Narcissism & Codependency — Shame the Missing Puzzle Piece

In my private practice, and mirrored in my life, because we seriously don’t end up in this work by accident, I’ve observed and experienced multiple, nuanced types of narcissistic behavior and attitudes.

It seems that you can’t go anywhere these days without hearing people label self-absorbed behavior as “narcissism.” Understanding that grouping behavioral characteristics which can be measured on a spectrum is particularly helpful, as articles which tout a checklist with a one-size-fits-all can often be confusing and misleading. It can keep us in conflict with what is healthy and what isn’t, and with codependent characteristics, it can potentially keep us in denial.

There are a lot of theories on how narcissistic characteristics manifest in people, and with all of my training and work in the shame arena, it’s glaringly obvious to me that shame plays an enormous role in the self-absorbed, un-compassionate, emotionally unavailable person who ziplines down neural pathways that are arrogantly self-serving (not to be confused with valuing and putting oneself first, as we can’t pour from an empty cup to take care of ourselves and help others).


Dysfunctional family roles abound within intergenerational trauma and the multi-generational transmission of shame. As the family rules and mottos get passed from generation to generation, we are groomed to fulfill our role, and because shame rises up to protect us, biologically we can’t help it: shame is going to keep us small and silent in order for us to be accepted, fed, clothed, and safe.

Birth order can play a part, and what is interesting as well, is dysfunctional family roles are often thought to be in families where addiction is present. Since we know that addiction is rooted in childhood trauma, we can see how dysfunctional family roles come into play even without addiction in the family system.

The eight dysfunctional family roles that I routinely witness with clients and experienced some growing up are:

— The Golden Child: the child who can do nothing wrong, is overtly lauded, and is used to shame the other roles within the family system. The child is raised with a bloated sense of self and entitlement. When, as an adult, the world doesn’t treat them this way, their sense of self-identity is threatened. They are looking for external validation of who they are. The typical Shame Reaction for the GC is ‘attack other,’ which I’ll talk more about later in the article.

— The Hero: the child who proves to the world that the family is acceptable as well as worthy of love and belonging. If a child is praised for accomplishments outside of the family, it is seen to reflect well on the family system at large.

— The Mascot: the child who takes the sting out of any potential shaming, the diffuser of conflict within the family system, this child can turn the focus off of the others, a lot of the time with humor to deflect attention before a disagreement/conflict can turn ugly.

— The IP (Identified Patient): the child who is frequently the family system’s answer to problems, the blame receptacle. A lot of the time, if the family seeks mental health support, they will label this person as the reason why. This child is shamed consistently and chronically. When the family system gets to the point where they admit defeat in being able to “fix” the IP, where nothing this person does is “right,” they have transitioned into thrusting this child into the family’s Scapegoat aka Black Sheep.


— The Scapegoat/Black Sheep: the child who is different, who doesn’t fit in, in some or many ways: physically, emotionally, in their interests or hobbies, even down to what they like, or what their dreams are. Shame arises out of differences. One thing I hear as a consistent refrain with clients who were conditioned to this dysfunctional family role is that playing along was vital, but they grew up feeling like they could never be themselves. So much of the time, they have no idea who they are. They were groomed to believe themselves as the cause of the family system’s issues because this was constantly reiterated.

— The Lost Child: the child who stays small and silent and hopes to be unnoticed in their drive to “stay out of trouble” and out of the hot seat. It creates the dynamic of withdrawing in their shame. Shame’s purpose is to keep us small and silent, and the The Lost Child role fulfills that to the letter.

— The Caretaker & Enabler: the child that contorts to fit the dysfunction in their shame story and gives the world the falsified view of normalcy. The caretaker and enabler shows the world that the family fits in, while behind the scenes this child is constantly assuming responsibility for the other members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. Shame is ever-present, as it’s driving the actions to “make” the family appear acceptable, so the child will not be shunned or exiled.

— The Parentified & Adultified Child: caretaking on a whole different level, the child learns quickly they are responsible for the emotional needs of the adults in their lives, to the point of having to take on the role of spouse to a primary parent. For example, this can be the family where the mother is telling the five-year-old son that he is the “man of the family.”

Why do we adapt to these roles? Emotional and nervous system safety.

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How do we try to stay safe in an unsafe environment?

The answer is Shame, the master emotion, whose evolutionary purpose is to keep us safe; and the brain’s primary job is to keep the body safe. Shame is this protector, meant to make us fit in, keep us small and silent so that we don’t put ourselves out there if there is any risk of unsafety. If we act outside of our groomed role, we are taking the risk of being cast out or ignored, and we wouldn’t survive.

As the master emotion that binds with other primary emotions, shame is the great protector and is rising up unconsciously all the time. We can’t control this. Our emotions are like data, from body to brain; we have physical response, descriptors of how we feel. It’s amazing information, and we can hear people talk about their emotions in everyday phrases, such as, “butterflies in my tummy…” or “my heart feels broken…” or “he stabbed me in the back,” just to name a few attempts to describe how an emotion feels in the body.

Our relationship with the emotion of shame is incredibly complex, as it’s also tied in with the nervous system. Shame is a primary emotion and a nervous system freeze. When shame rises up, we often experience an intellectual freeze, lose our words, definitely feel it in our bodies, and we can feel more shame for reacting this way, as we will blame ourselves for these bodily sensations and subsequent behaviors. The complete irony is that it’s unconscious and we can’t control it.

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Each of the dysfunctional family roles described above is rooted in shame, starting as the shame passed on from parent to child.

In any of the roles where the child is exemplified as special over the other children, more shame is present, as the roles thrust on them make them feel like they can never measure up; these roles are steeped in shame, externally and internally.

Obviously, the role that aligns most closely with narcissistic traits and characteristics is The Golden Child. Within the family dynamic, the GC is often praised to shame the other children’s roles, to “get them in line,” or ‘why can’t you be more like your sister?” Conditioned in the family system and based on perceptions of the parent, the GC gets both emotional harm concurrent with adoration.

The GC grows up doing no wrong and not having to acknowledge their mistakes. When children carry this dysfunctional, misshapen, fragile sense of self into the adult world where, on the job, in friendships, and in intimate relationships, they can’t get the same level of adoration and entitlement enacted, we can see extreme responses as they attempt to create the adoration/entitlement supply that feeds the emptiness of their soul. The narcissistic person (remember a spectrum) is filled with attachment wounding, as they were treated differently in childhood as well. And, as we know, shame comes out of differences.

The person with narcissistic patterns and characteristics have manifestations of a deep-rooted, insidious belief that they are “better” than others, but deep down there may be doubt, if they could honestly view their mistakes in life, so external reinforcement is necessary. Their self-worth is contingent on receiving the same kind of praise as the GC got during childhood. When the world doesn’t bow down to those demands, the narcissist will escalate to fill that supply in whatever way can fill the void. We will then see love-bombing, gaslighting, the chaos and anger, just to name a few.


To keep ourselves out of the intense emotion of shame, we will go into what is called a Shame Reaction. There are four primary ones: Deny, Withdraw, Attack Self and Attack Other. With narcissistic characteristics, we will often see the Attack Other shame reaction in individuals. The purpose of this is to discharge their own shame, blame and hurt onto someone else and can be done covertly and/or overtly. A hallmark sign of internalized shame is contempt, which is a huge symptom in narcissistic behavior and a great way for them to stay out of the painful emotion of shame. Well, great for them, not for those on the receiving end.

Shame is the opposite side of the coin from codependency, but it is also opposite from narcissism.

Hoping you are taking good care of all your parts today, especially those with toxic shame. You deserve healing and nurturing. You are enough.