People who are dependent upon narcissists, alcoholics, or drug addicts are called codependents. The term “codependence” originated with the ‘co-alcoholic’ behavior observed in the spouses and children of alcoholics. Family members frequently exhibited the psychological defenses (like denial) and survival behaviors of the alcoholic which resulted in the extension of the disease from the individual to the entire family. Codependents of narcissists do the same thing which results in an extension of the narcissism from the individual to the entire family or other environment (workplace or community organization, etc). Codependents lack clear ego boundaries, that is, they don’t know where their selves end and others begin leading to enmeshed or fused relationships.
People with codependency issues are drawn to others who are confident and self-assured. Narcissists flaunt those qualities like peacocks, putting on a behavioral display of superiority and self-importance. Codependents admire these qualities, and narcissists crave admiration which often results in a perfect pairing (or the “perfect storm”). Codependents have a strong tendency to get involved in toxic relationships, such as with narcissists or other abusers who are emotionally unavailable or needy.
Narcissists seek relationships with subservient individuals who will reinforce their feelings of superiority and power. A codependent partner is ideal for a narcissist as the codependent was brought up in a family environment that taught them to avoid confrontation at all cost. Furthermore, the narcissist’s constant need for attention is satisfied by the indecisive codependent’s constant need to check with him/her before making any choice or decision of any kind.
As the codependent prioritizes the narcissist’s needs ahead of her own, she begins to feel the need to defend the behavior of her narcissistic partner, boss or friend. (I will use the female pronoun as more females are codependents and more males are narcissists). She begins to utilize the same psychological defenses and survival behaviors as the narcissist. The codependent’s behavior starts to be characterized by dishonesty and denial, similar to the narcissist.
The most commonly understood term for a codependent is “enabler”. Other terms that are sometimes used for codependents include ‘follower’, ‘covert narcissist’, ‘inverted narcissist’ and ‘co-narcissist’. Wikipedia defines codependency as “a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (typically narcissism or drug addiction); and in broader terms, it refers to the dependence on the needs of, or control of, another. It also often involves placing a lower priority on one’s own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others.” Codependency occurs in all types of interpersonal relationships including family, work, friends/peers, romantic partnerships, or even in community relationships. Codependency is characterized by the use of denial, low self-esteem, and excessive compliance. Narcissists are often called “natural magnets” due to the way codependents are drawn to them.
Wikipedia further explains that codependency is a behavior usually learned in the family of origin. Basically, it entails a person entering a relationship with another person and becoming emotionally dependent on him or her. Codependent individuals have an exaggerated sense of responsibility toward the other people in their lives and do more than their share in the relationships. Codependents are sensitive to criticism, are inflexible to change, and have problems with intimacy. Lastly, codependency is not considered a mental disorder although it can be diagnosed by a mental health professional.
Signs of codependency
- taking responsibility for someone else’s actions
- worrying or carrying the burden for others’ problems
- covering up to protect others from reaping the consequences of their poor choices
- doing more than is required at work or at home to earn approval
- feeling obligated to do what others expect without consulting one’s own needs
- manipulating others’ responses instead of accepting them at face value
- being suspicious of receiving love, not feeling “worthy” of being loved
- in a relationship based on need, not out of mutual respect
- trying to solve someone else’s problems, or trying to change someone
- life being directed by external rather than internal cues (“should do” vs. “want to do”)
- enabling someone to take one’s time or resources without one’s consent
- neglecting one’s own needs in order to care for someone who doesn’t want to care for themselves
- will give gifts or rewards in order to keep a relationship going
- stops all social activities and involvement in order to become more involved in the life of someone else
- will continue “helping” even if the person they are involved with is abusive
What are some of the symptoms?
- controlling behavior
- avoidance of feelings
- intimacy problems
- caretaking behavior
- hyper-vigilance (a heightened awareness for potential threat/danger)
- physical illness related to stress
Long term codependency can lead to more serious problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, sex addiction, and other self-destructive or self-defeating behaviors (similar to the narcissist but for different reasons).Furthermore, codependents are more likely to attract abuse from aggressive individuals, more likely to stay in toxic jobs or relationships, less likely to seek medical attention, and less likely to get work promotions. Codependents frequently earn less money than those without codependency issues.
At first glance, narcissism and codependency seem to be on the opposite sides of the spectrum: narcissists excessively focus on themselves while codependents excessively focus on others. Yet both conditions cause a person to have an unrealistic self-image, with one experiencing exaggerated self-esteem and the other experiencing excessively low self-esteem.