There are a number of resources and articles for survivors of narcissistic abuse, and taken in all together, are extremely helpful in better understanding the abuser and our own role in the abuse. There is a certain type of person narcissists, psychopaths, and Cluster B abusers tend to seek out. Terms like “codependent” and “empath” are tossed around, sometimes interchangeably, but they are not the same.
A codependent’s core issue (like the narcissist) is low self-esteem. They attach themselves to an alpha personality for their identity, and are constantly looking outside of themselves for validation and definition. They are helpers and fixers. Many people in the caring professions, such as teachers and nurses, tend to be codependent. They crave external praise and will go to great lengths to enable others in order to be liked. A codependent’s sense of happiness and self-worth can be entirely dependent on the moods, actions, and feelings of the alpha. Codependents lack boundaries and often don’t know where they end and someone else begins. It’s easy to see how they play right into the narcissist’s trap. It is soul-wrenchingly painful for a codependent to break ties with an abuser, because they aren’t in touch with who they are separate from them. At their core, codependents believe their existence is entirely dependent on how they are seen by the other.
Like with narcissism, there is a spectrum of codependency. While many victims of narcissists may have some of the tendencies, not all victims are actually codependent. While I do identify with some of the behaviors of a codependent in some situations, I never felt like I fit that particular mold entirely. I actually do have a pretty good sense of who I am. I tend to be a helper, but not to the extreme where I will lose myself entirely. I have been unwittingly sucked in by narcissists from time to time, but as soon as I realize what is happening, I cut ties and move on.
My father was a malignant narcissist and my mother was an extreme codependent. My mother’s identity was so wrapped up in others, she acted like a narcissist because she took on the personality of the alpha in her life. When it wasn’t my father, it was my brother or my uncle, etc. One psychologist believed she had Shared Psychotic Disorder. While I won’t ever really know, it remains the best description of the dynamic that was happening. Her enabling was so extreme that the abuse was magnified exponentially whenever she got involved.
My mother’s behavior and my behavior around narcissists were vastly different. I was the one pointing out the emperor had no clothes, and she was the one punishing me for pointing it out. While I clung to the truth, she willfully chose time and again to cling to the lie. We were both victims of narcissists, but our coping was different. She was a codependent, and I am an empath.
Empaths are extremely intuitive, and feel things deeply. Many (like me) absorb the emotions of others around them and feel their physical effects in their own bodies. They have the ability to see a person or situation from all viewpoints. They understand things deeply. They have an ability to heal, calm, and soothe others. Narcissists lack empathy, so they will leech onto empaths in order to feed their wound. Empaths have a lot to give, but get drained quickly and easily. However, due to their self-awareness, they eventually catch themselves and have the presence of mind to get away from whatever is draining them. Empaths know who they are, have a strong moral and ethical code, and are willing to go to great lengths to do what is right. They are targets for narcissists, but they are also the narcissist’s worst nightmare, because they have the ability to expose their behavior. Narcissists are not afraid of codependents, but they are terrified of empaths.
Codependents are at high risk of staying in a relationship with a narcissist. They often lack the self-awareness to realize the long term impact of their choices, or are so ingrained in their excuses, they can’t see the way out. Many codependents can heal or at least learn to recognize their tendencies in order to minimize impact, but many lack the insight and ability to fully recover.
Empaths will move on at the first opportunity, but quickly become a target for all kinds of treachery and revenge. If an empath can survive the wave of inevitable retribution for leaving the narcissist, she has the potential to self-heal and become a beacon to others navigating the rough waters of recovery.
Many empaths are incorrectly labeled as codependent, and feel unfairly categorized or dismissed when they don’t fit the mold. They instinctively know they can rise above the circumstance of abuse, and often do. It may be possible to be both empath and codependent, but in my experience, I haven’t seen it. Both are looking for love, understanding, and validation, but seek it in different ways. Both are targets for abuse, but often with different outcomes. Both have positive and negative qualities, neither are ever deserving of abuse.