There’s an elephant in the room of our conversations on codependency and narcissism, and pretending the elephant is not there has proven costly to our health and wellbeing as individuals, and thus also to the couple and family relationships, even the communities and societies we form.
The costs are high because, as human beings, our biological needs far extend mere physical needs to survive! Indeed, we are wired with core social yearnings, needs not wants, to matter in meaningful ways to life in and around us, and thus, to grow, transform into the wholehearted, relationally connected, fully self-actualized social beings that the blueprint demands. And that is the problem: the prevailing norms and structure of our society lead us to exhaust most of our energies on sustenance … and leave little if any energy and time on what most deeply fulfills, connects and promotes a sense of meaning and joy … mutually relationships with key others, our self, and life around us!
Our science textbooks need to be updated to reflect recent neuroscience findings. The human brain is a social organ. Settling for mere physical survival is not in our dna!
While the dance of codependency and narcissism may be as unique as fingerprints to each couple, for the most part, these two patterns can be best understood as rooted in socially approved gender norms — for how “good” women and “real” men are expected to “perform” and relate to one another to “prove” individual self-worth in relation to one another and society — that have an unhealthy (to say to least), dehumanizing effect on the human brain and body, as these norms are based on a set of specific limiting beliefs that spawn irrational fears, and a host of addictive, fear-based relating patterns in both couple and family relationships.
And two of these addictive relating patterns are codependency and narcissism.
First to clarify, the terms “codependency” and “narcissism” in this and other discussions refer mostly to “tendencies” that, in varying degrees, are uniquely expressed in a couple relationship. Also important to note that, while tendencies toward these patterns are prevalent, extreme versions of this dance are much less frequent, as are the cases that warrant official diagnoses of “narcissistic personality disorder” (NPD).
Because traditional roles are based on idealized and arbitrary norms that associate self-worth with a set of external standards of performance, they severely limit the otherwise amazing ability of the brain for reflective thinking (both-and) to survival-system’s black-and-white thinking (either-or).
It is these rigid definitions for what it means to be a man and a woman, on the one hand, that predispose women to codependency patterns and notions of romanticized dominance, which in effect define/limit a woman’s “power” as based on “female passivity” (i.e., the ability to influence (power) by making a man feel superior by minimizing own self etc.); and, on the other hand, that predispose men to narcissism patterns and notions of eroticized dominance that define a man’s power as based on ability to subvert a female partner’s will, covertly or overtly, so that she serves his interests, and never hers — and that he uses a variety of tools (i.e., gaslighting) to shut down, “fix,” silence, etc., his partners efforts, especially with regard to how “love” is expressed in the relationship, that is to thwart her attempts to realize her “unmanly neediness” for nonsexual closeness, emotional connection, partnership relations, etc. (which he’s conditioned to regard as “dangerous” and “emotionally crazy” attempts to subvert, or “emasculate” him), to ensure mostly “manly” love gets expressed, which is based on physical sex, orgasm, etc.
In contrast women are socialized to be nice and kind-hearted, selfless, understanding, empathic listeners, socially expected to have sole responsibility for keeping the couple and family relationships together, and to suppress their emotion needs and wants, in order to nurture the emotional happiness and emotional wellbeing of their husband and children, and others in general.
There are also distinct gender differences between women and men with NPD, as well as distinctions between men and women with codependency; however, that’s a topic for another post.
This conditioning for men versus women likely explains why 80% to 85% of cases for diagnoses of NPD are men. After all, many of the traits of narcissism, such as displaying dominance, callous disregard for “weakness,” emotional detachment, lack of empathy, intolerance for any demands or criticism or being “questioned” by those with lesser status, etc., for example, are all highly valued, socially “expected” and idealized norms for men. To constantly be on guard to enforce status, prove “worth,” masculinity, superiority, and so on, are all behaviors that men are expected to display as “proof” that they are “real” men.
In a recent article, What Causes Codependency, Sharon Martin aptly notes that codependency forms in environments where children do not receive the “stable, supportive, nurturing” they need; as a result, children “come to believe [that] they don’t matter or [that] they’re the cause of the family problems”; and that these “dysfunctional” environments consist of parenting behaviors that are characteristically: “blaming,” “shaming,” “emotionally and/or physically neglectful,””scary and unsafe,” “manipulative,” “secretive,” “judgmental,” “inattentive,” and, among others, rigid “unrealistic expectations for children.”
Narcissism is also linked to the very same early childhood, dysfunctional environments, however.
In a discussion of causes of narcissism, for example, psychologist Lynne Namka notes that:
“Narcissistic wounding starts early in life to children whose parents are insecure, abusive, addictive or have narcissistic patterns themselves. Narcissistic injury happens to the child when his or her emotional needs are not met. …Neglect, physical, mental and sexual abuse, being spoiled and not given structure and limits create the wounding [emphasis added].”
Codependency and narcissism are also both linked to having parents with these patterns. Children directly observe their parents interactions, and subconsciously learn the values and beliefs that underlie the dance between copendency and narcissism.
Conceivably, both narcissism and codependency negatively impact the emotional, mental and physical health of partners in a couple relationship, and other family members, in particular, children in formative years of development.
As the same family environments produce both patterns, what explains the exact opposite results?
The key difference is that girls and boys are treated in distinctly different ways, based on gendered beliefs. And even in cases where parents make attempts to not do so, these values operate at subconscious levels, as we rarely talk about them openly. Overall parents have different expectations for girls and boys, and they are assigned different “values,” in particular, with regard to the priority given to meeting their needs and wants.
Unlike for girls, for example, adults tend to make allowances for boys, applying the “boys will be boys” rule, particularly, with regarding to boys getting their way or “ego” needs met.
Studies indicate that a narcissistic child often experiences extremes of one parent who is harsh or emotionally neglectful … and another that is overly indulging, permissive. For the most part, for example, studies show boys tend to receive harsher, more frequent and calloused treatment from their fathers (albeit misguided, the underlying “benevolent” intention of this practice is that, for cultures that espouse dominance and might-makes-right values, it is highly regarded to be “critical” in the formation of “masculinity” “strength,” “character” etc. In contrast, findings indicate that mothers (and other females, i.e., sisters, teachers) respond to boys with more attentive, indulging, coddling treatment than girls.
And so on, the conditioning for codependency and narcissism takes root.
The patterns of codependency and narcissism are dysfunctional because they wound the psyches of children, boys and girls, in different yet similar ways. They are so commonplace that, for decades, the consensus has been that all families are dysfunctional.
If we pause to reflect more closely on our own family of origin, if we’re honest, we likely admit that most, if not all of our families, to some extent or another, have had parents that engage in some if not all of the dysfunctional practices of “blaming,” “shaming,” “emotional detachment,” “scary and unsafe,” “manipulative,” “secretive,” “judgmental,” “inattentive,” and, “unrealistic expectations for children.”
Healthy relationships are based on partnership values and collaboration, not hierarchy and dominance.
It’s impossible for men and women to “grow” a healthy partnership, when men have been conditioned to limit the “love” they express primarily to sex, and regard their relationship as a win/lose competition for whose “needs” will subvert the other’s. This keeps men hyper-vigilantly on guard, watchful for any signs that their partner’s to dethrone them. This “idea” is especially intense for men, who are expected to reject their own human impulses, and avoid nonsexual tenderness and affection, and vulnerable emotions in general.
Fear of closeness may well be our greatest fear, and addiction is an escape, avoidance or defense against intimacy. It is fear of intimacy itself, more specifically, fear of knowing self, and being known, fear of feeling fear. It is in intimate encounters with those closest to us, after all, that we feel most vulnerable, and where our core existential fears—the fear of rejection, inadequacy, abandonment, or loss of self—surface as two partners struggle to position themselves to feel loved and feel their love is valued, who they are is visible and accepted with positive regard, and so on.
In a recent article, Difference Between Sex and Love for Men, the author notes the following:
“Knowing the culture of masculinity we live in, it should not come as a surprise that some men feel they have to sublimate tender and “needy” feelings into sexual desire. In the documentary “The Mask We Live In,” filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to their authentic selves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. If men and boys could own the full range of their emotions, not just anger and sexual excitement, we would see trends in depression and anxiety decrease.”
This needs to be said, and emphasized, firstly, because the path that leads to healing ourselves and our relationships, in or out of therapy, always begins with awareness and understanding — making conscious the limiting and subconscious beliefs is critical to breaking free of their power.
Human needs to feel valued, loved, accepted, to matter and connect in meaningful ways, for physical non-sexual touch, and so on, are neither male nor female — in the same way that human needs for power, success, strength, courage, determination are not male. These core emotion drives are not mere wants, as real and unstoppable as needs for oxygen and water.
Emotions are designed to strengthen, not weaken us. They consist of neurotransmitters, or molecules of emotion, which literally forms the language of the body. Without a healthy connection to our emotions, the frontal cortex and the body do not communicate or work together, and when they do not, fear rules the body and the actions that follow. In a showdown between the conscious-logic part of the brain and the subconscious body-mind, unless we know how to self-activate our body’s relaxation response (parasympathetic division of the autonomic system), fear always takes over (by shutting off the oxygen supply to the higher thinking brain, which goes into offline mode).
This should not be surprising. We’ve always known that intense fear can flood the brain and body with high levels of cortisol, thus, causing crippling or even paralyzing the otherwise amazing capacity of the frontal cortex to think critically.
As with other problem behavior patterns, codependency and narcissism are driven by a set of limiting beliefs and arbitrary standards that, because they activate core intimacy fears, i.e., inadequacy, rejection, abandonment, etc., keep the brains of both partners alert to triggers and warnings.
Yet, that’s how our brain works in response to fear-based thought control tactics. And when our otherwise amazing brain is in survival mode, the amygdala literally bypasses the part of our brain that has the capacity to critically think, to engage in 360 degree reflections, to form mutual understanding of situations, and to formulate win-win solutions in handling one another’s differences with compassion and empathy, and so on.
Narcissism and codependency are both woundings that begin in childhood. They are caused by limiting belief systems, specifically designed to divide and conquer groups of people.
Meanwhile, the current pop psychology movement has one family member judging and diagnosing one another as narcissists, and the practice of “no contact” seems to be growing like a cancer. No contact is the easiest solution, however, it may not be the healthiest in many cases. We have to be careful to not jump to assumptions, judgments, protective and defensive strategies. Remember, a narcissist often feels victimized by a codependent partner. Whereas in the past, a narcissist would accuse a codependent partner or parent of being selfish and controlling, to get them to meet their demand, in today’s world, however, a codependent partner or parent is likely to be accused of narcissism.
The point is … that more judgements, accusations and punitive actions are rarely if ever healthy options.
Pause. Observe. Thoughtful respond. If necessary, get professional help. It’s often a lost cause to attempt to form a relationship in cases of actual NPD, especially in more extreme forms, crossing into antisocial personality disorder; however, in most cases, the tendencies can be healed, where both parties are willing to work on their part. Get professional help, from someone experienced in working with these patterns.
And remember, partners were once children; parents and siblings too. All of us have been wounded to some degree by this might-makes right value system.
It’s in a world of super-aggressive, kill-and-destroy superheroes in which a crude and unlikely candidate for presidency, like Trump, has emerged. To voters who’ve been whipped up into a frenzy of fear, worried about their social status and lack of control over their lives, who are repeatedly inundated with fear-based lies, Trump’s extreme form of narcissism offers a quick-fix way to escape or numb the fear, insecurity and paranoia directly caused by hate propaganda. And in a world where men learn to feel disgust for emotions of vulnerability (in themselves, as well as in those deemed inferior, weak, dangerously contaminating, etc), addictions to quick-fix solutions — such as treating anyone who disagrees with mockery, contempt, threats, blatant lies and denial — are the answer.
It’s inconceivable to imagine that someone could be elected president of the democratic, free world who cannot tolerate criticism, who becomes indignant, blaming and contemptuous when criticized, who regards violence and torture as an option, who has to constantly remind others that he is a winner and that they are losers, and the like.
Abusive persons feel a constant need (neediness) to be pampered by others, not unlike infants. The boastful and arrogant mask of narcissism, however, is designed to cover up it’s exact opposite, that is, to hide a profound sensitivity, self-loathing and quite fragile ego.
Their stories trick them into thinking that all they have to do is hide behind their false-self mask. All they have to do is keep telling lies, distortions, and repeating the lies to make others think they are responsible for any upsets, failures or lack. They do not see those around them as humans because they are not connected to their human nature. They ‘see’ and “feel” others as possessions, and from this place, it makes sense to get easily triggered, and feel anxious, powerless or victimized, at the smallest signs that a competing “view” of life surfaces, or that one of their possession shows signs of having their own thoughts and wants.
Codependency and narcissism are belief systems that support oppressive social structures, and based on might-makes-right values, they justify and necessitate aggression and physical, emotional and sexual abuse, among other punitive means to enforce dominance and hierarchical divisions throughout society. It does not support the formation of vibrant, healthy couple and family relations — proved to be the fundamental building block for every stable society.
Ultimately, all human suffering is a result of not being fully connected to our human nature.
All the pampering in the world will not absolve us of the responsibility we are wired to manage – the energies of our heart and mind – and to re-write our stories as a responsibility we have to ourselves (and others).
The solution to most all that hurts and harms us is the same for what harms our relationships – to reconnect with our human nature. We need stories that empower us to let go of the impulse to control, dominate, change or fix others to conform to childhood illusion that others hold the keys to our happiness.
So why do (most) history and science books promote the idea that male dominance is biologically determined, when research shows the primary principle of nature is not “survival of the fittest” but rather collaboration and partnership relations?
More on that in Part 2.