Can you identify the difference between codependent behavior and narcissistic disorder? It might help to first get some insight into how narcissism is categorized. With that understanding, it can now be compared to codependency.
It would seem to be a simple task, since the codependent is usually described as someone who relies on their relationship to others to gain a sense of self. This is in contrast to the narcissist, who is typically defined as overly confident and supremely self-sufficient.
While it is true that there are some stark contrasts between codependency and narcissism, it is perhaps equally—or even more—true that there are some startling similarities. The root causes of these seemingly dissimilar behaviors are strikingly comparable.
Continue reading to understand the similarities and the contrasts between codependent behavior and narcissistic disorder.
Codependency and the Shrinking Self
As opposed to narcissism, codependent behavior looks like too little self. Codependents have lost a clear sense of who they are and must turn to external sources in order to define themselves. These sources can take the form of a person, any number of substances, or even a process.
In the first example, codependents form dysfunctional relationships with others, be it parent or child, family or friend, romantic or platonic relationships. They behave in what appears to be selfless ways, giving all of themselves to the person who validates their existence. Really, however, the codependent is seeking exactly what they need, as they have no sense of self without the other.
In the second instance, codependents often become addicted to drugs and/or alcohol (and other substances, such as food). These substances serve to mask insecurities and doubts, hiding a lack of self-esteem and an inability to develop self-love. At the core of codependency is, of course, outright dependency.
In the third example, codependents can also turn to particular processes to give them a sense of purpose and self-worth. This basically means that their behavior revolves around a particular process to stabilize them. It might manifest itself in a gambling addiction or in a set of obsessive compulsive routines.
Narcissism and the Aggrandized Self
In contrast to codependency, narcissistic behavior looks like too much self. They don’t exhibit the kind of self-effacing conduct that marks the codependent; instead, they act in ways that are selfish, not selfless. But make no mistake, narcissism is not simply just selfishness. They can be brash and rude whereas codependents are often polite to a fault.
Narcissists typically crave acknowledgment and will blatantly ask for recognition, while the codependent won’t draw attention to herself. The narcissist’s inflated sense of self-importance conceals any potential weaknesses, and they believe themselves always to be right. The codependent feels meaningless unless she is catering to others.
The narcissist firmly believes in their own exceptionalism, that they are unique and special. They assert themselves loudly, without guilt, and have a clear sense of entitlement. The codependent often appears to be quiet and meek, taking a back seat to everyone else’s needs and desires.
While narcissists appear to be the center of their own self-justifying universe, codependents revolve around someone or something else’s star. Narcissists seek out others who will best serve their own selfish needs and desires. Thus, you will often find narcissists pairing with codependents. Read further to understand how those mutual dysfunctions might compliment each other.
Common Core: Shame and Denial
Having established some of the contrasting hallmarks of codependency and narcissism, it is equally important to identify what they have in common. Much of the motivations behind the destructive behavior of both codependents and narcissists come from the same issues and dysfunctions. Neither personality type has a clear and secure sense of self, and both suffer from a lack of self-esteem.
For example, there is a subconscious core of shame that drives both narcissists and codependents. The narcissist’s demonstration of an exaggerated ego is a smoke screen for their feelings of shame and worthlessness likely caused by childhood wounds. The codependent’s self-effacing behavior also masks a sense of shame; they are worthless if they are not sacrificing themselves for others.
While the narcissist seeks recognition, the codependent seeks approval. In this way, they both need external sources to validate their existence. They both lack a coherent and stable sense of self, and in turn, an innate belief in their own self-worth.
For another example, both types remain mired in denial most of the time. The codependent denies that her selfless behavior is destructive, further refusing to believe that this excessively other-centered behavior impacts her health and well-being. Similarly, the narcissist denies that he has any weaknesses or any need for assistance—any need for others at all.
In fact, the narcissist depends on the recognition of others for the core of his self-esteem. It’s just one of several weaknesses the narcissist actually does have.
Common Core: Communication and Control
Another arena in which codependents and narcissists share characteristics is in how they communicate—or rather, how they are unable to communicate. Both personality types have extreme difficulty communicating how they actually feel and what they really need. They may not even really know how to identify their true emotions.
While codependents have trouble communicating because they lack assertiveness, narcissists have trouble communicating because they rely on criticism or obfuscation to dominate and get what they want. Narcissists may express their opinions more clearly than codependents, they lack the communication skills of listening.
Both narcissists and codependents crave control of their environment, including over the people around them. Because both types are profoundly insecure, maintaining control over circumstances is crucial to their comfort. If they start to lose their grip on the situation, they will overreact with anger (the narcissist) or anxiety (the codependent).
This also applies to emotions themselves. Neither the codependent nor the narcissist wishes to be caught in a moment of weakness. Since they are uncomfortable with their emotions, they are either ashamed or afraid of those feelings and will do anything to exert control over those, as well.
While there are some contrasting qualities between the codependent and the narcissist, there are also some deep-seated similarities. Their lack of a clearly defined self and sense of worth propel them to behave in destructive manners. They both crave recognition and control but manifested in different ways.
It must be noted, however, that while most narcissists express codependent behaviors, most codependents are not necessarily narcissists. Codependency is more common than pathological narcissism and is, typically, more treatable.
With a better understanding of how codependency is expressed relative to narcissism, it’s also helpful to read this article to better understand what happens when you stand up to a narcissist.
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