Understanding Mean-Sweet Cycles With Narcissists & Psychopaths

One phrase regarding toxic relationship dynamics that has become more popular in recent times is that of so called “mean-sweet” or “nice-nasty” cycles that many people report when caught up with toxic personality types like psychopaths and narcissists. But what exactly is this pattern, how does it play out and how we extract ourselves from it?

Mean-Sweet cycles refer to a very common and predictable pattern of behavior, where a psychopath or narcissist will alternate between very kind and seemingly considerate behavior to very nasty, abusive and demeaning behavior.

The main motive of this behavior is to further confuse and wear down the victim psychologically, though thankfully becoming aware of this cycle of abuse can significantly loosen it’s hold over us. With narcissists especially, it can also not be on purpose and simply be due to a narcissist’s fluctuating moods due to their intense emotional dysregulation.

This is what we will look to do in this article. We will give as comprehensive as possible a coverage of the topic of mean sweet cycles, including examples of this pattern of abuse, the motivations behind it, as well as some excellent resources to help victims spot and more quickly disengage from relationships where this abusive pattern seems to be emerging.

Examples of Mean-Sweet Cycles in Action

Here are some specific examples of how these mean-sweet cycles can play out in real life relationships with psychopaths and narcissists.

Intimate relationships – In an intimate relationship, a psychopathic or narcissistic partner will alternate between nice, complimentary, charming behavior and either cold, aloof, invalidating or outright abusive behavior.

  • Alternating between criticizing and complimenting your clothing and appearance.
  • Alternating between warm, charming and affectionate behavior and cold, distancing, aloof and rejecting behavior hour to hour, or day to day.
  • Alternating between encouraging you (or showing interest in) in hobbies, projects and new pursuits/vocations, and then devaluing, criticising and putting them down as “stupid” or “useless”.
  • Especially watch out for the “It’ll never go anywhere” message regarding new projects you undertake. Psychopaths and narcissists cannot grow or change and like to stop the growth of others as well.
  • Alternating between being seemingly kind, receptive and validating in one-on-one scenarios, to being cruel and humiliating in group scenarios, embarrassing you in social settings every chance they get.
  • On the “mean” side of the cycle as well, watch out for peculiarly insensitive and untactful behavior. The sort of behavior or comments that leave you thinking “Why would they say/do that? I’m really confused”.
  • Also watch for an increase in the intensity of these patterns as a toxic relationship deepens. In other words, the “sweet” side will seem sweeter, but the “mean” side will also get progressively meaner and more invalidating. They want to strengthen the toxic bond that is being built.

Friendships – For friendships, many of the points above can also apply, but also watch out for a very specific pattern which can emerge from so called “friends” who are narcissists or psychopaths.

It goes something like this: the narcissist may come round one day and be really open, talkative, receptive and interested in everything you have to say. A great rapport builds. “This is great fun”, you may think to yourself. You meet up with them the next day, expecting the same dynamic, but this time they are cold, withdrawn, apathetic and completely disinterested in anything you have to say.

They have flipped 180 and you can’t get anything out of them, despite your best efforts. “What happened since yesterday?”, you think to yourself. This pattern continues to repeat and isn’t a one off you can put down to “moodyness” or another excuse.

Work scenarios – A psychopathic or narcissistic work colleague or manager will insult or demean you one moment (or day), then revert to really sweet, kind and complimentary behavior the next. They will paint you out to be useless and incompetent one day, then praise your sterling efforts the next. They will include you in group banter one day, and do all they can to ostracize and isolate you the next. They will give you the “silent treatment” for one shift, and then be super-friendly the next (or one variant of this I’ve experienced is for a toxic manager to give silent treatment for 99% of an entire shift, and then suddenly start being friendly again the last 5-10 minutes).

Again you will often be left confused – “Where do I stand with this person?”

Mean Sweet Cycles & Psychopathic Bonding

“Almost every day, people who join our forum, they say ‘why did I stay in this (toxic relationship) for so long? How could I have been so stupid?’

The way that emotional abuse works is that it targets our most vulnerable human emotions in a way that – unless you’re aware what’s happening when you’re in the cycles of it – all it does is make a more and more intense bond ”

Jackson Mackenzie – see here.

Another way to look at this phenomenon is to see it as a way of trauma bonding you to the psychopath or narcissist.

When done repeatedly, this alternating pattern of mean-sweet behavior often has the effect of creating a toxic but powerful bond between you and the person in question, where you know on some level there is a problem there but are still in some way drawn or attached to them.

Psychopaths and narcissists know full well this is the case, and use the nice-nasty dynamic to lock their victims into toxic relationships psychologically. Victims often report they can’t leave the person even though they know intellectually they are toxic. Onlookers are often amazed at why this person continues to stay with the psychopath or narcissist.

The reason for this is the strength of the toxic bond that has been built, which is intensified by the mean-sweet cycles, which also have the effect of wearing down the victim’s boundaries and self esteem, leaving them increasingly confused and vulnerable as the emotional abuse often intensifies.

By continuing to withdraw from the person, whilst also throwing occasional psychological “breadcrumbs” of approval their way, the psychopath slowly gets the person “hooked” on their approval, becoming ever more dependent on the slightest signs of warmth and affection from the psychopath or narcissist for any sense of self worth and self esteem.

They then have their victim completely under their control psychologically, which is exactly what they were aiming for all along.

Alternative Interpretation Of Mean-Sweet Cycles

It should also be said that sometimes this back and forth behavior arguably isn’t always deliberate, especially with narcissistic personality types. I would personally attribute the deliberate part of mean-sweet cycles more to psychopaths/sociopaths, who do often have a desire to break a person down mentally over time.

However, for narcissists, it’s more a function of their own oscillating moods and emotional dysregulation. That they can sometimes be “flying high” and super sweet, and other times low on supply and therefore feeling a need to reach out and hurt others to inflate themselves.

For more on this particular take, check out this recent video from Richard Grannon – “why the narcissist must abuse you”.

It goes into this oscillating aspect of the narcissist’s stormy, barren, tempestuous inner world. When their own toxic inner introjects are not operating, that’s when they can seem nice, sweet, fun to be around. But sooner or later these inner voices fire up again, that’s when the mean side comes, where they feel the need to distract and project from this by attacking and belittling others.

Therefore with narcissists especially, this mean-sweet cycle might not be so much a deliberate attempt to break you down, but simply them being them – a toxic, chaotic, deeply dysregulated mess that needs to attack others to ward off this inner chaos they can never fully escape from (see here for more on how this disordered and split personality type is created).

The Long Term Effects of These Patterns

It should go without saying that the long term effects of victims who are caught up in this dynamic of abuse tend not to be very good for the person.

Here are some commonly reported effects of those caught up in mean-sweet cycles with psychopaths and narcissists:

Lowered self esteem – As we mentioned above, these patterns of abuse are slowly ramped up by the psychopath or narcissist over time, as they gradually withdraw more and more over time in a way that leaves the victim more and more dependent on their approval for any sense of self worth.

Personality disordered people using the lure of intermittent rewards and lack of awareness of the victim of the cycles of these abusive patterns as they are happening to gradually exert more and more control over them psychologically. Their self esteem becomes precariously dependent on whatever “breadcrumbs” of approval the toxic person chooses to throw them.

Weakened boundaries and self respect – As these mean-sweet cycles intensify, the victim will find in their confusion they are tolerating ever more outrageous and unacceptable behavior from the psychopath or narcissist. Their standards of what is considered acceptable treatment by others have been gradually chipped  away at by the toxic abuse that they will tolerate being treated in a way they would never have stood for before they met this person.

Confusion and Self Doubt – These patterns of abuse over time will leave the victim very confused and constantly doubting themselves in a way they never used to do before this relationship, or to a much larger extent than they have ever done before. They will start second guessing themselves in a way they haven’t done before.

Anxiety and Rumination – As these mean-sweet cycles escalate, they can start to generate significant anxiety in the victim, as they can sense on some level that something isn’t right here, yet the “sweet” side continues to fool them into making excuses for the psychopath or narcissist.

Rumination will also increase as the person starts to keep mentally going over unpleasant interactions on the “mean” side, trying to find an explanation for this confusing and contradictory behavior. Sleep patterns and general quality of life start to suffer. You start to get more in your head and less in the present moment. You stop enjoying life.

Rationalizing and Justifying – you’ll find yourself trying to make excuses for their toxic behavior – trying to see only the “nice” side of the cycle, rationalizing toxic behaviors away, harping back to the good times, and so on. You stay stuck in the toxicity and have your boundaries and self esteem further eroded over time.

“The mean-sweet, back-forth pattern is the hallmark of abuse. It’s two sides of the same coin. It repeats endlessly until you stop playing the game and get out”

Key take away point from the video – The nice/nasty, the mean/sweet, are not two separate things; they’re one whole thing, and that’s the cycle of abuse. See it this way and the confusion and rationalization often lifts.

Why Do Psychopaths & Narcissists Engage in Abusive Cycles?

“Our default understanding of humanity is gonna be that everybody has some good in them. The research that Dr Robert Hare and Dr Martha Stout have done have really turned that around to say that 4% of human beings don’t have a conscience, they have no remorse for their behavior, and they actually look for opportunities to cause harm to others”

Jackson Mackenzie – see here.

Another common question that will come up for victims of psychopathic bonding and mean-sweet patterns of abuse is simply why? Why do psychopaths and narcissists engage in this behavior? What is the point to it?

There are a number of different motives for this behavior. Here are some different ways to look of the “why” of mean-sweet cycles of abuse.

Toxic Bonding – As we have already covered, this pattern of abuse tends to create a very intense and difficult to break psychological bond between the abuser and the victim. It locks them into the relationships and makes it more difficult to leave. The psychopath or narcissist then has you under their control.

Identity Erosion – Engaging in mean-sweet cycles of abuse also has the effect of creating confusion, anxiety and distress in the victim, and of eroding their boundaries so they will continue to tolerate increasingly unacceptable behavior as long as the perpetrator throws in enough “breadcrumbs” of approval and kindness to keep the victim hooked.

Over time, this erosion of boundaries will also make the victim start to doubt themselves and their own perception – leaving them more and more open to the classic psychopathic and narcissistic abuse pattern of gas-lighting or invalidation of perception.

The abuser will alternate between mean and sweet behavior and then try and convince you that’s not what it happening and it’s all in your head. You will increasingly start to doubt yourself and start to think you are “losing it”.

Entertainment – Another way of looking at all forms of psychological abuse from psychopaths and narcissists is simply that they enjoy toying with people and wearing them down psychologically, as twisted as this will seem to normal people with conscience, morality and empathy.

Toxic personality types lack these qualities, and instead tend to be very callous and sadistic individuals, taking pleasure in manipulating and wearing others down. They enjoy to see other people unhappy, cooly observing with an amused detachment as your distress levels increase as they ramp up the mean-sweet patterns of abuse.

Dealing With Abusive Cycles of Abuse

The first essential step in dealing with mean-sweet patterns of abuse is to fully understand and come to terms with true nature of the people who engage in them. In other words, you need to understanding what you are dealing with and what you are up against with psychopaths and narcissists.

Let’s break this down into three logical steps:

  1. Psychopaths and narcissists cannot and will not ever change their behaviour; these disordered personality types have proven completely immune to any attempts to reform or change them over time. They simply don’t improve their behaviors.
  2. Psychopaths and narcissists are incapable of valuing people as human beings, but merely see them as objects to be manipulated and used for their own ends. They do not and cannot value you as a person.
  3. Unfortunately, not all people are basically good at the core, as nice as this would be if it were true. Some people exist who are just bad people and are completely resistant to any kind of growth or change. This is why we put the blockquote in from Jackson Mackenzie above – it is a crucial insight we must all have at some point to move on from toxic relationships.

It is really important to grind these insights around toxic personality types into your sensibilities, since one major thing that is likely holding this toxic bond in place is a belief you still hold deep down that all people are basically good and all it’s common variants (they basically mean well, they were just “off” that day, they’re really good to me sometimes, etc).

Get rid of this nice but (unfortunately) false belief, and come to the uncomfortable realization that some people in this world are simply bad, toxic people, and it becomes far easier to detach from toxic relationships where you seen these mean-sweet cycles playing out.

Once you understand the fundamental nature of the psychopathic and narcissistic personalities, it becomes far easier to make the healthier choice of simply disengaging and detaching from these people as quickly as possible, realizing they will never change and any attempts to confront or expose them are also usually a waste of time.

Sometimes it may be useful to confront such people once you are well up to speed with understanding the dynamics of emotional abuse, simply to see if the reaction you get is predictable and follows the common patterns of abuse.

If they respond with gas-lighting, word salad nonsense and extreme projection of responsibility back onto you, this can act as a confirmation of what you already suspect about them – they are likely a toxic, personality disordered individual.

If you leave the conversation more confused and anxious than when you started and with the blame seemingly put on you for words which have come out of their mouth, then this is a huge red flag you are with a toxic, emotionally abusive person, and it is time to seriously think about exiting the relationship as soon as possible.

Look For Clarity & Consistency in Relationships

My own personal opinion on this is to detach quickly from any relationships where these patterns are becoming evident.

Of course some people may choose to confront and force change in the relationship but in my experience (and that of so many others) this is a complete waste of time with the narcissistic and psychopathic personalities, which are known to be completely resistant to any kind of growth or change over time.

Trying to make these people change their abusive behavior is a total waste of energy, since this change will never come and often just toxically bonds you to the narcissist or psychopath even more, as they draw you into yet more back and forth nonsense drama, pinning the blame on you for the conflict as usual.

Ask yourself the simple question “Who needs this nonsense in any relationship?“. The answer should be clear.

Genuine, authentic people do not leave you with confusion, anxiety, ruminative thoughts and an otherwise uneasy feeling in relationships. If they enjoy your personality and company, they will make it clear and their message will be consistent over time.

There won’t be any of this “back and forth” nonsense, where they are kind one day and nasty the next. Harmonious and complimentary relationships are not characterized by confusion and anxiety; they are characterized by clarity, consistency and mutual respect.

A no nonsense approach to life, but one which will work, is to simply get rid of any close personal (and preferably work) relationships which don’t have these positive features in them.


Using my personal experience and research to educate others about narcissists and other pathological personality types

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