Codependency and Narcissism May Have More in Common Than You Think

A young couple sits back to back. There are some stone columns and trees in the background.Much of self-help literature portrays codependency and narcissism as polar opposites. Codependency is often associated with excess selflessness. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is often linked to excess selfishness.

Many narratives depict codependent people as victims who fall prey to those with narcissistic traits. This oversimplification neglects a core truth at the heart of both codependency and narcissism: both codependents and narcissists can lack a healthy sense of self.

Codependency and Narcissism: Same Needs, Different Behaviors

Narcissism and codependency are both linked to an undefined self. They often struggle to get a sense of who they truly are. People with these conditions often rely on other people to define their own identities. As such, they place a lot of importance on what others think of them.

People with NPD often develop an intense, almost exclusive focus on themselves. They may display a lack of empathy or regard for others’ needs. They may only care about others’ feelings in relation to themselves. Narcissistic people often need someone else to inflate their self-esteem. They may need a continuous stream of affection and admiration to feel good about themselves. Some self-help websites refer to this stream as a “narcissistic supply.”

Meanwhile, people with codependency are often hyper-focused on others. They typically form an identity around serving others’ needs. They may try to control another person’s behavior, believing they know what is best for the person. Instead of praise, codependents often crave gratitude and a sense of “being needed.”

Almost everyone wants to feel loved or important. Narcissism and codependency are two strategies to achieve that goal. However, both conditions can create an excessive reliance on others’ approval.

The Common Origins of Codependency and Narcissism

Both codependency and narcissism are linked to adverse childhood experiences. A 2001 study of 793 mothers and children found a threefold increase in NPD among children whose mothers were verbally abusive. A 1999 study of 200 college students linked codependent behaviors to childhood parentification. Parentification is when a child takes on a caretaker role for their parents or siblings, often due to neglect or abuse.

People with NPD and codependency often have similar childhood experiences. They’ve simply adopted different ways of adapting. For example, say a pair of twins grow up neglected. One sibling may develop a low self-esteem and learn they are only “worth something” if they are useful to others. They may grow into a codependent adult who is used to sacrificing their own needs. The second sibling might develop an inflated self-esteem as a protective mechanism. The neglect makes the child feel unimportant, so as a narcissistic adult, they may crave constant validation to prove their self-worth.

The codependent and narcissistic siblings may develop very different behaviors and personalities. But in both scenarios, trauma and a fractured sense of self are at the core of the problem.

Understanding the Dance of Narcissism and Codependency

People with codependency sometimes form relationships with people who have NPD. Typically the two partners develop complementary roles to fill each other’s needs. The codependent person has found a partner they can pour their self into, and the narcissistic person has found someone who puts their needs first.

Narcissism and codependency aren’t always opposites. The desire to feel needed is not that different from the desire to feel important.However, this dynamic can quickly become unhealthy. The codependent person may try to live vicariously through their larger-than-life partner. When their partner doesn’t show enough gratitude for their service, the codependent person may feel resentment. Meanwhile, the narcissistic person often exploits their partner’s people-pleasing tendencies for their own narcissistic supply. As their ego grows, their demands may increase, until the codependent person eventually burns out.

Even if they develop an abusive relationship, neither partner may try to leave. Both people may stay in an unhealthy situation for fear of being alone. Without help, this dynamic can grow increasingly toxic.

Can Codependency and Narcissism Overlap?

Narcissism and codependency aren’t always opposites. The desire to feel needed is not that different from the desire to feel important. While many studies find lower rates of narcissism among people with codependency, some have actually found higher rates of narcissism among those with codependent traits.

A person who is codependent in one situation might be narcissistic in another. For instance, a person might become codependent in their marriage, serving their spouse’s every need. Yet that same person may feel an unending need for respect and praise from their children. causing them to manifest narcissistic tendencies.

In some cases, an abusive person may try to gaslight a codependent partner into believing they are narcissistic. The abuser may sabotage any show of self-confidence by calling their partner “egotistical.” Typical acts of self-care, such as taking days off or spending time with friends, may be labeled “selfish.” The codependent person may believe these accusations and try to fix the relationship by ignoring their own needs. A person isolated from loved ones—who might offer a more objective view—is likely to falsely believe they are a narcissist.

The fact that all people display narcissistic or codependent traits on occasion can make it even more difficult for a person to decide if they’re narcissistic, codependent, or both.

Codependency and Narcissism: Therapy Can Help

Codependency and narcissism can become pathological when they undermine a person’s quality of life or cause the person to harm others. It may be time to seek help if you show the following signs:

  • A history of relationships in which abuse has been present.
  • Difficulty feeling close to others.
  • Feelings of emptiness or low self-esteem.
  • Feeling as if your identity depends on what others think of you.
  • Feeling like others don’t fully appreciate you or acknowledge your importance.
  • Feeling like you are never properly thanked for all you have given up.

A therapist can help people with narcissism or codependency understand the root of their insecurities. In therapy, you can learn how to replace flawed coping mechanisms with healthier behaviors. Talking through your experiences can help you access to new ways of thinking and being.

Therapy offers compassion, not judgment.  No matter where you are in your relationships or how much you have struggled in your life, the right therapist can help. Find a therapist skilled at helping people with your needs here.


  1. DSM-IV and DSM-5 criteria for the personality disorders [PDF]. (2012). American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved from
  2. Gunderson, J. G., Shea, M. T., Skodol, A. E., McGlashan, T. H., Morey, L. C., Stout, R. L., . . . Keller, M. B. (2000). The collaborative longitudinal personality disorders study: Development, aims, design, and sample characteristics. Journal of Personality Disorders, 14(4), 300-315. Retrieved from
  3. Johnson, J. G., Cohen, P., Smailes, E. M., Skodol, A. E., Brown, J., & Oldham, J. M. (2001). Childhood verbal abuse and risk for personality disorders during adolescence and early adulthood. Comprehensive Psychiatry,42(1), 16-23. Retrieved from
  4. Marks, A. D., Blore, R. L., Hine, D. W., & Dear, G. E. (2011, July 21). Development and validation of a revised measure of codependency. Australian Journal of Psychology, 64(3), 119-127. Retrieved from
  5. Stafford, L. L. (2001). Is codependency a meaningful concept? Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 22(3), 273-286. Retrieved from
  6. Wells, M., Glickauf-Hughes, C., & Jones, R. (1999). Codependency: A grass roots construct’s relationship to shame-proneness, low self-esteem, and childhood parentification. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 27(1), 63-71. Retrieved from

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Darlene Lancer, LMFT

    August 8th, 2018 at 7:52 AM

    They have even more in common than you mentioned. Core symptoms of codependency are shared: Denial, Shame and low self-esteem, Dysfunctional Boundaries, Dysfunctional Communication, Dependency, Control issues, and, as you mention, Intimacy Issues. See “Narcissists are Codependent, too.”
    Darlene Lancer, LMFT
    Author of “Codependency for Dummies” and “Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People”

  • L. Chavez

    January 17th, 2019 at 9:25 AM

    While I’m not an expert, I think it’s important to highlight that the behaviors used to convince a codependent that he or she is the narcissistic one as mentioned under the subheading “Can Codependency and Narcissism Overlap?” are used against all, not exclusively codependent partners. These tactics are, of course, more effective when employed upon a codependent partner.

  • Pauline

    May 21st, 2019 at 10:36 AM

    I believe that to understand and see yourself, you need 12 step meetings, Adult Children of Dysfunction so that you can work out your part, and recover your self, therapy helps but not as much as meetings.

  • Anna

    June 15th, 2019 at 9:54 AM

    While the origins of the behaviour made be similar, I don’t think these two opposing maladaptive behaviours should be grouped together. The desire to feel needed, is a desire to connect, the desire to feel important, is a desire to compete and be superior, not to connect. Not so similar.

    I’ve seen co-dependents grouped again and again in work/education/healing circles with narcissists as if they should ‘learn to get along, or learn from one another’. It’s always the same outcome, the codependents suffer at the hands of the narcissists.

    The narcisstic person often succeeds in life gaining power, control and exploiting the people around them. The consequences for codependents.. being exploited in abusive relationships, burning out..etc – can have tragic consequences.

  • Ed

    May 25th, 2020 at 9:35 PM

    Thank you, Pauline. I seem to be controlling. My wife says I’m narcissistic and co-dependent and I don’t even realize the stupid things I say and do for attention until it’s too late. I’ll look into that meeting because I can’t stand what I’m doing to my relationship or how to make it stop.

  • Nicky

    July 3rd, 2020 at 11:48 PM

    Just reading your post there made me think you can’t be that narcissistic as you seem to care enough to want to get help and a genuine narcissist believes they don’t need help or at least would never admit it. Frustratingly, if more of these people were open to working on themselves, they could potentially be a lot happier, healthier and reflect that to the people in their lives creating much better relationships and a lot less trauma that seems to with NPD.

  • Darlene

    August 12th, 2020 at 3:44 AM

    The Bible forewarns to stay away from scandalists . They seem to destroy your life , happiness, peace, relationships , and love . Love is incapable and the state of mind created by abusing themselves with loss of boundaries , then expecting others to have zero boundaries to continue the abuses . They are initiator of abuses. Not traumatized by others but rebellious to stir there own conditions . A suggestion is CAT scans to see there patterns . It’s as intentional as premeditated murderers . Then try to hide and over it after exploit themselves as if a need. Forewarned.

  • Darlene

    August 12th, 2020 at 3:51 AM

    Each seek a scapegoat of there own causes and effects . There goal to one up and placement to dominate over others . Great mental , physical, emotional, spiritual , psychological harm for decades and lifetimes . They create and ploy to own self entitlement issues as well. Unhealthy . Toxic lifestyles . Bait switch and mockery is in goals to keep entitlement . They lack true empathy but build there own self image whether true or not. Poor people skills. Seek attention , like murderers obsessively , daily. On near every discussion. Toxic.

  • Darlene

    August 12th, 2020 at 8:10 AM

    As with any issues in each division of mental, physical, emotion , spiritual, sensory , etc it’s a issue with the intent of will. And to stop themselves.

  • Lisa

    November 29th, 2020 at 1:03 AM

    A co dependent person may deflect narcissist traits with other people around them to try balance out their situation. At the core they are different one wanting to please and control and the other wanting to destroy and control.

  • Mona Ann

    January 28th, 2021 at 10:14 AM

    I am enjoying the information from the writings: I have already identified some of my own problems.

  • nicky

    June 7th, 2021 at 3:45 AM

    Just curious, whats better for this? CODA or ACOA? i feel i have a mixture of these traits. Im not nasty. but if my narc partner hurts me i will now get angry back. I think it stems from my childhood. Im not sure where to start healing and i have experience in 12 step when i struggled with addiction in my youth. Any advice would be great thanks

  • Shannon

    January 4th, 2022 at 3:30 AM

    Codependents ARE narcissists, just another more vulnerable kind. I wish people would come to terms with that, it’s not the end of the world, but if you’re shacked up with a narcissist for an extended period, it’s because you yourself are high in other narcissistic traits.

  • Michelle

    April 19th, 2022 at 11:31 PM

    This explains myself!

  • Ray

    February 21st, 2024 at 7:20 PM

    There are A LOT of covert narcissists who genuinely believe they are codependents. Or have traits of both. Be careful in not blindly trusting someone who always makes themselves the victim. People can be victims AND narcissists. Covert, vulnerable narcissists often worry they are narcissists due to what it means socially…so they play the line “narcissists cannot worry they are narcissists” which is false. People with any psychiatric condition can be self aware and/or fearful they have it. I hate that old myth that they cannot. Many covert, codependent narcissists also make themselves constant martyrs and have perpetual revenge fantasies instead of healthy healing.

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