Narcissism used to be a term only utilized by psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health experts. But in recent years, it’s become part of the pop culture lexicon and a term frequently thrown about to describe people whose behavior is toxic or simply disagreeable.
Alongside narcissism, the term ‘codependency’ has also become quite Instagram-famous. This makes sense, because in many cases, when a person discusses a narcissist or narcissistic behavior, the term codependency naturally becomes part of the conversation. Narcissists prey on codependent people, we are told. Narcissists can smell a codependent person the same way a shark can smell blood in the water from miles away.
While we tend to think that a narcissist is someone who is laser-focused on themselves and is only concerned with supporting and inflating their own ego, we often imagine a codependent person to be the opposite of that. They are sensitive, compassionate, and deeply empathetic. They never think of themselves, and always put others first. No wonder they are an easy mark for people who like to be the center of attention and always get their own way.
At least, that’s what you might garner from the memes and quotes floating around the social media ether when it comes to narcissism and codependency.
But, as is so often the case, the truth is much more complicated and multi-dimensional. Trying to distill deep-rooted human behavior into the space of a meme or a short social media post is almost comically impossible.
As Walt Whitman famously penned in his poem “Song of Myself”:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
We all contain multitudes. And we often contradict ourselves.
This is true especially when it comes to Internet diagnoses and cursory self-exploration. If you’re only scanning a quick social media definition of narcissism or codependency, it becomes very easy to ‘diagnose’ yourself and your loved ones in a way that is often conflicting or surface-level.
I would argue that narcissists and codependents are much more alike than we may realize, and that each of these seemingly disparate groups is actually driven by the same motivations and the same needs. (You can hear me talk more about this on my latest episode of “The Language of Love,” in which I do a special session with a listener who struggles with codependent behavior in her relationships).
As a ‘recovering’ codependent, I have come to realize that much of my empathetic and self-effacing behavior was actually a way for me to retain control and demonstrate my value to the people around me. It’s a lesson I learned in childhood: As a pseudo-therapist who was constantly thrown in the middle of my parents’ tumultuous marriage, I took on a parental role in an attempt to be the best daughter I could be. Instead of worrying about ordinary things a kid might worry about, I worried about my mother’s mental health and did all I could to be her shoulder to cry on and her confidant.
This behavior continued on throughout my adulthood. I was always the therapist, the nurturer, the giver, the people-pleaser. I never wanted to put my own needs first. I thought this made me a good person, a selfless person.
But what I came to realize over the years was that such deep codependency is actually the shadow side of narcissism. When you self-efface yourself to the point that you can’t even identify your own needs, it goes beyond simple empathy and having a kind heart. It becomes obsessive and self-destructive. What I realized was that giving, giving, giving was my way of being in control. I never had to reveal my own needs or be honest with myself. I never had to maintain my boundaries or do the difficult work of standing up for myself.
And it felt good….at least for a while. Like any compulsive behavior, it became a compulsion because it served an emotional need. It served my need to feel valuable, to feel worthy, to feel like I ‘earned’ the love of my family. If I didn’t do it all for everyone, how could I be lovable enough or good enough?
This very insecurity and self-loathing is exactly what drives narcissistic behavior as well. Someone who struggles with narcissism may seem like they simply adore themselves, but it is just the opposite. A narcissistic person is often so deeply insecure that they need constant validation and praise from everyone around them. They have no self-worth unless it comes from dragging it out of everyone around them. That is why they often seem so ‘braggy’ or selfish.
They have a hole inside of them that they are trying to fill with the love and adoration of others…just like a person who exhibits codependent behavior. I believe this is why people who are so-called narcissists and people who are so-called codependents often wind up attracting each other. Not because the ‘narcissist’ can smell blood in the water, but because narcissists and codependents emit the same energy: An energy of insecurity, self-doubt, and deep fearfulness. Fear of being seen for who they really are. Fear of people realizing they are just imposters and not at all deserving of love. Fear of being stripped of their defenses and being put in a vulnerable state.
I think this is a very powerful realization for people who struggle with codependency. I know it changed the way that I approach my self-effacing behaviors. I realized that lighting myself on fire to keep other people warm wasn’t a selfless act. It was a fearful act, an act of isolation instead of connection. Now when I find myself tempted to go into intense people-pleasing mode, I stop and ask myself what need I am trying to meet inside of myself. What I often find is that I am avoiding something within me that might feel challenging or uncomfortable.
It’s not that there is anything wrong with being compassionate or giving. Just the opposite! I believe loving each other and finding ways to deepen and perfect that love is why we are on this earth. But that must include self-love. And neither narcissistic behavior nor codependent behavior are rooted in self-love. They are rooted in fear and doubt, which is why it leads to behavior and choices that are often painful to us and those around us.
So, tell me, have you ever struggled with codependency? Have you ever mentally diagnosed yourself or someone else with some of these trendy mental health terms? Do you believe that narcissism and codependency are very closely related? Reach out to me on social media and let me know…I love to hear from you! And be sure to listen to my latest episode of “The Language of Love” here so you can learn more about codependency and how to modify these harmful behaviors in your relationships.