A handsome male hunter once spurned the affection of a woman who followed and admired him. Neither her advances nor her beauty were enough to captivate him. To him, she was immaterial.
He left her behind, continued searching, hunting, and hoping to satisfy his hunger. When he tired, he came upon a lake to rest. As he peered down to the placid water, he noticed a beautiful face. Curious, enraptured, he drew himself closer.
He wondered, to whom did this comely face belong? He peered closer. Unable to turn himself away from the beauty reflected, his face fell into the water and he drowned. He never realized the face reflected before him was his own.
The man’s name was Narcissus, and his mythology has served psychologists and social commentators over the last century to describe the hazards of narcissism – a preoccupation with the self. Often, this self-preoccupation involves establishing a false sense of who one is.
WHEN IS NARCISSISM HEALTHY vs. UNHEALTHY?
All of us have some degree of narcissism. The reason being that we need at least some modicum of self-deception to momentarily optimize our behavior. However, when self-deception unreasonably and persistently exceeds reality, narcissism can then be considered a disorder of the self.
(What do you think? Is Donald Trump’s narcissism healthy or pathological?)
In other words, it’s one thing to tell your nervous self before giving a presentation: “I know I’m going to do an excellent job today” to cope and perform well. It’s something else entirely to completely deny that nervous part of yourself when it does exist (i.e. equating anxiety with weakness and not wanting to appear weak), demonstrate contempt for other presenters who are nervous (i.e. projecting onto others what you despise in yourself but can’t see in yourself), and proclaim yourself as “the best presenter.”
Why do so many people repeatedly fall in love with narcissistic individuals? What is it that enchants the admirer of the narcissist? What is it about toxic leaders that draws their disciples near? Are some of us simply deceiving ourselves that a narcissist loves us, just as narcissists deceive themselves of who they are?
Actually, it’s not that simple, but it’s about to make a whole lot of sense…
CO-DEPENDENCY AND SELF-LOVE DEFICIENCY
Some popular psychology authors, such as Ross Rosenberg, use the terms co-dependent person and self-love deficient person to describe the individual who cycles through relationships with narcissistic characters. In this post, I use the two terms interchangeably.
The term co-dependent is used because a person literally depends on a narcissist’s false self in order to maintain the illusion that they are in a loving relationship with someone who does not really consider them.
The term self-love deficiency is used more frequently today, both because of the negative connotations associated with the term co-dependency, and also because the ‘co-dependent person’ lacks the self-love that they convince themselves they receive from the narcissist.
You may be surprised to learn that the origins of co-dependency and self-love deficiency are actually the same as the backgrounds of those who are pathologically narcissistic. A little further in this post, I will outline why that is, why the co-dependent and narcissist are drawn to each other, and why one developed into a co-dependent role and the other a narcissistic personality.
Both narcissists and self-love deficient individuals are raised in home environments where their caretakers failed to recognize their true authentic self. By true authentic self, I am referring to the internal emotional reality that a child had but could not show for various reasons. In these home environments, love was conditional.
Parents sometimes have children in order to fulfill an unmet need in their own lives. Other times, children are born unwanted. In both of these instances, the parents’ needs take precedence over those of the child’s.
Because parents have complete control over their children, and because children are not developmentally mature, parents may subtly or not-so subtly convey that the child’s feelings and needs are an inconvenience, and that their feelings and needs are at odds with those of the parent.
Here’s an example…
A father who was abused as a child may have never had his true feelings and needs recognized. Instead, he may have been punished for them. If he learned to make up for his emotional wounds by appearing perfect and invulnerable, and no one recognized his feelings and needs, he will not know how to reflect to his child that he understands their feelings and needs too. When his child inevitably demonstrates needs and feelings that the father is unsure how to respond to, he may attempt to parent the child either by denying the child’s inner emotional experience or abusing them just as he himself was abused.
Because children learn over time to read the parent’s non-verbal and emotional states, the child will learn how to behave in ways that match the parent’s mood in order to not upset the parent. However, in doing so, the child sacrifices the experience of developing their true self. The child may unconsciously give up hope on having their true self recognized and seek to substitute a sense of self with a false personality, or continue to hide who they are to appease the parent.
Alice Miller, psychologist and author of the book, ‘The Drama of the Gifted Child’, refers to this dynamic as emotional incest. Basically, emotional incest means the child has become like a spouse to the parent – they are expected to assume a relationship role where they take care of the parent’s needs and feelings, essentially a role on par with that of a mature adult spouse (for an interesting first-person account of this dynamic, I highly recommend reading The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, by Neil Strauss).
Children in situations like the one described above learn to be perfect, to appear neutral, or to be an over-achiever – anything to defend against the hurt and disappointment that comes with being who they actually are. If they attempt to demonstrate authenticity, the parent deflects or denies their experience and conveys to the child that they are inconveniencing them.
The child continues to develop in a neglectful relationship with the parent. The relationship is neglectful because the parent (often unconsciously) denies the child’s reality. The relationship serves the unmet needs and feelings of the parent first, since the parent controls the parent-child relationship, and the child’s needs and feelings are continuously thwarted. Too often, and despite the best of intentions, the parent is only able to help their child develop a sense of self as good as they themselves were parented. This is one part of the anatomy of how we end up becoming just like our parents without realizing it.
Ultimately, the child receives admiration and affirmation from the parent only when they comply with the parent’s needs and deny their own needs. In this way, the child learns to confuse being admired for their false self with what it means to be loved for their authentic self. The inhibition of the authentic self is the outcome in personality development for the child. The child becomes conditioned over time to suppressing their true self in order to appease the parent. This creates the illusion of a love relationship.
The child learns that relationships are conditional, that you give a lot without getting even half in return, that you cannot expect to be loved for who you are, and that your role is to appease others if you want to have a relationship at all.
The emotional incest of the parent-child relationship sets the stage for the child’s future relationships, where this same pattern will be repeated with lovers, friends, bosses, and many others, since it conforms to the child’s emotional experience.
Both the co-dependent and the narcissist share in this tragic background. However, according to Rosenberg, where the two diverge is that the narcissist gives up on the hope that love is obtainable, loses the ability to feel empathy for other people because of the abuse they suffered, and so learns to use people as objects for their own needs as a kind of toxic leader (just like the narcissistic parent did to them).
On the other hand, the co-dependent continues to hope for love by recreating the relationship they had with the narcissistic parent. In this way, both the narcissist and the co-dependent are magnetically attracted to each other, and both are bound by the same trauma.
It is worth reminding readers here that both narcissism and co-dependency exist on a continuum. Most relationship dynamics consist of one partner who is more of a giver and one partner who is more of a taker. Someone who gives/takes at a ratio of 60/40 and is in a relationship with someone who gives/takes at a ratio of 40/60 will be in a considerably healthy relationship. Neither’s role would be considered pathological. According to Rosenberg, it is when the ratios are unbalanced in extremes or there is a significant mismatch in ratios that things get particularly messy. I want to mention this here, because I’m sure more than one reader recognizes the narcissistic qualities in themselves in this article and is overly concerned about their personality development now. Remember that these traits exist on a continuum; they are not all-or-nothing categories.
THE ADDICTIVE QUALITY OF CO-DEPENDENCY/NARCISSISTIC RELATIONSHIPS
There is a famous general quote in the psychology community regarding brain chemicals: “what fires together wires together.” Simply put, the brain develops patterns of preference for familiar experiences. This holds just as true for relationship patterns as it does for patterns of addiction. Ergo, relationships are often addictive, particularly those where early and unresolved childhood wounds are opened raw.
The narcissist and codependent are addicted to each other. The narcissist is drawn to the codependent because the co-dependent is self-sacrificing and admires the narcissist’s apparent self-esteem. The co-dependent is addicted to the narcissist because they display a false sense of confidence that they lack within themselves. The narcissist may also make empty promises to the co-dependent to keep them enthralled in the relationship – promises which are, of course, conditional and never fully realized.
The narcissist uses the co-dependent just as they themselves were used as a child, and the co-dependent once again dances a familiar song where they are not loved for who they are authentically, but rather, for what they do for the narcissist.
It’s been said that codependency is a literally an addiction, and that the withdrawal symptom is loneliness. When the relationship with the narcissist is threatened, or if the relationship ends, the co-dependent experiences a painful loneliness that propels them either right back to the narcissist or into a relationship with another one. According to Rosenberg, beneath this loneliness is a deep sense of shame for who one is – the original childhood trauma recreated.
HOW TO STOP REPEATING RELATIONSHIP PATTERNS WITH NARCISSISTS
For the co-dependent, whom the withdrawal symptom is loneliness, they can heal by (1) working through the shame and trauma underlying the loneliness, (2) develop healthy self-love over time that stands in contrast to their current deficiency of self-love, (3) implement behavioral strategies that obviate the temptation to go back to or find a new narcissistic partner, and (4) have a healthy relationship where they are recognized for who they are so they can develop an accurate sense of self that is reflected to them by a mature partner. This healing process or one similar to it can be facilitated through psychotherapy.
While it is possible for narcissistic individuals to also break out of their own relationship patterns, such cases may be fraught with more complexity. In any addiction recovery, the first step to change is admitting that you have a problem. Because people whose personalities are pathologically narcissistic are organized in such a way as to outright deny responsibility and place blame on others, they may be less amiable to change, and any attempts at change, such as in their seeking psychotherapy, may be based more on their wanting to learn how to change the people around them rather than to understand themselves more deeply.
As always, people who change must want to change. People who are co-dependent or self-love deficient want relationships; they often just haven’t had the proper relationship that encourages their healthy development. Individuals who are pathologically narcissistic have too often let go of the idea that real authentic relationships are possible, and so may be less willing to undergo the change process required to have relationships beyond a level of superficiality.
When a narcissist tells you “I’m never going to change; this is just the way that I am,” believe them.
Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process – by Nancy McWilliams (there is a very useful chapter in this book dedicated exclusively to narcissistic personalities; the chapters on masochistic, depressive, and dissociative personalities, may be useful to those who identify with co-dependency).