It’s Narcissist Friday!
I have maintained that narcissism is learned behavior. I realize that some people want it to be classified as a mental illness because that would both answer some questions and excuse the cruelties. But very few professionals would say that it is anything other than a way of handling relationships learned by a child through times of trauma and reinforced by many small successes. The adult narcissist does what he or she does because of choice. The choice may have become so habitual that no other choice seems possible, but it is choice nonetheless.
Recently an interesting support for my position presented itself. Olivia Cabane has written a book called, “The Charisma Myth.” Her thesis is that charisma, that ability to charm others and get your way, is not so much a gift as a way of dealing with people, and that way of dealing with people can be learned. In fact, her book teaches how to have charisma.
When I read the descriptions of the book and what it promises to teach, I realized that these were things the narcissist learned as a child. Read the following overview that appeared on lifehacker.com.
In the chapter “The Charismatic Behaviors” you’ll learn that there are three keys to being charismatic: you need to be present in the moment when engaging with others; you need to give off warmth by implying goodwill toward others; and you need to appear powerful by coming across as someone capable of affecting the world around you.
In the chapter “Overcoming the Obstacles” you’ll learn how to find the right mindset for becoming charismatic by handling discomfort, neutralizing negative thoughts by recognizing them instead of suppressing them, and alleviating your anxiety by rewriting reality in your mind to better suit you.
In the chapter “Charismatic First Impressions” you’ll learn how quickly someone sizes you up, that people really like people that like them, how to dress to impress, how to give the perfect handshake when meeting for the first time, and how to make a graceful exit with a lasting impression.
In the chapter “Charismatic Body Language” you’ll learn the importance of “how” something is said versus “what” was said, how body language can be an “emotional contagion” that infects people around you, how to effectively mirror someone’s body language and mannerisms, how to use personal space to your advantage, the power of charismatic posture, and how to use eye contact without being a creep.
Many people have told me how the narcissist was so charming in the beginning of the relationship and continues to charm his/her way into the hearts of others. The narcissist listens, cares, makes eye contact, and connects with people. Some suggest that there are two different people in the heart of the narcissist: one gracious and kind and the other cruel and uncaring. But the truth may simply be that the narcissist learned what works in a world like ours.
Pick the above descriptions apart a little. “The important of ‘how’ something is said versus ‘what’ was said.” “Rewriting reality to better suit you.” “Give off warmth by implying goodwill toward others.” “How to make a graceful exit with a lasting impression.” The more I read these chapter descriptions, the more I believe this is what the narcissist does almost as second nature. Learned as a child and honed throughout life, these are the skills that puzzle those of us who have gotten to know narcissists.
Notice the general sense of falsity. You can learn to “appear powerful,” to imply goodwill, to “mirror” others, to “use” eye contact. All of this is for a purpose, to influence the impression others have of you. As I have said in the past, this is the “super-power” of the narcissist: to manipulate what others think about him/her.
Here’s the Amazon description:
What if charisma could be taught?
For the first time, science and technology have taken charisma apart, figured it out and turned it into an applied science: In controlled laboratory experiments, researchers could raise or lower people’s level of charisma as if they were turning a dial.
What you’ll find here is practical magic: unique knowledge, drawn from a variety of sciences, revealing what charisma really is and how it works. You’ll get both the insights and the techniques you need to apply this knowledge. The world will become your lab, and every person you meet, a chance to experiment.
The Charisma Myth is a mix of fun stories, sound science, and practical tools. Cabane takes a hard scientific approach to a heretofore mystical topic, covering what charisma actually is, how it is learned, what its side effects are, and how to handle them.
“The world will become your lab, and every person you meet, a chance to experiment.” Wow! If that is not a description of the thinking of the narcissist toward relationships, I don’t know what is. We have puzzled for a long time about how the narcissist can invest so much in a relationship just to walk away, or how he/she can so easily jump from one relationship to another. We have wondered why no one seems to see what we see. We have wondered how the narcissist can be so successful in deceiving so many people. Perhaps it is because of skills learned and nurtured over the years.
My point in bringing this to your attention is to show that the skills the narcissist uses so well are learned skills, chosen because, from some strange perspective, they work. Narcissism is almost certainly not a mental illness. The narcissist became who he is because that’s what he chose—and he remains accountable for his actions because he doesn’t have to continue to choose those things. Narcissism is a lifestyle of fear and control, combined with an insatiable need for approval and admiration. The successful narcissist has learned how to cover fear (perhaps by “rewriting reality”) and manipulate people into meeting his needs. That which has been learned can be unlearned.
(A quick note: I don’t know this author and I haven’t read the book. The blurbs were enough for me to understand the thesis. I have nothing against the book, nor even the idea that a person can learn ways to present themselves that move the hearts of others. It does concern me that the book seems to suggest it is acceptable, even good, to manipulate others in this way without any real sense of compassion toward them. However, that may be only the take of the reviewers. I hope so. If you do buy the book, let me know what you think of it.)