might be that “I’ll leave before you leave me.” Fear of success and failure may limit job performance and career options.

Because shame is so painful, it’s common for people to hide their shame from themselves by feeling sad, superior, or angry at a perceived insult instead. Other times, it comes out as boasting, envy, or judgment of others. The more aggressive and contemptuous these feelings are, the stronger the shame.

An obvious example is a bully, who brings others down to raise himself up, but this can happen all in your mind.

It needn’t be that extreme. Hidden shame, or internalized shame, might come out through talking down to those you teach or supervise, people of a different class or culture, or someone you judge. Another symptom is frequent idealization of others, because you feel so low in comparison.

The problem with these defenses is that if you aren’t aware of your shame, it doesn’t go away. Instead, it persists and mounts up.

There are three main theories about shame.

The first is functional, derived from Darwinian theory. Functionalists see shame as adaptive to relationships and culture. It helps you to be acceptable and fit in and behave morally in society.

The cognitive model views shame as a self-evaluation in reaction to others’ perception of you and to your failing to meet certain rules and standards. This experience becomes internalized, so that you feel flawed or like a failure. This theory requires self-awareness that may begin around 18 to 24 months old.

The third is a psychoanalytic attachment theory based upon a baby’s attachment to its mother and significant caretakers. When there’s a disruption in that attachment, an infant may feel unwanted or unacceptable early on. According to some research, “shaming dynamics” can affect the quality of a child’s attachment in the first 6 months of life. Research also has shown that a propensity for shame varies among children of different temperaments.

Overcoming shame and codependency requires a safe environment where you can be vulnerable, express yourself, and receive acceptance and empathy. Then, you’re able to internalize a new experience, begin to revise your beliefs about yourself, and build self-esteem.

This may require revisiting shame-inducing events or past messages and re-evaluating them from a new perspective. Usually it takes an empathic therapist or counselor to create that space so that you can incrementally tolerate self-loathing and the pain of shame enough to self-reflect upon it until it dissipates.

If you’re living with addiction, treatment programs can help. People who run treatment programs will understand how to deal with shame in addiction recovery and support you in your recovery.

You can raise your self-esteem to heal your shame with my e-book, “10 Steps to Self-Esteem: How to Stop Self-Criticism,” available at and online booksellers.