The Cloud of Co-Narcissism

Just over a year ago I came across a concept that profoundly changed the course of my healing.

I’ve been a lover of podcasts for some time and one of my favorites is The Mental Illness Happy Hour hosted by Paul Gilmartin.  Hilarious, touching, and real; I take something away from each episode.

Last September he did a mini-episode where he read an article written by Alan Rappaport entitled Co-Narcissism: How We Accommodate to Narcissistic Parents (PDF link).  I spent the entire episode with my heart gaping open and tears streaming down my face.


I’ve known for a long time that my father was a narcissist and I knew that, because of his narcissism, I had a number of various issues. But honestly I thought I was some kind of island – I was just broken and ungrateful so OF COURSE I’d blame all my problems on him.  I also berated myself for struggling so hard with my relationship with him (and myself) because it’s not like he molested us or beat us, he’s just an asshole.

Then I heard Alan’s article read on Paul’s podcast and printed it out immediately.  For the first time someone else described perfectly what it felt like to be my father’s daughter.  It was the most validating thing I’ve read in my life.

This describes my father exactly:

“To the extent that parents are narcissistic, they are controlling, blaming, self-absorbed, intolerant of others’ views, unaware of their children’s needs and of the effects of their behavior on their children, and require that the children see them as the parents wish to be seen. They may also demand certain behavior from their children because they see the children as extensions of themselves, and need the children to represent them in the world in ways that meet the parents’ emotional needs.”

It makes perfect sense why I have always struggled to identify, value and hold on to my autonomy because I was never allowed to have it.

This next section articulates exactly what it has been like for me:

“Children of narcissists tend to feel overly responsible for other people. They tend to assume that others’ needs are similar to those of their parents, and feel compelled to meet those needs by responding in the required manner. They tend to be unaware of their own feelings, needs, and experience, and fade into the background in relationships.

Co-narcissistic people are typically insecure because they have not been valued for themselves, and have been valued by their parents only to the extent that they meet their parents’ needs. They develop their self-concepts based on their parents’ treatment of them and therefore often have highly inaccurate ideas about who they are. For example, they may fear that they are inherently insensitive, selfish, defective, fearful, unloving, overly demanding, hard to satisfy, inhibited, and/or worthless.”

This is the tape that has played in my head my whole life.  As long as I looked to my father to confirm my worth as a human, I would have no worth.  In my quest to combat those exact fears listed above, I completely lost sight of and rejected who I really was.

One thing that really stood out to me was how the idea of selfishness is distored and used as a tool to shame and control the victim. This manifested in me as a crippling fear that anyone would ever see me as “selfish”.  I have expended so much energy being selfLESS so that I could be seen as lovable and worthy.

When I told my therapist about this article, I talked a lot about how much the piece about selfishness resonated with me.  She looked me straight in the face and told me to say “I am selfish”.

The thought of saying those words made a fire rise in my chest and spread out through my arms. I broke in half. I shook. I wept. I felt like if I said those words the world would literally crumble around me and that I would crumble with it.

I felt like I had been found out, that every terrible thing everyone ever thought about me was real and true and summed up in those three words.

I am selfish.

I choked on them, like bile burning the back of my throat. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to say them. I didn’t want to say them. I hated her in that moment, hated that she was making me identify with a concept that I had worked so hard to distance myself from. I felt betrayed by her.

Yet a small part of me knew she was right.  I trusted her.  We’d been working together for two years at that point and I knew she was holding this container for me to fall apart in and she wouldn’t let me go.

So I said it; “I am selfish”.  And then I said it again and again, every time the fire dampening a little bit more. She wrote those words on a piece of paper.  She wanted me to put it somewhere I would see it.  She wanted me to keep saying it. I did; their power and gravity weakening each time.

It’s been a year since that day. I embrace the ways that I am selfish, the ways I put my own needs before others – even my children sometimes, the way I refuse to take on other people’s garbage, the ways I set better, more loving boundaries, and the ways I give myself grace for just being who I am.

I am selfish. I am learning that I can be selfish and still be loving, generous, open, giving, and vulnerable.  I am also learning that while embracing my autonomy may be seen by my father as “selfish” in a negative way, it is only his eyes that see it this way.  Being selfish is really a gift – one that I give myself, my partner and my children by showing them that I respect not only my worth, but their worth, without condition.


photo credit via photopin cc


2 thoughts on “The Cloud of Co-Narcissism

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