I was on a plane from Nashville to LA when social media exploded with the news that Donald Trump would more than likely be the next republican nominee.
After months of sneering dismissals and expensive but impotent attacks from Republicans fearful of his candidacy, Mr. Trump is now positioned to clinch the required number of delegates for the nomination by the last day of voting on June 7. Facing only a feeble challenge from Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, Mr. Trump is all but certain to roll into the Republican convention in July with the party establishment’s official but uneasy embrace.
This is something so few of us—myself included—thought would ever happen. I can remember back to when Trump first entered the presidential race, my predominant feeling—and the feeling of so many people around me—was, “this has to be a joke, right?” This will never happen… it can’t happen.”
Most of us believed it couldn’t.
So now that it is happening, it has me sitting here thinking about strong, dishonest, powerful, narcissistic, controlling, manipulative, and totally dangerous leaders and how they so often gain a following.
What is it that we find so compelling about narcissistic leaders?
Why are we attracted to them?
I’m of course not only talking about Trump here. I’m thinking about every fill-in-the-blank narcissistic leader in mainstream media or in our personal lives who has ever drawn us in with charisma and big promises and then let us down when we realize he wasn’t who he said he was.
Until we’ve learned this the hard way (and sometimes even after) it’s easy to be fooled by these big personalities. It happens to even the most well-intentioned of us. In fact, there’s a considerable amount of evidence showing you’re more likely to be duped by a narcissistic leader if you are kind, compassionate, empathetic, selfless and just generally well-meaning person.
Here’s what makes it so easy to get sucked into their whirlwind.
They’re incredibly convincing and charismatic
Some of the tell-tale signs of a narcissists include that they are charming, smart, intuitive, believable and great storytellers. This means that before we can even wonder if a narcissist is who he has presented himself to be, he’s already swept us off of our feet into the sweet little fantasy he is spinning for himself.
In his Harvard Business Review article, author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says:
Narcissists are masterful impression managers. Thanks largely to their intense self-obsession and self-adulation, narcissists excel at managing initial impressions… furthermore, narcissists’ desire to make a great initial impression enables them to disguise their arrogance as confidence…. unsurprisingly, narcissists perform well on interviews and they are excellent social networkers.
Narcissists get by on charm.
Some people reading will think, “uh… Trump isn’t that charming,” but remember: Trump isn’t that charming to you. He is charming to exactly who he means to be charming to. This, by the way, is another quality of a true narcissist. They know their audience and are unflinchingly committed to playing their role to that audience—a role that is about achieving the desired end of power and control.
Think of your best friend’s boyfriend who you think is a total dirt bag but who she thinks couldn’t possibly be more amazing.
That’s because you aren’t his audience. She is.
And unless he believes that winning your approval will somehow help him to gain the control and power he wants over her, he won’t try. In fact, he will probably find a way to isolate her from you, because when you resist a narcissist, or choose not to play into his drama, he will disown you. You are no longer useful to him.
They control the story
My friend Donald Miller teaches business owners how to tell a clearer story with their brands by getting ruthless about cutting anything that doesn’t matter. This is a concept I teach writers in my workshops, too: that decent writers know what to say, but brilliant writers know what NOT to say. The clearer a story is, the more people are going to be able to understand it and reiterate it and the greater power and following it gains.
Narcissistic leaders know this and use it to their advantage.
They’re incredibly good at controlling the story.
Skillful narcissists can be some of the greatest storytellers. The narcissist can weave a complex story and mesmerize you with amazing statistics, trivia, quotes, history of events, to the point that you could feel overwhelmed. Naturally, they would be the center of those stories, often re-writing history.
Obviously not everyone who is clear and controls their story is a narcissistic leader. But every narcissistic leader I’ve ever known has been impeccable at staying clear and controlling the story. In fact, most of the time they have little concern for whether or not the story they are telling is actually true—as long as it is clear and controlled.
Sometimes these leaders tell stories that don’t even make any sense, but they repeat them over and over again to us—enough times that we actually begin to believe them.
They capitalize on the power of group think.
Narcissists use their charm to win friends and gather groups of people around them who support their cause and play the role the narcissist asks of them. This not only strokes the narcissist’s tender ego, it also helps them validate the stories they are pitching about themselves to the world.
[Narcissists] are clever chameleons who are also people-pleasers, morphing into whatever personality suits them in situations with different types of people. It is no surprise, then, that the narcissist begins a smear campaign against you not too long after the discard phase, in order to paint you as the unstable one, and that this is usually successful with the narcissist’s support network which also tends to consist of other narcissists, people-pleasers, empaths, as well as people who are easily charmed.
This is one of the hardest parts about dealing with a narcissist, since there are always a good number of people who like them, even love them, and who feel threatened anytime you suggest this person might not be who he or she says he is.
Should you ever get the courage or self-confidence to defy a narcissist for any reason, they will use their gift of storytelling to spin the story (see above) to make you seem like the crazy one.
They will continue to build their empire, even if you aren’t in it.
They get you stuck in the abuse cycle
True narcissists employ a very specific and intentional three-part cycle to get you roped into the story they’re weaving without a way out.
The cycle has three parts.
First they idealize you—which often involves showering you with affection and compliments. This is sometimes called “love-bombing” because of how intense their affection can be; and how alluring it is. Then, they devalue you. In the devaluation phase, the narcissist subtly criticizes you, puts you down, demoralizes your efforts, and leads you to believe that you are nothing without his support. (source)
If that doesn’t work to secure your loyalty to him—or if you cause him any kind of ego injury—the narcissists discards you.
This, by the way, is one of the reasons it can feel so impossible to get out from under the grip of a narcissist—because deep in your gut, you intuit that, as soon as you betray the narcissist, you become the enemy. You become the object of the very same attacks you’ve watched the narcissistic leader launch onto others.
Which leads me to my next point.
They make us feel powerful.
One of the reasons it’s so easy to get roped in with a narcissist is they do make us feel safe and protected and, in a way, powerful.
Narcissists regularly rise to the top of workplace hierarchies owing to a unique ability to secure approval and admiration, two forms of recognition they need to survive in the way the rest of us need oxygen and water. Worse yet, narcissists are able to ascend to the upper echelons of organizations without revealing their true colors until they amass enough power to make it unnecessary to sustain their façade. Once a narcissist can say, “screw you” with impunity, he will use splitting to cut the legs out from under everyone he previously set-up to believe they were cared for.
As we watch a narcissist achieve ends we have dreamed of achieving but have never had the confidence to be able to actualize, we get this false sense that, if we only connect ourselves to this person, we might be able to achieve status, money, accolades, awards, and other markers he has.
It gives us a sense of value and power.
It’s false power, but it doesn’t always feel false.
The fact that Trump has made it this far in this presidential campaign tells me that a surprising number of people in this country feel powerless. Totally powerless. People who aren’t actually powerless feel powerless. And until we wake up one day and realize that we have more power than we ever dreamed possible and that with great power comes great responsibility, we will keep clinging to these strong, dangerous, narcissistic leaders.
They make us think they have something we don’t have.
Like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, narcissistic leaders are not necessarily more powerful or more intelligent than any of the rest of us. They are not God. They are just a tiny little dude behind a curtain. But they make a living and life convincing us they are more powerful than we are, and that we need the “thing” they are offering us.
But what is that “thing” exactly?
Can you name it?
The truth is—if we stop to think about it—they don’t have anything we don’t have. In fact, if anything, we have something they don’t.
People with narcissistic tendencies are drawn to such empathic, deeply feeling people and know that, on some level, they personally are lacking in emotional depth and substance. By being in a relationship with such a nurturing, loving person, the person with narcissism is able to consume that person’s authentic love and extract narcissistic supply. Once fed over the course of days, weeks, or months, the person with narcissism is satiated and may grow bored with his or her partner. He or she must secure the supply of another target, usually in short order.
We have to remember two things. First, just because narcissists think they have something we don’t doesn’t mean they do. And second, it is our fragile egos—our fear of failure, fears of inadequacy, etc—that are drawn to narcissistic leaders, not our true nature. Our true selves long for connection and compassion and human relationship: something narcissists are simply incapable to offer.
The danger of a true narcissist
It’s important to understand that while narcissists seem to be on top of the world when they’re at their best, when they’re true nature reveals itself, it is incredibly destructive. It ruins businesses and families and destroys relationships and lives.
The empire will fall. It’s not a matter of if, but when.
Do you want to be on that ship when it goes down?
One of the many dangerous tendencies of a narcissist is that he cannot control his propensity to rage. You might not notice this at first, but a true narcissist is addicted to the adrenaline rush he or she gets from acting angry.
It defends against his shame and powerfully controls his “other”.
At first their rage will be indirect, aimed at someone else. This demonstration of their power functions in such a way that it serves to intimidate and control others, including you. You are also likely to witness physical outbursts, like demonstratively putting their fists through a solid wall, breaking or throwing things, hurling abuse; and it won’t be too long after that when you will be on the receiving end of the violence. All of these tactics, along with their scathing criticism of you, are designed to erode your self-esteem, your confidence, and give them even more control over you.
The more fearful you become, the more they will rule by fear, it is as if their power is an aphrodisiac to them. As a result of the fear you will be subjected to, you will find yourself becoming highly vigilant, nervous and overly sensitive to every threat, walking on eggshells around your captor. The more insecure you become, the more powerful your narcissist becomes.
—The Three Faces of Evil, Christine Louis de Canonville
Did you catch that?
You will become highly vigilant, nervous and overly-sensitive. How ironic that you were first drawn to the narcissistic leader because he made you feel safe; but now that you’ve been in his grips, you feel more afraid than you’ve ever felt before?
This all leads me to the second very dangerous thing that happens when we follow narcissistic leaders which is that individual expression is lost. A man who gets swept up with a narcissistic woman in a romantic relationship will lose himself. His family and friends will say, “I don’t even recognize him anymore. Where did my son [brother, friend] go?”
You might wonder to yourself: what happened to me?
The person you once were seems to be a distant memory, just as Echo became a mere “whisper of herself” in the Myth of Narcissus, you too are becoming a mere shadow of your former self with each day that passes… In time you find yourself with nothing to say, you are becoming something you despise…Your sense of worth and esteem is so eroded that you begin to believe that nobody else would want you…Your only goal in life now is to fulfill your narcissist’s sense of entitlement, to live by their rules and laws, and keep your head down to avoid being punished at a whim.
With this loss of individual expression, we lose EVERYTHING. We lose passion, vitality, creativity, energy, innovation, and all the very things that make this world beautiful and life worth living.
Pay attention to where narcissists are in control and notice that there is no room for anyone to be anything other than what the narcissist needs them to be. They take up all the space, all the air in a room, so often those around them feel they can’t even breathe. The empire, the control, the false sense of power—they might seem appealing in their own strange way.
But it is a house of cards that will come tumbling down.
Unfollowing a narcissistic leader
I need to be careful not to oversimplify this because breaking free from a narcissistic leader can be incredibly challenging. In fact, with a true sociopathic narcissist, getting out from under his or her grips might put you in actual danger.
But here are four things that come to mind:
Recognize the traits of narcissism—until we begin to recognize the traits of narcissism and get really honest about where and how they are playing a role in our culture and our lives, we won’t be able to escape from the narcissistic drama. Author Steven Burglas says in his Forbes article, “never delude yourself into believing the narcissist enjoys your company. He wants you to feel “special” so if he needs you, you’ll respond like Pavlov’s dogs.” I would say this is one of the first steps to unfollowing a narcissist: getting honest about how he really feels about you and what is actually happening.
Deal with your own feelings of powerlessness—getting honest about the traits of narcissism, of course, can’t happen if we aren’t also willing to confront our own feelings of powerlessness, deserved or undeserved. The truth is most people who get sucked into a narcissist’s grasp because of feelings of powerlessness aren’t actually powerless. Some are. But many aren’t. A healthy person integrates his or her real limitations and inadequacies with their many strengths and in doing so is able to embrace the true power he or she has always had.
Understand the cycle of abuse—understanding the cycle of abuse and how it works will help you see how you were implicated into the narcissist’s grips, and therefore how you can get out. This doesn’t promise to be easy. You will face consequences. But the consequences of staying are much, much greater. Also, if the thought of leaving feels impossible remember that if you don’t leave, they will eventually leave you.
No contact—Because of the cognitive dissonance that occurs when you’re in a relationship with narcissist (what’s truth becomes fiction), the only way to get back to reality is to do what licensed therapist Andrea Schneider calls going “full no contact” with the narcissistic leader. This means unfollowing on social media, un-friending on Facebook, and cutting off any and all other contact with this person.
Finally, you need a strong support system filled with people who are honest, authentic, good listeners and who see true power for what it is—something we find inside of ourselves when we stop trying to compete and perform and learn to love, serve, receive, connect and forgive.
- Why We Love Narcissists, Harvard Business Review
- Five Articles on Narcissism and Narcissistic Abuse, Psych Central
- The Dark Side of Charisma, Harvard Business Review
- Five Things to Do Today When in A Relationship With A Narcissist, Psych Central
- The Three Faces of Evil, Christine Louise de Canonville