The “Nice Person” who isn’t: Shadow Identity Syndrome
Who are those people who are performatively nice, but secretly awful?
We’ve all experienced this, haven’t we: you make a new friend and they are so impossibly nice. They’re kind, friendly and helpful to everyone you meet; from the cashiers to your cousins. And then, inexplicably, they turn out to be terrible, terrible people.
Maybe they slept with your wife. Maybe they cheated on you. Maybe they manipulated you into securing them funding, or getting them into that club or paying for that trip. But you’re left sitting there gaping at their impossible double life; the nice person you trusted completely, and this weird, guiltless stranger completely indifferent to your distress. I’ve had a couple of “FriEnDs” like this over the years, and it wasn’t until last week I finally sussed this out.
I give you:
Shadow Identity Syndrome
This is someone who has a completely detached perception of themselves in relation to how they behave. In their heads, the performative good they do (charity, being a fun dad, being a doting boyfriend) outweighs any bad (shadow) hidden elements of their behaviour (cheating, stealing, lying, manipulation, drug abuse, violence).
Not only are they rigidly attached to their identity as good people, but they reflect their shadows onto you to distance themselves mentally from being “bad”. If they cheated on you, it’s not because they were unfaithful, it’s because you made it too hard for them to break up with you. If they stole your car, it’s not because they are a thief, it’s because you were cruel in not agreeing to lend it in an emergency. If they lied to you to keep you on side, it’s not because they are manipulative, it’s because they had to do it in a difficult situation. If they embezzled $200,000 to fund their own lifestyle, they aren’t corrupt, you were just selfish for not seeing their wider vision.
There is nothing that cannot somehow be made to be your fault in their eyes. They don’t experience guilt as having done something that hurts you: they experience guilt as a challenge to their identity as good people. If you stop seeing them the way they need to be seen, you’re a challenge to be avoided.
Isn’t that just NPD?
I’d argue no. It’s very gendered. Men with abandonment issues in childhood often develop (or are diagnosed with) Narcissistic Personality Disorder: an inflated or grandiose sense of self worth, an inability to accept criticism and a concept of superiority to other people. I’d argue that SIS is a subgroup of that; the narcissism is far more fragile and has to be consistently supported with an intense denial of wrongdoing. To identify bad behaviours or darkness in themselves is to have a colossal crisis of identity.
I’ll give you an example;
I met ‘John’ after he had failed to run as an MP. John was almost impossibly kind and empathetic to everyone he met. But not only could he fail to see any reason why his (mediocre and limited) campaign had failed beyond the bigotry and flaws of others, it snowballed into ending his entire marriage because his wife, now a good £120,000 poorer, was very skeptical of his chances to win again.
You read that right; he ended his marriage and even decided to validate his resulting affairs just because his wife didn’t believe (validly) in his grandiose self image. Despite repeated questioning over many months, he could find absolutely nothing wrong in his behaviour towards her that might have made her develop the list of flaws he presented me with (cold, moody, unloving, angry, a bad mother, bitter). He had to be perfect in his head. She was the problem. Even the concept that he wasn’t flawless was an impossible offence.
And I see this a lot- a lot- in PR: men with extremely strong belief in themselves and very little substance. This, combined with extremely fragile egos, can be combustible. What I had kindly labelled as “optimism” in their outcomes isn’t: it is just an almost delusional inflation of self importance and their own moral worth.
I think women, to a lesser extent, also can have SIS: particularly charity women and socialites. They’re quite happy posing next to wide eyed orphans but the very idea that they are wrong for expecting someone else to pay for dinner, hotels and drinks is an enormous affront. This often comes out as parasitic behaviour; using lovesick men to fund their lifestyles and successful people to bolster their standing. That isn’t to say they aren’t similarly guilty of a delusional belief in their own saccharine brand of goodness, but there is nearly always some flicker of insecurity behind the mask:
I was friends with a beautiful blonde girl at college and we went to MUN together. She was dazzlingly clever, sweet and kind, and made a huge song and dance out of listening to other women’s problems and displaying a copious amount of kindness and warmth. But, like a switch, that turned off one night at the beach. She ordered yet another €18 cocktail and smiled expectantly at another girl in our group. “Um,” said the girl, “I can’t really pay for all the drinks again actually.” Blondie’s face dropped and her lips thinned. “Are you suggesting I’m scrounging off you?” She hissed, grabbing her bag and flinging twenty euros on the table. “You’re so nasty. You all are. I’ve tried to be nice but you’re all so obsessed with finding problems with me.” Baffled, we watched her storm off to ignore us for the next two days. You’d have thought we had done something incredibly bitchy to warrant a reaction like that.
Is it narcissism if it is so fragile? That’s why I think we need to start talking about a variable disorder. The sense of the perceived self and the real self is older than Jung but we don’t really address it beyond people who suffer extreme manias. That’s kind of why shadow identity people are so frightening; the reality is so abrupt and so striking it rocks your own trust in others.
So how to handle SIS people? Honestly, I’d just avoid them. It is infuriating to be the sponge for their own frustrations, insecurities and flaws. If you have to work with them, or you have to live with them; remember they function entirely on ego. Compliment them constantly and avoid doing anything that they could inadvertently take as criticism. Because wow, does that explode.