I remember thinking I’d met my soulmate within a couple of weeks of meeting my ex. It was so crazy how much we had in common. He was an artist like me and even wrote dark, brooding poetry as I did at the time. We liked the same music and we both loved to dance – the list could go on and on. And while I didn’t think much of him when we first met, it wasn’t long before I was telling a girlfriend that while we seemed so different, I couldn’t believe how much we had in common.
Of course, I’d later understand that he was likely a toxic narcissist, and relationships with narcissists move quickly. So, within less than a year, we’d be living together and married with a baby on the way. It was around this time that I’d be smacked in the face with the fact that much of what he’d claimed we had in common was a complete fabrication. But why would he do this?
Why do narcissists copy your personality as well as the personalities of others? Is it a manipulation tactic? Do they know they’re doing it? Well, I have a theory on this, and the answers to these questions will go much deeper than you might expect. So, that’s exactly what we’re talking about today – the psychology of how and why narcissists copy the personalities, behaviors, hobbies and speech patterns of the people in their lives.
Narcissists, Codependency, and Mirroring
Narcissists have a way of copying you, or mimicking you or in some cases, nearly becoming you. And, when you think of narcissistic mirroring or copying, you think of the average narcissist who sort of takes on parts of the identities of other people. But what you may not know is that this behavior, as annoying as it can be, is often the result of an early childhood wound caused by a lack of mirroring. And while narcissists manifest this by imitating people around them, any of us could have been affected by the same childhood wound and could be manifesting it through our own codependency. Yes, I’m serious. Let’s talk about it.
What Is Mirroring?
Mirroring is the usually subconscious replication of another person’s nonverbal signals. In layman’s terms, mirroring is when you reflect back the mannerisms, behaviors, and other behaviors of other people. It causes us to adopt different facial expressions, body language, as well as tone and for some of us, will lead to empathy.
As adults, we may use mirroring subconsciously as a way to create rapport with others. And, despite what a lot of people will tell you, mirroring isn’t a narcissistic behavior, technically. In fact, mirroring is a normal part of the development of humans. It begins as early as the day you’re born and is a requirement for the normal development of babies, toddlers, and kindergarteners. It helps them to develop their identities. But what happens when a tiny human doesn’t experience this important connection during infancy and early childhood?
How the Lack of Mirroring in Early Childhood Affects You Long-Term
As infants, humans will naturally adapt to whatever parenting we get. When our parent is depressed, anxious, stressed, or even distracted often, they don’t always give us the eye contact we need. In these cases, and in the case of a parent who might have narcissistic personality disorder, we are nearly doomed on a psychological level when we don’t get the kind of connection we need for our brains to develop normally.
See, published research tells us that beginning when we’re born and throughout our in early childhood, regular eye contact with our mothers indirectly helps us develop a sense of self.
For most people, the natural times to give this kind of eye contact would happen during feeding, diaper changing, and other kinds of physical care of their babies. And you would think that it’s a sort of natural thing for most people to look at their babies and talk to them or coo at them, right?
Good Enough Parents Vs. Toxic Parents
The thing is that most parents do this naturally, even parents who might not be considered “good” parents by the average person. And even when “good enough” parents do what comes naturally to them, babies and toddlers will reciprocate and even begin to initiate eye contact and connection over time.
But when our mothers have the problems I mentioned or any other issue that causes her to not focus while she’s feeding and caring for us, for example, she might not give us the eye contact that we’d so desperately have needed to properly attach to her. This leads to us losing not only our ability to develop our authentic selves, but it leaves us instinctively feeling that our needs haven’t been met.
That is because we are receiving an unconscious message that we don’t matter – and later, if our mother IS a narcissist, we learn that in order to have any value whatsoever, we must meet her needs (and the needs of others). This kind of perception can manifest in several ways, becoming a big part of the core self we develop. It will, in nearly every case, affect our relationships in adulthood as well.
Two Extreme Ways a Lack of Mirroring Can Affect Your Adult Relationships
Since the lack of mirroring in early childhood leads to you feeling unimportant and that your value comes from how you serve other people, you would naturally become more attractive to someone like a narcissist. You spend your life trying to make the people around you happy and take care of their needs in order to feel like you’re worthy.
While you and I might have developed the “disease to please,” if our mothers were unable to connect with us on this level, those who develop toxic narcissism or even narcissistic personality disorder are affected differently. See, when narcissism manifests, it is because those who develop that way have developed the trademark lack of empathy as a result of not having felt understood, appreciated or tuned in with their parent. So, unlike those of us who became people-pleasers, narcissists are unable to see others as whole people – they can’t understand or appreciate the autonomy of anyone else.
Worse, the lack of mirroring in infancy can lead to a very toxic legacy in your family. That’s because, for example, when a mother doesn’t naturally mirror her babies, chances are she didn’t receive mirroring in her own infancy and early childhood. As a result, unless she chooses to develop the awareness needed to overcome this and to intentionally change the pattern, she won’t be able to offer it to her kids either. This leads to her trauma being passed on to her children, and this can continue in families for generations.
How Does Mirroring Lead to Copycat Behavior in Narcissists?
Maybe you’ve noticed that the narcissist in your life picked up some of your hobbies or ideas – or even certain personality traits you have. Your reaction might have been to worry, and then you might have thought you were reading into it too much. Or maybe you thought it was an amazing bit of kismet and that you’d finally you met your soulmate, as I did initially with my ex.
But by now, you’ve realized you’re dealing with someone who might be a narcissist. And you are painfully aware that narcissists are manipulative. Mirroring can be used by narcissists as an almost unconscious manipulation tactic and it can be used consciously by sociopaths and psychopaths.
When adult narcissists use mirroring, they copy your behaviors, mannerisms, speech patterns, and personality traits – it can really be extreme and for some of us, a little disconcerting. Since narcissists feel like they have no substance, it is almost like they cannot exist without being a reflection of someone else – or more than one person. This, as I explained, is likely due to that early childhood wound of not getting the kind of nurturing they needed on an emotional level – their mothers often didn’t give them the eye contact and recognition that they needed to properly self-actualize.
When the Narcissist Suddenly Changes Their Personality or Behaviors
Often, when you’re in a longterm relationship with a narcissist, you’ll notice a shift in their personalities over the years. For the average narcissist, you might see a sudden shift in personality when they start spending time with a new person. Or, if they are your parent, they might take on some of your own qualities, habits or hobbies as you develop them, and this might continue into adulthood.
What’s interesting about this is that it can be a “tell” if you think about it. Why? Because when they do suddenly change, you can often just look around at the people in their lives and figure out exactly what is going on. Chances are that they are either jealous of someone and taking on their qualities, mimicking them, or they’re obsessed with them and taking on their qualities, behaviors or mannerisms for that reason.
Why Do Narcissists Engage In Mirroring in Relationships?
As you know, narcissists are by nature very competitive, and when you’re in a relationship with them, it can feel like they want to take your identity in one way or another. In the case of mirroring, they will almost become you on some level. Ironically, they will often find you attractive for whatever quality they will eventually take on, and as the relationship progresses, you may actually lose that part of yourself. for a codependent, this can be devastating and have lifelong effects. But what is the psychology of the mirroring behavior for narcissists in adult relationships?
There are several reasons that narcissists engage in mirroring in adult relationships, including the following.
- Narcissists don’t have a stable identity – I’m not talking about the kind of identity theft in which criminals use your information to open up rogue bank accounts to hurt your credit – though narcissists aren’t above it. They never established a real sense of identity growing up, thanks to the lack of eye contact and human connection in early childhood. They might be literally attempting to adopt your identity.
- A tactic to win you over – Mirroring in narcissists also happens when they really want to win you over. I like to call this a sort of “soulmate scam,” because they will pretend they like and dislike the same things that you do. For instance, if you love Fleetwood Mac but strongly dislike The Eagles, then ‘coincidentally’ they will too. Meeting someone who is so much like you might make you feel like they’re your soulmate and cause you to warm to them more quickly.
- They pretend they are being intimate – Narcissists are not by nature able to express true empathy. Certainly, in some cases, they are able to fake it when they need to, but generally, they don’t have the skills or even the desire to have a connection that is real. But they need narcissistic supply, and in order to get that, they need relationships. They logically understand that intimacy is important. So, they pretend, and they learn to do this by watching your own behaviors. In other words, they fake intimacy by imitating you.
While narcissists will stop actively mirroring you after the love bombing or idealization phase, they’ll also continue to hold on to whatever qualities or traits they’ve picked up from you, unless and until they find someone else to imitate.
So, what do you think?
Question of the day: have you experienced a narcissist who copied your identity, and if so, were you surprised by the answers I shared today on why that happens? Do you agree or disagree with my theory? Share your thoughts, share your ideas, share your experiences in the comments section below this video, and let’s talk about it.
Angela Atkinson is a Certified Life Coach 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 relationships since 2006, Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own.
Atkinson offers trauma-informed coaching and has certifications in 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 QueenBeeing.com Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy. In her life coaching practice, Atkinson’s clients enjoy her personalized approach that allows and encourages them to become the best possible versions of themselves and to succeed in doing what they love most. She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online and NarcissismSupportCoach.com.