The Downside of Genius

Brilliance has its costs. The smartest person in the room may be as insufferable as she is inspiring, and angst-ridden artists may introduce us to brave new ways of thinking.

Success Can Breed the Narcissism of "Tall Man Syndrome"

Too much intelligence, wealth, or good looks can invite narcissistic habits.

Tall man syndrome is my name for a pattern of male narcissism I have seen all too often in my clinical practice as a therapist who specializes in working with high level professional and business people.  I have learned from my clients that being extra-smart, extra-handsome, especially athletic or super-good in any way has its costs.  Success and respect from others, even on a small scale like within a high school or in a small town, can breed narcissistic habits.  Being taller than others, metaphorically or in inches, can invite a tendency to believe that "it's all about me," and "the rules don't apply to me." Whereas people prone to depression tend to get down on themselves, seeing yourself as too special, too entitled to special privileges, and too above everyone else in importance can be equally or more debilitating.  Being too high one yourself especiallly invites relationship and marriage problems.

Perhaps this phenomenon, which is often a downside of celebrity, wealth or power as well as of height, accounts for why the folks who look most attractive on the outside often turn out to have the most difficulties sustaining long-term love relationships. Beautiful women can turn out to be "high maintenance" drama queens.  Handsome men with muscular bodies, positions of power and charismatic personalities can turn out to be excessively ego-centric.

Why do so many who look so good turn out to engage in problematic behavior patterns?

Here's some background on how I learned about tall man syndrome.  

I am 5' 2". Short. When I bought furniture for my therapy office, I sat in many chairs and I chose the most comfortable one—for me, at least.

One day I had a slew of tall male clients in my therapy practice. By the third tall man I realized they all squirmed with discomfort in my small chairs. I had to add alternative seating for these handsome, fun, smart, high-powered, wealthy and extraordinarily self-centered fellows. 

I went out that evening to purchase a big brown leather armchair. As I tried sitting in the large chairs that are suitable for long-legged men, I sank into them like a little girl, my legs sticking out, dangling, too short to touch the floor. Seated uncomfortably, I wondered, "What else besides height might these handsome, financially successful fellows—all immensely likable—have in common?"

For starters, all of them had confidence that seemed sky high.

They exuded enthusiasm about whatever they were doing—great financial deals, athletic successes, winning marathons. Their excitement about their in fact legitimate accomplishments could dwarf the normal energies of everyday folk quite easily, so I could see how they felt more important than others in their family or friendship circle.

Yet give any of these fellows negative feedback and they tended to get surprisingly testy, even to their therapist. It's a good thing that, though small, I'm teflon.

Take a look at their marriages and they were disasters. Their wives were angry and depressed. They described themselves as, somewhere along the road to wifedom, having disappeared .

When I looked at the narcissists' their track records for monogamy I saw more disasters. They seemed to think that the rules for normal mortals didn't apply to them.

Their ability to listen to their wives' concerns—or, for that matter, to listen to what I would try to say though they were paying me top dollar per minute—was remarkably low.

Listen for what they would talk about and it was "Me, Me, Me" if the topic was something positive, and "You (the wife)..., you ..., you..." for anything critical. Yet for the most part they all were engagingly fun to talk with—or rather, to listen to, as monologue was more their habit than dialogue.

Can being tall breed narcissism?
Tall-man syndrome potential?
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Could there be any connection between height and the narcissism of these men?

The next morning when I brought my kids to preschool I noticed in one of the classrooms a very tall boy called Mike. Though his teacher insisted that Mike was the same age as the other children in his class, Mike towered over the other three-year-olds by multiple inches.

I watched, intrigued by Mike's interactions with his peers. When Mike spotted an enticing truck that another little boy was enjoying, he walked over, took the truck from its prior rider, and the smaller boy just turned to find something else to play with. No contest.

Later Mike wanted the book a little girl was reading. The little girl didn't utter a peep when Mike grabbed it from her. She looked up. Mike smiled likably. And the book was his.

I suddenly understood that my tall male clients had been at risk since they were youngsters of succumbing to a narcissistic life stance. Narcissism is a potential price of success when you are taller than, stronger than, more famous than, smarter than, more athletic than.... With height—or, for that matter, any important dimension in which a child becomes a standout—a child like Mike doesn't have to concern himself with the feelings or concerns of other kids.

With his confidence that all the world belonged to him, Mike could charm his peers well before any of them could stand up for themselves. No need to limit himself by social rules like no grabbing that applied to others. What's yours is mine.

It happened that I knew Mike's parents. At home as well, Prince Mike ruled. Neither parent stood up to him. He was their star, their special one. But they also often ignored Mike, being preoccupied with their own problems. Mike's Mom sometimes shared with Mike her heartaches, turning to him for solace that was, in my eyes, inappropriate. Mike needed to be her little boy, not the big man she needed him to be. When a young boy becomes too special, too much of his mother's Prince Charming, he develops into a man with narcissistic tendencies.

A word of caution. Fortunately, not all tall or otherwise highly successful boys become self-centered. I am the proud mother-in-law of two over-six-foot son-in-laws. Both are the kind of totally mature, generous, thoughtful, as well as highly successful, partners that my husband and I always hoped that our daughters would someday marry.

So what is tall-man syndrome?

It's my pet name for the narcissists I so much enjoy working with in my practice.  I love the challenge of working with "special" folks who feel above the rules and who have such a hard time taking into account others concerns.

Fortunately, in spite of the declarations in many internet articles that narcissists do not change in therapy, once these men, and their female equivalents, are motivated to grow up, many turn out to make great therapy clients.  Narcissists generally like doing things well.  They are used to being good, preferably the best, at what they do, so when they see that there's a way to become a better husband and even a better person, some decide to take on the challenge.

The motivation for growth usually comes initially from a spouse who has initiated a divorce. She's had it with not being heard.  She's fed up with being controlled by his anger which he pulls out when he wants to be sure he'll get his way. 

When a tall man syndrome husband sees that his wife is genuinely heading for the Exit door, the tall man typically is shocked. He suddenly looks down from the high white steed on which he has been riding. He attempts to listen to the little voices of folks by his feet, and especially to the voice of the little wife who is about to abandon him.  His emotional size collapses to small and helpless.

Once the impending departure of a wife pops the narcissistic bubble in which he has been living, a naricissist can go in either direction.  He may stomp out and look for someone else to dominate.  Or he may decide to learn how to stop arguing.  He may realize that how he's been behaving has been verbally abusive, and abuse of any kind is one of the most frequent causes of divorce.  He may even sign up for marriage advice so he can learn the skills for functioning as a collaborative, mature adult, especially if he is aware of how divorce impacts children, as many narcisisstic men do truly love and want the best for their kids.  

The next step is for such a man (or woman) to find a therapist or marriage education program that coaches how to listen to others, be responsive to others' concerns, and the other skills that sustain happy, healthy relationships.

Here's the happy ending of this posting.  The special men and women who have long operated in a narcissistic manner can change and grow.  In fact, they have potential to become royal human beings.  That's when they and also those who love them then become true winners. 

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Susan Heitler, PhD, a Harvard and NYU graduate and Denver clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two.  Dr. Heitler's most recent project is an interactive website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com, that teaches the skills for relationship success.

 

The Downside of Genius