Codependent & Narcissistic: You Can Be Both
I first heard the term, "co-narcissist" a few years ago in a counselor's office. I did not intend to have myself "fixed" very much while in that office. I actually went to "fix" my husband. Little did I know I would learn more about myself that I had planned. I had heard of codependency and narcissism, but both? Did they not contradict one another? I was given a set of printouts that would enlighten me on the subject, and our time was up for that day. I remember reading those few, printed pages with a flood of emotion: anger, denial, resentment, fear, and disbelief. Was I really the person being described?
Like any label, diagnosis, or other descriptive word meant to sum up the majority of our emotional "issues," the term is simply meant to convey a frequently-occuring set of behaviors and/or thought patterns in a subset of people. In other words, it's not a "one size fits all" label. My own brand of co-narcissism will look differently than someone else's. However, a pattern is worth noticing, and I certainly fit the pattern, much to my dismay.
Co-narcissism, according to Alan Rappoport, stems from accommodating narcissistic parents. In my case, I think I had both a narcissist parent and a co-dependent parent, so I learned how to behave both ways. The most interesting components of the article to me were the definitions of narcissism and co-dependency. The narcissist was not the Alexander the Great-type conquering the world, but rather the product of extremely low self-esteem. I had previously thought all narcissists were the Professor Lockharts of Hogwarts: bloated egos, extreme disregard for others, and overall attention seekers. The narcissism in the article, however, referred to a defense mechanism designed to keep relationships at a comfortable level, minimize discomfort, and maintain a reputation of being well-liked and well-received. The preoccupation of self is still in those behaviors, so the narcissism label applies. However, learning that the root was in low self-esteem completely surprised me, and also helped me identify and accept that to be true of my own situation.
The codependent, then, tries to shield the narcissist from anything unpleasant, and spends their relational days orbiting the narcissist's atmosphere, working to make sure all is properly aligned. This person will not be too assertive for fear of being perceived as selfish, and ultimately loses his/her identity as an individual, since he/she is swallowed up in working to make sure his/her narcissistic partner is on an even keel.
Children of these two parents will adapt by becoming a co-narcissist, my papers asserted. I read, appalled and enthralled simultaneously, at the accommodations of the co-narcissist. I identified strongly with the feeling of being responsible for others, inability to make quick decisions, and struggling with low self-esteem. Though I had made strides in some of those areas outwardly, I knew my own inner struggles, and I was definitely a co-narcissist, according to that sheet of paper. The knowledge both scared me and gave me relief. After all, knowing is half the battle.
At the conclusion of Rappoport's article, he says, "When we feel guilty or anxious because we fear that we are not meeting someone else's needs or expectations, we are being co-narcissistic. These ordinary experiences are problematic the more they interfere with our ability to be successful and enjoy our lives." At the time I first read that more than two years ago, I remember the sense of my life being interrupted. It was then I realized, more fully than ever before, what I had begun to see in little stages up until that point. I did not have proper boundaries in my life. I did not understand where I ended and someone else began, and it was coloring my marriage, my parenting and my friendships. With continued therapy, humility, and prayer, I am now "on the other side" of co-narcissism. I found the book, "" to be extraordinarily helpful. I also know that there are programs, like BoundariesCelebrate Recovery, that have co-dependency groups for support. I went through the "12 Steps" program on my own, not for alcoholics, but for co-dependents. I also found great support through my husband, counselor, and close friends who encouraged me in my journey of self-discovery.
Facing relational difficulties and emotional "hang-ups" can be painful, but they can also be fruitful. It is absolutely worth it to slay that dragon and move forward to a more healthy place. I still wrestle with some of my co-narcissistic traits, but I see them differently now. I am learning to trust myself to make a decision without the approval of others, let the unhealthy thoughts float away without taking root in my mind, and engaging others as a healthy individual who is concerned about them not responsible for them. I'm convinced that many others struggle with co-narcissism as well. While we are a product of our genetics and environment, there comes a time when we all assume full responsibility for ourselves, whether we know it or not. I love the quote from "Spiderman" that says, "With great power comes great responsibility." I find the reverse to be true as well. When we accept responsibility for our own behaviors, thoughts, and actions, we then see that we also have the power to do something about it, even if we need a little help to get it done.