The conversation around codependent and narcissistic behavior has gained popularity over the last decade. A stereotype is that codependent equals ‘needy.’ However, codependency and narcissism are similar in that they are both driven by need, albeit in different ways.
We will discuss their similarities and differences and how they can present in family, partner, and friendship dynamics.
What is Codependency?
Codependency is not a clinical term or offered as a diagnosis. It marks the behavior of a one-sided relationship, and a person takes on the role of a ‘giver’ excessively, regularly putting another’s need before their own. The codependent person will enable a ‘taker’ to continue destructive or irresponsible behavior. This enabled behavior may be in the form of substance abuse. Still, enabling can be applied to almost any addiction and fear-based behavior — gambling, shopping, domestic violence, emotional/psychological abuse, and criminal activity.
Codependent types desire to ‘fix’ situations or ‘save’ people. At the core of codependency is a flawed concept of self and boundaries, including an inability to have an opinion or say “no.”
What is Narcissism?
Narcissism is a constant need to be the center of attention and admiration. Other traits include a grandiose sense of self-importance. Most of the population falls on a spectrum of healthy and unhealthy narcissism. Healthy narcissism gives people the confidence to pursue their goals and be unafraid of the spotlight.
Pathological narcissism or Narcissistic Personality Disorder behaviors include aggression, arrogance, exploitation, reduced tolerance to distress, a sense of entitlement, a belief that they are superior, and a lack of empathy for others.
According to the National Library of Medicine, in May 2022, 1–15% of clinical cases in the United States represent Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
There are two dominant NPD sub-types — overt and covert narcissists.
Overt, like the name implies, are individuals who display blatant grandiosity, antagonistic tendencies, and boldness. Covert narcissists are hypersensitive and will seek the spotlight in the form of humble brag, in ways that evoke pity, and or being defensive. The covert subtype is not as easily recognized.
Narcissistic behavior results from the ‘narcissistic wound,’ which ultimately boils down to a child not being seen.
Codependency and NPD — How They are Alike
‘What??!! No way!’ we can hear you exclaim. Yes, as opposite as these two types seem, codependency and Narcissistic Personality Disorder share a few symptoms in common. Both exhibit dysfunctional boundary-setting abilities, control needs, shame, denial, and dependency (unconscious). Codependent types seek to identify themselves through another person, process, or substance. There is a disconnect from their authentic self. Narcissists are addicted to the validation they seek and get from others, creating their identity around it.
Additionally, they both are prone to taking things personally, blaming, and reactionary behavior.
Narcissists are dogmatic and critical. Codependents tend to be conflict avoidant. Neither of their communication styles is productive.
Narcissists and codependents feel a need to control situations or others. They do this to soothe their feelings of insecurity and anxiety. A narcissist will do so through lies, manipulations, and people-pleasing (covert subtype). A codependent person will predominantly apply the latter, putting everyone before themselves.
Both codependents and individuals with NPD are avoiding real intimacy. Intimacy happens through respecting clear boundaries and allowing another person to be autonomous in their choices and actions.
Those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder can be codependent. However, codependent individuals aren’t narcissists, as they don’t express the core traits — entitlement, exploitation, and lack of empathy.
It’s important to note that these behavior styles are a by-product of inherited or learned familial patterns and developing personality traits. We’ll next share how unhealthy narcissism and codependency show up in family dynamics.
NPD & Codependency in Families & Partnerships
Narcissism and codependent styles form when a child is either over or under-protected. Below are two examples of these parenting styles –
Narcissist Parents + Codependent Child
Aaron was a premature baby born three months early, and his first months were tenuous. His parents also lost a child before he came into the world. Understandably, they felt a strong urge to keep him safe emotionally and physically. They drove him to school, expressing distrust of other kids, bus drivers, or potential neighborhood pedophiles.
Aaron entered the 3rd- grade poetry contest. His dad said that’s an excellent way to express your creativity, don’t expect much to come of it. All the famous poets are dead.’ He placed in the contest but didn’t feel he could be proud or excited about it until his dad bragged to his coworker about it — ‘Of course he placed. He gets his creativity from me.’
Aaron styled his collar a different way after getting ready for school. His mom said, ‘That’s too weird. You don’t want kids making fun of you. I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’
Over time, with similar messages repeated throughout his life, Aaron became a timid adult. He aimed to anticipate what others would want of him — putting his needs last as codependent types do. His parents display narcissistic behaviors like shaming, downplaying his creativity and self-image, or behaving as if his poetic achievement was an extension of themselves.
Codependent Parents + Narcissist Child
Mia’s parents were brilliant, high-achieving professionals. While they made sure her physical needs were met to excess, emotionally, her parents were unavailable.
Mia believed if she was the best in school and in every activity she entered, they would eventually pay more attention to her and want to hear more about what she was doing or be involved in her life. However, the conversations she had with them were as such –
Mia: “Dad, I made the dean’s list again and made the soccer team; maybe you could come to a game.”
Dad: “That’s great. I’ll add an extra $50 to your allowance the rest of the year.” Sounds like a plan (in a non-committal tone).
Mia (who only has a learner’s permit): “Mom, can I borrow your car this weekend? I have some things I need to get for school and told my friend Rob he could come with me.”
Mom (in an offhand tone): “Sure, but only on Saturday. Don’t run red lights, and be sure to put gas in it.”
Mia grows up believing that love is expressed through money, things, transactions, and gained through what one achieves or does. She becomes quite braggadocios about her achievements and feels bold, entitled to do whatever she wishes, as she hasn’t felt limited by concerns for her safety or wellbeing. She entered adulthood with a narcissistic wound that resulted from her parents expressing love and attention through things and excess freedom versus personal awareness and engagement with her as an individual.
Her parents exhibit different codependent styles, including the limited capability to form intimate or emotionally deep relationships with others and behaving as if nothing is a problem.
Codependent-Narcissist Partner /Spousal Relationship
Nicole was the breadwinner in the house, and she had a Ph.D. and liked to remind her spouse, Ali, of the fact frequently. Ali ran her own business, which took much of her time, but she often put Nicole’s demands before it. This created doubts within Ali which grew when Nicole dismissed it as an unsuccessful ‘hobby’ that took Nicole’s attention away from her. However, Ali felt that if she worked hard to meet Nicole’s demands, eventually, she could make their relationship succeed, and her business would, too.
Nicole is the narcissist, and Ali is codependent in the relationship.
Narcissism, Codependency & the Drama Triangle
The Drama Triangle, a concept developed by Stephen Karpman in the 1960s, comprises critical components of The Rescuer, Persecutor, and Victim.
Depending on a narcissist’s goals, they can shift adeptly from Rescuer to Persecutor and the Victim. Codependent types, by nature, stay in a Rescuer or Victim role in the external dialogue. However, they can shift to Persecutor at an internal level, as they tend to self-blame. Do you and your loved ones find yourselves in any of the abovementioned scenarios? Behavioral patterns like codependency and narcissism can be unlearned and healed. If you want a strategy for creating a healthy emotional relationship, the Deschutes Wilderness Therapy team is here to help you achieve it. Contact us with any questions you may have about our services.