Nice But Not Good: The Art of Spotting Narcissists

Because our culture puts such a premium on niceness, charm, and pleasure, ordinary, good people are put at a disadvantage when it comes to discernment.
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A woman recounted to me a marriage of alternating abuse and abandonment. I asked her how she'd met him and what led her to marry him. She said so innocently, "He was so nice then." I can't count how many times I've heard that.

Admittedly, I was taught to be the same as a young woman. Women in general are raised to be nice and respond to those who are nice to us. I distinctly remember my aunt telling me, "Nice girls don't speak like that." (I had entered an adult conversation with a strong opinion of my own and called an elder to task on his point of view.) And I can't tell you how many times I put myself in danger because it wouldn't have been "nice" of me to walk away from a man who was trying to talk to me, even though I knew in my body that something was terribly wrong. I was very lucky. Not all are.

We can all remember being told that someone we knew (or knew of) had gotten in trouble, been arrested for drug use, or in some way found with their pants literally or figuratively down. And we can all remember saying, "How could that be? He was so nice!"

We can all recall the television interviews of neighbors and co-workers after some ghastly disaster sends them all reeling into the streets with their pajamas on, some shooting spree or child molestation. And all of them have the same comment: "I don't understand it. He was such a nice, quiet guy!"

Bundy was so nice, women got into his Volkswagen ignoring or failing to even notice that there was no front seat. Charles Manson, psychotic that he was, still sweetly lured the innocent and isolated into his cache of horrors.

Over coffee, my friend and colleague, Kevin Rexroad, M.D., attempted to define the terms. Even though I'm a psychotherapist and Kevin's a psychiatrist, it wasn't as easy as we had expected. We had both had recent personal experiences with narcissistic individuals who made the difference vividly and viscerally clear, yet it was hard to quantify.

"With nice," he mused, "it's usually so nice that a part of me knows it's too nice to be true. Good is different. It has a more obviously average quality about it."

I defined that further. Good is humble. There is no pretense. No boasting. No need for approval or accolades. It does what it does because it seeks to do the right thing. Period.

So, on a rather large Starbucks napkin, I drew two columns.

Good People

  • They understand the battle against evil but never take pleasure in its defeat, rather sadness in its necessity.
  • They have consistent integrity.
  • They say what they mean and mean what they say.
  • Good men and women are warriors of a sort. They do not tolerate injustice but also do not seek to punish or exact revenge.
  • They are temperate of mind and heart.
  • They have substance.
  • They are responsible in that they respond to others.
  • They are appropriately (not helplessly or cunningly) selfless.
  • They are empathic without being passive.
  • There is no pretense in them, and they are willing to be good without seeking approval or awards of any kind.
  • They are the last ones to see themselves as good and definitely the last ones to tell anyone they are.

Super Nice People

  • They are "charming."
  • They interact with a pseudo-intimacy, behaving as if they'd known you personally for years.
  • They engage you on their terms only, even if you don't realize it.
  • They can seem very passive and quiet.
  • They relate to you on the surface and let you in only so far.
  • They do not respond to your needs but gloss over them in a way that makes you wonder what you needed that for.
  • They are very intent on pleasing others or ingratiating themselves into a social network.
  • They need to maintain a persona or a position in a social circle at all costs because how they are seen is more important than who they are.
  • They manipulate.
  • They are like perfume -- very sweet but often used to cover what is deeply offensive.
  • They have no compunction about lying to get what they want so long as they are nice about it.
  • And, they will inevitably tell you how good they are.

As I wrote that last one, I told Kevin, "I know one woman who is constantly telling me (and anyone else who will listen) how humble and spiritual she is."

He called her statements "self-contradictory." But only someone who is paying attention can see that. It stunned me to think of how many people actually took (and continue to take) her at her word without taking the time to look and see the incongruity of a person boasting about their humility.

As we scrolled through the list, we realized that almost all sales were based in "niceness."
"It's like the old pharmaceutical reps," Kevin recalled. "They'd come in and give you a pen and be super sweet and figure you now owed them something and had to write scrips for whatever meds they were selling."

In The Gift of Fear (1997) Gavin De Becker wrote, "Charm is another overrated ability. Note that I called it an ability, not an inherent feature of one's personality. Charm is almost always a directed instrument" (p. 66).

He suggests we see charm as a verb rather than a noun or adjective so that instead of a man being so charming, we can see him as trying to charm us. He likens niceness to a decision and warns us that it is not the same as a character trait. It is a strategic form of social interaction. Niceness is conscious and deliberate. It is a social skill that is turned on and off, a vehicle for self-enhancement. Niceness is persuasive.

Perhaps it should not go without saying that a nice man may in fact be a very good man. Not all charm is a cover for sadism or cruelty, although very often it is. Good and nice can coexist. A good man may be quite charming and engaging. But not always. Only in the right circumstances and for the right reasons. In the choice between what is right and what is "nice," a good man will choose what is right. He knows that true goodness is a grace bestowed in brief moments. Sometimes a good man will say and do things that may offend, hurt someone's feelings, or even lead to battle.

I imagine Chamberlain thought he was being quite nice with Hitler. I don't believe anyone in Czechoslovakia would have thought it was very good.

Nice can't be discussed without at least mentioning narcissism. This is especially the case with unsolicited and seemingly inappropriate niceness.

Narcissists are very nice until they don't get their way. They are great charmers and can get most people to do and accept things that they wouldn't in their wildest dreams imagine themselves doing or accepting. Narcissists are often very adept con artists.

Narcissism, in psycho-therapeutic parlance, is a term used to indicate a superficial personality type with a hyper-inflated sense of self to compensate for a grievously wounded core. They need a huge amount of support and reinforcement or applause to feel that they have any existence at all. These are people you will often find in the media, in Hollywood, in politics, in positions where they are leading, lording over, or performing for many people. We may understandably expect them there. But we will also find them in car dealerships, in schools, and in our neighborhood associations, because a narcissist is simply someone who puts himself in the center of the universe and fully, comfortably, and syntonically expects you to do the same for him.

As a result, what they want is paramount in any relationship -- intimate or fleeting. They are people who don't accept "no" for an answer easily because it so threatens either their plan, their sense of self-worth (which is actually quite flimsy), or both. In order to keep things moving where they want them to go, they will manipulate with sweetness and charm. If that doesn't work, they will lie. And if that doesn't work, in many cases (though not all) they will rage. Sometimes that rage is malignant and can result in profound emotional or bodily harm to others.

An example of emotional harm is a simple story: Jane was once married to a narcissist. The ex-husband, Charlie, regularly demeaned and verbally abused Jane while they were married. He cheated on her. He had literally no empathy and no respect for her needs. This continued past their divorce. Some years ago, Charlie had their son call Jane to demand that Jane let Charlie and his new girlfriend stay at her house until their new home was painted, knowing that Jane was terrified of losing the affection of her son. She allowed herself to be manipulated and humiliated this way because she was made to feel like the perpetrator every time she tried to say no. Unlike narcissists, people who are trying to be good often have consciences and more highly developed senses of guilt.

An example of physical harm is something we hear about nearly every day in the news. It is a particularly malignant form of narcissism that extends into sociopathy or psychosis. A woman or child is abducted by someone who looked so "normal" or seemed so "nice." They are deliberately and skillfully lured in with requests for help, invitations to look at a puppy, or by making small-talk and not letting it end in a normal fashion and pushing themselves on people who are timid or afraid of hurting someone else' feelings. As De Becker points out, narcissists do not accept the word "no" because they need control.

It was about a week after the terrorist attack in New York. I was walking my dogs -- two large and not-terribly-benign rescues who loved me and were initially cautious with everyone else -- down the small, winding street that led to our home. It was not a through street, so strangers were usually quite noticeable.

It was 7:00 a.m. when a man in a silver Jaguar pulled in front of us at a diagonal, blocking our passage. He stopped and got out of the car. A sheep dog was in the back of the car with his paws on the top of the seat peering out at us. The man walked toward us wearing an FBI hat (ridiculous looking) and a silver running suit. At the time I was working with an NYPD group (POPPA) as a counselor, and immediately I committed his license plate to memory.

I put my hands forward in a "stop" position as my dogs started barking and twitching. He didn't stop quickly enough, and I knew something was amiss.

"Hi there!" he chirped sweetly. Anyone would have said he was being quite nice. "I just moved into the neighborhood, and I was hoping we could get a play date for the dogs..."

He would've kept talking and he was slowly moving closer and closer. Amazingly, my two barking and animated, 80-pound dogs didn't deter him. So I did.

"Get back in your car now. They're not friendly, and neither am I." (Actually, they were both quite friendly with people they trusted. They were clearly on alert.)

"You don't have to be like that!" he said and nearly pouted, trying to make me feel awful for hurting his feelings and rejecting him.

"Yes, I do. I'm warning you. They don't take to strangers," I moved forward with them and slackened my leashes so the dogs could lunge forward.

He stomped off after he gave me a tongue lashing for being rude. Mind you, I didn't feel all that good about being "rude" at all and wondered for a day or so whether I had been too quick to judge or if I was just plain ol' mean -- until I found out that his plates were from a town about 100 miles away and nowhere near where we lived. So much for welcome to the neighborhood! If he had not been looking to perpetrate some harm, he would never have been so indignant about being told "no." If he had been a good man, he would have realized he'd overstepped a boundary and apologized (and meant it).

Narcissism is unfortunately one of the marks of success in modern Western culture. If you are sufficiently self-important to be important to others, you've made it. You're on the cover of Time or People or Us. (Ironically, for a narcissist there is no "us." It is the epitome of the royal "we" in which their "I" includes everyone else.)

In 1940 C.S. Lewis was already sounding the alarm about this radical change in modern society. He stated emphatically that kindness (or niceness) was not the measure of goodness, just as apparent cruelty was not the measure of evil. For as Russ Murray points out in his blog, someone can be quite nice and have the most base of intentions, citing as an example how Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Doctors do the opposite all the time: they reset broken bones, suture ruptured skin, and remove decayed teeth using methods that sometimes cause awful (albeit temporary) pain in order to facilitate proper healing. Is it nice? Hell, no. Is it good? Until we have better means, yes, it is very good.

Because our culture puts such a premium on niceness, charm, and pleasure, ordinary, good people are put at a disadvantage when it comes to discernment. A narcissist can appear quite innocent because she has so mastered the technique of ingratiation, so much so that she can make you feel that you have somehow committed a terrible injustice by denying her X or Y or Z as she positions herself as the victim.

As Gavin De Becker points out, this failure to see behind the mask of niceness can make the difference between life and death. World-wide, the crime records attest to the danger. A woman who can't say "no" to a nice stranger's unsolicited offer to escort her to her car at night, even though she doesn't like him, may wind up filing reports of assault, rape, and attempted murder. This is not to blame the victim, rather to point out how charming that charm can be and how carefully we need to pay attention to the differences.

So, what does a person do? How do you tell the difference?

When I teach Verbal First Aid to emergency workers, a communication protocol used to facilitate healing in traumatic situations, I ask them what they think their most important tool is. Inevitably the hands go up: the defibrillator, the oxygen tank, the Jaws of Life.

I tell them: No. Your most important and most healing instrument is you.

What makes them -- or any of us -- healing is at least in part what makes us good: the ability to develop rapport, our integrity and compassion, our benevolent presence and support. To be healing (or good) one must respect the patient (or person) before him and do what is necessary, even if it is not "nice" to deal with the disease or the injury. Part of what is necessary in Verbal First Aid, of course, is dealing with the patient honestly and with a gentle, but firm authority. Manipulating and healing are mutually exclusive.

The Bible defines goodness for us as "an inherent rightness of being." It never ever mentions niceness. It never equates it with beauty or talent. It never, ever mistakes it for showmanship. (Moses himself had a lisp and timidly refused his mandate by God to lead the Jews out of Egypt.) If anything, it warns us from the very beginning to beware of pretense.

We can start to tell the difference by remembering that there is a difference.

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