How to Recover from Narcissistic Codependency – The 3 Most Essential Skills
Narcissistic codependency is the flip side of the typical presentation of codependency we most often hear about. Very little is said on the topic of narcissistic codependency, let alone how to recover from it. I believe this lack of information is related to stigma. Of course, it is still widely stigmatized to be honest that you are struggling with a mental or relationship health issue. However, it seems it’s less shameful to acknowledge an experience of feeling like you’re not enough at times than to say the opposite.
I’ve met quite a few clients who only felt comfortable acknowledging there are parts of them that feel superior to others after months, or even years, of knowing one another in therapy.
The simplest way to understand codependency versus narcissistic codependency comes from the Meadows Model developed by codependency expert, Pia Mellody. In this model, codependency has two extremes. On one extreme, a person feels “less than” others while in the other extreme, a person feels “better than” others. Both presentations stem from insecurity.
Equal worth & value
The truth is all human beings are born with equal worth and value. Therefore, if I perceive either that I’m “less” or “better” than others, deep down, I’m reacting to shame or the feeling I’m not as valuable as others. A person never needs to believe they are superior to others if they trust in their inherent worth.
I’m in recovery for both presentations of codependency. This stemmed from the fact I believed I was “unlovable” for many years. To manage this pain, I was driven to chase emotionally unavailable men. I mistakenly believe that if an unavailable man committed to me, I would win. I’d prove not only was I worthy but I was better than every other woman before me who couldn’t get him to commit.
This sense of needing to prove my worth was always with me. Codependency, especially in its narcissistic presentation, presents a constant struggle to feel like we are “enough.”
In the past, whenever I entered a room, I’d check to see if I was “better.” Was there anyone bigger than me? Was I prettier than others? If I believed that I was attractive in comparison to others in the room, I’d feel relief. However, if I believed I was the least attractive woman in the room, I’d tell myself I’m smarter. If it turned out that there were more accomplished and more attractive women in the room, well, then I’d wonder why I was even born. I’d go home to isolate, binge eat, and feel sorry for myself.
This was an incredibly painful way to live. It hurt my relationship with myself and it hurt my ability to connect with others. Therefore, I decided to recover.
Skill One: Self-compassion
It’s natural to feel embarrassed of your narcissistic codependency. All the judgment out there for narcissists doesn’t help! Firstly, please know though, there is nothing ashamed of. In fact, it is tremendously beautiful to admit this part of you exists. This willingness to be honest with yourself highlights how courageous you truly are – it’s not easy to do!
At times, you may feel your narcissistic codependency makes you ugly, gross, or unworthy. However, the truth is that all human beings have light and shadow. For some of us, our shadow is sometimes judging others and believing that we are better than them. For others, their shadow may include greed, selfishness, or self-righteousness, for example.
It’s still not easy, or comfortable, at times, to acknowledge that I experienced narcissistic codependency. But it’s true. And it’s only when we confront our darkest parts do we truly recover.
Self-compassion is the skill of giving yourself grace. You do this, in part, by accepting the truth that all human beings are imperfect and make mistakes. This includes you too. We all have shadow parts whether we are honest about them or not.
Since all human beings have equal value and worth innately, your imperfections don’t make you less than others nor do your strengths make you better than others. Regardless of what our culture promotes, no baby is born more valuable than another so our worth remains equal for life. Self-compassion is to break out of the perfectionism that can be tied to codependent narcissism and accept you do not have to – and cannot – excel at everything. Personally, I was a perfectionist for years because I was afraid if I made a mistake it confirmed my worst fear that I wasn’t “good enough.”
You are a unique combination of strengths and challenges because you are human. Self-compassion means you practice accepting yourself as you are rather than always seeing yourself as a project to be improved upon.
In Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Dr. Kristin Neff highlights:
Being human does not mean being better than others. Being human means you encompass the full range of the human experience, the positive, the negative, and the neutral. Being human means you are average in many ways. Can you celebrate the experience of being alive on this planet in all your complexity and wonder?
Skill Two: Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is the skill of paying full attention to the present moment without judging it according to expert, Jon Kabat-Zinn.
When we are trying to assess the ways we are superior to others, or even less than others, we are in judgment mode. Learning to notice reality without adding a label to it is incredibly liberating. This is true not just for codependent narcissists but for all people.
Mindfulness very simply looks like noticing what is happening around you without getting caught up in a story about it. For example, “That driver is so rude, I can’t believe their nerve that the cut me off!” becomes, “I notice that I feel angry because someone cut me off.” Admittedly, while a life-changing skill, it takes a lot of dedication to practice.
In my own recovery journey, mindfulness helped me release my barriers to empathizing with others. For years, I didn’t see other people as real because I didn’t fully see myself as real. This led me to treat others in selfish ways because I thought it wasn’t really happening so it had no impact. For example, if I cheated on someone, I would question if we were really even in a relationship.
This sense of not being “real” or others not being “real” may sound odd at first, but it’s a common trauma symptom called depersonalization.
Personally, I began to think I wasn’t real nor were others because of the abuse I experienced growing up. I thought how can I be “real” if I’m treated with total disregard for my body, mind, and spirit as if I’m a robot. How could my perpetrator be real? Surely, a real human would have thought about the negative impact his abuse would leave on my for years.
I began to break out of this depersonalization with mindfulness. While staring at myself in the mirror and noticing for a fact I am real, I would affirm, “I exist.” Then once I saw myself as real, I could notice that the way I treated other people actually had an impact. I noticed people could feel anger, or hurt, by the way I acted so it must be really happening and we must be real.
Skill Three: Practice Empathy
Empathy is the skill of imagining ourselves in someone else’s shoes without judgment. It’s to really envision what it must be like for another person mindfully.
All human beings are on their own unique path with their own successes and challenges. It does not have to look like your own experience to be valid. Empathy is to accept it’s never your place to judge someone because you too have struggled in areas and we all have innate worth.
Empathy can look like mindfully noticing you’re judging your partner for being “lazy” for leaving a mess in the kitchen but then remembering times you have been distracted, unmotivated, busy, or burnt out so you left a task unfinished.
Narcissistic codependency deteriorates relationships and pushes others away. Empathy on the other hand strengthens connection.
One of the greatest ways to practice empathy in your personal relationships is to slow down and truly listen to others without judgment just curiosity. In my favorite book on mindfulness, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle teaches that when you truly listen to another person rather than seeking to defend your perspective or share what you think, “You are giving the other person space – space to be. It is the most precious gift you can give.”
When you slow down and listen with an open-heart and mind to another person, you escape the vicious cycle of having to prove your worth. Learning how to fully listen to others allows you to discover who the other people in your life truly are. This space you provide for them, allows you to cultivate more empathy.
When you have more empathy for others, you remember it is human nature to struggle, have challenges and yet, be equally valuable. Remembering this allows you to cultivate your own self-compassion. When you connect with your own inherent worth and stop needing to prove yourself while being non-judgmental of others, you finally recover from narcissistic codependency.
Recovery is Possible
I’m so grateful you are here learning more about how to recover from narcissistic codependency. Please remember, it’s ok to have this struggle. We all have personality traits we need to work on to have healthier, more loving relationships with ourselves and others.
If you have any questions, or would like to see more material on this topic, please let me know in the comments.
Finally, I’m cheering you on in your recovery work and I completely believe in you.
If you would like more support and guidance to recover from narcissistic codependency, please join the waitlist for the course, “How to Recover from Narcissistic Codependency.”