Success Can Breed the Narcissism of "Tall Man Syndrome"

She's famous and gorgeous. He's got fame, wealth, status. Don't be fooled!

Posted Oct 27, 2011

Fame and celebrity, wealth, status, good looks and height all can be captivating. Being high up in any positive trait--smart, athletic, funny as well as physically tall or high in status—conveys empowerment.  Does being famous or exceptional in some way also mean that someone will be a good partner in love and life?  Maybe, and maybe not. If being outstanding leads to feeling above others, the person who looks so special may turn out to be a potent inducer of depression, anger and anxiety in partners.

Tall man syndrome is the name I have given to a pattern of behavior that I have seen all too often in my clinical practice. As a psychologist 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 outstanding in any way—including for women who are extra-attractive, wealthy, smart, or succtessful in their careers—can have bring risks.  Success and respect from others can breed narcissistic habits.

For sure, the correct word is can.  Many tall men are anything but narcissistic.  Our family has multiple very tall men all of whom are lovely, sensitive and mature.  Being above others in some way just  increases the risk—it for sure does not guarantee—narcissism.

What is narcissism?

Narcissism is a tendency to believe that it's all about me and therefore that what you say doesn't matter. Height and other specialness factors can lead someone to feel that he or she is above others in all ways. I am better than you, and I am generally right.  When your viewpoint differs from mine, what you say, think, or would like therefore must be wrong so I react to what you say with dismissal or disparagement.

Tall man syndrome occurs when someone who is larger (in having more money, more prestige, a larger voice, being a better athlete —not necessarily by being physically  tall) develops a belief that she or he is above the rules that everyone else is expected to follow.  Narcissists typically believe the rules don't apply to me.

While people prone to depression tend to feel negative about themselves, seeing yourself as too special, too entitled to special privileges, and too above everyone else can be debilitating in an opposite way.  Being too high on yourself  invites relationship and marriage problems.

Perhaps the tall man syndrome accounts for why the folks who look most physically attractive often turn out to have difficulties sustaining long-term love relationships. Beautiful women who have been successful at work and handsome men with muscular bodies, positions of power and charismatic personalities can turn out to be excessively egocentric.  They mistakenly feel more important than others, talk too much about themselves, and listen too little to others. It's all about me.

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 time the third tall man squirmed with discomfort in my small chairs, I realized that I had to add alternative seating for these tall, llhandsome, 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 tall, 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 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 made of teflon.

Take a look at their marriages: all disasters. Their wives were angry and depressed. Somewhere along the road to wifedom, they felt that they had disappeared.  Only their husband's viewpoints mattered.  Only his work mattered.  Their relationship was all about him.

When I looked at the narcissists' their track records for monogamy I saw more disasters. Tall men syndrome fellows believed 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.

What would they talk about? 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 all these men were engagingly fun to talk with—or rather, to listen to, as monologue was more their habit than dialogue.

What might cause the connection between height and narcissism?

One morning when I brought my kids to preschool I noticed in one of the classrooms a very tall boy called Mike. Though 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, especially when followed by a flash of my warm and likable smile.

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.

Unfortunately, preoccupied with their own problems, Mike's parents also often ignored their son. Even worse, Mike's Mom too often shared with Mike her heartaches, turning to him for solace. She needed Mike to be her big man, not the little boy that he actually was. When a young boy becomes too special, his mother's Prince Charming, he is all the more likely to become a man with narcissistic tendencies.

A word of caution about tall people, exceptional people and narcissism.

I want to emphasize a second time that all tall or otherwise highly successful boys, girls, men and women do not become self-centered. I am the proud mother-in-law of two more-than--six-foot-tall son-in-laws. Both are the kind of mature, generous, thoughtful, as well as highly successful, partners that my husband and I always hoped that our daughters would someday marry.  They are leaders in their professions, and also collaborative, compassionate and tuned-in spouses.

In fact, being taller or in any other way above others can bring multiple challenges.  Tall man get stared at.  They can feel awkward and different.  They can get back and neck problems from bending down to ear range. They can find it difficult to look others in the eyes. Often, it's not easy being tall.  Of the many tall men and women, very few end up making millions as basketball players.  Most just have extra stature. 

At the same time, tall men have higher odds of being chosen for leadership positions.  They are at higher odds for becoming business and political leaders.  In elections, the taller person is likely to win.  Height does give stature, makes people appear to be someone that others can look up to.

Can women have tall-man syndrome?

Unfortunately, yes.  And they do not need to be tall.  They just need either to feel in any way better than others or more entitled.  Alternatively, they just need to be quick to anger.  When angry, everyone is at risk for seeing one's own needs as holy and others' as irrelevant.  That's why many women, and men, with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder tend also to be diagnosably narcissistic as well. 

A prime example is women (and also men) who engage in parental alienation, that is, who denigrate their partner or block contact of their children with their ex  in order to turn their children against the other parent. Hoarding the children for theirs alone, in addition to being profoundly narcissistic behavior, is abusive.  It distresses the spouse or ex-spouse and can do long-term major emotional damage to children.  A narcissistic individual doesn't care about the impacts on others of their behavior.  In this sense they can be like a 2-year old demanding "I want what I want.  Give it to me! It's all mine!"

How do those with tall-man syndrome do in therapy?

Tall-man syndrome, my pet name for the narcissists I so much enjoy working with in my clinical practice, can be challenging for therapists to work with.  They have to really trust their therapist to take in any therapeutic suggestion.  Personally however,  I love working with "special" folks who feel above the rules and who have such a hard time taking into account others concerns or ideas.

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 highly motivated therapy clients.  Maybe that's because 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, parent, and person, some decide to take on the challenge.

The motivation for narcissistic individuals to see a therapist usually comes initially from a spouse who has initiated a divorce. She's fed up with not being heard.  She's fed up with being controlled by the anger her husband erupts with 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. When he attempts to listen to the little voice down by his feet, 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 narcissist 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 narcissistic 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 on the narcissism of tall-man syndrome. 

Narcissism is not like eye color. While not all are either willing or able, many of the special men and women who have long operated in a narcissistic manner can change and grow.  In fact, they may have potential to become royal human beings.  That's when they and also those who love them then become true winners. 


(c) Susan Heitler
Source: (c) Susan Heitler

Susan Heitler, PhD, a Harvard and NYU graduate and Denver clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications.  

The Power of Two book and workbook and their companion interactive website, teach the skills for  successful relationships and marriage.

Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More offers non-drug ways to break out of negative emotional states. For free videos and downloadable worksheets, check out the companion website at