This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Codependent No More" by Melody Beattie. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What are some of the consequences of low self-esteem? How can having low self-esteem make codependency traits worse?
In her classic book Codependent No More, Melody Beattie goes over the three repercussions of having low self-esteem: attachment issues, bad communication, and caretaking. Thankfully, there are ways to recognize and repair these issues, if you’re willing to put in the work.
Continue below to learn why low self-esteem is so dangerous.
1. Low Self-Esteem Leads to Attachment
The first consequence of low self-esteem is attachment. According to Beattie, low self-esteem makes many codependents believe they can’t take care of themselves. Regardless of their competence or level of responsibility, they worry that leaving their unhealthy relationship will make them helpless, so they attach to other people. This is a dangerous state to be in because the more desperately you need someone, the more willing you are to settle for unhealthy relationships. Desperation leads codependents into relationships, whether platonic, familial, or romantic, with people who will never meet their needs, which just makes them more desperate.
(Shortform note: It can be difficult to recognize an unhealthy relationship, especially if you’ve had a string of them in the past. If you’re in a relationship more out of fear of being alone than love for the other person, you’re settling for an unhealthy relationship. Another red flag is feeling like you have to hide your own interests and personality to keep the relationship. In these cases, it’s either time to have a long discussion with your partner or to end the relationship.)
Beattie explains that, to escape this cycle, you must step back from other people and not let them control your happiness and self-worth. Stand on your own two feet and find worth in yourself, knowing that you can succeed. This is not to say that you should never need support. As discussed previously, everyone relies on others to some extent. The key is finding a healthy balance. You can need affection, but it shouldn’t be the lynchpin of your identity.
|Turning “I Can’t” Into “I Can”|
Self-defeating thoughts feed the low self-esteem and confidence Beattie discusses here. Many codependents think “I can’t do this” whenever they encounter a challenge. This way of thinking will only ensure you fail.
Remember that you’re more capable than you think. Instead of thinking “I can’t,” shift your mindset to “maybe I can.” You don’t have to be fully confident in yourself, but this simple shift gives you the space to try, which is often enough to lead to success.
This method of confidence-building is similar to Beattie’s practice of detachment: It requires you to step back from your ingrained beliefs and the opinions of other people and look at what’s true about yourself.
How the Attachment Mindset Forms
Beattie states that there are a few different ways the attachment mindset—when codependents doubt their own ability to care for themselves—can come about. First, it can stem from childhood, when someone you relied on failed to care for you or taught you that your job was to take care of other people rather than yourself. Consciously or unconsciously, you’re looking for someone to fill that void of care and trust.
(Shortform note: The phenomenon of not being able to rely on your parents as a child, or learning that your job was to care for others, is called parentification. Parentification occurs when the roles of support in a parent-child relationship are flipped and the child becomes responsible for supporting the parent. Parentification makes children believe that to have good relationships with others, they must be caregivers and provide support that they’re not ready to provide.)
Beattie warns that an attachment mindset can also stem from gaslighting, when someone convinced you that your feelings or knowledge were crazy and wrong. Gaslighting makes you doubt your judgment, so you find someone else to tell you what is true.
(Shortform note: Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation meant to keep you under the gaslighter’s control. If you feel like you can’t trust yourself, you can’t make decisions, which leads you to rely further on the manipulator. This gives them even more “evidence” to use against you the next time you try to make a decision (for example, saying, “You couldn’t choose which kind of meat to buy at the grocery store, how are you supposed to make this decision?”).)
Finally, Beattie explains that living with an addict makes you doubt yourself and your abilities to manage things because your life has been out of control for so long.
(Shortform note: Addiction is a very destabilizing disorder. It causes mood swings and reckless behavior. As the addicted individual relies more heavily on substances, they abandon the stability of a work or school schedule and use the family’s finances to provide for their addiction. The addicted family member requires attention and care, which deteriorates the rest of the family’s lives. In a few months, addiction erodes the family’s schedule, finances, and sense of stability, leaving them traumatized and wondering how things got so bad. Because they couldn’t manage or prevent the situation, they feel that they can’t manage anything.)
2. Low Self-Esteem Leads to Bad Communication
The second consequence of low self-esteem is bad communication. According to Beattie, poor communication caused by low self-esteem plagues codependents. At some point in their lives, they learned that honesty and straightforwardness were not allowed. As a result, they can’t ask for help, express desires, or feel openly. They can’t defend themselves or tell people “no” either. When open communication is banned, people turn to manipulation, guilt-tripping, and lying to get things done.
For example, picture Jenny, a high school student whose mother is an alcoholic. Growing up with an alcoholic mother has taught Jenny that she can’t ask for attention. When Jenny has a school performance that she wants her mother to attend, she turns to manipulation and guilt-tripping rather than asking directly. She talks about how excited she is, how her instructor has been praising her effort, and how her friend’s parents are planning a special dinner to celebrate. “Don’t worry about it,” she says, “I know how hard it is for you to make time.”
While Jenny achieves her goal of getting her mother to attend the show, her mother resents Jenny’s manipulation and guilt-tripping, which damages their relationship further. Bad communication leads to anger, resentment, and ruined relationships.
Since codependents are usually the ones who can’t communicate openly, Beattie says, they often turn to these habits. However, maladaptive communication isn’t limited to one family member, especially in cases where the same family illness has been spreading for generations. In these cases, family members reflect off each other, and the communication problems only get worse. It also leads to children picking up the same habits and the problems of codependency and family illness spreading. It is therefore vitally important to foster good communication.
|Why Does Bad Communication Lead to Manipulation?|
Research supports Beattie’s assertion that bad communication leads to manipulation, often throughout entire families, because in families that don’t have healthy communication styles, there is a constant, underlying fight for recognition and power. Being unheard makes people feel powerless, so they use manipulation to regain that power.
Returning to our example, Jenny is in a constant fight for attention and recognition. She has to compete with her mother’s other responsibilities and family members, but her greatest competitor is her mother’s alcoholism. Since addiction is so powerful, Jenny has to fight dirty with manipulation.
Manipulation may start as a coping mechanism, which isn’t Jenny’s fault, but it becomes a dangerous pathological habit over time. After living with her mother, manipulation is such an ingrained part of Jenny’s thinking that she manipulates people even when it’s unnecessary. If not addressed, Jenny’s manipulative tendencies can become abuse.
Improve Confidence to Improve Communication
According to Beattie, most codependents are afraid to live and communicate authentically because of low self-esteem. They don’t think who they are is good enough; they think they have to change before they are worthy to live authentically and say what they feel.
Thus, Beattie maintains that the first step to fixing poor communication is to regain your self-esteem, to acknowledge that you are good as you are, your problems and feelings matter, and you’re allowed to express yourself. The second step is to build that self-confidence by being assertive in your communication. Be unafraid of speaking your truth, enforcing your boundaries, and communicating your wants and needs.
|How to Improve Confidence and Communication|
Beattie says that good communication comes after your confidence is initially improved. However, you can also initially build your confidence in the way you speak. Let’s look at a few ways to do this:
1. Avoid any words that diminish you or what you’re discussing. Catch yourself before saying things like “it’s just me,” or inserting lots of “maybe”s into the discussion. You are just as important as anyone else.
2. Maintain good eye contact and have good posture. These give subconscious, non-verbal cues to yourself and the other person that you are relaxed and in control.
3. Don’t try to sound like anyone else. If you try using fancy language and put on a perfect facade, the other person will pick up on your discomfort. It’s better to be natural and relaxed, even if you use more casual language.
4. Fake it ‘til you make it. Confidence in communication is a field in which this tactic actually works. The more you pretend to be confident, the more other people will listen to you, and the more your confidence will grow.
Being a confident communicator is important, but confidence can’t save an interaction if your communication itself is bad. Let’s look at a few additional tips for fostering good communication.
1. Practice active listening. Don’t just wait for your turn to speak. Pay close attention and ask follow-up questions to show that you’re listening and understanding.
2. Manage your emotions. When talking about difficult situations, don’t let your emotions control the conversation. Detach, figure out what you’re trying to say, and then make your point.
3. Ask for feedback. Other people are a valuable resource and can give you an outside perspective on your communication abilities.
3. Low Self-Esteem Leads to Caretaking and Victimization
Low self-esteem leads you to search for validation and approval in other people, as discussed at the beginning of this chapter. You crave good feelings that make you feel better about yourself. Beattie explains that many codependents try to find these good feelings by taking care of other people. This leads to the caretaking cycle.
According to Beattie, there are three elements to the caretaking cycle: the caretaking itself, where the codependent feels good for helping another; anger, when the codependent feels used by the person they took responsibility for; and victimization, where the codependent feels bad for themself. Let’s look closer at these stages:
Stage 1: Caretaking
Caretaking means “saving” people from their responsibilities and the consequences of their own actions, Beattie states. It’s attractive to people with low self-esteem because it creates the illusion of being needed, which promises self-worth. However, caretaking does not mean helping someone out of kindness; it means turning someone else into a victim so you can save them when they are capable of helping themselves. You are using the other person for a momentary high of self-worth.
You might be wondering, “So what? What’s the harm in helping people and feeling good about it? Everyone wins, right?” If the cycle stopped at the momentary high, that might be true. But it doesn’t.
|Caretaking Versus Caregiving|
Beattie presents caretaking and caregiving (helping someone out of kindness) as isolated opposites. However, some people believe caretaking and caregiving each lie on one end of a spectrum, instead. Caregiving is healthy and activates the same parts of your brain as physical pleasure, while caretaking occurs when your motivation becomes feeling good or “fixing” other people, rather than helping them.
Your place on the spectrum can vary from day to day, depending on the situation and your self-esteem. While you might not be able to avoid slipping toward caretaking at times, strive to be on the caregiving side of the spectrum. These tips can help:
1. When someone asks for your help and you can’t responsibly agree, be honest. Tell them that you’re focusing on your own needs and that you can’t help them.
2. Replace thoughts of “I have to help” with “I’m not responsible.” Step back and see how things play out without your intervention.
3. Help others in a way you’re passionate about and enjoy. This will help you keep a healthy balance of focus between the people you’re helping and your own feelings and needs.
4. Integrate your skills and abilities when helping others. Using your abilities and skills boosts your confidence, which makes you more resistant to caretaking.
Stage 2: Anger
After saving someone from their responsibilities, Beattie says that caretakers feel used and unappreciated. They feel like responsibility is being pushed on them. They get angry and resentful, even though they freely assumed the responsibility. And it’s not just the caretakers that feel this way. The person being “saved” can tell that the caretaker sees them as incompetent, and so they get angry as well. This anger erodes relationships and causes people to hurt each other.
|Anger as a Secondary Emotion|
Beattie presents anger as a volatile emotion that can damage relationships. Why is it so volatile? It’s because of where anger fits with the rest of your emotions:
Emotion is a very complicated field of study. It’s hard to determine definitions, causes, or conditions because the brain is so complex. However, many psychologists believe that there are two kinds of emotions: primary—immediate and instinctive reactions to outside stimulus—and secondary—reactions to your primary emotions.
Anger is a secondary emotion. It does not manifest on its own, but as a reaction to 1) pain and 2) “anger-triggering thoughts.” Anger triggering thoughts are ones where you think someone is intentionally hurting you. The anger-triggering thoughts amplify the initial pain: The emotion is much stronger, and thus more volatile.
In the case of a codependent in the caretaking cycle, the codependent feels pain that people aren’t meeting their needs or appreciating their efforts. This pain, combined with anger-triggering thoughts like “they’re using me” or “they don’t care about me,” makes the codependent feel the need to defend themselves. Anger is the defense mechanism. For the other person, the pain of feeling incompetent or untrusted combines with anger-triggering thoughts like “they think I can’t do anything” or “they’re treating me like a baby,” resulting in their own explosion of anger.
Note that the causes of anger are your own reaction to pain and your own thoughts about that pain: These emotions are your responsibility. We will discuss this idea further in Chapter 7.
Stage 3: Victimization
Beattie explains that the mutual anger between the caretaker and the person being cared for leads to the final stage of the cycle: self–victimization. While the person being “saved” was pushed into the victim role by the caretaker, the caretaker places themself in the victim position by initiating the caretaking cycle.
According to Beattie, victimization is a very easy stage for codependents to fall into because they were real victims in the past. Even though they are no longer victims, they have learned to see themselves in that light. It is their own actions that victimized them. Self-victimization is dangerous because this vulnerable state attracts people who want to use the codependent.
To stop being a victim, Beattie says you have to recognize when you’re victimizing yourself. Monitor your urges to caretake, and practice detachment when determining if something is your responsibility. If not, refuse to join the caretaking cycle. Let other people deal with their own responsibilities and the consequences of their own actions. Giving to and helping others are important parts of life, but knowing when not to give is just as important. Give some of your time and energy away, but make sure you’re holding others responsible and keeping enough time and energy for yourself.
|Self-Victimization: Why It Happens and How to Stop|
Research backs up Beattie’s assertion that people see themselves as victims as a coping mechanism after being a victim in the past. If you experience a lack of control in your life for a long time, you are more likely to see yourself as unable to control anything, including your own actions. After trying and failing to exert control for so long, your brain accepts that you can’t and gives up to protect you from failure and wasted energy.
Self-victimization is also connected to the theory of fixed versus growth mindsets. If you have a growth mindset, you are able to adapt to situations, respond to criticism, and grow as a person. With a fixed mindset, you see yourself as a victim of external forces, you don’t believe you can change your behavior because it’s caused by other people or situations, and you become stagnant as a person.
To stop being a victim, be alert for times when you start to self-victimize or shift blame. Even if you’re justified in blaming others, accept the situation and focus on what you can control, rather than obsessing over what you can’t.
|From Drama to Empowerment|
Beattie takes her caretaking cycle from the Karpman Drama Triangle, introduced in 1961. When Beattie published Codependent No More, the only “cure” for the Drama Triangle was being aware of it and working to avoid it. However, in 2005, the Empowerment Dynamic was introduced.
The goal of the Empowerment Dynamic is to make it easier to escape the Drama Triangle. Rather than avoiding the caretaking cycle, which takes a massive amount of self-awareness and will, the Empowerment Dynamic focuses on shifting the mindset of the three Drama Triangle roles to something constructive.
In the Empowerment Dynamic, the victim becomes a creator: Rather than focusing on the problems that plague them, the creator focuses on their goals and motivations. This forces them to focus on what they can do, rather than what they can’t.
The persecutor shifts into a challenger: Rather than disparaging and hating the victim, the challenger seeks to motivate the creator. The challenger holds others accountable but does so in a constructive way.
Finally, the rescuer becomes a coach: Rather than focusing on fixing things for the other person, the coach tries to help the person solve their own problems. The coach believes the other person can and will help themselves, and thus doesn’t need to “rescue” them.
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