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The Recovery Expert
with Sharie Stines, Psy.D.

When you’re the so-called “codependent” in a narcissistic relationship

Some people absolutely hate being referred to as a “codependent” because they are in an abusive relationship or some other type of relationship with an addict or narcissist.  You may be one of those people who believe that being labeled a “codependent” can be re-victimizing in some respects because it involves victim blaming. In essence, it feels to the person being labeled as if they “brought it on themselves.” It somehow makes a victim of abuse feel that there is something wrong with them because they have love, care, and longing for an attachment to the person in their lives who is not healthy.

Unfortunately, over the past four decades, the label, “codependent,” which was coined from the term, “co-alcoholic” to describe someone married to an alcoholic, started to define anyone who felt care and concern for imperfect people.  People began to equate personal sacrifice for others as symptomatic of a disease and an addiction of its own – commonly called a “relationship addiction.”

It is important to remember that caring for others is not pathological; nor is putting others’ needs before your own. Being kind and compassionate is a good thing, not a negative.

Only people who have loved someone with an addiction or with a personality disorder can understand what it feels like to be involved in this type of relationship.  When others label you because you’re in this relationship, you end up feeling judged and shameful. This is not therapeutic.

Just because you love someone who has problems does not mean that you have to wear a mantle of pathology. You may or may not be a “co-dependent;” and either way, so what?  Does it really matter in the end what other people want to label you?

It’s easy for counselors, therapists, and others to put labels on you, and tell you to change. In fact, it may be true that you need to change something; but, having the capacity to feel and care for others may not be what needs to be changed. Nor is it necessary to change your ability to let people in and have a warm, trusting heart towards others.

Watch out for the word “boundaries” as well. Many people labeling you with the term, “codependent,” may also be preaching the word, “boundaries” to you.  Yes, boundaries may be in order, but be careful not to throw the “baby out with the bath water.”

What I mean by this is, when you are in a relationship with someone who is emotionally toxic, you tend to compensate to protect yourself by becoming super strong, need-less, and detached. Yes, these are all necessary protective measures for surviving a narcissistic relationship; however, these traits can become unhealthy themselves if you become immune to needing others.

Remember, it is not codependent to need or care for others. In fact, it is healthy to do so. People are designed to be social creatures. We are not supposed to be extra-independent or devoid of hurts when others let us down. It is unnatural to not allow others to have an impact on our lives emotionally.

Unfortunately, emotional abusers, narcissists, and addicts, turn their loved ones in to “co-dependents,” because of the symbiotic nature of close relationships. When one person in an otherwise “normal” relationship starts to abuse the other, the other has no choice but to try and “dodge the bullets” being shot his/her way. This creates insecurities that over powers the victim’s entire personality. The victim begins to be transformed from a strong, healthy person, to a weak, self-doubting, mere shadow of the person he/she once was.

If you have “lost” yourself because of a toxic relationship, feel free to not add fuel to the fire by placing labels on yourself that cause you further harm. If you don’t mind using the term “co-dependent” to describe your situation because it provides clarity to you, then by all means, wear the label. If, however, it causes you shame and angst, give yourself permission to not label yourself at all, or else pick something more appealing to yourself. Some suggestions are target, victim, or scapegoat.

At the end of the day, it is your life and you can choose to live it anyway you choose. You can be whomever you choose to be. I prefer to err on the side of kindness no matter what.

I’ll close with some wise words by Kent M. Keith, known as The Paradoxical Commandments:

  1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
    Love them anyway.
  2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
    Do good anyway.
  3. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.
    Succeed anyway.
  4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
    Do good anyway.
  5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
    Be honest and frank anyway.
  6. The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
    Think big anyway.
  7. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
    Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
    Build anyway.
  9. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
    Help people anyway.
  10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
    Give the world the best you have anyway.
When you’re the so-called “codependent” in a narcissistic relationship

Sharie Stines, Psy.D

Sharie Stines, Psy.D. is a recovery expert specializing in personality disorders, complex trauma and helping people overcome damage caused to their lives by addictions, abuse, trauma and dysfunctional relationships. Sharie is a counselor at LIfeline Counseling & Education Inc., in Southern California ( Lifeline Counseling is a non-profit organization 501(c)(3) corporation. Sharie is also an abusive relationship recovery coach -


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APA Reference
Stines, S. (2018). When you’re the so-called “codependent” in a narcissistic relationship. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from