Pretty Woman Syndrome: Helping Good-Looking People Overcome Their Handicap
A few weeks ago, I was facilitating an accountability group with eight financial services professionals. As people came into the room, I couldn’t help but notice a very attractive young woman, dressed in a manner that was designed to draw attention to her. What was most noticeable, though, was the look on her face, and the general aura of her non-verbal communication. Her face radiated disdain – a look and feel that dripped disinterest and dismissal of everyone in the room. She took her seat at the conference table, looked straight ahead, and acknowledged no one.
I’ve seen that look before. It says, without uttering a word – “I am beautiful and compellingly attractive; I know it and I’m aware that you see it; and I have no time, or interest, in relating to average looking people.” Having spent over twenty years working and living, part-time, in southern California, I have experienced thousands of women (and men) with that look and that persona. I also see it regularly in my travels, and have had many clinical clients with that aura, in my prior private practice.
What’s particularly noteworthy is that these individuals are often, in one form or another, in a people business. And further, they are often struggling and underperforming, frustrated by results that are considerably less than they would like, and way under their capacity and potential.
So, what’s going on here? First, we need to understand what’s driving this behavior. These attractive and handsome women and men are battling with what I’ve come to call the “single characteristic curse”. The key people in their lives have focused all their attention directed to these people, around one characteristic – their physical beauty. They become, then, their looks. They begin to believe that who they are, fundamentally, is this attractive, noticeably beautiful person. The problem is, that this is all they think they are. This limited identity is scary – sometimes terrifying – and leads to a variety of dysfunctional behaviors, all in the service of protection. Whether it’s disdain, arrogance, withholding or opaqueness, the goal is the same. To keep from being hurt and diminished (by being treated like an object), or even worse, to discover their secret – their belief that there is nothing else of value within them, other than their beauty.
It’s important to understand that when we reduce a person’s identity to a single characteristic – beauty, intelligence, athletic prowess, we undermine self-esteem and sow seeds of self-doubt. Instead of building confidence, it erodes and destroys it. It is hard to be helpful to people battling with this curse, primarily because it requires one to take a big risk. The risk is to muster one’s courage, cut right through the armor of disdain, and tell the person how it feels to be around them. How it feels to be dismissed, controlled (by the lack of any connection) and completely shut out. And lastly, how distancing armor discourages people from wanting to engage in a meaningful relationship.
Almost every time that I’ve taken the risk, the reaction is amazing. The facial stiffness melts away, and a look of recognition replaces it. The look is an unusual combination of an embarrassed smile (“you’ve found me out”) and a deep sadness, reflective of staying hidden for so long.
When I confronted the young lady in our group with the feelings about her impact on me, she said an interesting thing: “I know that I do that, but I don’t know why.” Helping her understand her behavior can change her whole life, and create opportunities for great success.