The Most Important 5-Minute Read of Your Life

06/18/2015 11:44 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

If I could do anything to help the state of American mental health, it would be that we'd all be educated thoroughly about codependence ... what it is, what it isn't, and the absolute necessity of learning how to recover from it.

I have worked with thousands of people over the years as a therapist, grew up in a large family, and have had many friends and acquaintances, and I've yet to meet one person who is not codependent, although I'm told non-codependents exist.

What's interesting is that if you mention the word codependent, many people think they know what it is, but they are almost never right, or maybe they get a tiny piece of it right. So once-and-for all, here is what it is: We become codependent sometime between young childhood and our teen years when we take on shame, or the belief that we are defective and that something is wrong with us. "I'm not good enough," I'm not smart enough, and "I don't fit in or belong," are some of the most common shame beliefs I see. It is in that one moment that we lose our innocence and decide that we are defective that we become codependent, and this realization traumatizes us.

In the years to come, the core of shame we carry, which is a huge secret that we will tell no one, will change who we are. Instead of joyfully stepping into our genuine and authentic self, which is how we were meant to live, we morph ourselves into someone else who will compensate in some way for what we believe we don't have or to avoid things we fear, like pain and rejection. A short list of common maladaptive personalities we choose are caretakers, pleasers, do-gooders, perfectionists, over-achievers, mean girls, bullies, obsessive doers, overly nice people, non-conformists, rebels, the arrogant and the list goes on and on. Living in these false shoes will wear us out over time.

Once we have taken on shame, it is as if we have swallowed a bowling ball-sized core of pain - our shame core - that we carry around with us on a daily basis, until we change it. The shame core is like a cancer that destroys any ego strength we might have had to protect ourselves in life, and it makes life painful. If people say or do certain things and it hits our shame core, it hurts like hell:

The, "Now that was dumb!" comment hits your "I'm not smart enough," wound.

The, "You didn't make the team? Well I told you that you didn't practice enough!" comment hits your "I'm not good enough," wound.

And the, "Hey, did you receive an invitation to Chris's party?" when you were not invited, hits your "I don't fit in," wound.

How does a codependent react when words or actions of others spear their shame core? A part of the personality known as the rebellious teenager protects the core via self-destructive means by stepping in and raging, snapping, fighting, threatening, aggressing, withdrawing, stuffing feelings, stoicism, seeking revenge or validation from others, pouting, defending, becoming indignant, throwing insults, and of course, numbing our pain through drinking, drugs, love, sex and more. Nothing good ever comes from our rebellious teenager. It is the cause of divorce, personal unhappiness, and regrets.

Although many books have been written to explain the pattern of awfulness that codependence represents, I recommend "Facing Codependence," by Pia Mellody, as a good place to start.* I was trained by Mellody in 2013 at a workshop where she teaches therapists how to do the healing work she developed while working for years as a nurse at the Meadows Trauma and Treatment Center in Wickenberg, Arizona. Before completely grasping the wickedness of shame and its effects, I was always looking for what I felt like was a missing piece in my practice to help people in a lasting way - now I know that understanding shame and codependency treatment is that missing piece.

There is one more thing to understand in this very short article about this very big subject; when we take on shame, it causes us to not function healthily in five crucial areas - self esteem, boundaries, realism (seeing yourself and others as they really are; not making people and things your higher power), dependency, and spontaneity (control). Codependents are notorious extremists, so, for example, they typically have too much self-esteem or none at all, or they switch back and forth between the two. The same goes for all the other four - no boundaries or completely walled off, or jumping between the two. They're very needy, or anti-dependent, needless and wantless - moderation is a foreign concept that must be learned in recovery.

What codependency ultimately does to us is to create a dysfunctional relationship with ourselves. It shows up in partially in how we beat ourselves up for being defective and not good enough. It breaks my heart to see how individuals I work with treat themselves compared to how they treat others, or vice versa. We sentence ourselves to a lifetime of emotional prison. and we are our own jailers.

Codependency recovery involves education about what it is and understanding about how your illness has uniquely traumatized and affected you. There are a multitude of codependent behaviors from any sort of addiction to wanting to be near power and fame so you can feel better about who you are plus thousands more.

As you work to untangle your misguided feelings about being defective, you will have to face pains that you have tried to suppress or ignore - today, not tomorrow, as many codependents might prefer. You will have to learn to feel and discover who you are and what you need and want, yes, it is OK and necessary to need and want. You will learn to act as an adult, to have healthy self-esteem, boundaries, realism, dependency and control. You will put your rebellious teenager to rest and let your functional adult self handle your personal business and get your needs met for you. You will learn how to present your true self to the world, to speak up and advocate for yourself, and to know what is healthy and what is not. You will learn to accept and love the perfectly imperfect you, which is what we all are.

Below I've listed ways to be treated for codependency. Not only are there books, but there are healing workshops, 12-step groups,** support groups, therapists specifically trained in trauma work and numerous online resources. I wish you the best on your journey to healing.

• Pia Mellody's other books are, "The Intimacy Factor," "Facing Love Addiction," and "Breaking Free," a workbork for her original book, "Facing Codependence." She conducts workshops to train therapists in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the pubic can attend any trauma recovery workshop at the Meadows Trauma & Recovery Center, or find a a Pia Mellody-trained therapist in their area by contacting the Healing Trauma Network web site.

** Recovery programs such as Codependents Anonymous and AlAnon - look for one devoted to healthy relationships - are also very powerful ways to work on your issues.