The Pathological Narcissist and Co-narcissist Convoluted Dance
In every narcissistic relationship, one will find both the pathological narcissist (perpetrator) and their co-narcissist (victim) partners in a convoluted dance. It is the job of the co-narcissistic victim to “cooperate” with their pathological narcissist, and to serve them (to caretake and validate them) in many ways.
This is an unspoken contract that every narcissist expects their co-narcissist victim to honour. In effect, the victim is, according to Dr. Rappoport, 2005 (in his paper where he formalised the concept of the co-narcissist) “the reciprocal of the relationship”. He says, “The essence of narcissism is a lack of ability to empathise. The person’s entire reference is themselves.”
In other words, everything a narcissist does is centred around how it makes them look, feel, and whether or not it advances their goals. He explains, “If a narcissist is performing, the co-narcissist’s job is to serve as the audience”.
These patterns are learned in childhood, where a child is exposed to a narcissist caretaker, especially a narcissist parent. In such an environment, the co-narcissist child grows up believing that the only way they can feel validated, accepted, or feel safe, is to give in and to validate the narcissist instead. As a result, they are conditioned to serve, please, and to take responsibility for other people’s feelings, while their own inner world takes a backseat.
Later in adulthood, the narcissist and the co-narcissist are often attracted to each other, because unconsciously, that dynamic feels familiar to them both.
For that reason, in my book “When Shame Begets Shame”, I have decided to refer to a victim of narcissistic abuse specifically as a “co-narcissist”. I prefer to use this term than the more familiar term of “co-dependent” that is so often used by mental health professionals, because a false diagnosis may lead to the wrong treatment in the therapy room.
I know this term will come as a shock to many, especially to the narcissist’s victims. So, let me make it clear, a “co-narcissist” is not suffering from a disorder or a mental illness, they are individuals who have been consciously targeted to be victimized by a person with a pathological narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Therefore, I am purposing that the term only refers to a relationship dynamic that exists specifically between a pathological narcissist (the perpetrator) and their targeted co-narcissist (their victim). The term is not intended to be used in any other context.
Unfortunately, under such tyranny, all co-narcissist victims learn that they must co-operate if they want to stay safe around their pathological narcissist. This is so important for all therapists to fully understand. What I am saying is, what is being called co-dependent behaviour is the co-narcissist’s defence mechanisms for surviving such tyranny.
To be fair, both the co-dependent and the co-narcissist are often self-effacing and submissive at times, that is for sure, but for very different reasons. In a strange way, both the co-dependent and the co-narcissist victim are building behaviour around the traits of “cooperativeness”. However, not every co-dependent will have experienced pathological narcissist abuse, whereas every co-narcissist will have.
So, then, what is the difference? The answer is quite simple really. The co-dependent individual acts out of their submissive behaviours to keep those they love happy, because they are afraid of being alone in the world. Whereas the co-narcissist acts out their submissive behaviours to accommodate and endure the pathological narcissist’s interpersonally rigid and abusive behaviours to survive.
It is only in being passive and pleasing that the victim can remain safe while in this dangerous relationship. As children, the co-narcissist victim unconsciously learns to use appeasement (i.e. being pleasing and passive, etc.) in the hopes of inhibiting the hostile reactions of the more dominant narcissist.
I can attest to that, because I became the worlds “greatest pleaser” as a result of my own survival strategies around my psychopathic brother (who was on the pathological narcissism spectrum). This submissiveness is, without doubt, a “survival” strategy that the co-narcissist uses for self-preservation.
However, these survival strategies can later add to the co-narcissist’s feelings of shame, guilt and self-blame in adulthood.
My fear for the co-narcissist is, if the therapist only recognises the victim as having co-dependency issues, they will then only work on those issues, missing the deeper work. If that happens, not only is the clinician further abusing the victim, they risk shame-blaming them. Furthermore, they are failing to give their client the psychoeducation about narcissistic abuse that they need and deserve, plus they are failing to give them the proper treatment for the “relational trauma” (trauma inflicted on one person by another) they have experienced. Worst still, they are leaving them open to being further re-victimised by other narcissists.
It is also important to stress that co-narcissism is not a disorder, and that the co-narcissistic victim is not pathologically narcissistic themselves. Incidentally, both narcissism and co-narcissism are on a spectrum. We each have the capacity for being both narcissistic and co-narcissistic at different times throughout our lives.
But the good news is that most of us do not end up at the extreme ends of the spectrum, where we find the pathological narcissist. Shame is the bedrock of the pathological narcissist’s psychopathology, and they project that shame onto their co-narcissist victim, with devastating effects.
Unfortunately, the interpersonal dynamic that exists between these two individuals (the shamed and the shamer) is a highly complicated dance. Once conditioned in the dance, the co-narcissist develops unconscious negative patterns of behaviour that leave them likely to be re-victimised by other pathological narcissists throughout life. Therefore, therapy is especially recommended for the co-narcissist, where their shame becomes “the gold” waiting to be mined in the therapeutic process.
I cannot stress it strongly enough when I say, that both pathological narcissism and pathological co-narcissism are the results of adaptions that children make to cope with any pathological narcissistic authority figures in their environment.
If you want to know more about how these two individuals evolve differently, and how shame can affect their identities very differently (i.e. in the way they feel defective, a failure, and unlovable, etc.) you may want to get a copy of my eBook “When Shame Begets Shame”