“The narcissist needs to be in the spotlight, and the co-narcissist serves as the audience.” – Alan Rappaport
Have you heard the term, “It takes two to tango?” Now, trust me, this article isn’t about victim blaming. It’s about education. Knowledge is power, and understanding your role in a narcissistic dyad will help you break free.
If you are involved in a relationship with a narcissist, you may have become conditioned into the role of the “co-narcissist.” What does this mean? It means you have morphed yourself into a person you’re not in order to continue being in the relationship. Or, let me put it another way. You have adapted to the relationship by utilizing the internal traits you already possess in a way that benefits the narcissist.You are still you, but a different version of who you could be or would be in a non-narcissistic relationship.
In some respects you have been brainwashed, or conditioned to behave in certain ways that generate, or in your mind, hopefully generate favorable outcomes in the relationship. But, since the narcissist is unpredictable and internally triggered, your behaviors have actually little to do with the narcissist’s abusiveness. Since you do not realize this, you try ever so gingerly to “appease the monster” by being who you believe he/she wants/needs you to be.
Traits of a co-narcissist:
- Takes on the responsibilities of the narcissist
- Notices the narcissist’s feelings, but not their own
- Has an external focus for decision making
- Is loyal
- Is very self-reliant
- Has a strong ability to overcome difficulties (resilient)
- Is flexible
Co-narcissists are often created in childhood from having a narcissistic parent. They learn how to be in a relationship from experiences with their parent(s). Oftentimes, co-narcissists have learned how to be objects to other people rather than how to attach to someone in a co-equal, co-beneficial, and inter-personally connected bond. Instead, when in a relationship with a narcissist, the other person is not seen as an individual, valued for his/her intrinsic worth, but rather is viewed in purely utilitarian terms.
All that matters is how useful are you to the narcissist. Can you do his/her bidding? Are you able to deny your own needs and be whatever and whomever the narcissist needs you to be at the moment? Does the narcissist benefit from being in the relationship with you?
Co-narcissists are approved of and rewarded when they perform well in their roles, but, otherwise, they are corrected and punished (Rappaport, 2005). That being said, the approvals and rewards are short-lived and elusive; but, they are doled out just enough to keep you trying.
The damage caused to you:
Over time, you have been taught how to handle your inner conflicts alone. You haven’t learned to co-regulate your emotions in a relationship. You have been taught that your thoughts and feelings don’t matter, in fact, are wrong, bad, and foolish. You have a very distorted view and a maladaptive internalized working-model for how relationships are supposed to be.
Because the other person does not show you real love other than in an objectified way, you haven’t experienced the internal sense of being intrinsically worthy. Rather, you have been reinforced to believe that your worth is based on your usefulness to the narcissist. Your ability to feel cared for and loved is damaged. You struggle with a sense of mattering, because, in essence, in this relationship you don’t matter.
Your value has been decided by the narcissist, and because a narcissist doesn’t value anyone other than for their usefulness, you internally sense that you need to keep on performing in order to garner any sense of importance.
The wounds are internal. No one sees them, not even you. You don’t realize this erosion of your sense of self. It is insidious.
How to stop being a co-narcissist:
One recommendation I have for a co-narcissist, is not to change their good traits, but, to stop cooperating with the narcissist. The way this works is you change it up only for the narcissist. You be your regular, accommodating self for everyone else, but for the narcissist you operate from a different playlist. Stop saying yes, stop being nice, stop helping, stop bending over backwards to please, stop changing your schedule. Stop.
This is similar to setting boundaries. You don’t announce, “I’ve decided to set boundaries with you and stop doing what you want.” You simply change. You have internal dialogues with yourself, not with the other person. Just tell yourself, “No is a complete sentence,” and walk away after saying no. This is how you stop cooperating with the narcissist.
The reason you are doing this is to rescue yourself from emotional abuse. You don’t want to lose yourself because your good traits have been exploited by someone abusive in your life. You want to rescue yourself from being damaged by the interactions further.
Yes, the other person is going to retaliate. He/she may even leave you over this. Be prepared for a very negative reaction. Be prepared to have increased anxiety.
This may be scary for you to consider. This may be new to you if you grew up with the role of being an object for someone else’s wants and needs. But, even if it’s scary, new, uncomfortable, and foreign for you, you can do it.
Change takes time and practice. For however long you have been in a narcissistic relationship you have “hard wired” your brain in to certain thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about yourself, the other person, and yours and their roles in the relationship.
You need to re-wire your brain, particularly with respect to relationships. In order to undo the damage done by this toxic relationship, it is important for you to develop healthy relationships with other people. You need people in your life who can see you, validate you, value you, and enjoy you. You need mutually satisfying relationships.
This way, as you change your relationship with the narcissist in your life, you create new, healthy inner working models and ways of relating that are both self-affirming and other-affirming. This will change your life.
One last thought:
Not only is it necessary to develop healthy relationships with others in order to heal, you also need to develop a healthy relationship with yourself. In some respects, in order to remain in this relationship you have had to abandon yourself. It has been said that a relationship with a narcissist is merely a reflection of a relationship with the self – that is, you allow yourself to be treated how you internally believe you deserve to be treated. Think about it.
“Be the subject of your own life, not the object of someone else’s.”
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Cohen, D. (2019). Definition of a Co-Narcissist (Cinderella). Retrieved from: https://joybasedliving.com/2019/01/24/definition-of-co-narcissist/
Rappaport, A. (2005). Co-narcissism: How We Accommodate To Narcissistic Parents. Retrieved from http://www.alanrappoport.com/