A narcissist can be codependent and vice versa. A person with codependency can also be narcissistic.
This can be confusing at first given the way narcissism and codependency are discussed typically. It can seem like narcissism could not be further away from codependency.
To clarify why a narcissist can be codependent, lets dig deeper.
People Can Both be Narcissists and Codependents
Typically, when you think of a narcissist, you may imagine someone who is completely selfish. On the other hand, when you think of a person with codependency, you may think they are completely selfless. While these are the accurate extreme presentations of both narcissism and codependency, most human beings don’t fit neatly into a certain box.
Whether we look at relational issues like narcissism or mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, many people experience a combination of symptoms. For this reason, in part, there are some people who are argue against the practice of diagnosing people.
Codependency is not yet a unified diagnosis in the DSM-5. This is the manual mental health professionals use to diagnosis clients. Given this, there are numerous definitions for codependency.
The definition I prefer for codependency comes from my book, The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence.
Codependency is the process in which people’s focus on the world is external, so they seek their worth, and proof of their worth, from others rather than using an internal compass. Their focus is on “other worth,” instead of “self-worth.”Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT
Narcissism, unlike codependency, does have a unified definition for diagnosis. In the updated version of the DSM-5, narcissism is defined as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood.”
However, only one presentation of narcissism is described in this diagnosis. The DSM-5, even in the updated version, only describes the more selfish and dangerous type of narcissism.
This unfortunately contradicts over 35 years of clinical theory and research which highlights there is another type of narcissism.
The Different Types of Narcissism
Currently, the DSM focuses on the type of narcissism which may more likely lead to abusive relationships. These narcissists struggle with entitlement alongside a lack of empathy for others. When a person lacks empathy, this contributes to abuse as they are more able to objectify others including their partner.
However, there exists another form of narcissism which experts describe as “vulnerable narcissism.”
People with this type of narcissism are more likely to feel sensitive, empty, and insecure. This form of narcissism is thusly similar to codependency. There’s also emerging research that people who are “highly sensitive” may at times exhibit narcissistic qualities.
As such, a narcissist can be codependent.
Trauma leads to Narcissism and Codependency
Codependency expert, Pia Mellody, wrote the groundbreaking book, Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes From, How It Sabotages Our Lives. In this book, Mellody outlines her famous Meadows model for codependency.
She defines codependency as a “disease of developmental immaturity” which is caused by childhood trauma. In other words, trauma leads a person to get stuck developmentally. This prevents them from acting like a “functional adult.”
In her Meadows model, she describes the spectrum of codependency. On one end, a person looks more like the stereotypical, people-pleaser codependent. The other end of the spectrum features a more narcissistic presentation. This model explains how a narcissist can be codependent.
The Overlap Between Narcissism and Codependency
It’s helpful to imagine that narcissism and codependency are two sides of the same coin. A narcissist can be codependent. And vice versa.
Narcissists and codependents have similar challenges in that they both need to learn how to balance other-directed care and attention with self-directed care and attention for an interdependent relationship.
In these relationships, giving and taking are imbalanced.
Note: If you would like to learn more about this overlap, please check out my continuing education course for mental health professionals. This training discusses the overlap between narcissism and codependency in greater detail. Furthermore, it features my 4-part codependency recovery treatment system.
The Role of Shame in Narcissism and Codependency
Trauma leads a person to develop narcissistic and/or codependent qualities. This is because when a person has experienced trauma, they sometimes personalize it. They mistakenly believe the hurtful thing happened to them because there is something wrong with them.
This leads a person to make up that they are not “good enough.” Both codependents and narcissists feel this way.
Shame is the feeling of being “not good enough” which leads to the codependent or narcissistic behaviors.
A person who thinks they are “not good enough” may appear more codependent to compensate for this. They may mistakenly believe that if they focus on making others’ happy eventually another person will see their worth. It’s also common for people in their codependency to feel guilty, or selfish, for taking time to care for themselves as they don’t feel worthwhile.
Related: Why Self-Care is Not Selfish
A person who is experiencing codependency in this way believes that by people pleasing they can cure their shame. Unfortunately, though, this only reinforces a sense they are “not good enough” because they cannot always make others happy. This is an impossible goal.
A narcissist will instead try to act superior to others to hide their sense of not being “good enough.” They often will seem like they don’t need anything, from anyone, to hide their vulnerability. This also manifests as having extreme boundaries i.e., “my way or the highway.”
This extreme independence is the narcissistic presentation of codependent. It also only reinforces the shame of being human. After all, we all need one another at one point or another.
Can a Codependent Become a Narcissist?
Human beings commonly do not fit into neat categories. Therefore, it’s helpful to remember people don’t “Hulk out” and suddenly become narcissists. Remember, narcissism and codependency are two sides of the same coin.
A person who is a narcissist can be codependent. And a person who is more codependent can act narcissistic.
Different situations, or relationships, can trigger a codependent or narcissistic response in a person.
For example, a person may seem stereotypically codependent at work. She may always say “yes” to extra projects. This person may also give up all her free time.
However, with her family she may appear narcissistic. She may be unwilling to compromise or help others completely.
Or a person may seem like a narcissist with his wife. He may even be abusive or condescending. Yet, with his mother he may go above and beyond trying to make her happy.
It’s Ok if You Have Codependent and Narcissistic Qualities.
Narcissism is even more harshly judged than codependency. It seems like calling someone a “narcissist” is a go-to insult right now.
I’ve known many clients who feel comfortable owning their people-pleasing qualities. Yet, these same clients, are often terribly embarrassed by the parts of themselves that feel better than others. (We can even feel better than others – the narcissistic presentation of codependency – by how “selfless” we are compared to others.)
For recovery purposes, it’s incredibly important to remember that narcissism and codependency commonly co-exist. Also, please try to have self-compassion. Most people do not fit perfectly into any one category or box.
Finally, for recovery, the most important thing is to “name it to tame it.” Once you have accurately identified the problem, you can heal it.
You Can Recover from Codependency
The first step towards recovery, in general, is always naming the problem.
The next is to practice self-compassion. It’s human nature to have struggles. Also, you likely experienced trauma which led to this way of relating to people. Please be understanding towards yourself.
Next it’s easier to address codependent symptoms simply because there are more resources out there. To heal, check out my books, The Codependency Recovery Plan and The Codependency Workbook. I’ve also made a 4-part training to address people-pleasing behaviors, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself.
Related: Tips for Codependency Recovery
You Can Recover from Narcissism
If you identify as narcissistic more, first I want to commend you for being here. As stated before, the stigma around this label can be intimidating. But this way of being in the world is understandable. You may want to attend trauma therapy to help you gain more perspective.
Next, the most important thing you can do is practice empathy.
Take time each day to consider the people in your life you are close to (even if it’s superficial closeness like a colleague). Now try to imagine their needs, wants, thoughts, and feelings. Given them space to share these with you. Then practice active listening when they do share. This is simply repeating back what they say to you to share care and validation.
Narcissists can be Codependents
Codependency exists along a spectrum.
Some people have poor boundaries and focus on people pleasing. This is the more stereotypical form of codependency. While others are overly independent and walled off. This version is more like vulnerable narcissism.
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you can practice empathy. Yet at the same time, if there is abuse present, it’s essential to seek support from a couples therapist to stop the abuse.
Or if the abuse is extreme, you may need to develop a safety plan to leave privately.
About The Author, Krystal
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She does this by teaching the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.
This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.
Her third book, Self-Love Made Possible: The 5-Step Guide to Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy and Become Your Own Best Friend will be released late 2022. To be notified of its release, please join the waitlist here.
Her course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself, provides the skills necessary to have a healthy relationship. This course features over a year of relationship skills you would learn in therapy. Students share this course has been “life changing.”
Each week, she answers your relationship questions from a place of expertise and compassion. To submit your relationship questions, please DM her @confidentlyauthentic.com or you may send an email to email@example.com to submit your question.