"Playing nice": Defensiveness may not be pleasant, but does it always need to be vilified?
Have you been there? Someone starts off being "nice", and then, when they don't get their way, suddenly everything turns horrible. It can be a real relationship red flag, partly because being on the receiving end once is unpleasant, and experiencing it more than that can really damage your sense of self worth, and also while you might be able to support someone through the causes, it can sometimes take professional intervention to make a difference.
I digress for a moment just to talk about "professional help" - because we sometimes think - it's ok, I can manage. It's not just that the professional will have more skills and techniques to try - after all, they have made it their business to learn them, but the safe and confidential space, as well as being able to spend the full duration of their time focused specifically on the person being supported are luxuries that not everyone can afford day-to-day...so see professionals as a potential service rather than a threat.
When "nice" is just an act
All behaviour, whether we recognise it or not, and whether our actions are consciously driven or not stems from intention. If we are intending to be “nice”, this will persist no matter what response our initial approach receives. However, “nice” can also be a strategy – and a very effective one, in order to achieve other goals such as a date, or even more...as such it can be a behaviour someone learns to use to satiate their real intention eg: getting a date, or a favour or whatever need they want met.
Goffman’s “Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” published in the late 50s explores how we have a public persona and a private one. The more authentic we are, the more connected and similar each is – although in public we may choose to display different facets compared to what we reveal in private. However, Goffman acknowledges (and this was expanded on by Hochschild in the 80s) that emotional management can be utilised in order to create or meet external expectations. For example, if you are applying for a job as a care professional then displaying a caring demeanour is more likely to secure you a second interview. Unfortunately, if this display is not natural to you, you can only maintain it for a short period of time.
Why pretend to be "nice"?
Unfortunately, this type of play-acting, especially when it can be sustained for long periods of time, can be what narcissists use when beginning the long game of gaslighting or co-ercive control. What is particularly pertinent in such cases is that often they do not seek out a “victim type”, it is often not a “weak woman/other” they pursue. While there may be the “challenge” in bringing down a strong person, what research has found is that many strong women easily verbalise what they are looking for in a partner – giving the skilled con-artist (because that’s what they are, even unconsciously), the playbook for what will attract her attention.
If someone seems “too good to be true” – they usually are. There are wonderful people in the world, but we all have faults and foibles – and often we can work then through – but if something is just too smooth in the early stages, perhaps be a little more alert.
Another aspect of gaslighting is exactly the sort of behaviour that on the one hand behaves badly towards someone – but then immediately projects it onto the other eg: “You made me do it.” (And often people who engage in gaslighting have narcissistic tendencies). In a gaslighting relationship projection also has the effect of damaging the recipient’s self-esteem as well as being a self-protecting, defensive mechanism against accepting that they (the “perpetrator”) have done anything wrong. People with narcissistic tendencies will often behave defensively to protect damaging their ego.
“Emotional neglect”/Difficulty in managing painful emotions
HOWEVER, an exchange where someone has "turned" does not always mean the person who displays such behaviour cannot change. Sometimes, it can simply be that they do not know how to manage “big emotions” – for example, they want to ask someone out and so they do it in a way they have “learned”, but when they are knocked back they struggle to manage and emotions come out in anger.
Another interpretation is a lack of emotional intelligence – the ability to
- recognise emotions and respond appropriately (in one’s own conduct as well as dealings with others)
- express and manage ones emotions in an effective manner
- handle interactive relationships effectively
However, in these cases, because defensiveness may have been a learned behaviour - with support, a consistent and safe environment (ie. where a slip up is not met with derision or rebuke) and hard work, it is very possible to change. But again, this is where the help of a professional can be of great impact.
If it's a red flag too far and you want to get out of that relationship pool:
1. Keep your own dealings polite – it is worth remembering that (even if they can change) they may not be at the position to think about their behaviour reasonably, therefore trying to educate is likely to leave you feeling more frustrated, and kicking back rudely means they have gained that emotional control over you. Berne in “The Games People Play” talks about interactions and mind-games, of which this type of behaviour can be one, and says that the winner of every mind game is the person who remains “adult” rather than succumbing to the level the game draws down to.
2. Cut off contact/block them on socials – ask yourself do you really want the drama? If they are not in a position to learn (and even if they are) – what do you gain from giving them your valuable time and energy? If you find yourself always being drawn back, reflect for a moment on yourself and see if you can work out what need you are meeting through continuing an unhealthy and unnecessary interaction. If you are concerned with harassment or other line-crossing behaviours, take screenshots and report them to the appropriate body.
3. Think twice before placing yourself in a vulnerable position by “naming and shaming”, …just be mindful that if someone behaves so aggressively in their words, all you really know of them is that they have struggles with managing the expression of their emotions.
4. Then – on a more preventative basis – practice self-compassion, and knowing and appreciating your value so that you don’t feel you need to engage with people who prove themselves not to be worth your efforts. This might include spending time with people who make you feel good, with whom you can be authentic, who bring joy, warmth and support to your life – and in many ways, by doing so, you are also more acutely aware of the type of people you want to attract and retain in your life, and "playing nice" just may not fit!
Let us not forget that "Nice is different to good."
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the practical "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; or her Radio Show "The Wellbeing Lounge", and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt