Signs of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals a Lack of Confidence

Here is a post many people have found useful. This version has been updated since its publication in 2010:

Dr. Gerald Stein

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Insecure people often reveal their self-doubt without being aware of it. Indeed, a wise observer can “read” another individual. For example, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have told me they can tell whether a new conductor is competent and talented within 10 minutes of the beginning of their first rehearsal with him.

What follows is a short list of behaviors that suggest insecurity:

  • 1. Are you able to give a compliment? Even more important, can you graciously accept one? The latter behavior tends to be difficult for someone who is unsure of himself. He might blush or become flustered. Alternatively, he is prone to dismiss the validity of the praise, instead telling you why it isn’t true. What should one do if complimented? Smile and say “Thank you.” Nothing more.
  • 2. An inability to maintain eye contact is hard for many individuals who lack confidence. They will turn away…

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“I’m Still So in Love:” Why We Must Give Up the Ghost

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Some patients haunt your memory.

I recall treating a teenager who had lost her father suddenly.  It had actually been many years since he died, but she remained cut-off from the world and her family.

Friends were kept at a distance, her mother was pushed away, and her stepfather was never permitted to come close to her, try us he might.

Never ever.

Her mother and mom’s second husband worried about her self-isolation, so they brought her in to see me.

As the treatment progressed, I discovered that this young woman thought about her father a lot.

Every day.

She would review the memories that she still retained of his kindness and warmth.

Of course, I’d never met him, but I got the sense that she had idealized him — fashioned her memory so as to make him a vision of perfection that no flesh and blood mortal can hope to achieve.

And the recollected reproduction of her father, almost like a ghost, remained the most intimate connection of her life.

Not just historically, but even while I was treating her.

In fact, sometimes she would talk to him; one way, naturally, since she was not psychotic. And that provided her with a kind of closeness that was the best she could do to recreate the comfort that her dad had provided when this young woman was little.

As the protagonist states in Robert Anderson’s play I Never Sang For My Father, sometimes “death ends a life, but not a relationship.”

The people — the real people who reached out to my patient — found her unresponsive. They could not compare — could not compete — with the vanished flawlessness of her dad; an excellence that, after all, probably never existed in the first place, however dedicated and fine a man he might have been.

Moreover, her “relationship” with her father was safe: the dead cannot die on you; or reject you; or move away. They are utterly reliable and totally benign, unlike the rest of us.

As most of us do, my patient had been trying to protect herself from the injuries that life delivers from without, but left unguarded those equally tender places that are open to the wounds that come from within.

When a child loses a parent early on, she often loses the surviving parent, as well.

No, not to death, but to grief. Having lost a spouse, the surviving despondent parent (more often than not) is unavailable to aid the children. She is too bereft herself to be able to be the life-giving, supportive, attentive, omnipresent presence that children sometimes need a parent to be.

Worst of all, it is precisely at this time of loss that the child needs the surviving parent most desperately. And, it is at precisely this time that the remaining parent is least available and least capable of giving what he or she might wish to give, if only he or she could.

The result is a double-loss: one dead parent and another who is, for a time at least, a dead man walking, the half-alive state that we all know from the shock and privation and emptiness of a broken heart; a heart that one cannot imagine will ever heal.

It is no one’s fault, certainly not that of the grieving adult. Rather, this is just one of those dreadful ironies of the human condition: in the moment of loss and for some time after, the now-single parent has no capacity to do what must be done.

But the child needs that impossible thing, all the same.

Once I came to understand that my patient was still in a relationship with her father, her therapeutic needs became clear.

She needed to grieve the loss of her father to a satisfactory conclusion — a grieving that had been prevented by her fear of bringing up her own loss with her mother as much as her mother’s inability to console her child.

She needed to realize that she had put her life on hold by clinging to a ghost who, of course, could only provide so much warmth.

She needed to open herself to a stepfather who longed to engage her, even if he could not be the plaster saint her father had become; and the peers who were ready to provide their own rewards, even if they could not replace her dad.

The therapy worked out well.

My patient did not so much lose her relationship to her deceased father as let him go to a different place in her memory and in her heart.

It helped for her to answer the question, “What would your father want for you if only he could tell you?” Because the only answer he would have given (and she knew this) was that the beloved father of her dreams would want the best for her; and for her to reattach to life and to the people who could give her something that he could not.

After all, he was dead.

And so, she said goodbye to him. At last, she let him die.

So that, finally, she could live.

The photo above is of ectoplasmic mist at Union Cemetary, CT on 10/29/2004 by 2112guy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Of Grasshoppers and Ants: When Winter Comes

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It is an age-old dilemma and an age-old story. Spend or save? Play or work?

Aesop told it in the tale of The Ant and the Grasshopper. The grasshopper sings the summer away while the ant works to store food for the cold months. When winter comes, the grasshopper is out of luck.

There are numerous different versions of this story, but I’ve always wondered about one particular, very human variation. What happens when two people, close friends or lovers, both are engaged in a life style that only one can afford?

The woman, a high-powered executive with a salary to match, can afford to live the way she does; expensive meals, nice trips, Broadway musicals and the like. The man has the same tastes as his lady friend and enjoys indulging them no less, but isn’t a big-time earner. His is a “live for today” attitude, and let tomorrow take care of itself.

Finally, though, the man has a reversal of fortune; perhaps he loses his job. Or, let’s say that he must retire. Both remain healthy and active, but the small amount of savings in the man’s account are mostly gone, spent on all those dinners and trips,  the wine and the laughter that accompanied the good times. The woman still wants to live in the same old way: not counting the pennies. The male is largely dependent on his severance and unemployment benefits in one scenario; or his modest Social Security and retirement checks, if he is a bit older.

What happens now?

A few different possibilities:

1. The woman adjusts her life style and learns to live in a new way, still spending the same amount of free time with the man; the man, too, realizes he cannot live as before and finds less expensive ways of having a good time. Travel is severely curtailed. Lavish restaurant meals are now just memories. They accept the new financial terms dictated by his financial status and still enjoy the relationship.

1a. Both parties try to live with less expense, but it doesn’t work for them. The man believes that the woman could support some approximation of the previous level of entertainment and luxury if only she wished to. The woman regrets the need to set aside “fun,” even if it is in an effort to maintain the relationship. Each one feels the strain.

2. The woman decides that she still wants to live in the old way and is willing to pay for her friend to accompany her. Some amount of “hostile dependency” is inevitable, with the man feeling resentment that he has lost “standing” in the relationship. Meanwhile, the woman matches his resentment with a sense that her lover is not sufficiently grateful for her generosity.

3. In the final scenario the woman decides she wants to live as before, but she doesn’t intend to pay for her friend’s expenses all the time. So she leaves him behind with some frequency, going to expensive dinners with female friends, going on trips alone or with others who can pay their own way. She does not want to mortgage her economic future to indulge her friend.

Of course, this path risks its own tensions. The man is angry at being left behind and the financial strain of trying to keep up with his companion to the extent that he can. The woman resents his resentment, because she is paying for more than before, even if not for everything.

The lovers are spending less time together now and therefore might have more opportunity to meet someone else of the opposite sex with whom these difficulties would not be present. Temptation exists where none existed before.

Now, I imagine that you might have one of several responses. “Too bad,” would probably be one, a shame that they have had this reversal in fortune that has changed the relationship.

On the other hand, some of you might blame him for being the “grasshopper,” not saving for the winter. Others could find the woman to be selfish and self-involved if she chooses either the second or the third “solution;” not willing to be more generous toward the man whom she says that she loves.

In my experience, it would be relatively rare for two people used to a certain, somewhat extravagant way of living to adjust to a more modest life style, when such an adjustment is a necessity for only one of them. Indeed, in the present example, one can fairly assume that shared interests in elegant dining, good seats at sporting events, and travel were among the elements that attracted one to the other and bound them together.

In the end, we outsiders often think that the proper solutions to — let’s face it — non-life-threatening problems such as these are obvious and should be easy to enact.

But when you are in the middle of the thing itself, it often isn’t as easy as it looks from the grandstand.

If only this couple could realize their good fortune in having each other, friends and family, and their good health (Solution #1), as well as the relative unimportance of living in a grand fashion…

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There is a famous 1819 painting by Francisco de Goya, La Riña. It shows two men attempting to beat each other, stuck in muck and mire. Nothing too remarkable in that.

But what is stunning about the composition is how it contrasts the brutality of the antagonists with the staggering beauty of the landscape they inhabit. Just as in the case of the hypothetical man and woman I’ve described, who (unless they can comfortably arrive at the first solution) will live in some unnecessary measure of tension and unhappiness, these men too do not see the beauty around them, or do not value it highly enough.

And so the consolation of what the lovers still have together — those things about their relationship that are free of any cost — are dismissed, just as the beauty and wonder of nature are ignored by these men, sacrificed to their resentments.

Sound familiar?

The first above image is The Ant and the Grasshopper, from Aesop’s Fables, a 1919 illustration by Milo Winter from Project Gutenberg, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second is the Goya painting I described, which resides in the Prado, with the same source.

On the Elusiveness of Vindication (and How Special It is When It Happens)

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I suspect there is hardly anyone among us who has not hoped that the person who broke our heart would come back to us, see the light, apologize, and say:

You know what? I was wrong. I didn’t give you a chance. I should have. You deserved better treatment than you received from me. It was unfair of me to blame you as I did, not to see how good you are.  I hope that you will forgive me and we can start over.

Vindication can take a number of forms. It might involve being reinstated to a position you lost unfairly, being exonerated of a crime you were alleged to have (or convicted of having) committed, receiving a belated medal for acts of courage performed in combat, or having a parent apologize for abusive or neglectful mistreatment.

There is only one problem.

When the injury is great, these things almost never happen. Or, if they do, they come much too late. Think about the occasional news story that documents the exoneration of someone who had been wrongly imprisoned after years behind bars, now finally permitted to return to civilian life. Or the long-denied medal for heroic service to one’s country in an almost forgotten war, awarded to a man now aged or perhaps deceased, and therefore only a posthumous recipient of the honor.

Perhaps even rarer is the parent who apologizes for child abuse. First, such people rarely acknowledge the extent of what they have done. And, to the degree that there is any recognition or admission of  mistreatment of their child, it is nearly always minimized on the one hand, and justified on the other; justified, usually by the child’s alleged misbehavior or provocation.

By the time the parents in question are senior citizens, the fog of time and self-deception has clouded and distorted their memory. Moreover, were they to admit (even to themselves) what they had done, they would almost certainly be shattered and humbled by that self-awareness; and left with the fact that there would be no way to make up for the lost time and the pain they inflicted – not enough of a future available to redeem the sorry state of the past and remove the stain on their conscience.

Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that they do not admit their errors even when confronted – in effect cannot do so psychologically without jeopardizing their ability to live with any measure of equanimity.

My wife likes to say that her favorite punishment for such people would be one minute of self-awareness. Unfortunately, they are the least likely among us to achieve this kind of insight.

A useful book to read on the subject is Frauen by Alison Owings. Owings interviewed numerous German women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. She observed the extent to which self-deception, rationalization, and denial were present as they looked back upon what they claimed they knew or witnessed (or didn’t know), and what they did or didn’t do in response to the mistreatment and murder of their Jewish neighbors by the Nazis.

Beyond the individual level, even nations have a problem admitting that wrong has been done in their name. Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide of the twentieth century’s second decade, while Austria and France have historically skirted their participation in the Holocaust, preferring to be considered co-victims with other sufferers of Germany’s misdeeds.

And, it was not until 1988, that the United States formally apologized for the 1942 forced internment of Pacific Coast residents of the USA, solely because they were of Japanese decent, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of those people, 62% were US citizens.

While none of what I’ve described thus far permits a very optimistic take on human nature, I do want to relate one very beautiful story I heard from a former patient on this subject. It stands out because it demonstrates that obtaining personal vindication does happen every so often, and can produce any enormously healing experience for both parties involved. I’ve changed the circumstances of the story to disguise the identity of my patient, but I think you will get the idea.

The young woman in question was a high school volley ball player, a member of the school’s team. She was a junior and had played, usually as a starter, for most of the season. Her coach was a young woman as well, that is to say, a relatively new teacher, just shortly out of training.

Toward the end of the season, the student’s mother was to receive a special award from her workplace. Mom and dad both wanted their daughter to be at the dinner honoring the mom, and the young athlete wanted to be there as well. Unfortunately, the award ceremony conflicted with an important game for her team. She explained in advance to her coach that she would not be able to play in that game, but the coach was furious. Thereafter the coach repaid her absence by keeping her on the bench for most of the remainder of the season and treating her with disdain.

Although she liked volleyball, my future patient chose not to try-out for the team as a senior, expecting either to fail to make the roster chosen by the same coach; or, if permitted to be on the team, anticipating the same sort of mistreatment from her for another year. And so, the athlete’s high school athletic career ended prematurely.

This turn of events did not, however, destroy her love for the game. She continued to play in various park district leagues for many years. But the memory of being humiliated by the coach did not go away, nor of the lost senior year of competition that she might otherwise have enjoyed, playing a game she loved.

Perhaps 10 years after the incidents I’ve described, this woman was now my patient. And one day she told me that just the day before she had found herself in another volley ball contest against a new team. And, wouldn’t you know it, she saw that one of the opposing players was her old coach, now in her early to mid-thirties.

My patient recognized the coach, but hoped the recognition was not mutual. As the game progressed they soon enough were face-to-face across the net from each other. The coach said “hello,” calling her by name, and my patient replied in kind. Perhaps, she thought, that would be the end of their interaction.

At the end of the game, however, the coach came over to my patient. She asked if she could speak with her privately. They moved away from the other volleyball players to a place where they would not be overheard.

What the young woman’s ex-coach said went something like this:

I’ve thought about you for many years. I realize that what I did to you was very unfair. I took your decision not to play that game too personally. Of course, there was nothing wrong with your attending a dinner recognizing your mother. Who wouldn’t have? I was very young, but I should have known better than to treat you as badly as I did. I have felt guilty for years that I caused you pain and that I made it almost impossible for you to even think of trying-out for the senior team. I have been hoping to run into you all this time, so that I could say this. I’m so sorry.

As my patient related this story to me she was in tears, enormously touched by what the coach had said. The coach had given her closure for a painful part of her history and had done it with grace, courage, and integrity; taking full responsibility for injuring my patient. In so doing, I suspect the coach found relief too, because her former charge was an enormously likeable, decent, and forgiving person.

Everyone here was a winner.

As I said, the tale stands out for me because this kind of ending occurs so rarely. I suspect many of us have been the victims of similar hurts.

But, perhaps more importantly, some of us have probably inflicted comparable injuries on others.

Sometimes its worth reflecting on that — on one’s own failures and mistreatment of others.

You just might discover that like the coach, there is still an opportunity to put things right.

Of course, that is up to you.

The image above is Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Growing Apart in Marriage

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In the black and white world of “absolutes,” life decisions are easy and obvious. But life as it is actually lived becomes a good deal more complex and muddy.

Here is an example:

Take a middle-aged man and wife, both approaching 50. They married young for many of the same reasons that other people do: physical attraction, the fun and good times of first love, and religious faith.

He had been groomed to work hard, build businesses, and accumulate wealth. She had been raised to refinement, home making, and the raising of children. Although both were college graduates, neither saw education at the time as more than the expected and required thing to do.

They both succeeded at their appointed tasks. He was often absent, working late to achieve and maintain the commercial success that he won. She had the major responsibility for raising the children and keeping the home a beautiful and congenial place in which to live.

Time passed. As the children left the home, she turned increasingly to her religious community for companionship and to the comfort provided by her faith, the one which he professed only nominally. She attended less to her physical well-being and gained weight. She was satisfied with her life, fulfilled and sustained by her belief in God and a like-minded group of co-religionists. This woman believed her relationship to her husband was satisfactory in terms that were typical of a long-married couple with grown children.

The man, on the other hand, became more interested in philanthropy and involved himself in charitable projects in which the wife was uninterested, simultaneously turned-off by the religious focus of his wife; indeed, by now he had become sceptical of organized religion, if not agnostic in his outlook. And, in the free time that his success afforded him, he worked-out and kept fit. As well as discovering a passion for history, philosophy, and science, he read voraciously for pleasure. The world of ideas had captured him.

The wife would encourage her husband to pray with her and to attend bible study groups, but his study of the history of religion made him doubt the authority of the documents that his wife accepted as the foundation of her world view. She was calmed by the certainty of her belief in God, while he had become a sceptic.

For her part, the increasing “intellectuality” of her husband and his decision to return to school for occasional classes left her untroubled, but unable to connect with his newly developed interests. His efforts to engage his wife in conversation about the things that he found intensely exciting found her indifferent, unable even to feign curiosity. That was simply not who she was.

And so they grew apart, although her life remained satisfactory to her, since she was not looking for the intellectual interaction that her husband wanted; or sex, for that matter, although she dutifully complied with his desire to continue a physical relationship with her. Other than the children and  the practical matters that occupy business partners or roommates, there wasn’t much depth of communication, and certainly no meeting of minds.

The woman did not sense the extent of her partner’s disaffection, his feeling of emptiness, or experience these feelings herself. She was close to the children while he had only business associates, no close friends. Nor was he one to talk about his feelings with her easily, so that his wife’s lack of intuition left her unaware of his loneliness and his desire to engage with someone who stimulated him in every sense.

Indeed, intensity was not what his wife wanted, not in bed, not in the world of ideas, not in thoughtful conversation about his feelings. When he did try to achieve these things with her, he was left even more disappointed than before.

Still attractive to women, with a strong personality, good looks, and the status conferred by money and power, he was tempted by younger, more admiring females who offered a sense of engagement that his wife seemed not to value. Still, the ethic of responsibility with which he was raised gave him pause, and he experienced a feeling of anticipatory guilt as he thought about the prospect of being unfaithful.

Whether this man acted on the temptation for an extra-marital affair or sought a divorce is not something I’d like to address quite yet. First, I want to raise some basic questions about relationships and responsibility:

1. Should this couple stay married for what might be another 40 or more years?

2. Is it possible that the idea of fidelity — the promise of a lifetime of faithfulness — made more sense when lives were shorter than they are today? The average lifespan of 50 at the turn of the 20th century has now been extended, at least in this country, to the mid-70s for men, and even longer for women.

3. How much should we be held accountable for a decision (to marry) made at a relatively early age that does not — cannot — fully anticipate the unpredictability of changes in personality, behavior, and beliefs that may occur in any life?

4. To what degree should one member of a marital couple sacrifice his or her happiness so that the other member remains satisfied and content?

So what happened?

The female was not interested in marital therapy (although she did give it a half-hearted effort), instead believing that it was her husband’s lack of religious faith that should be the target of intervention, and that only if he was properly devoted to God would he be relieved of his troubles. He eventually did have affairs, but when his wife found out he saw what injury he had done to her, felt guilty, and renounced infidelity (and the divorce he also contemplated) going forward.

The husband attempted to accept his wife’s limited interests in the things that stoked his imagination. In his mind he had already hurt her enough and therefore could not demand more.

This woman was now, once again, contented in her life, if ever mindful of her husband’s potential for further betrayal, of which she did not hesitate to remind him. The couple stayed in their rural suburban community away from the stimulus of the city that he craved, partly as his penance for harming her, and partly (she hoped) to keep him away from temptation. He did not again pursue other women or respond to their attempts to entice him.

Later, as his involvement in the world of business began to wind down he suffered a diminished and unsatisfactory life, relieved only by the self-stimulation of reading, his increased closeness to the children he had left for his wife to raise while he pursued the bread-winner role, the grandchildren who received the best of him (as his children had not), and the joy that came with being an active part of their small lives.

Most of us know at least one old friend, someone we hardly ever see anymore, with whom we somehow remain close. “We pick up wherever we left off, even though we haven’t seen each other in years,” or so we say in such situations. But we also know the experience of growing apart from a person we might even see fairly often.

In the first instance we have taken different routes in life, lived away from each other, but wound up in the same psychological, intellectual, and emotional place. In the second example, even though our external paths have not differed very much, our internal compasses led in different directions. We may be close by, but we are no longer close.

The relationship problems exemplified by the couple that I’ve described grew out of the divergence of these two human personalities as time passed. It would be easy to see one partner as evil and one as good, but I hope that it is clear that this situation was more complicated than that. The husband was not cruel. He did not wish to harm his wife and, in the end, was clearly leading the less happy life of the pair.

He had sought fulfillment by pursuing other women, at least temporarily. But did not his wife pursue her own self-interest, as well? It included a kind of marriage between herself and an institution of faith — the church and the people who made it up. That it did not involve sexual infidelity, however, does not mean that it had no effect on her husband. Indeed, he craved an intellectual, emotional, and physical exhilaration that his wife found unnecessary to her well-being.

It could be argued that in ultimately choosing fidelity to his wife, forsaking the kind of betrayal he had visited upon her earlier, the man had betrayed himself and the possibility of a satisfying companionship for himself ever after.

Life does not always easily correspond to neat categories of right and wrong, good and evil. Even the Ten Commandments are not seen as absolute by most Christians and Jews, at least those who justify killing in wartime or self-defense, or accept the State’s right to perform capital punishment.

Sometimes people who once matched well, change. Sometimes you can do nothing wrong and get an unfortunate result. Sometimes the choices that partners make prohibit mutual satisfaction because of who they are, not because one is good and one is bad. A relationship that works for both parties today may not continue to work indefinitely.

It is a bit unsettling to look at life this way.

But that is the way it looks from here.

The image above is American Gothic by Grant Wood, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Violence and Intimacy

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Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, but one can do the most violence to another when one is close to that person. Physically close. Pinching, punching, pushing, plucking, picking, pulverizing — actions that can only be done at close quarters, the victim is pilloried and punished. Perhaps then, it is no wonder that human kind can be uncomfortable with and afraid of intimacy.

When physical vulnerability is compounded with the psychological, we tend to be even more careful. Those who are close to us know just where to strike, where the soft and breakable parts are; and they are just in reach.

I watched a History Channel feature the other night on The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The point was made that while the Thompson submachine gun was a useful weapon for killing at a distance, many of the most important gangland assassinations were done with a pistol, while holding or grabbing the victim, or pulling him close to make certain that he couldn’t reach for his own weapon. Intimacy again — the closeness that made injury possible, more certain, more lethal.

Remember Delilah of the famous bible story that featured Samson? Again, intimacy, this time of a sexual nature, allowed her to rob Samson of his strength by having his enemies cut his long hair while he slept.

When you were a kid, do you remember an aunt or uncle or grandparent who would hold you close and then pinch (and shake) your cheek between thumb and forefinger? It was alleged to be an act of affection, but whenever it was done to me, I couldn’t quite understand how something that hurt that much was supposed to show love.

I’m sure you know the origin of the handshake — an ancient custom designed to display the fact that you do not have a weapon in your hand with which to do injury at close range.

And, in the “you always hurt the one you love” department, we should not forget that “crimes of passion” account for many of the violent deaths in this country. That is, we are harming those we know, not strangers, in fits of intense emotion and impulsivity.

How does this relate to therapy? In part, because the therapeutic relationship is a somewhat one-sided intimacy. The patient makes himself vulnerable to the doctor, displays his wounds and expresses his emotions, trusting that his secrets and feelings will be safeguarded, treated with kindness and respect, and definitely not used against him. Therapists need to keep this in mind, lest they re-traumatize the person, injuring him in a way that is similar to the very torment that he came to therapy to heal.

Although a counselor’s power can hardly be considered “great,” it is considerable when it comes to his patients. Psychologists would do well to remember the quote from the movie Spider-man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The moral of the story? Allowing one self to become close and vulnerable to another person opens the door to the best and worst that life can offer. It is therefore of great import to choose a friend, a lover, or a therapist with care.

As the Knight Templar told Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when the explorer had to pick out the Holy Grail from an assortment of old cups, “choose wisely.”

The above image is William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1850 painting Dante and Virgil in Hell sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Give Me Presence! The Magic of Charisma

No, the third word in the title isn’t a misspelling. I do mean “presence,” not presents.

Just wanted to get your attention.

According to the online “wiktionary,” the word presence can be defined as “a quality of poise and effectiveness that enables a performer to achieve a close relationship with his audience.” It goes on to give an example: “Despite being less than five foot, she filled up the theater with her stage presence.”

It is that almost indefinable quality about which I am writing. An ineffable “something” about a person which draws us to him, focuses our attention, grabs us so that we are “taken” by him to the point of being more easily influenced, touched, or otherwise affected. The kind of characteristic that people refer to when they say that they can’t take their eyes off of someone or are mesmerized by his voice.

It tends to be a thing that one either has or doesn’t have, not a talent that is easily taught or self-created.

Wilhelm Furtwängler had it. Furtwängler was best known as a German symphony and opera conductor who lived from 1886 to 1954. He was a physically unattractive man (see photo above): tall, bald, and socially awkward. Yet remarkable stories are told about him, and his recordings of the great German composers (e.g Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert) are riveting.

The long time timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, Furtwängler’s orchestra, recalled a rehearsal at which they were led by a guest conductor. Werner Thärichen, the timpanist, was waiting for his part in the composition and simply following along in the musical score, turning pages as he did so. Then, suddenly, he noticed that the tonal quality of the sound changed dramatically; that is, the intensity, expressiveness, and beauty of sound abruptly increased.

Startled, he looked up.

Furtwängler had simply walked into the hall in order to observe the rehearsal. His physical presence alone, even in the absence of a look or gesture, was enough to alter the way that the musicians played and evoke a different aural characteristic.

Surely you have known people like this. They have big personalities and a magnetism that is hard to resist. It is said by those who have spoken face-to-face with Bill Clinton, even by some of his detractors, that when he talks to you his gaze makes you feel as if you and you alone are the only thing that exists in his universe.

But “presence” is not always benign. Some people, without ever saying a word, have a physical bearing and facial expression that produces intimidation. Others can intimidate not by looking menacing, but by the combination of their intensity, seriousness, and apparent intellect.

One can try to change or soften one’s presence, but it can be difficult. It is said that the dramatic and exciting conductor Sir Georg Solti sometimes implored the members of his orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, to play in a softer, less aggressive way than they characteristically did for him. To his dismay, despite his words, the musicians were compelled to respond to his large, angular gestures and the urgent, kinetic quality of his being. Although they desired to achieve what he wanted, he evoked a different sound than that which he described on these occasions; the players were irresistibly carried along in a way that neither they nor he wanted.

Might you know someone whose basic good humor and shining presence makes you feel good when he enters a room? My youngest daughter, from an early age, would complain that “people are looking at me!” At first my wife and I worried about the possibility of an early developing paranoid state.

But then, we noticed something interesting.

People were looking at her. Carly had an animation and expressive vitality that drew the eyes of strangers and today, make her an excellent performing musician. She “owns” the stage and that quality was there, on its own, from the start.

Confidence and a lack of self-consciousness help to create a big personality, of course, but they are not absolutely essential.

No, this is something quite mysterious. You can be beautiful and not alluring, plain but engaging, unwise but compelling; you can have the right answers to which no one listens; or be a charismatic leader with the wrong answers — indeed, disastrous plans that can sweep a whole nation along with you to its doom. Any time we worship at the altar of charisma we are at risk.

Even so, it is better for each of us to have a strong presence than not and best to know how we are perceived by others and whether we are producing an unwanted impression.

Still, most of us don’t want to be the guy who, when he is in a crowd, makes the crowd stand out. Having some impact is usually better than having none.

But, as relationship consumers, each of us needs to be sure that the person we are with is not simply a great “presence,” but that he has something substantial to offer.

Be careful.

We are all drawn to the sound of the “sizzle” of a steak on a grill, even without the steak actually being there.

Unfortunately, the sizzle without the steak doesn’t make much of a meal.

The top image is of Wilhelm Furtwängler. The bottom image is of Sir Georg Solti.