Who Is Most Vulnerable to Narcissists?
Who is really more vulnerable to narcissists, empaths or codependents?
Posted November 3, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Most readers are familiar with the behaviors of narcissists and the risks of being in a relationship with a person who has narcissistic traits. This awareness has led to much interest in the personality traits of those who are most vulnerable to narcissists, with a common assumption that empaths are especially vulnerable. However, mental health experts have made it clear that this is both false and misleading. It is the person who has become codependent (as a result of prior experiences) who is actually most vulnerable to narcissists.
This confusion seems to result from a misunderstanding of what these two at-risk personalities share and how they differ. The concept of codependency is based upon the work of mental health professionals who have spent decades learning about it. The more recent concept of being an empath was described by Dr. Judith Orloff.
What is a codependent?
The concept of codependency was most famously described by Melody Beattie in her book Codependent No More, which was first published in 1986 and has since sold over 5 million copies. It was originally thought that a person has a high chance of becoming codependent as a direct result of living with someone who has a chemical dependency. The person abusing the substance was considered “substance dependent” while the person(s) who lived most closely with them was “co-dependent."
“A codependent person is one who has let another’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” —Melody Beattie
As this definition makes clear, codependency does not only occur in relationships that involve substance misuse. It can develop in any relationship in which the dependent person is not functioning in a normally self-sufficient way. This might be due to their habits, such as gambling or compulsive shopping, or it may be due to chronic mental or physical illness. Living with an adult who is not fully functioning as a healthy adult can lead to becoming codependent.
How does codependency develop? What makes them vulnerable to narcissists?
Over time, it became clear to mental health providers that certain experiences during early childhood predispose one to become codependent. Codependent behavior is usually learned in childhood when raised in a home in which one must be responsive to others in order to be loved. A child who feels that they must constantly earn love and approval, rather than receive it unconditionally, will be more prone to grow up feeling overly concerned with gaining approval from others. It’s that excessive feeling of responsibility for the emotional and even physical state of others that leads to the obsession with the others’ behavior.
And therein lies the vulnerability to the narcissist, who will demand attention, manipulate, deceive, and exploit the codependent’s need to gain their approval. Codependents have difficulty setting clear boundaries of what they should or should not do for others. For a thorough understanding of how the codependent is especially vulnerable to the narcissist, the reader is referred to the work of Ross Rosenberg, known globally for his knowledge of the codependent-narcissist relationship.
What is an empath?
An empath is a person who has an exceptional ability to perceive and understand the experiences and feelings of another person, even when they are not going through the same experiences.
Judith Orloff has described various types of empaths, ranging from those who perceive the physical sensations of others (physical empaths) to those who can feel the emotional response of others (emotional empaths). Most empaths are very in tune with the feelings of others but they are able to distinguish their own feelings from those of others. For example, a third type of empath (intuitive empaths) might pick up the vibe upon entering a room as being tense, but they will not necessarily feel tense themselves.
How do you become an empath?
It is believed that being an empath is not a learned behavior as is codependency; instead, it is an inborn trait. Empaths have been shown to have mirror neurons (brain cells) that are highly responsive to the actions and emotions of others. It is the mirror neurons that might cause your heart to beat faster when you’re watching a race, for example, particularly if you are a physical empath. An emotional empath might feel fearful when learning of a friend’s past trauma.
Empaths tend to be caring and compassionate people because of their acute awareness of the experiences faced by others. Their capacity for deep compassion (empathy) may lead them to act in ways that are very kind and helpful.
How is an empath less vulnerable to the narcissist?
The empath has a solid sense of self, as noted by psychologist Nicole LePera, and that sense of self is not defined by those around them. They do not need or seek the approval of others any more than the average person would do so. They are assured of their own self-worth regardless of the behavior of others.
The empath is able to be present and caring without taking on the responsibility to fix the problem related by another person. Empaths are able to regulate their own emotions so that they do not feel obligated to take on the responsibility for another adult’s emotional or physical well-being.
Another way to think about the differences between an empath and a codependent (in terms of their vulnerability to a narcissist) is that the empath has a clear sense of their interpersonal boundaries. In other words, an empath is not compelled to act in the same way as a codependent when faced with the demands of a person who is narcissistic.
The empath would realize that the demands of the narcissist are unrealistic and would not feel compelled to please the narcissist. They would be able to set clear limits of what they would or would not do for the other. It is the difference between feeling empathy for someone else vs. feeling responsible for managing the other person’s behavior.
Failure to distinguish between empaths and codependents has led to confusion about who is more vulnerable to the harmful behavior of the narcissist. Empaths and codependents are alike in that both are above average in their compassion towards others. The difference appears to be partly inborn. While all empaths share highly perceptive nervous systems with which they are born, most codependents are known to have common childhood experiences which shape their personalities.
The vulnerability of the codependent lies in their extreme sense of responsibility for others, their need for approval from others, and their difficulty setting clear boundaries. As many readers are aware, these traits are easily manipulated by narcissistic individuals.
Orloff, Judith. (2017). The Empath's Survival Guide: Life strategies for sensitive people. Sounds True Publishing.
Beattie, Melody. (1986). Codependent No More: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself. Hazelden.
Rosenberg, Ross. (2018). The Human Magnet Syndrome: The codependent-narcissist trap. 3rd edition. PESI Publishing.
LePera, Nicole. (2021). How To Do the Work. Harper Wave Publishers.