The truth about narcissism and codependency is that they are not personality disorders. They are adaptive relationship strategies. Now that I have hit you with that truth straight out of the gate, let me explain.
Some people are aware that the household that they grew up in was dysfunctional. But most people who grew up in dysfunctional households, either don’t know that their family system was dysfunctional or are in denial that it was. We have the tendency to normalize whatever environment we grow up in. To understand more about this, I encourage you to watch my video titled: How Normalization is Hurting You and Hurting Society. When I say dysfunctional, what I mean is that the way the family system operates (and especially the way that the needs of each family member is met) is destructive to the individual members of the family. It diminishes instead of enhances the wellbeing of each member of the system. The way the relationships operate within the family system causes disturbances regarding the emotional, mental and physical wellbeing of the individual members of the family. Therefore, we cannot say that the family system works well.
The hidden reality in a dysfunctional family system is this: Every member of the family is really out for themselves. Each person is pursuing their own interest and nobody is reliably interested in anyone else’s wellbeing but their own.” When I say hidden reality, I mean really hidden reality. Because some dysfunctional family dynamics are nauseatingly gaslighting in that they have the appearance of exactly the opposite of this truth. For example, let’s say that a parent dedicates their entire existence to their child succeeding at a specific sport. That child might grow up to have all kinds of disturbances to their mental, emotional and physical health. But not know why and maintain the story that their parent selflessly sacrificed everything for him or her success and dreams. In reality, this parent may have in fact been motivated to drive the success of their child for their own personal needs and desires the entire time; no matter the adverse effects on their child. Needs and desires like fueling their own positive self-concept, the desire to create invisible strings of indebtedness so that their child will support them in turn or success by proxy. And when this is the case, even though at a conscious level, the child often does not register the reality, at a subconscious level, they know something just isn’t right. They usually internalize it and tell themselves the story that something must be wrong with them. But they suffer none the less and experience the destructive effects of the dysfunctional relationship. So, it is important to know that in a dysfunctional social system, including a family, the fact that every person is out for themselves is the truth that everyone will try to cover up and deny.
If every person is really out for themselves, the relationships within a dysfunctional family are not reliably safe. The definition of an unsafe relationship is a relationship with someone who is not taking you as part of themselves and therefore is not taking your best interests as part of their own best interests. This is a state of disconnection and perceived separateness where they cannot see you, feel you, hear you and understand you to even know what your best interests really are. It is essentially a lack of attunement and a lack of love. A person in a dysfunctional family system can oppose your wellbeing for the sake of their own. In a dysfunctional family system, the members start to play zero sum games with each other. It is a recipe for pain, conflict, and even abuse.
When we find ourselves in a family system like this, in order to ensure our own wellbeing, we feel we only have one choice: To jump on the bandwagon of vying for our own best interests and to create adaptations to that family system, so that we can feel as safe as possible and so that we can have as much control as possible over getting our own needs met. There are so many different strategies that children can employ in order to do this. Just to give you just some examples, they can become oppositionally defiant, they can become hyper achievers, they can become cunning manipulators, they can make themselves invisible, they can become people pleasers, they can become cheerleaders, they can become caretakers, helpers or enablers, they can become peacemakers or mediators, they can become the one in the family that lightens the mood, they can become hyper responsible, they can become the household managers, they can become the martyrs or they can become the scapegoat or the golden child etc.
What is important to understand is that before a child selects these various strategies, what they are faced with in a dysfunctional family system is a choice. 1. They can go through the front door and fight the other members of the family system for their own best interests. Or 2. They can go through the backdoor and manipulate the other members of the family system for their own best interests. And it is here that people develop the relationship strategy of narcissism or codependency.
People who develop the relationship adaptation style of narcissism decide at a subconscious level that because no one is really concerned for their welfare, benefit and best interests (the world is a hostile place), they must survive by detaching from others, cutting themselves off from connection and affinity and being concerned only for their own welfare, benefit and interests; regardless of the impact on others.
For example, a child who develops this style of relating in their childhood may deny their dependence on their parents and enter into consistent conflict with them, refuse to reciprocate, struggle with empathy towards other people in the family system, monopolize conversations, and become preoccupied with their own successes. In their adulthood, they may not really see, hear or feel other people and therefore, will not consider them. They may exploit other people in order to meet their own needs and at the expense of others without perceiving the pain they are causing; they may be hyper focused on their own grandiose accomplishments to cover up for their low self-esteem. And they may dupe people by entering into a relationship with a person by showing the person excess attention, adoration and affection so as to influence the person to become committed, dependent and obligated to them; thus gaining power over the person at the same time as experiencing the self-esteem enduing personal success of “getting” them.
People who develop the relationship adaptation style of codependency decide at a subconscious level that because no one is really concerned for their welfare, benefit and best interests, the best way to survive is to get their own needs met by sacrificing parts of themselves so as to conform to other people’s interests and creating an attuned emotional contract with them, whereby their own needs are manipulatively met in exchange for doing so. You will hear pretty much everywhere that codependents place a lower priority on their own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. This is not true. It only looks like that on the outside. The reality is that the preoccupation with the needs of others is their method for getting their own needs met.
For example, a child who develops this style of relating in their childhood may simply never form an identity so as to conform themselves to being whatever pleases their parents, adopt the values of their parents, not make decisions for themselves, never assert themselves into conversation and try to fix every individual family member’s problems in order to try to create security and stability for themselves. In their adulthood, they may not be able to identify the difference between their own boundaries and other people’s boundaries, they may be passive aggressive and fail to communicate, they might sacrifice all of their other needs and desires for the sake of getting the approval of others, they might become obsessed with securing a sense of their own moral goodness. And they might dupe people by entering into a relationship with another person and mirroring them, leading the other person to perceive that a sameness or compatibility exists, which doesn’t actually exist.
Any member of a dysfunctional family system has a deep well of fear and grief regarding relationships in general. As well as a deep struggle with self-concept. Because there is no real experience of love in such a social system, only the facade of love, every member of such a system comes to believe that they are fundamentally unlovable. As a result, what unites the narcissist and the codependent is a core of shame. For this reason, both the narcissist and codependent embark on a lifelong mission to feel good about themselves. Both have learned that in an unloving world, they cannot get love and they cannot get their needs met freely from others. Therefore, they have to oppose people and/or manipulate people to get what they want and need.
Narcissism and codependency definitely exist on a scale of severity. And they are no different than any dysfunctional adaptation. They are both complex dysfunctional relationship strategies that people learned and adopted in order to be able to stay safe in their specific family system. And this way of being in their family system becomes their default way of being in relationships with other people in general. To understand more about this concept of behavioral dysfunction being nothing more than an adaptation, I would encourage you to watch my video titled: The Root of Mental Illness is Unsafety.
One huge tell that narcissism and codependency are relationship strategy styles rather than fixed character dysfunctions is that these behaviors arise specifically within the context of relationship. This is because they are a byproduct of relational trauma. And a person may alternate between these styles in relationships. For example, a person might act more like the narcissist in one relationship and more like the codependent in another. Or a person might be a codependent in a relationship until that strategy doesn’t work anymore and then flip into a narcissistic style of relating within that same relationship. This is because narcissism and codependency are both narcissistic relationship strategies. One is more overt and the other is more covert. You can say that each contains the seed of the other. Inside every narcissist is a covert codependent and inside every codependent is a covert narcissist. Both grow up watching these different and opposite strategies of relating in an unsafe social environment; which they believe all social environments are. Though they often have a better understanding of the drawbacks of employing the opposite strategy.
When we grow up in an ‘every man for himself’ social system, we adapt by employing all kinds of strategies for staying safe in and trying to get our needs met in that social system. When we look at a narcissist, all we are looking at is a collection of strategies for doing so. And when we are looking at a codependent, all we are looking at is a collection of strategies for doing so. And whether we choose to employ one set of strategies or another is down to so many specific details, elements, nuances and circumstances in whatever relationship, family, or social system that we find ourselves in. In a world where dysfunctional relationship is unfortunately the human norm, the work of our lives is to extricate ourselves from these dysfunctional patterns within relationships and to create relationships and relationship systems that enhance and secure the wellbeing of every individual member within them.