Breaking Free: Unravelling the Ties Between Low Self-Esteem and Codependency

By Rhoberta Shaler, PhD, Relationship Crisis Consultant.

Eda LeShan, an American writer and educator, once wrote, “When we truly care for ourselves, it becomes possible to care far more profoundly about other people.” If you reflect on your upbringing – was this concept emphasized? Were you guided and encouraged to see yourself as equal to others? Was it ok to ask for what you needed and wanted?

A lot of people over 50 today, who find themselves as caregivers to a variety of dependents – be it aging parents, grandchildren, or others unable to care for themselves—were not given the memo that self-care and a sense of self-worth were valid and important. “Give ‘til it hurts,” was a much more common lesson…and encourages over-giving and wearing oneself out.

Make no mistake—all of this applies to primary relationships, too. If you are giving more and receiving less, and not taking care of your own needs… listen up!

As a child, youth, and young adult, the adults around me gave the impression that selfishness was a transgression of the highest order. The message was crystal clear: do not be selfish, do not even give the appearance of selfishness. Perhaps you had a similar experience. Looking back, it’s apparent that this perspective dealt a crippling blow to self-esteem. As far back as I can remember there was no boundary created to indicate where self-esteem ended, and selfishness began. To be safe, I was carefully schooled to consider that to ask for anything I wanted or needed was an indicator of selfishness. It was also considered rank selfishness or conceit to speak well of oneself.

Absence of a healthy sense of self-esteem leaves you ripe for exploitation. If you are not equipped to assert your needs, you become more likely to neglect them, choosing instead to prioritize the needs of others. This leads to a dependence on satisfying other people, ensuring they have what they require, to gain a sense of self-worth. This vicious codependent cycle can leave you spiritually and emotionally malnourished.

If this resonates with you, I urge you to challenge this perspective. Celebrate your strengths, talents, skills, and accomplishments. It’s not conceited to acknowledge your positive qualities (just watch out about claiming superiority over others, which is definitely arrogant). Remember, we deserve to take good care of ourselves and to be cared for as well!

Let’s take a moment to reflect on these interconnected concepts of self-esteem, self-care, and codependency. High self-esteem can safeguard you against life’s challenges, promoting resilience. Questioning one’s worth and capabilities due to low self-esteem can lead to codependency. Self-care, on the other hand, is an intentional act of looking after your physical, emotional, and mental health, so you can settle into that higher sense of self-worth and esteem. 

But what is self-care, really? 

Self-care can involve a wide variety of activities and practices, and what works best can vary greatly from person to person, depending on individual needs, interests, and life circumstances. It is not, as some social media click-bait might have you believe, treating yourself to ice cream when you feel sad or splurging on something you can’t afford when you’ve had a bad day. 

Actual self-care can look like:

  1. Physical self-care: Prioritizing regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, getting sufficient sleep, practicing good hygiene, or seeking medical care when needed.
  2. Emotional self-care: Processes like journaling, therapy, or counseling, practicing mindfulness or meditation, or engaging in hobbies or activities that bring you joy and relaxation.
  3. Social self-care: This can involve spending time with loved ones, seeking support from friends or family when needed, or setting boundaries in personal relationships to ensure they are healthy and fulfilling.
  4. Intellectual self-care: Activities that stimulate the mind and contribute to personal growth, such as reading, learning a new skill, or pursuing an interest or hobby.
  5. Spiritual self-care: If this is part of your life, things like prayer, meditation, spending time in nature, or engaging in activities that provide a sense of purpose or connection to something larger than oneself.

Self-care is an essential aspect of overall health and well-being and can play a critical role in managing stress, preventing burnout, and maintaining a balanced lifestyle. It is not selfish; rather, it’s a necessary component of being able to care for others effectively.

Codependency, often nurtured in the soil of low self-esteem, is a relationship where one person enables another’s addiction, poor mental health, unwise choices, or immaturity in exchange for an often false sense of validation and security. It’s characterized by a reliance on approval from others for self-worth and identity, leading to unhealthy attachments and relationships.

The cycle is tough, but it’s not unbreakable. So, how can we improve self-esteem, foster self-care, and avoid codependency?

There are a few key ways that low self-esteem and codependency are related. Do any of these sound familiar?

  1. Validation Seeking: If you often feel insecure and inadequate, leading you to seek validation from others to boost your sense of self-worth, you may be giving your power away. In codependent relationships, this often manifests as people-pleasing behaviors or a need to be needed.
  2. Fear of Rejection: Low self-esteem can lead to a fear of rejection or abandonment. In a codependent relationship, this fear can keep you stuck in harmful or unsatisfying situations because you fear being alone or feeling unwanted more than you fear the negative consequences of the relationship.
  3. Lack of Boundaries: When self-esteem bottoms out, you will often have difficulty setting and maintaining healthy boundaries because you fear upsetting others or being perceived as unlikable. In a codependent relationship, this lack of boundaries can lead to enabling bad behaviors or self-neglect.
  4. Self-Neglect: Prioritizing someone else’s needs over your own is a common result of low self-esteem; particularly by ignoring your mental, emotional, or physical health, but also your own financial or spiritual health. When you give more than you actually have, you are then in debt to yourself, and that is a tough place to get out of.

Understanding and accepting oneself is pivotal to regaining self-esteem. This includes recognizing and accepting your own strengths and weaknesses, and working at being the best version of yourself. Secondly, setting and enforcing personal boundaries is crucial for healthy relationships. This not only demonstrates self-respect but also discourages codependent behavior. Furthermore, engaging in activities that promote wellbeing, like regular exercise, balanced nutrition, adequate sleep, and mindfulness practices, can enhance both self-esteem and self-care. Lastly, professional help, such as therapy or counseling, can provide guidance and support in understanding and overcoming low self-esteem and codependency.

By understanding these concepts, their interconnectedness, and ways to nurture them, we can break the chains of harmful patterns and move towards a healthier, happier life. 

Host of the Save Your Sanity podcast, Dr. Rhoberta Shaler helps clients worldwide to recognize, release, and recover from toxic relationships and emotional abuse. She is the author of Escaping the Hijackal Trap and Kaizen for Couples.

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