A Dangerous Dance
The empath/Echo/codependence pattern hooks into the narcissist pattern like lock and key. If you feel confused because you identify with both the narcissist and the empath, join the club! Most people who fit one of these patterns, fit both. In some relationships, you may play the narcissist, while in others, you play the codependent. Most people have a preference for one pattern over the other, but some flip-flop between them equally. Really, they are two sides of the same painful coin. But don’t despair! This is a curable pattern, and there’s so much love, joy, intimacy, and freedom on the other side.
This can be a really triggering topic! Be gentle with yourself. And others. If you recognize yourself or your loved ones here, please don’t beat yourself up—or get all indignant and righteous and start shaming anybody else. Turn your heart light all the way up before reading on. My intention is to activate more awareness and more love—of yourself and of others. The last thing this world needs is more judgment, polarization, and demonization of the self or the other.
Those who fall into the ‘Echo’ patterns are often empaths, playing out a pattern of codependence. Empaths have what can be a gift and a curse—a finely-tuned sensitivity to the feelings and needs of others. If the narcissist is focused on “Me, me, me,” and the empath is focused on “You, you, you,” you can see how this is a match made in hell. This dynamic can feel very confusing and hard to spot for the empath because, in the beginning of a relationship, the narcissist can ‘love bomb’ the empath to hook them into this pattern. However, it’s not real love. Initially, the praise, gifts, touch, affection, and approval showered on the empath by the narcissist feels so rewarding to the empath that they get hooked.
Do not be fooled! The love bombing is not real, intimate, meaningful, unconditional love. It’s a form of deception. Although the narcissist may be completely unaware and free of any conscious intent to manipulate, the conscious or unconscious motive of the narcissist is to lure the vulnerable empath into an intimate relationship by hooking the empath’s insecurity and lack of worthiness. The narcissist counts on the approval-seeking tendency of the empath to create premature intimacy and artificial stability in the relationship. The empath is an easy target, burdened as he/she is with low self-esteem, poor boundaries, romantic fantasies, and the pathologic need to be needed.
The push/pull dynamic, the ‘come hither/go away’ unpredictability of the dynamic becomes a kind of addiction for the empath. Unacceptable, neglectful, cruel, or even abusive behaviors are neurotically tolerated because the empath wants another hit of the love bombing or gets seduced by the idea that they are going to be the one to finally demonstrate how unconditional their love is; even if the narcissist is behaving abominably. Over time, the frequency of the love bombing diminishes, which further fuels the “I’m not worthy or loveable” story that often stems from childhood. This makes the empath vulnerable to abuse and interferes with the capacity to have insight and make empowered choices that free the empath from the abusive relationship.
Blind Compassion and Neurotic Tolerance
In the beginning, the love bombs outweigh the neglect and abuse, so the empath can justify the tolerance. They may even puff themselves up with stories about how spiritual, compassionate, and unconditionally loving they are. They very likely justify staying in the relationship with stories like, “Wow, I’m learning so much in this relationship! How else would I learn unconditional love unless I was tested this much? How grateful I am to my Love School teacher . . . ” (And yes, this too is true.)
Yet, as Robert Augustus Masters writes in his book Spiritual Bypassing, this kind of ‘blind compassion’ is really conflict avoidance, in holy drag. This spiritualizing way of rationalizing unacceptable behavior in another is simply evidence of an inability or unwillingness to set and enforce healthy boundaries, which are a natural side effect of self-care, self-love, and self-respect. Healthy boundaries are simply a healthy person’s way of saying, “This is what’s OK and not OK in this relationship.” Then if someone can’t or won’t respect the healthy boundaries, the healthy person simply withdraws. We teach people how to treat us.
Empaths Learn to Prioritize the Needs of Others Over Their Own
Empaths have usually been conditioned early in childhood to prioritize the needs of others over their own. Although empaths tend to be very expertly attuned to the needs of others, they often have little to no awareness of what they need themselves. This causes a toxicimbalance, since healthy relating in conscious Soul Tribe dynamics requires that all parties be aware of their own needs, care about the needs of others, express and get these needs met in healthy ways, and prioritize meeting the needs of others as equally important—but not more important—than meeting your own needs.
Often, the most empathic, intuitive, sensitive children grew up in abusive or neglectful homes (or perhaps abusive or neglectful homes breed empathic, intuitive, sensitive adults. Chicken or egg?). These beautiful little children did not learn what healthy children learn—to prioritize self and others equally. While budding little empaths grew up, they learned to attune to the needs of others as a survival mechanism. This was a necessary adaptation at the time! This pattern can be a gift; opening up spiritual connection, psychic channels, and powerful healing abilities. But the very tool that kept them alive makes empaths vulnerable to victimization in adulthood.
Many empaths were raised with narcissistic parents (most abusive parents and addictshave narcissistic traits) who violated their boundaries repetitively and never taught them to be aware of their own needs. As a result, empaths grow up normalizing such behavior. Painful though it may be, abuse is a comfort zone—until it’s not.
Being an Empath is a Gift
Lest you misunderstand, don’t think for a moment that being an empath is just a handicap! While it’s important to bring into conscious awareness the shadow side of being an empath, being an empath is a beautiful gift, especially given the state of the planet right now. Once you’re free from the hooks of codependence that often ride shotgun with being an empath, you’re just what the doctor ordered in order to help this planet heal.
Just because you’re an empath doesn’t mean you’re codependent, but often, the two go hand in hand. If you’re aware of the tendency toward codependence and do the hard work to interrupt this pattern, set and enforce boundaries, and keep your energy field sovereign and clear, you can keep all the gifts of being an empath without being at the mercy of its shadows.
What is Codependence?
How do you know if you’re stuck in a pattern of codependence? Codependence is different than simple dependence, and it’s distinct from interdependency. We all have dependency needs at certain phases of our lives. For example, after having surgery or during cancer treatment, we may be dependent on others for caregiving, financial support, driving to appointments, even getting to the bathroom or making meals. There’s nothing fundamentally unhealthy about being dependent, as long as it’s not hooked into enabling a delay in the maturation process into adulthood, as when an able-bodied child moves back home, refuses to get a job or participate in household responsibilities, fails to contribute financially or through hard work, and expects Mom and Dad to take care of them.
Interdependence is also not unhealthy; quite to the contrary, interdependency is necessary for true intimacy. Psychologist Leon Seltzer, PhD writes:
In an interdependent relationship, each party is able to comfortably rely on the other for help, understanding, and support. It’s a ‘value added’ kind of thing. The relationship contributes to both individuals’ resilience, resourcefulness, and inner strength. All the same, each party remains self-sufficient and self-determining. They maintain a clear identity apart from the relationship and are quite able to stand on their own 2 feet.
What differentiates codependency is that empaths are primarily dependent on someone else’s dependence on them for a sense of value or worthiness. The core wound of many empaths is that they don’t believe they deserve to exist unless they’re over-giving. A deep-seated insecurity fuels their need to rescue others. They quite literally need to be needed, feeding off other people’s neediness. If they encounter a healthy person who doesn’t need them, they often have no idea how to relate, and the relationship may feel uncomfortably vulnerable, since codependency thrives on the needy narcissist. If the empath can’t rescue someone, the inner dialogue is that this person will then leave. If there isn’t dependency, why else would someone stay?
Someone hooked into a codependent pattern may feel so unlovable that they literally can’t believe that anyone would love them if they’re not giving too much and neglecting their own needs. This can be quite heartbreaking to the healthy people who try to relate to them. It’s similar to how the anorexic looks into a mirror and sees a fat person, while other people see skin and bones. The codependent looks at themselves and sees someone essentially unlovable, while others see so much to love. This deep insecurity continues the pattern, since the empath tells themselves that they must settle for taking care of a narcissist and that narcissist’s needs, because nobody would ever love them enough to want to take care of their needs reciprocally. Just as narcissism destroys healthy Soul Tribe dynamics, codependency wrecks the interdependency necessary for healthy interrelating.
Please Don’t Blame Anybody (Especially Yourself)
When empaths who are caught up in the Echo patterns of codependence first learn about the Narcissist/Echo/empath pattern, they often have a tendency to become enraged and blame the narcissist, or they turn that rage upon themselves and further wound the fragile, vulnerable part that doesn’t feel good enough. But please—don’t rage at yourself or commit emotional violence against someone else. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t feel rage and let it move through your body. In fact, this can be very healing. Rage against someone else is a healthy response to having your needs neglected and your boundaries violated. And rage against the overly compliant ‘nice’ part of yourself can light the soul fire in your belly that activates your inner power and allows your “HELL NO” to burst forth into inspired action. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to move rage through your system.
When someone has been in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship, it’s only natural to go through a phase of feeling fury at the narcissist. The mind will reel with thoughts like “What about me?” and “How could you?” These feelings must be honored and respected. It is in this rage that the fire in your belly moves you from the disempowered victim state, to the empowered space of healthy boundary-setting and enforcement of consequences when your boundaries are violated and your needs are not met. This is how you learn the value of tough love and self-love. All that fury can activate a ferocious kind of love that says, “This stops now.”
Don’t be Fooled by the ‘Spiritual’ Narcissist
More commonly than blaming and shaming the narcissist, empaths turn their rage inward, judging themselves and blaming themselves for what isn’t working; mirroring what the narcissist repetitively communicates to the empath—“It’s not my fault. It’s yours.” In spiritual circles, the narcissist in New Age or Zen clothing can even use flowery, spiritual language to justify abusive, neglectful, or even cruel behavior. We see this often among spiritual leaders, gurus, shamans, self-help authors, energy healers, and pastors/priests who get caught violating basic ethics. Instead of practicing the Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” these supposedly ‘spiritual’ leaders will twist spiritual teachings to justify their unacceptable behavior or even suggest to you that you should be grateful for this opportunity to exercise your forgiveness muscles!
When what you’re really craving is an apology, you’re unlikely to get an admission of wrongdoing or attempts to make amends. Instead, the ‘spiritual’ narcissist will try to convince you with spiritual principles that if you’re triggered by the narcissist’s disrespect, or if you’re making requests and asking to get your needs met, you’re clearly less enlightened than the one who you feel owes you an apology. “Obviously,” the narcissist spouts, “Enlightened people take responsibility for ‘manifesting’ their reality, so if you don’t like what’s happening to you, you need to shift your energy so you stop attracting what you don’t want.” Say what?
Or you might hear this one. “Your criticisms of me are just a projection of what you don’t like about yourself. So do ‘the work’ on yourself if you don’t like how I’m treating you.” Or even more maddening—“You should thank me for being such a good teacher so you can work out your tendency to judge.” While all of these statements have truths in them; while we do tend to project our shadow onto others and while we can find the space to be grateful for those who trigger us, don’t let yourself be blamed for healthily challenging someone else’s disrespectful behavior, awakened boundary setting, or expression of your needs. These kinds of turnarounds are simply aimed to get the narcissist off the hook and protect him or her from the shame they might feel if they have to face the fact that they’ve done something unethical or unkind.
Have you ever noticed how some of the supposedly most ‘spiritual’ people are the least kind? They have the harshness and necessary truth-telling of the scalpel, but they lack the comfort that comes with being a sanctuary for others when they’re in pain. For the spiritual narcissist, it’s as if their spirituality has somehow stripped them of the simplest human capacity to be a benevolent presence in the world. Have compassion for this, but do not be fooled by this form of narcissism in holy drag, or let anyone convince you that there’s something wrong with you for acknowledging that the emperor has no clothes. Do not let this kind of victim-shaming further disempower you and prevent you from setting healthy boundaries and clearly, powerfully, even forcibly instilling them; even if you have to get a restraining order to do so. Be aware that many narcissists have the tendency to use ‘gaslighting’ as a way to disempower someone they hope to victimize. Once you see this pattern, you will recognize it when it shows up and hopefully can shield yourself from this kind of abusive, even sociopathic manipulation.
Now . . . PAUSE . . .
Take a deep breath. You can do this hard thing.
Once you see what you once didn’t, you can’t unsee it. The pattern begins to unravel the minute you see how much you’ve been unconsciously harming yourself—and others—by hooking into one, or both sides of this destructive pattern. If this pattern sounds familiar to you, hold dearly and tenderly the little child in you that learned to operate from this pattern as a form of self-protection.
Keep the Gifts. Let Go of the Curse.
Remember, empaths do not have to be codependent. You can keep all the gifts of empathy—the gifts that make someone an excellent healer, caregiver, and Soul Tribe member. When intuition, empathy, self-love, and healthy boundaries merge with an open-heart and an orientation toward doing good, the capacity for truly Divine service emerges. Free of both sides of the narcissist/codependent pattern, you bless everyone you meet–even those on the receiving end of your ferocious love–and you receive blessings in equal measure.