Narcissists are fiercely calculating and capable of vicious manipulation that nonnarcissists, or “nons,” would never dream of let alone act on. It takes someone intimately familiar with a narcissist to understand the extraordinary harm they are capable of on a day-to-day basis. Even those closest to the narcissist—her spouse and children—are typically so loyal, so entangled in her emotional barbed wire, and so disbelieving that someone supposed to love them is capable of such cruelty that they have difficulty recognizing and acknowledging the abuse that defines their lives.
As someone with a personality disorder, the narcissist suffers from problems that shape his beliefs and behavior in extremely distorted ways, making him profoundly self-centered. Narcissism is characterized by a lack of empathy and ruthless self-promotion. And yet there are times when the narcissist is nice.
When the Narcissist Is Nice: False Versus Genuine?
So where does “nice” fit into the picture of the narcissist?
Those close to the narcissist are well-versed in her wide range of controlling tactics. Narcissists are notorious for idealizing a love interest, “golden child,” or even friend, charming and drawing them in with excessive displays of admiration and attentiveness, prematurely shared intimacies, and grand promises. The idealization phase typically turns to devaluation once the narcissist’s seduction succeeds or if she finds a better source of “narcissistic supply.” Hoovering (drawing someone back in) old sources of supply, too, is often short-lived because the narcissist drops her veneer of charm once the person is back in the fold or is replaced by someone “better.”
But the truth is that although people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have a crippling mental condition, they are still people who in some cases experience moments of clarity that can include varying degrees of self-awareness and caring for others. Like the rest of us, narcissists exist on a personality continuum, ebbing and flowing through their lives. In his most secure, insightful moments, the narcissist may step beyond his defenses, see things outside of his immediate perspective, and attempt to genuinely reach out and/or make amends.
For example, the narcissist might, perhaps for the first time,
- tell her child she is proud of them;
- admit that she should have been less self-involved as a mother;
- admit to her spouse they were right about something they previously fought about;
- agree to family or marriage counseling;
- show spontaneous affection;
- express concern for a friend;
- acknowledge an adult child’s accomplishments or success; or
- tell her spouse that they are a good partner or parent.
To Trust or Not to Trust When the Narcissist Is Nice
That is the question!
The problem with the narcissist’s “nice” overtures is that they can be difficult, even impossible to discern from his manipulations. The recipients of a narcissist’s apparent kindness, particularly if they have known him for a while, will be rightfully confused by the turnabout. They will wonder if the gesture is sincere or yet another tactical maneuver to hoover them or otherwise set them up for further manipulation. The narcissist himself may not fully understand his own feelings or motives or how long they may last.
Accept the Good, with Healthy Skepticism
If the kindness feels real, the non should try to accept it at face value and feel good about that long-craved-for affirmation. It may be one of only a handful of moments or even the first of its kind in the relationship. But as a veteran of the narcissist’s abuse, the non also should remain skeptical of authentic lasting growth in the narcissist, something that at best will be very limited. Probably the safest response for the non is to neither reject the overture nor expect more of the same from the narcissist.
Maintain Your Boundaries
Perhaps most importantly, the non in the situation should not base conclusions or decisions upon what may be a fleeting opening. A spouse would be wise not to push the issue by pulling out a laundry list of complaints or suddenly confiding things long held in check. Similarly, the adult child of the narcissist may be tempted to resume or increase contact but should instead let the dust settle to consider the situation and see what happens next. The same goes for the ex or friend who is tempted to reconcile with the narcissist.
Julie L. Hall’s articles on narcissism regularly appear in The Huffington Post and PsychCentral.com. Read her complete collection on her blog The Narcissist Family Files. She is the author of a forthcoming memoir about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissistic family (read excerpts).