Have a hard time knowing how you feel after a fight with your partner? Just can't make up your mind about whether to stay in a job that's comfortable or push yourself for something more ambitious? Take the blame for spilling three of the six coffees you volunteered to get for your team even though you know deep down it was at least 65% Carol's fault? If you have trouble tapping into your emotions or standing up to others, it turns out, you might just be a co-narcissist. Here's what that means — and why you don't have to resign yourself to accepting the stress that it almost certainly brings you.
But let's start with what it means to be a straight-up narcissist: "The essence of narcissism is a lack of ability to empathise," says Alan Rappoport, PhD, a psychotherapist based in San Francisco. "The person’s entire reference is themselves." Everything a narcissist does is centred around how it makes them look, whether or not it advances their goals, and how it makes them feel.
A co-narcissist, then, is "the reciprocal of the relationship," Dr. Rappoport explains. If a narcissist is performing, the co-narcissist's job is to serve as the audience. According to a 2005 paper in which he formalised the concept, these are patterns we're taught in childhood, often with a narcissist parent and co-narcissist kid. "A child is rarely going to act in utter defiance of the parent — they’re going to do whatever they can to get validation from the parent," says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, a psychologist and author of author of Should I Stay Or Should I Go? Surviving A Narcissistic Relationship.
So, as a co-narcissist child, you'll grow up believing that the only way to feel validated — loved, accepted, understood — is to give in to your narcissistic parent's needs. "You don’t call them out and you let them do their shit," Dr. Durvasula says. "You validate the narcissist."
As a result, your own inner world takes a backseat and, as an adult, you may have trouble putting a finger on your emotions or knowing how you feel about a situation because you're so used to spending the entirety of your energy caring about the way someone else is feeling. Co-narcissists also tend to take the blame for relationship issues, have feelings of low self-worth, and feel selfish when talking about their feelings. "Those on the darkest side of co-narcissism are prone to substance use and eating disorders — what we call 'disorders of regulation,'" Dr. Rappoport says, "because they’ve gone so far over the edge of trying to please."
Of course, as with pretty much everything in psychology, narcissism and co-narcissism are both on a spectrum. That means that we all have some capacity to be both narcissists and co-narcissists, but very few of us wind up at the extreme end of either one.
Another major downside to having a narcissistic parent: It sets you up for challenges when it comes to romantic relationships later on. You might seek out narcissistic partners because that dynamic feels familiar to you, Dr. Rappoport explains. Or, if you're in a relationship with someone who's more co-narcissistic than you are, you could fall into the role of narcissist to "balance" things out.
Sounds like a case for some serious therapy, right? Well, narcissists, almost by definition, tend to avoid therapy for fear of being seen as inadequate. That means it's the co-narcissists who are actually more likely to get professional help to change the way they act in relationships with narcissists. Luckily, therapy is pretty darn effective at helping you overcome those co-narcissistic tendencies: "If you have preserved empathy and can be present with other people, that’s good raw material in therapy," Dr. Durvasula says. "Once the co-narcissist becomes aware that this is their pattern [through therapy], they are much more likely to be able to say, 'Ah, I'm doing this again," and change their behaviour."
However, you may feel at first like you need to adapt to your therapist, as you would with your narcissistic parent. You might, for instance, always need to ask how the therapist is doing or ask what they think about a certain situation rather than trusting your gut and talking about your own perceptions. Dr. Rappoport says it's the therapist's job to not accept that dynamic and, instead, focus your sessions on exploring and valuing your own experience.
How do you know that you're making progress in changing those deep-seated behaviours? "It's a subtle thing," Dr. Rappoport says. "You're really looking for the [co-narcissistic person] to become more spontaneous and authentic" as they feel more and more like their experience is real and appreciated. And although you may not notice those changes in yourself right away, he explains, your therapist should start to see them even after your first session.
That's why you shouldn't hesitate to seek out the help of a therapist if you think you may have some co-narcissist tendencies. Co-narcissism isn't a disorder in itself, but working on it can help alleviate the symptoms of disorders related to that dynamic in your life — and it can just make your life easier to live.