How the Narcissist’s False Self and Your Insatiable Need for Validation Create Codependency

Written by Angela Atkinson

“I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with my second and worse.” ~Jekyll, highlighting his lack of control over Hyde

Why Do Narcissistic Abuse Survivors Miss Their Abusers?

“Why do I still feel like I love him?”
“She is so awful; what makes me think she’s ever gonna change?”
“He abuses me constantly, but I still feel like I want to be with him.”

So often, I hear my narcissistic abuse recovery coaching clients lament the loss of their narcissists – not the toxic person they currently know, but the person they thought they’d known – or the person they believed they were involved with. There are a couple of reasons for this – trauma bonding and the narcissist’s false self. Let me explain. 

What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding is a common condition among narcissistic abuse survivors and their abusers. Thanks to an ongoing cycle of intermittent reinforcement, many survivors of toxic relationships go through this, much like kidnapping victims and hostages do. Trauma bonding is often a bigger issue for people who also grew up in toxic and abusive homes, partially just because it feels like “normal” to them.

Read more about trauma bonding here. 

What is the narcissist’s ‘false self?’

The narcissist’s false self is the “personality” the narcissist shows “outsiders” and probably showed you when you first met. A lot of people in narcissistic abuse recovery prefer the term “narcissistic mask” because when it slips, you see the narcissist’s true self, which inevitably traumatizes you. This is a defense mechanism used by narcissists to cope with hurtful feelings from childhood trauma. These feelings include shame, abandonment, neglect, abuse, and indifference from primary caregivers.

Narcissists learn how to defend themselves against these painful memories and feelings by developing this so-called False Self which is used in public or in front of new people. This False Self is developed at an early age when the narcissist has not yet learned how to avoid these painful feelings through the mature defenses of adaptive behaviors.

In layman’s terms, that means that they create a false self that appears to, but does NOT, embody the following.

  • Development of a true sense of self-worth
  • Genuine self-confidence
  • Realistic self-esteem
  • Assertiveness
  • Empathy 
  • Compassion for others.

Read more about the narcissist’s false self here.

How does the narcissist’s false self play a role in your trauma bonding?

Why is there so much confusion in toxic relationships? Essentially, because the narcissist hides behind a sort of “armor” that is his or her “false self,” he or she fools you from very early on. Just think about it. While your first impression of the narcissist may have been a very good one; that’s because he or she showed you only the best parts of themselves when you met – they constructed a series of qualities and traits that they present to the outside world.

Love Bombing Serves Up a Strong Cocktail 

During the love-bombing or idealization phase of a toxic relationship, the narcissist puts you high upon a pedestal and can see nothing wrong with you.

This validates you in a way that you may never have really experienced before. If you’re like most survivors of narcissistic abuse, you rarely if ever get validation from anyone – and you probably grew up either abused or neglected by your primary caregivers, or some combination of both. You may not even realize how badly you craved this kind of experience.

Enmeshment and Addiction Create Strong, Toxic Bonds

And here’s how you find yourself enmeshed with the narcissist: validation on this level is literally as addictive as a drug for someone who’s never had it before. That rush of dopamine you’re guaranteed with someone who seems to worship you can be instantly addictive for anyone who has never really felt loved or seen. 

At the same time, the narcissist may actually believe they’re in love with you. The truth is, they have the emotional capacity of a toddler. They have strong, intense feelings for you (just like they did for everyone who came before you). They swear you’re the one (just like everyone else before you was told). They are CERTAIN it’s going to be different with you. At least until they recognize that you’re a flawed human, like everyone else. That’s when the real trouble starts. Do you see where this is going? 

The Road to Codependency, Simplified

Mutual Addiction 

As you become hooked on the narcissist‘s validation, they get hooked on you, energetically feeding on your emotions and on exploiting your love for them. But how could you miss that? You are actively becoming the narcissist’s primary source of narcissistic supply at the same time as they become your own source of vaildation – leading to (you guessed it) codependency.

You miss it at first because the narcisisst only shows this “false self” side of themselves. It is in fact the false self with whom you become obsessed – with whom you fall in love.

Roller Coaster of Toxic Love

So, when the narcissistic abuse cycle shifts to the next phase, you feel lost. And because it’s the false self and the idealization phase pedastal you expect to return, you’ll spend months, years or decades waiting for them, searching for them. You’ll try to change yourself to get them to come back to you. You’ll do anything – and those little glimpses of the idealization phase are dripped your way at an agonizing pace – just enough to keep you hopeful. Meanwhile, thanks to the highs and lows involved in a toxic relationship, you find yourself on a broken, scary rollercoaster that feels like it’ll never stop. It makes you sick, but you’re scared to get off the ride.

There’s the Hook

THAT is what keeps you hooked – the memory of this behavior combined with the ongoing, ever turning cycle of intermittent reinforcement (during which you get little moments or “tastes” of the person you initially fell for or believed they were, alternated with periods of devaluing and discarding in an unpredictably toxic cycle).

This intermittently reinforced cycle of the highest highs and lowest lows keeps your brain confused and your body constantly on alert with chemicals and neurotransmitters all twisted up – and this becomes literally addictive, which is essentially the definition of trauma bonding. 

Reality Sinks In

Now, thanks to the fact that narcissists make it so difficult to see who they truly are, reality sinks in. And you’re stuck deciding whether you’ve really got the sweet and charming love you signed up for, or whether the wool was pulled over your eyes and the real him or her is actually the toxic, abusive, insulting, and manipulative narcissist you’re dealing with in real life.

Cognitive Dissonance Keeps You in the Fog

All of that – and the ensuing confusion that comes from gaslighting and constant emotional battering – leads you to a serious kind of mental torture that causes you to literally be at odds with yourself – we call that cognitive dissonance. You’re trying to reconcile the illusion you were initially presented with the person you have now got to deal with. Your head spins, and you start to lose interest in things – and people – that you once enjoyed and even loved.

Losing Your Identity

In a lot of cases, in order to cope with this mess, you start trying to improve your SELF – to change yourself into something better. Something you hope will be good enough for the narcissist – who actually wants something that doesn’t really exist in a single human. But if you’re like a lot of other narcissistic abuse survivors, you’ll blame yourself. And being the people-pleaser that so many of us are, you’ll end up trying to hate yourself into that impossibly unreal idea of perfection. You’ll lose your identity.

You Become an Extension of the Narcissist

Now, codependency destroys your independence. The narcissist takes full control of you – and some part of you almost prefers it this way. And so you bend over backward to please them and to get them to send a tiny bit of validation your way. And somehow, no matter how much you put up with or how sure you are that you’ve done everything you could to get that love-bomber back, they only show up on rare occasions. But they always leave again, and they only stay long enough to keep you on the hook.

The Narcissist Redefines You

The narcissist convinces you that you are the problem. They unceremoniously and repeatedly remind you that you aren’t good enough, pretty enough, rich enough – whatever it is they’re looking for – and instead of telling them who you really are like you once would have – you keep trying. But no one around you can figure out why don’t you stand up for yourself.

They wonder how the narcissist is maintaining such control over the intelligent, capable person you once were.

In addition to that mutual addiction (trauma bonding) factor, there’s a part of you that is trying to overcome the cognitive dissonance here – your subconscious mind is trying to reconcile and uphold that initial impression you had of the narcissist – the image of their false self that is challenged during the inevitable devaluation phase.

The True Face of the Narcissist is Revealed

By the time you get to the discard phase (also inevitable with a narcissistic person – the cycle, like the beat, goes on), you’ll be treated to only occasional glimpses of the truly ugly face of the narcissist – the one that spews out the cruel and painful poison that causes you to lose all faith in yourself faster than you can say boo.

And, like it or not, you can’t see to unsee the coldness, the callous indifference that leads to what feels like absolute torture to you.

While your first reaction is that everyone has a bad moment and this can’t be who they really are, the truth is that this moment is probably the closest you’ll come to actually seeing the narcissist’s REAL self.

This is about the time you finally see that the amazingly charming or engaging or otherwise awesome person you got involved in the first place is gone – and suddenly you’re aware of the venemous contempt they’ve developed for you. 

Waking Up from the Lie

Before you know it, you realize your whole relationship has been a fabrication, a manipulated version of reality that never existed. You realize that they never loved you, not the way you thought they did. And your heart breaks a little more, if that’s possible.

But, before you completely shut down and give up, remember this: none of this is your fault. In reality, narcissists are not capable of feeling genuine love or compassionate empathy for anyone else – they just use people to meet their own selfish needs. Once they exhaust one source of narcissistic supply, it’s on to the next.

Don’t let yourself believe in the magical connection you once thought you had – it was just a part of the whole narcissistic cycle – an illusion, just like the narcissist’s identity.

Next Steps in Narcissistic Abuse Recovery

So now that you know all of this, what do you do with it? You start picking up the pieces of yourself, and you begin the healing process. You go forward, and you go no contact (or low contact, if you’re forced to deal with him/her – say at work or as a co-parent). You aren’t to blame – you were simply used as a pawn in the narcissist’s game. 

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  • Angela Atkinson

    Angela Atkinson is a certified trauma counselor and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery, and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships since 2006, she has a popular narcissistic abuse recovery YouTube channel. Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own. Atkinson offers trauma-informed narcissistic abuse recovery coaching and has certifications in trauma counseling, life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation, and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves. Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy. She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse here at and at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online.

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