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The child co-narcissist: the narcissistic parent's missing piece

Growing up with a narcissistic parent meant that you had to learn how fit into the missing parts of your parent.  Like a puzzle with a missing piece, you became the shape of those missing pieces to balance your disordered parent–and for the ultimate goal of survival.
Alan Rappoport has written about this a lot through his career as a psychotherapist and describes the actions of the child as co-narcissism.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I dislike that term.  So, let me unpack that a bit.
Rappoport defines narcissism as a self-esteem disorder–a person with missing pieces.  The individual with narcissism is “interpersonally rigid, easily offended, self-absorbed, blaming, and finds it difficult to empathize with others.”  In this kind of toxic environment, the child tries to balance the narcissistic tendencies with intense people-pleasing, worry, anxiety, and self-sacrifice –the missing piece.
So, the “co” of co-narcissism merely describes the balancing tendencies that the child develops in order to counter the toxicity of the home.  The child develops characteristics that maintain balance or “homeostasis.”  Or to use another metaphor, the narcissistic parent’s temperament, or thermostat, is “too cold” and so the child becomes “too hot” to balance the temperature of the home environment.
Rappoport says that co-narcissists, “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.
They orient themselves around the other person in their relationships, lose a clear sense of themselves, and cannot express themselves easily nor participate fully in their lives.”
Wow.  Yes.
He goes on to say that there are 3 primary ways that co-narcissists respond in adulthood.
This is the child that remains enmeshed with the narcissistic parent into adulthood.  It is common for children to be enmeshed during childhood because they cannot always see the abusive behavior, though they may know that it doesn’t feel right.  Identification is the act of remaining enmeshed with narcissistic parent and refusing to believe that their behavior may be unhealthy to others.  They often take on the parent’s values, beliefs, and behaviors.
This is a bit different from identification in that the child may not fully develop the values, beliefs, and behaviors of the parent but remains a complicit partner to the parent.  As Rappoport says, the child becomes the “audience” for the parent that is always on stage in the spotlight.  Her job is to make sure there is always a packed house, the lights are aimed on the parent, and there is rapturous applause at the appropriate times.
The rebellious child is often the “scapegoat” that chooses to no longer play the role of “audience,” and chooses to act in opposition to the narcissistic parent.  The danger here is that sometimes it means that the child acts in self-defeating ways just to spite the parent.
I, however, like a fourth and fifth option.  I believe that there is a way for ACoNs (Adult Child of Narcissists) to heal from their co-narcissistic tendencies and separate themselves from their parent without Identification, Compliance, or Rebellion (or perhaps I’m such a rebel that I don’t like having to fit in one-of-three options!).
For me, the fourth and fifth options were: Emotional Emancipation and Exonerate
Emotional Emancipation
Emancipation is the act of being set free from ownership, slavery, or authority.  While my parent did not emancipate me (she refused to set me free), there were many others that taught me the skills to find freedom and self-determination.  It was not a self-sabotaging rebellion.  ACoNs can learn to emotionally separate themselves, learn to hold boundaries, and heal–without more chaos.
This was an important step for me.  Exoneration is the act of releasing another person from our hatred.  It is similar to forgiveness but a little bit different.  Forgiveness often comes with “forget,” which as you know, is never safe for an ACoN.  To forget behaviors and boundaries is only setting us up for more abuse.  But exoneration is about setting oneself free.  It says I’m done with the rage and hatred.  Yes, you did something awful to me but I am letting it go.  I am choosing to live without rage and without hatred.  
Because we grew up very enmeshed with our narcissistic parent, we can often feel that they are part of us or we are part of them–the missing piece.  As if exonerating them and setting them free is somehow losing a part of ourselves.  But this is not so.  We are choosing to become our own whole selves.  We let them be themselves (even if they never heal, never find their missing pieces, and never recognize their behavior).
This does not mean that I am not still angry at times.  It does not mean that I forget the past.  It simply means that I am constantly checking my own heart and refusing to let rage and hatred settle there.
until soon,
(source: Rappoport, A. (2005). Co-Narcissism: How We Accommodate to Narcissistic Parents.  The Therapist, Retrieved 02/22/2018, from


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