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How to Avoid Being Taken in by Charismatic Personalities

by Arlin Cuncic

People with charismatic personalities have a way of attracting others to them -- whether their intentions are honorable or not. Protecting yourself against individuals who use their charm and charisma to manipulate and control people is not only important -- it may even save your life. Charismatic individuals who secretly lack compassion and empathy for others can rid you of your life savings, put you through emotional abuse and even physically harm you. Learning to identify these people involves careful observation, strong personal boundaries and the ability to ask questions when things seem wrong.

Watch and Listen

A charismatic person may win you over instantly, but it is important not to let your guard down too quickly. Retired FBI profiler and forensic behavioral consultant Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D., notes that careful observation and listening are key to recognizing someone who is secretly dangerous. If you are on a first date with a man, and he speaks poorly about women in general or repeatedly puts down his ex, these are signs of how he treats other people once his mask slips. Individuals who become easily angered, who display road rage behavior, or who think violence is the solution to most problems should also raise concern. Spend less time talking and more time listening -- and you will pick up on signs that show whether the charismatic person you are speaking with may be putting up a false front.

Suspect Flattery

Compliments that are genuine are given without the expectation of anything in return. In contrast, extreme flattery is used to "butter up" the other person and make him feel good about himself -- as a manipulation tactic, says Martha Stout, clinical psychologist and author of "The Sociopath Next Door" in an interview on the "Book Browse" website. Individuals with low self-esteem may be particularly vulnerable to this type of manipulation. Ask yourself what your vulnerabilities are and how they might be exploited. If a charismatic new acquaintance starts to list all of your wonderful qualities -- and it feels over the top -- take care not to let yourself swoon. O'Toole concurs, going a step further to note that these personalities may also exploit those who are depressed or grieving, by offering companionship and a listening ear. Always consider potential motives of the other person -- particularly when dealing with someone who is overly charismatic.

Question Authority

We expect evil to take forms that we can recognize. We think the "straggly-haired stranger" is the person of whom we should be afraid, notes Stout, when in fact the people who can't be trusted often looks, acts and speaks just like us. To take this a step further, O'Toole describes the phenomenon of "icon-intimidation," in which we automatically ascribe honorable qualities to a person because of social or professional standing. For example, we assume that the priest, the business leader or the neighbor who volunteers to shovel our driveway has high moral values. Rather than ascribing trust based on these superficial attributes, Stout recommends questioning people in authority when you feel a behavior or value is out of line with your own moral judgment. For example, if your supervisor asks you to complete an assignment but then takes credit for the work himself, you have a right to ask for an explanation.

Cease Contact

Some people with charismatic personalities are actually sociopaths -- individuals without conscience or the ability to feel empathy for others. Stout recommends instituting a "three strikes" rule in your personal life to protect you against these types of individuals. One lie or missed responsibility may be a misunderstanding, two is a serious mistake, but three is a sign of a liar, and is the "linchpin of conscienceless behavior" -- and a sign that you need to get out. If someone violates your three strikes rule, it is best to move on and cease contact. Family and friends may not understand your position, because sociopaths are good at hiding their true personalities; however, it is important not to waver. In addition, the sociopath does not feel bad that you have cut off contact -- she does not have the same emotions as you -- so don't waste time regretting your decision.

About the Author

Arlin Cuncic has been writing about mental health since 2007, specializing in social anxiety disorder and depression topics. She served as the managing editor of the "Journal of Attention Disorders" and has worked in a variety of research settings. Cuncic holds an M.A. in clinical psychology.

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