Codependency and Narcissists: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? (Part I)
For this discussion, we are going to stick with our understanding of codependency as a system of distortions that exists on a continuum. Codependents learn personality traits that interfere with knowing one’s self and others. The people-pleasing aspect of codependency might drive the ignoring of who we are trying to please. The focus of wanting approval may keep us from acknowledging abusive behaviors coming from the very person whose approval we seek. The need for harmony might prevent us from realizing we are enabling abusive behavior. Or any combination of the above. We don’t have the tools to deal with abusive behavior, so this also drives us to avoid bringing it to consciousness. And we probably have a history of being abused or exploited, so it feels familiar.
What do we have now? A green light for perpetrators. When we have a society of codependents, they become a magnet for the narcissists of the world.
Now let’s look at a working definition for Narcissist. Three significant distinctions of the narcissist are grandiosity, seeking excessive attention, and lack of empathy. A book I recommend often, Why is it Always about You: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandy Hotchkiss, can shed some light on the challenges of the narcissist. I think, for our discussion, it would be interesting to look at these sins:
- Shamelessness — Can’t process the shame they have.
- Magical Thinking — Use distortion and illusion to see themselves as perfect.
- Arrogance — Puts others down to elevate themselves.
- Envy — May put down someone’s expertise he/she envies.
- Entitlement — Unrealistic expectation for favorable treatment.
- Exploitation — Uses others for their gain.
- Bad Boundaries — Doesn’t understand where he/she ends and others end. Others exist to bolster his self-esteem
Digging into the Seven Sin
And now let’s look at some landmines the narcissist so adeptly sets up for the unsuspecting codependent.
- ShameI think it would be fair to say that the codependent and the narcissist are both avoiding the shame that lurks beneath dysfunctional coping mechanisms. Keeping this shame hidden is a common goal we share. Hiding an emotion that feels so horrible is a strong motivating factor to hold onto the dysfunctional behaviors.
- Magical ThinkingMagical thinking, or the belief that my thoughts can influence the external world, is very present in my codependent paradigm. The more I build you up as part of my people-pleasing tool (I tell you how great you are, which I think you want to hear), the more I will convince myself you are a great guy. I create my own world of positive assessments, regardless of any information to the contrary. These positive assessments feed into magical thinking that you are the greatest. We both create the illusion that you are great and can do no wrong.
- Arrogance. As a good codependent, I will accept you putting me down because I can pretend it is not happening. I have numbed myself to people putting me down and this numbness will save me. When people point it out to me, I will go deeper into my numbness so I don’t experience any emotion. Numbness is one of my very powerful tools. You can count on me to enable your arrogance!
- Envy. It would never occur to me that you might envy me…because that would require self-esteem. I’ve probably locked up and thrown away the key to any self-esteem I might have had. If I had self-esteem, I wouldn’t subscribe to all this obsequious behavior. When you put me down and minimize any accomplishments I might have because you don’t want to envy me, I probably find that comforting and familiar. And it gets us back to me controlling you liking me.
- Entitlement. If I, as the codependent, have carefully developed my skills of telling you what I think you want to hear, I am going to be able to give you, the narcissist, all the attention/flattery you want. As a matter of fact, you are easy for me because your road map is so clear. All the things I can do work well on you. My endless praise, validation, and agreement will support your entitlement.
- Exploitation. I am trained to ignore the abuse or being taken advantage of because I am focused on being liked. I won’t notice the exploitative aspect of our relationship as negative and it will probably feel familiar. If someone should dare point it out, I am competent at rationalizing. Rationalization — or the defense mechanism where I can justify and explain away bad behavior — is a very important tool in my toolbox. I also have a sense of pride in all the abuse/exploiting I can handle. I see it as a strength. It probably will be easy for you to exploit me financially, emotionally, physically and spiritually. As we discussed, I won’t want to see this, because I won’t know how to handle your “bad” behavior if it comes into my consciousness. I want harmony, not confrontation. I don’t have the tools for what I call “confrontation” and others call “being honest.”
- Bad Boundaries. If I had the self-esteem and confidence to maintain boundaries, I wouldn’t be so focused on pleasing people, keeping harmony, and ignoring abuse. I will understand it is my job to keep bolstering your self-esteem; telling you how great you are is so easy for me. I never tire of this assignment. I will also have an arrogance about how great I am, because I can handle difficult people. I will tell myself I am so laid back and easy going (no standards or boundaries) and how others can’t handle the messiness of life the way I can. I pride myself on no self-care and think those who do take care of themselves are weak and/or strange. I believe I should always focus on others so you, the narcissist, with all your demands, are perfect for me. Who better for the narcissist than a codependent?
Can you see where one might say “Houston, we have a problem?”
This article was originally published on Recovery.org
© 2019 Dr. Anne Brown; Psychotherapist, Speaker, and Author of Backbone Power The Science of Saying No