Narcissism and Co-Narcissism
by Gudrun Zomerland, MFT
More than anything else in my almost 20-year practice of psychotherapy, I have
found that parental narcissism and the resulting lack of empathy and attunement with the child is
what brings people into psychotherapy later as adults. In order to survive a narcissistic parent,
children learn to tune out their own vulnerability, their own needs, and their own emotional world
that would direct them toward their needs. Children learn to be close to the parent by either
imitating the narcissistic parent and becoming like him or her (a narcissist), or by tuning into
the parent's bottomless need for positive self-reflection (co-narcissist). Children who have
adopted the latter survival mechanism will later on in life choose other narcissists or other
people with strong narcissistic tendencies to bond with in order to fulfill the role and type of
relationship they are familiar with.
Throughout this article I am using the terms narcissism and co-narcissism to describe complex
intrapersonal states. These are generally not fixed. All conditions manifest in degrees. Most of
us have some narcissistic and co-narcissistic tendencies. It's a byproduct of growing up in this
imperfect world. What I am describing below is the most acute form of these disorders but please
be advised that other conditions, such as parental depression, alcoholism or tragedy can bring
about similar effects.
Narcissism in its most extreme manifestation is a personality disorder. This means that the usual
defenses, which we all have developed to cope with various degrees of harm done to us in
childhood, have become so entrenched that they are considered in most cases immune to influence
from outside, i.e. psychotherapy. Narcissists, because of their inflated sense of self, are often
very charismatic, charming, vivacious and fun to be around --- until you live with them for a
while and the endless overt or covert demands based on their self-absorption become tedious and
At the core of narcissism is such a deep level of shame that the person develops an insurmountable
defense against it. With shame hidden away deep within the psyche, the narcissist has access only
to the opposite condition: a sense of unworthiness becomes an overdeveloped sense of entitlement;
a sense of extremely low self-esteem becomes an overdeveloped sense of confidence, bravado and
infallibility. Narcissists think they are the best there is to the human race. They do not
understand how they might be overlooked for a promotion; they will not admit mistakes; they cannot
stand criticism; and above all they are unable to perceive a situation from a different point of
A child growing up with this level of self-absorption on the part of the parent does not get what
is necessary for healthy brain function and emotional development. Recent research has shown that
our brains have such a thing as "mirror neurons". A baby's mirror neurons will tune into the
parent's mirror neurons and will absorb what it finds there. If the parent is able to be present
to their own emotional discomfort (e.g. shame), this will be transmitted to the child; if the
parent has shut away deep emotional discomfort and lives a life of make-believe, this will be
transmitted to the child.
Narcissists will unconsciously use their children to boost their own self-image. Anything the
child does becomes food for self-reflection. If the child misbehaves, the parent has to reject it.
Instead of appropriate boundaries and guidance, the child has to cope with emotional rejection and
overt or covert shaming. In this way, the narcissistic parent passes unresolved shame on to the
child. At the same time, the parent also distances himself or herself from the child in order to
continue to present a positive image to the world. In effect, the parent is saying: "This child is
not really mine; I don't know what's wrong with it." If the child is striving to be good and
succeeds, however, it becomes an appendage to the narcissistic parent's self-image. The child does
not exist in his or her own right with interests and accomplishments different from the parent's;
it exists primarily to fulfill the dreams and expectations of the parent. In either case, a child
is left with an undeveloped sense of self.
As mentioned above, narcissists will rarely find their way into therapy because it would require
taking the risk of self-reflection and thereby finding the profound level of shame underneath the
inflated self-image. If, for whatever reason, they do decide to seek therapy, treatment is a very
long-term affair. Because narcissists have to guard against the inner demons of shame, any
exploration of vulnerable emotional states or any reflection of non-productive behaviors are
rejected. The therapist becomes a mirror for positive reflection and more like a teacher
suggesting slight changes in behavior here and there or additional philosophical concepts to
explore in order to improve personal relationships.
The therapeutic work with co-narcissists is very different in flavor. The body, mind and soul of
the co-narcissist eventually wear out from the strains of living with a narcissist. The frequent
dramas and the constant need to be there for another affect not only the emotional balance of the
co-narcissist but also their physical immune system. Often co-narcissists will self-medicate with
the help of various addictive compulsions. If they do not succumb to these, they may eventually
realize that something needs to change in their lives and seek out therapy, 12 Step groups,
workshops, or other tools that help them put the focus on themselves.
Classical client-centered psychotherapy is a balm for co-narcissists because they are hungry for
someone to pay attention to their inner states. With this inner focus healing can begin. Besides
grieving a lost childhood and finding ways to set boundaries with those around them, what
contributes to the healing effect are the mirror neurons that continue to operate in our brains.
The client's mirror neurons align with the therapist's mirror neurons, and thus the therapist's
level of emotional maturation transmits to the client. Of course, this being so, it is very
important that the client truly likes the therapist and finds him or her trustworthy.
If you seek more information about narcissism and co-narcissism, following are a few books that I
Co-narcissism is very similar to co-dependency in that both conditions describe a survival
style in which one person lives for the apparent survival of another. It can therefore be helpful
for co-narcissists to read about co-dependency and to join programs like CoDA
to help change destructive patterns in relationships.
Feel free to email me or give me a call for more information.