Saturday, March 01, 2014

Co-Narcissism: How We Adapt to Narcissistic Parents - Alan Rappoport, Ph.D.

In an article original published in The Therapist (and now freely available at his site), Alan Rappoport, Ph.D. (2005) introduced a new concept that did not apparently catch on, but should have - co-narcissism.

Co-narcissists are the children of narcissistic parents and have grown up molding themselves into the expectations of their parents, meanwhile losing or never even developing a unique sense of self. This brief article (8 pages total) offers an overview of the co-narcissist that I find very useful.

I see clients with these features frequently in my office, but this is the clearest explanation I have seen for what has happened to these people as they grew up. Here are a couple of pages in which he defines the adaptations children make to survive with these parents.


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.

People who behave co-narcissistically share a number of the following traits: they tend to have low self-esteem, work hard to please others, defer to others’ opinions, focus on others’ world views and are unaware of their own orientations, are often depressed or anxious, find it hard to know how they think and feel about a subject, doubt the validity of their own views and opinions (especially when these conflict with others’ views), and take the blame for interpersonal problems.

Often, the same person displays both narcissistic and co-narcissistic behaviors, depending on circumstances. A person who was raised by a narcissistic or a co-narcissistic parent tends to assume that, in any interpersonal interaction, one person is narcissistic and the other co-narcissistic, and often can play either part. Commonly, one parent was primarily narcissistic and the other parent primarily co-narcissistic, and so both orientations have been modeled for the child. Both conditions are rooted in low self-esteem. Both are ways of defending oneself from fears resulting from internalized criticisms and of coping with people who evoke these criticisms. Those who are primarily co-narcissistic may behave narcissistically when their self-esteem is threatened, or when their partners take the co-narcissistic role; people who primarily behave narcissistically may act co-narcissistically when they fear being held responsible and punished for another’s experience.

Narcissistic people blame others for their own problems. They tend not to seek psychotherapy because they fear that the therapist will see them as deficient and therefore are highly defensive in relation to therapists. They do not feel free or safe enough to examine their own behavior, and typically avoid the psychotherapy situation. Co-narcissists, however, are ready to accept blame and responsibility for problems, and are much more likely than narcissists to seek help because they often consider themselves to be the ones who need fixing.

The image I often keep in mind, and share with my patients regarding narcissism, is that the narcissist needs to be in the spotlight, and the co-narcissist serves as the audience. The narcissist is on stage, performing, and needing attention, appreciation, support, praise, reassurance, and encouragement, and the co-narcissist’s role is to provide these things. Co-narcissists are approved of and rewarded when they perform well in their role, but, otherwise, they are corrected and punished.

One of the critical aspects of the interpersonal situation when one person is either narcissistic or co-narcissistic is that it is not, in an important sense, a relationship. I define a relationship as an interpersonal interaction in which each person is able to consider and act on his or her own needs, experience, and point of view, as well as being able to consider and respond to the experience of the other person. Both people are important to each person. In a narcissistic encounter, there is, psychologically, only one person present. The co-narcissist disappears for both people, and only the narcissistic person’s experience is important. Children raised by narcissistic parents come to believe that all other people are narcissistic to some extent. As a result, they orient themselves around the other person in their relationships, lose a clear sense of themselves, and cannot express themselves, and cannot express themselves easily nor participate fully in their lives.

All these adaptations are relatively unconscious, so most co-narcissistic people are not aware of the reasons for their behavior. They may think of themselves as inhibited and anxious by nature, lacking what it takes to be assertive in life. Their tendency to be unexpressive of their own thoughts and feelings and to support and encourage others’ needs creates something of an imbalance in their relationships, and other people may take more of the interpersonal space for themselves as a result, thereby giving the impression that they are, in fact, narcissists, as the co-narcissist fears they are.

Co-narcissistic people often fear they will be thought of as selfish if they act more assertively. Usually, they learned to think this way because one or both parents characterized them as selfish if they did not accommodate to the parent’s needs. I take patients’ concerns that they are selfish as an indication of narcissism in the parents, because the motivation of selfishness predominates in the minds of narcissistic people. It is a major component of their defensive style, and it is therefore a motivation they readily attribute to (or project onto) others.

There are three common types of responses by children to the interpersonal problems presented to them by their parents: identification, compliance, and rebellion (see Gootnick, 1997, for a more thorough discussion of these phenomena). Identification is the imitation of one or both parents, which may be required by parents in order for them to maintain a sense of connection with the child. In regard to narcissistic parents, the child must exhibit the same qualities, values, feelings, and behavior which the parent employs to defend his or her self-esteem. For example, a parent who is a bully may not only bully his child, but may require that the child become a bully as well. A parent whose self-esteem depends on his or her academic achievement may require that the child also be academically oriented, and value (or devalue) the child in relation to his or her accomplishments in this area. Identification is a response to the parent seeing the child as a representative of himself or herself, and is the price of connectedness with the parent. It results in the child becoming narcissistic herself.

Compliance refers to the co-narcissistic adaptation described earlier, wherein the child becomes the approving audience sought by the parent. The child is complying with the parent’s needs by being the counterpart the parent seeks. All three forms of adaptation (identification, compliance, and rebellion) can be seen as compliance in a larger sense, since, in every case, the child complies in some way with the needs of the parent, and is defined by the parent. What defines compliance in this sense is that the child becomes the counterpart the parent needs from moment to moment to help the parent manage threats to his or her self-esteem.

Rebellion refers to the state of fighting to not accept the dictates of the parent by behaving in opposition to them. An example of this behavior is that of an intelligent child who does poorly in school in response to his parent’s need that he be a high achiever. The critical issue here is that the child is unconsciously attempting to not submit to the parent’s definition of him despite his inner compulsion to comply with the parent’s needs. He therefore acts in a self-defeating manner in order to try to maintain a sense of independence. (If the pressure for compliance had not been internalized, the child would be free to be successful despite the parent’s tendency to co-opt his achievements.) [Pages 2-4]
About the Author
Alan Rappoport, Ph.D., has practiced psychotherapy in San Francisco and Menlo Park, Ca. for twenty-five years. He has written several articles on psychotherapy and has a strong interest in teaching. He teaches CE courses on psychotherapy and supervision and leads case conferences and teleconferences for therapists. Dr. Rappoport is affiliated with the San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group ( and is a proponent of Control-Mastery theory. His writings, and more information, are available at He may also be reached at 1010 Doyle St., Ste. #13, Menlo Park, CA 94025. Phone: 650-323-7875.
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