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.
Some apologies amount to someone asking for permission to keep doing something bad.
- These apologies generally shouldn’t be accepted.
- (But it can be really hard not to, because who want permission to do bad things tend to lash out when they don’t get it.)
- (If you have to accept a bad apology to protect yourself, it’s not your fault.)
- Moe: “I’m sorry, I know this is my privileged male opinion talking but…”
- Or, Moe: “I’m sorry, I know I’m kind of a creeper…” or “I’m sorry, I know I’m standing too close but…”
- At this point, Sarah may feel pressured to say “It’s ok.”
- If Sarah says, “Actually, it’s not ok. Please back off” or “Yes, you’re mansplaining, please knock it off”, Moe is likely to get angry.
- The thing is, it’s not ok, and Moe has no intention of stopping.
- Moe is just apologizing in order to feel ok about doing something he knows is wrong.
- Sam is a wheelchair user. He’s trying to get through a door.
- Mary sees him and decides that he needs help.
- Mary rushes to open the door. As she does so, she says “Oh, sorry, I know I’m supposed to ask first”, with an expectant pause.
- At this point, Sam may feel pressured to say “It’s ok”, even if the ‘help’ is unwanted and unhelpful.
- If Sam says, “Yes, you should have asked first. You’re in my way. Please move”, Mary is likely to get angry and say “I was just trying to help!”.
- In this situation, Mary wasn’t really apologizing. She was asking Sam to give her permission to do something she knows is wrong.
- Fake Apologizer: *does something they know the other person will object to*.
- Fake Apologizer: “Oh, I’m sorry. I know I’m doing The Bad Thing…” or “I guess you’re going to be mad if I…”
- Fake Apologizer: *expectant pause*
- The Target is then supposed to feel pressured to say something like “That’s ok”, or “I know you mean well”, or “You’re a good person, so it’s ok for you to do The Bad Thing.”
If the Target doesn’t respond by giving the Fake Apologizer permission/validation, the Fake Apologizer will often lash out. This sometimes escalates in stages, along the lines of:
- Fake Apologizer: I *said* I was sorry!
- Fake Apologizer: *expectant pause*
- The Target is then supposed to feel pressure to be grateful to the Fake Apologizer for apologizing, and then as a reward, give them permission to do The Bad Thing. (Or apologize for not letting them do The Bad Thing.)
- If the Target doesn’t respond in the way the Fake Apologizer wants, they will often escalate to intense personal insults, or even overt threats, eg:
- Fake Apologizer: I guess you’re just too bitter and broken inside to accept my good intentions. I hope you get the help you need. And/or:
- Fake Apologizer: Ok, fine. I’ll never try to do anything for you ever again. And/or
- Fake Apologizer: *storms off, and slams the door in a way that causes the person who refused their intrusive help to fall over*.
Short version: Sometimes what looks like an apology is really a manipulative demand for validation and permission to do something bad.
Therapists usually see themselves as facilitators rather than advice-givers or problem-solvers. They generally believe things like:
- “We never tell people what to do”
- “We create space to support them through figuring it out.”
- “We raise questions.”
- “We don’t give advice, we let them come up with solutions.”
Thing is: “raising questions” in practice amounts to expressing a lot of opinions. An opinion is still an opinion when it is phrased as a question. It’s *especially* still an opinion when it is phrased as a series of leading questions and pregnant pauses.
It matters what therapists of any kind believe about their clients; they can’t help very much without understanding what’s going on. That’s a reason why psychologists and other types of therapists spend years in school learning psychological theories and practical methods. One of the major ways in which therapists are sometimes able to help people is by having well-informed opinions and understanding things that others don’t.
It’s ok for therapists to have opinions — but they need to be well-informed, and they need to be able to modify them in response to new information. (Eg: Sometimes the patient knows something you don’t, sometimes there’s social or cultural context that changes the meaning, etc.)
I think that it is much easier to have a worthwhile opinion if you can admit to yourself and others that you have opinions and that your opinions affect other people.
Short version: Therapists tend to express their opinions to clients phrased as a series of questions. They think that this means they’re not expressing an opinion, but rather just asking and creating space for the client to think. It matters that this is not true. Therapists have opinions (and should have opinions), and being honest about that makes it much easier to learn new things and make your opinions needed. An opinion is still an opinion if you put a question mark at the end.
Sometimes, it’s very hard for people to acknowledge other people’s suffering.
It sometimes follows this kind of pattern (I picked arbitrary names to make it easier to read):
- Sam is suffering in some major way
- Otto finds this incredibly painful to witness
- Otto can’t fix the problem that is causing Sam pain
- Otto pressures Sam into reassuring him by pretending that he’s feeling ok and it’s not so bad
- This allows Otto to ignore what’s going on, and to not have to be upset about Sam’s pain anymore
- Sam’s situation gets worse, but Otto gets to feel better
It’s easy to fall into treating someone this way without realizing it, especially if you’re in a helping profession. If your identity is centered around being helpful to others, it can be very painful to acknowledge important things you can’t fix. It’s still really important to acknowledge them, because otherwise you end up hurting people. It’s really important to develop emotional coping skills to be able to acknowledge pain that you can’t fix.
If other people are doing this to you, it can sometimes be disorienting, especially when the people who do it are otherwise genuinely helpful. It’s really degrading when others pressure you to pretend to be ok so that they can feel better. Sometimes, this is hard to detect clearly. Sometimes, people are making it much better than it’s ever been — and you’re genuinely grateful for that — but at the same time, it’s still pretty awful, and they want you to convince them that everything is wonderful.
Most people experience both sides of this dynamic at some point in their life. Whichever side of it you’re on, it helps to remember that it’s a thing, and that it’s not ok. People shouldn’t pressure others to pretend they’re ok when they’re not.