Dr. Charles Hershkowitz, Psychiatrist, Psychotherapist and certified Imago Relationship Therapist working with couples in Brussels
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Narcissistic Personalities and their Co-dependents  


This book, and others of which the references can be found via the Internet by putting the keywords
“NPD” and “relationship manipulation” on a search engine, can really help some unsuspecting co-dependents of NPD men or women realize what predicament they are in and decide to get to work on taking their lives back into their own hands. It can also support co-dependents who have already become aware of their partner’s or parent’s or adult child’s or boss’s narcissism but see no way to act on what’s happening.

One constructive way to respond to the situation is, as the book points out, to get help for recovery through personal psychotherapy or coaching; couple therapy is rarely accepted by someone with NPD, or seems to be accepted but is then actually used by the NPD person to humiliate once again his/her partner while skilfully sabotaging the therapy.


"The Wizard of Oz and other narcissists. Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family"

by Eleanor D. PAYSON, M.S.W.

Julian Day Publications, Royal Oak, Michigan, USA, 2002 (14th printing 2009)

For the co-dependent amongst us, this may start off as an uncomfortable read. However, as Ms. Payson makes clear, a co-dependent is not some inferior species but merely a participant in a relationship who plays a particular role. As co-dependents know to their cost, this can be a role fraught with pain.  

Ms. Payson uses the analogy of the film 'The Wizard of Oz' effectively throughout the book. This is a story of growing up and becoming independent, and of stripping away a myth on which we may rely instead of relying on ourselves. She defines in her introduction the character disorder called narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). This has been recognised only relatively recently, in DSM III (1968), as a psychiatric personality disorder. 

The book is aimed at those people who find themselves in a relationship with an NPD person. They find themselves in Oz, where all roads lead .to the Wizard, or narcissist. He or she needs to have constant attention focused on them to relieve their own poor sense of self-esteem. They are incapable of empathy and eventually drain the energy of their partner, colleague or family. They often denigrate the other person and this can lead to problems of self-esteem for the latter, too. 

Anyone who is wondering if they are in such a relationship will find confirmation within the first ten pages. It may be a heart-sinking moment to read through a list of 14 questions and find ourselves answering “yes” to most of them.  

Ms Payson has almost thirty years experience as a therapist. She specialises in supporting co-dependents in narcissistic relationships. In some cases, people may find themselves in this position through no choice of their own. If our boss or mother is an NPD person, it can be difficult to simply walk away. However, for people in a couple relationship, he or she who is supporting the narcissist needs to recognise that the relationship is also serving a purpose in their own lives, related to their own personal issues. “Generally,” she says, “these are behaviors that are taking care of others to the point that you and your needs are lost”. The term 'co-dependent' is used to describe this role.  However, almost anyone who is interacting with an NPD person will be drawn into a care-taking role. 

Ms Payson aims to help the co-dependent to either deal with the NPD person or to end the relationship, where possible. However, she is very understanding of the co-dependent's dilemma. “Seduced by the narcissist's camouflage of outer charm or confidence, you are eventually drawn into the nightmare side of this relationship. By the time you realize that something is wrong, the cumulative effects can range from bruised self-esteem to severe depression.” 

The book gives many examples of narcissistic behaviour. An NPD dad will change the family's plans at the last minute to suit himself. An NPD mum may sulk at her child's wedding because she is not the centre of attention. And yet, these same individuals will have an outer air of confidence, very much in charge. This disguises their unhealthy need for attention, admiration, status, money or some other of their numerous forms of control. They are skilled at manipulating others to satisfy these needs, but incapable of empathising with them. For instance, money can be an issue for them, because they see it as an extension of themselves. It's like cutting off an arm or leg to give some to someone else. Thus, NPD people are not able to respond in a genuinely caring way to their families, partners or colleagues. 

Chapter 2 goes into detail about narcissistic characteristics, explaining their possible origins. People with NPD are very critical and have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. Both criticism and disappointment lead to explosions of anger which make life for those around them quite unpleasant. Quite apart from the damage to one's self-esteem when being constantly barraged with criticism from the NPD person in one’s life, is the potential for physical danger. The co-dependent also faces the problem that people outside the relationship may not believe that there is a problem, as they only see and are charmed by the public face of the NPD person. 

A narcissist is not able to feel a full sense of him/herself, and “primarily experiences other people as extensions of himself”. In chapter 3, Ms. Payson goes into detail about the nine manipulative behaviours that are used to break down the personal boundaries of the co-dependent. These range from admiration through intimidation and constant criticism to making the person an emotional hostage. Interestingly, she has found that an idealised childhood is a key indicator of how deep the NPD problem is. The more they assert that they had perfect childhood the more ingrained the narcissism is. 

Chapters 4 to 7 deal with how narcissism presents itself in family, couple and professional relationships, and talks of the healing work that a person can do to recover from having an NPD parent. Chapter 5 clarifies very usefully the concept of “childhood wounding” and demonstrates the differences between how a child who becomes a narcissist responds to unhealthy family dynamics as compared to how the future neurotic responds. 

No matter which type of relationship one has with an NPD person, becoming aware that there is a fundamental problem with the person engenders reactions passing through several typical stages. A first stage is shock, hurt and confusion; a second is accommodation, where one has learned how to avoid the many land mines that are likely to cause a conflict with the narcissist. 

Ms. Payson sums up the bottom line of the options facing the co-dependent:

  1. leave
  2. accept the relationship as it is and stay in it because of investment one has made in it, children, etc
  3. transform the relationship

The last option would be the most positive outcome, of course, but it requires a high level of commitment and honesty from both partners to work. However, it is not in the NPD person’s apparent interest to transform the relationship – from which he/she gains many benefits.

The last chapter both encourages co-dependents to deal with their difficult situation and acknowledges how hard that may be. Ms. Payson says, “Until you recognize that your avoidance of the problems in this relationship only leads to more losses, you will likely stay in your comfort zone no matter how unsatisfied you feel.” 

Where professional help is needed, Ms. Payson is refreshingly honest about psychotherapists. She warns of the importance of finding a good one, and gives some tips on how to do so. She doesn't pretend that everyone out there is up to standard. One of the approaches she mentions favourably is the 'Imago Relationship Therapy' method created by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. I found it interesting that she advises against individuals going into therapy in secret. Letting the NPD partner know that there is a big enough problem to require outside help is a “precious opportunity to include a warning to the NPD partner...”  

This is a clear, even enjoyable read. Ms Payson has a no-nonsense, yet sympathetic, approach. She uses real cases to illustrate her explanations. Her use of italics and bullet points helps to highlight key ideas and present useful information in a succinct manner. Each chapter has a summary at the end. I particularly appreciated her use of the gender pronouns – she alternates 'he/she' and 'him/her', thus keeping her references inclusive. 

Anyone who has struggled through a relationship with an NPD individual will recognise a lot of their own painful and frustrating experience in this book. It is very useful for identifying the nature of one’s problem and helps to evaluate concretely what to do about it.


By Audrey Mac Cready, November 2011

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