dance of copendency and covert narcissism

The Dance of Covert Narcissism and Codependency

Covert Narcissism and Codependency

Codependency is a term that was coined by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) counselors during the 1970s to describe family members of alcoholics who seemed obsessed with taking care of others. Unfortunately, over time this idea has become overly broad.

Now, even some mental health professionals label people who are dependent on others or have poor boundaries or problems setting boundaries.

The covert narcissist is far more prevalent than the covert sociopath. They are not as outwardly aggressive and intimidating, nor do they project the same air of danger and instability that the covert sociopath does. (Covert Sociopath is another article if you want to learn more about what that is!)

Instead, they are very charming — at first.

However, if you get too close emotionally, their covert abuse begins. Covert Narcissists covertly take from you, covertly seek to control you, covertly seek to demean and diminish you — while overtly being your friend and pretending to care about you (and even praising and idealizing you) to get what they want: your trust and dependence.

If you complain or try to stand up for yourself or set boundaries, their covert aggression increases, but it may decrease again if you ignore the behavior. However, covert narcissists rarely change their behavior without therapeutic intervention.

Characteristics of Covert Narcissistic Personality Disorder

By definition, people with a covert narcissistic personality disorder lack empathy for others; they think only of themselves and how any given situation might benefit them. As such, covert narcissists are very difficult to have successful relationships.

They are fundamentally self-centered, covertly abusive, have low self-esteem, and are easily angered or frustrated by others’ inability to see their viewpoint.

Covert Narcissistic tendencies can include:

  • being excessively preoccupied with power, success, beauty, brilliance, or ideal love
  • feeling a sense of entitlement or superiority
  • a need to feel powerful
  • being hypersensitive to any perceived insults or slights
  • taking advantage of others to get what they want (usually in a very covert way: not necessarily outwardly apparent)
  • having little concern for the feelings of others or overall lack of empathy (again, usually in a very covert way and demonstrates false empathy)
  • have tendencies to portray themselves as the victim in any situation
  • many times may be sickly or plagued with many illnesses

These psychological traits propel someone with these narcissistic tendencies to subconsciously or, even consciously, seek out those with weak boundaries, often in their romantic relationships, families, and friendships.

Codependent Characteristics

Codependents are people who have difficulty setting boundaries and limits. They may be overly committed to others’ happiness, well-being, or success; they often need a relationship to feel good about themselves.

However, covert narcissists can use codependents for their purposes (without showing appreciation) which causes covert abuse that is difficult for the codependent person to recognize.

Codependent symptoms can include:

  • Feeling responsible for others’ feelings and behavior
  • Difficulty saying no
  • A need to be needed
  • Low self-esteem
  • People pleasing
  • Difficulty distinguishing between what you want and what others want for you
  • Enabling or helping the covert narcissist to get away with their covert abuse

These codependent traits play into the dysfunctional communication patterns and fuel the narcissistic supply so desperately sought after by the covert narcissist.

The Dance Between Covert Narcissism and Codependency

The codependent relationship with a narcissistic partner is often a dance. Codependents try to please the narcissist and get their love and approval, while narcissists use codependents to get what they want without doing any work themselves.feeling manipulated

It is a game that both parties can play until it becomes too tiring or damaging for one or both of them.

The covert narcissist loves covert abuse — because covert abuse is the only kind of emotional abuse that the average person will allow without confronting. They do not truly listen and change even if you engage covert narcissists about their covert narcissistic behavior.

Instead, they ramp up the covert abuse: covertly demeaning, excluding, and diminishing a codependent partner even more than before until the next time they need your support and dependence on them (which is inevitable).

If you stop giving it to them — despite what they may claim or pretend — they move on, covertly seeking out someone else to covertly abuse. Then the cycle repeats itself — covert abuse, idealization, covert demeaning and devaluing, then overt abuse to get what they want when your boundaries begin to stand in their way.

A covert narcissistic person covertly seeks emotional power and emotional control over others while also covertly seeking high status to avoid feeling insignificant or powerless (often because of childhood trauma).

covert narcissism and codependency

They may be very accomplished professionally but still struggle with feelings of insignificance emptiness and have a fragile ego.

To feel significant, psychologically, these covert narcissists seek out those naturally inclined towards empathy or have weak boundaries: codependents who will passively allow themselves to be covertly manipulated and covertly abused because they are too afraid of confrontations to speak up.

Codependents Fear Saying No

Because Codependents fear saying no, this allows the covert narcissist to covertly live out their fantasies through the codependent while simultaneously demeaning and devaluing the codependent.

People who narcissists have abused should know that it will never get better on its own. If you don’t get help and perspective, the abuse will continue.

Confronting the Covert Narcissist

Confronting a covert narcissist can feel quite daunting, but not facing them will ensure they will continue to covertly abuse you in increasingly more overt ways until you are wholly devalued and crushed.

They will covertly seek out new people to covertly abuse while covertly demeaning you until they finally overtly abuse you so often that the covert abuse is no longer necessary. At this point, the codependent is feeling utterly worthless unless you get the help you need to stop their behavior before it’s too late.

SAME Basic Needs and SIMILAR Behaviors in Covert Narcissism and Codependency

Covert narcissism and codependency are both personality disorders. The difference is that covert narcissists have narcissistic traits but don’t show themselves as highly self-centered or grandiose to the same degree as someone with overt narcissism.

Codependents share narcissistic tendencies as well. They may be more covert about their sense of superiority, entitlement, lack of empathy for others, exploitativeness, etc.

Codependent people tend to get caught up in other people’s dramas and problems and need rescuing by those they care about–or who care about them. A covert narcissist will take advantage of a codependent person by playing on their fears or guilt while covertly using them as emotional support.

Both covert narcissists and codependents tend to share similar narcissistic traits, and both often have low self-esteem and a strong need for approval from others. They may also feel unworthy of love and respect. These feelings can lead them into unhealthy relationships where they are mistreated or used.

Narcissistic or Codependent Traits in Common

Unconscious dependency Individuals with narcissistic or codependent traits have departed from their authentic, innate self. Common characteristics both have include:

  • a sense of internalized shame
  • a weak sense of self or lack of definition of self (a feeling of not having a “real self”)
  • uneasy or tumultuous relationships
  • a low self worth
  • a fragile ego
  • experience intimacy issues
  • difficulty identifying their feelings
  • dysfunctional communication patterns
  • lack ability to meet their own needs in a healthy way

Instead, they have created and identified themselves with an idealized self that depends on other people for validation. There is an almost insatiable need to feed off the reactions of others.

SAME Basic Needs but DIFFERENT Behaviors in Codependents and Narcissists

Covert narcissists and codependents share some basic needs, such as a need for approval and validation, but they go about getting them in different ways.

Covert narcissists are much more likely to use manipulation and coercion to get what they want, while codependents are more likely to give in to the demands of others or feel guilty if they don’t.

Codependents tend to have difficulty setting boundaries and often find themselves in relationships with people who are challenging to manage or have problems. This can be a perfect scenario for a covert narcissist, who will take advantage of the codependent’s good nature and willingness to please.

Codependents may also feel responsible for the happiness of others and try to fix or rescue them. This obligatory feeling can lead to a lot of stress and resentment on their part.

In contrast, covert narcissists are much better at setting boundaries and will often have several people in their lives who they use to get what they want. They are also less likely to feel responsible for the happiness of others and are more likely to take advantage of people.

Traits that Covert Narcissists and Codependents do NOT Share

  • Co dependents are (although unhealthy and imbalanced) givers whereas the Covert Narcissist only takes (after the initial love-bombing).
  • Covert narcissists are not motivated by a desire to help or care for others, whereas Codependents are (but motivated to meet their own needs to validate self worth)
  • Covert narcissists are not as likely to feel guilty or ashamed of their behavior, and codependents are more likely to feel guilty and ashamed of their behavior.
  • Covert narcissists are motivated by a desire for power and control over others, and codependents are not typically motivated by a desire for power and control over others.

A quick note on the difference between empathy and co dependency…

Codependency is a relationship where one person is addicted to the other person’s emotional response. Empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling (emotional or compassionate empathy) or have the ability to understand how someone is feeling (cognitive empathy) logically. So, empathy is not the same as codependency.

Codependents may have difficulty empathizing with others because they are too busy trying to meet their own emotional needs. It depends on the person, and no one can say definitively that codependents aren’t empathetic.

Narcissists may be able to empathize with others cognitively, but only if it meets their own needs (for example, if they can use the other person for their gain).

So, empathy is to feel or understand what another person is feeling. Codependency is a relationship in which one person can be “addicted” to the other person’s emotional response. This “addiction” is another similarity between co dependents and narcissists: a form of addiction to or feeding off another person’s reactions and responses.

Ok, what’s the bottom line in differences between Covert Narcissists and Codependents?

human doll to controlThe goal for the covert narcissist is to keep this dynamic going because it meets their emotional needs. They feel special and powerful by having someone they can control and manipulate. The codependent person gets a sense of worth from being needed and helpful.

So, the covert narcissist gets what they need (unhealthy attention and validation and a heightened sense of self importance), and the codependent person gets what they need (a sense of self worth).

Codependents and covert narcissists both have dysfunctional boundaries. They may find it hard to say no or set limits on how much time or energy they will spend with others. These unhealthy boundaries can lead to codependents becoming overwhelmed and narcissists becoming frustrated. The covert narcissist may use passive-aggressive tactics to get what they want from the codependent person.

If you look at the science, the main difference between codependency and covert narcissism is that covert narcissists are more likely to have a Cluster B personality disorder (Borderline, Histrionic, Narcissistic, Antisocial). At the same time, codependents are more likely to have a Cluster C personality disorder (Avoidant, Dependent, Obsessive-Compulsive). However, covert narcissism can also occur in people without a personality disorder.

How do I know I’m dealing with a covert narcissist?

If you are wondering if you might be codependent or dealing with a covert narcissist, there are some signs to look for:

  • Do you feel like you are always the one who makes an effort in your relationships?
  • Do you feel like you are walking on eggshells around the person?
  • Do they take advantage of your good nature or make you feel guilty when you don’t do what they want?
  • Do you find yourself constantly giving in to their demands?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it is possible.

How do I know if I am a Codependent Person?

There are some signs to look for if you are wondering if you might be codependent:

In addition to the signs listed in the paragraph just above, do you:

  • Do you have difficulty setting boundaries?
  • Do you feel like you need to be needed?
  • Do you lack self-confidence and have low self-esteem?
  • Do you feel like you are not good enough or worthless without someone else’s approval?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it is possible.

When narcissism and codependency overlap: Can someone be a Narcissistic Codependent (co-narcissism)?

Covert narcissism is different from codependency; but if not treated, covert narcissism can lead to co-narcissism in covertly abused codependents.

Conversely, codependency can turn into the covert narcissistic abuse of others. Codependent people may become confused about their identities and start abusing other people without realizing what they are doing. This situation can lead to more significant confusion and depression until they get the help they need.

There is hope for covert narcissism and codependency alike — even if you have been covertly abused by one. If you think this might apply to you, please seek a licensed mental health professional specializing in emotional/verbal/relational/psychological abuse or trauma recovery.

Why did codependents and narcissists become that way?

There can be many reasons why someone might become a codependent or a covert narcissist. Codependency might develop in childhood to cope with a parent who is an alcoholic or abusive.

Someone may have grown up with narcissistic parents/a narcissistic family member and developed codependent or narcissistic traits as a form of self-protection to mask internalized shame.

People with extreme narcissistic traits may have grown up in homes where they were constantly praised and never had to learn how to empathize with others. Others may have learned that the only way to get what they want is by using manipulation and control.

There is no way to answer this question in a simple way, as each person’s story is unique. However, it is essential to remember that people can and do change. With the help of a qualified therapist, you can learn how to develop healthier relationships and break the patterns keeping you stuck.

Getting Help and addressing your own needs

Codependency and covert narcissism are two complex personality types to deal with. Codependency is characterized by a person always putting the needs of others before their own, while covert narcissism is a hidden form of narcissism that can be difficult to detect. People with these personalities will often overlap, as covert narcissism can lead to codependency and vice versa.

  1. How do I know I’m dealing with a covert narcissist?

    If you are wondering if you might be codependent or dealing with a covert narcissist, there are some signs to look for:
    Do you feel like you are always the one who makes an effort in your relationships?
    Do you feel like you are walking on eggshells around the person?
    Do they take advantage of your good nature or make you feel guilty when you don’t do what they want?
    Do you find yourself constantly giving in to their demands?

If you believe you have any of the core symptoms discussed, see similarities in your own relationships, have experienced emotional, physical, or verbal abuse, please know you aren’t alone. Learning more about emotional intelligence and seek counseling that is available.

While covert narcissism and codependency can be destructive in relationships, there is hope. With the help of a therapist, people can learn how to develop healthier relationships and break free from the patterns that have been keeping them stuck.

Laura Dawn

Laura Dawn Ouin is the founder of Third Coast Mediation & Consulting in Dallas, Texas, and is passionate about conflict resolution, communication and education. On a personal note, coffee AND tea lover, morning person, travel bug and dog whisperer.


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