What’s a Narcissist?

Does a nice narcissist exist?

If you’ve read enough of my articles or listened to my podcast, you know that I am a stickler for definitions. Narcissism has become a generic term for any type of abusive relationship, so let me start with definitions so that we can be on the same page.

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a cluster B personality disorder that involved a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. “Cluster B” symptoms include behaviors that are dramatic and exaggerated, emotional and intense, erratic and unpredictable. (Cluster A behaviors are eccentric, distrustful, and detached. Cluster C behaviors are anxious and fearful).

While few people actually meet the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (only 1 in 200 people have NPD), lots of people have narcissistic traits. In fact, in adolescence, they are so common that you can’t diagnose a teenager with NPD as most will grow out of it.

The difference between a trait and a personality is severity, frequency, and duration. Traits can come and go and may vary with the situation. Personality is fairly fixed. If the traits are persistent and cause problems, there might be a personality disorder. Here are the narcissistic traits:

Narcissistic Traits

  • feeling better than others, looking down on others (this may or may not be obvious to an observer)
  • attention seeking (this may be overt or covert)
  • engages in exploitative behavior to get needs met (this may be overtly manipulative or covert)
  • little to no empathy
  • can’t handle criticism (the ego is too fragile)
  • responds to a lack of attention and validation by becoming depressed or feeling empty
  • has a sense of entitlement
  • may envy others and feel that others envy them

There are lots of other behaviors commonly associated with narcissists, such as gaslighting (twisting facts to make someone doubt themselves), love bombing (being over the top with praise, gifts, and attention), devaluing people (using someone’s flaws against them to humiliate them), discarding people, and hoovering (sucking you back in).

Some other common traits are vengefulness (because they take things personally and can’t let a slight go unpunished), pushing boundaries, acting as if the rules don’t apply to them, and not speaking definitively (because they want to keep their options open).

Narcissists may also have others do their dirty work for them. It’s like abuse by proxy. If someone does them wrong (in their eyes), they may play the victim. Then their “saviors” swoop in and rescue them by attacking the “bad guy.”

Can A Narcissist Be Nice?

Narcissists can be quite charming. Their public persona can be generous, gregarious, and healthy, but behind closed doors, it can be toxic. Those closest to a narcissist can see a totally different person who can be so dark that they lose all sense of themselves.

Narcissism occurs on a spectrum. The toxic face is the one that is most associated with the word “narcissist,” as they don’t tend to change.

Most of the time, when a narcissist is nice, it’s a manipulation tactic. It’s covert narcissism. So, it is best to maintain healthy skepticism. Another time that you see the “nice” face is if you are only on superficial terms with the narcissist.

That said, in my experience, there are nice narcissists. They display the traits listed above, but instead of lashing out when they feel insecure, they turn inward and devalue themselves. They might cut off the person who made them feel bad, have suicidal thoughts, trash talk themselves, and feel depressed for a while. Then their desire for attention drives them back out. They put on a happy face and the cycle repeats itself all over again.

The Relationship with the Nice Narcissist

It’s possible to have a relationship with a nice narcissist, but it’s never going to be fulfilling because the narcissist doesn’t see you. It’s always going to be about his or her needs, desires, and adventures. There is no sharing of space or love. Your relationship will lack depth and meaning.

It’s more than just this person doesn’t have social skills or was brought up selfish. They won’t see you because they don’t care. And their partner or friend will always feel like second best, if they feel seen at all because their role is to pump up the narcissist. It’s simply transactional.

I’m an optimist. I believe everyone can change, but until the person with narcissistic traits heals the trauma that caused the problem and learns the skills to choose different behaviors, the unequal, unfulfilling relationship will continue. It may not be “toxic,” but it will be unfulfilling and one sided. And that’s not great for anyone.