Narcissists nearly always rely on caretakers, and they do not hesitate to exploit those closest to them to feed their bottomless needs. Whether partners, children, other relatives, or friends, caretakers are sustaining forces who, usually unwittingly, enable narcissists in their delusions and abuse.

When the caretaker is the narcissist’s spouse, she has likely been seduced by the narcissist, swallowing hook, line, and sinker that she is savior and soul mate, the one and only person who lives up to the narcissist’s idealized image of perfection, can heal his wounds, and complete him. Even when he inevitably becomes devaluing and abusive, the caretaker continues to fulfill her role at the expense of her own needs and well-being.

When the caretaker is the narcissist’s child, the hook is planted firmly in place very early in life and digs in deeper as the child develops into adulthood and beyond. A child burdened with such responsibility tends to adopt this role as fundamental to his identity, often repeating similar dynamics in his adult relationships and continuing to caretake the narcissistic parent to the very end. Even when the line is cut and the adult child “swims” away, the hook remains lodged forever, surrounded by scar tissue that never fully heals.

Are You a Narcissist’s Caretaker?

Many people fall into relationships with narcissists, but it is a certain type of person who sticks around as long-term caretaker. If you have been raised in a narcissistic or otherwise abusive home, you are more at risk of falling into such a pattern.

Traits of Narcissist Caretakers

Here are some common traits of caretakers, particularly those who caretake people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD):

  1. They are groomed to feel special through helping.
  2. They are groomed to see themselves as heroic saviors.
  3. They are highly empathetic.
  4. They are out of touch with their own needs or believe they are unimportant.
  5. They believe they don’t deserve better.
  6. They grew up seeing narcissism as their “normal.”
  7. They are willing to play dumb.
  8. They are willing to sublimate their feelings.
  9. They dislike confrontation and are willing to placate to avoid it.
  10. They believe they deserve or “can handle” regular devaluation.
  11. They forgive and even reassure narcissists after abuse.
  12. They believe they are immune to the narcissist’s contempt and betrayal.
  13. They are willing to submit to punishment for no reason.
  14. They avoid arguments out of fear.
  15. They feel responsible for the narcissist’s happiness.
  16. They feel responsible for the narcissist’s basic survival.
  17. They are insecure and/or lack emotional intelligence.
  18. They identify as rescuers.
  19. The dismiss and devalue their own needs.
  20. They believe they have the power to solve other people’s problems.

Although people with NPD work continuously to project controlled and superior personas, narcissists by definition demand inordinate attention and adulation to compensate for their unstable self-esteem; operate with primitive emotional intelligence and low to zero empathy; and assert a fabricated self that is grandiose, blameless, and always right. They look to their primary caretaker to uphold their alternative-facts reality and normalize their ruthlessly self-serving behavior, and they readily discard or scapegoat anyone who challenges their deluded self-beliefs of perfection or who fails to live up to their idealized standards.

Misconceptions Caretakers Have About Narcissists

Caretakers commonly fall prey to some or all of the following misconceptions about the narcissists in their lives:

  1. They really do care about me underneath it all.
  2. If I work hard enough to prove my love and loyalty they will respond in kind.
  3. They would fall apart without me.
  4. They are wounded, and I can heal them.
  5. I’m the only one who really understands them.
  6. They will come around and learn to compromise.
  7. They love me but just don’t know how to show it.
  8. They just need more time to learn to trust me.
  9. Things will get better if I just try harder.
  10. They are more fragile than me and need more.

As a caretaker, whether you’ve been raised by a narcissist or hooked by one, you are not doomed to remain a slave to their demands or continue your caretaking role in life. Narcissists will always take more than their share, believing they deserve it and having no remorse about the damaging impact they have on others. They will literally drain the very life out of you—your energy, your resources, your connections with others, your self-worth, and your happiness.

As a caretaking type, you face a long road to recovery. The first step is understanding that your primary responsibility is to yourself, that your needs and well-being matter and must be your first priority, and that trying to “rescue” others deprives them of the opportunity to learn and grow in this life.

Julie L. Hall writes about narcissism for HuffPost and PsychCentral. She is the author of two forthcoming books: a memoir (read excerpts) and a book on narcissistic family dynamics.

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Photo courtesy of Derek Gavey.