Beware of charisma mirrors

There are people who look much better than they actually are. They trick other people into admiring them for virtues that they do not actually possess. Sometimes they do this by using their charisma like a mirror. 

It works along these lines (I’m using ‘he’ here both for ease of reading and because this is *often* male-coded behavior, but there are also people who do this who aren’t men):

  • Charisma Man is a bad leader. He talks a lot about important causes, but doesn’t do any effective work on them. 
  • Mostly, Charisma Man insults all the leaders who are doing serious work on those causes for not having fixed it yet.
  • Idealistic people see that the problem hasn’t been solved yet, and assume that it’s because the other leaders don’t care as much as Charisma Man does.
  • They are sincere, and they think Charisma Man is too. 
  • They will tell everyone that Charisma Man is kind and wise and good.
  • None of this is actually true. There is wisdom and kindness and sincerity and goodness in the room, but it’s not coming from Charisma Man, it’s coming from his followers. 
  • When they look at Charisma Man, they see their own good qualities reflected back, and then give him credit for them.
  • Charisma Man is wielding his charisma like a mirror in order to stop people from noticing what he is actually like. 
  • People don’t notice all the ways that Charisma Man is failing at leadership because they’re seeing their own reflected goodness instead.
  • They also don’t notice all the ways that they are good and competent and valuable because they are attributing everything good they notice to Charisma Man.

If you are admiring a leader in an unbounded way and losing sight of your own worth, you might be looking at a charisma mirror rather than reality. It’s worth asking yourself: 

  • What does this leader do that I think is admirable? 
  • Do they actually do those things?
  • Is it unusual to do those things? Who else does them?
  • How is this leader helping others to be effective?
  • How is this leader valuing other people’s work?
  • When there is kindness and wisdom and sincerity in the room, where is it coming from? Is it from the leader, the followers, or both?

If a leader is making you feel like the only valuable thing you can do is follow them, sometimes is seriously wrong. Everyone, including you, has their own good qualities and their own contributions to make. Good leaders don’t want you to depend on them for your own sense of self worth, and they don’t want you to see them as the only person with something to offer. Good leaders don’t want unbounded admiration from their followers; good leaders collaborate and show respect for other people’s strengths. 

Keeping your touchy-feely off others.

“I’m a touchy-feely person.”

Some people say this a lot. Some of them are really, really scary and dangerous people.

Sometimes what people mean by this is “I’m the kind of person who is allowed to touch and feel people, and I don’t have to consider whether it is welcome”.

Sometimes this is physical. Sometimes it means people feel entitled to hugs. Or to stroke someone’s hand or hair. Or they think routine interpersonal touch is a basic necessity, and that the mainstream-expected physical boundaries are bad, and that they can make things better by unilaterally violating them and touching people.

Sometimes it’s emotional. Sometimes it means that they want to be an intimate part of people’s emotional experience. Sometimes it means they unilaterally share personal things, and act as though that creates a reciprocal obligation. Or they think that our society is too emotionally closed off, and by unilaterally imposing an intimate emotional tone to their interactions, they are making things better.

Sometimes people who do this think that people who don’t like this are just repressed. Or, worse, sometimes they think that people who don’t like this don’t actually exist, and that everyone likes it, deep down. That’s really dangerous, especially when people do this to people they have power over. (Which is really, really common, especially with people who work with children, especially with people who work with non-verbal children.)

It’s really important to interact with the person you’re actually with. You can’t do this by constructing an imaginary person you see as the Real Them, and by acting as though they want what the Real Them would want. You have to interact with the actual person, and respect their actual communication. Which means, if they don’t want you touching and feeling them, physically or emotionally, you need to take that seriously and back off.

Intimacy is a beautiful and important thing, but forced fake touchy-feely intimacy is a horrible thing.

If you want to be touchy-feely, touch and feel people who want that from you, and keep your hands and emotional feelers off others.