“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 their 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.
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One comment on ““Pretty Woman Syndrome: Helping Good-Looking People Overcome Their Handicap”
  1. M. Vik says:

    One totally handsome man i knew over extended time of 20 years or more has used his looks like a tool. But very young, i think he was inundated with women trying to seduce him, following him around, ignoring their mates and commitments, and throwing themselves at him or just becoming transfixed or willing to give him power or influence without knowing a thing about him. He was a good speaker also. He had charisma that those who lacked it thought might save them. Overall, he used his looks for a desperate cause he believed in. But I felt he was also used by his looks at times and it made me sad and protective. He was creative and very smart but his relationships were always in flux because women threw themselves at him. I in fact looked at him more like a brother and burst into tears one day when I saw how hard he struggled with this. In the end he had more options than were “good for him” I thought, and I think it harmed his family and children. He now either redoes his looks every decade or so to remain handsome to younger women and vital to his causes or he lets himself go badly, health also. In his best-looking physical years, I realized that Hollywood did not have a man who could play him adequately.
    The same happened to the other man a family member dated, too: His relationships were destroyed by too much temptation and women actually went into trances around him so that he snapped his fingers to bring them out of it. He did seem to be frustrated and urgent if not contemptuous at times if people couldn’t function around him although he probably expected it after a while and maybe even came to experience that as identity, without which would be some level of change/crisis/sense of confusion.
    In the case of the first man mentioned, his inability to say “no” was the problem and it was often that he saw women as needing care and not as much that he wanted to exploit them. Even so, it seemed to harm him, his children quite a lot. He felt indebted, like he needed to take care of women who sought him so “helplessly.” Those women did not remain helplessly caught if he then was pursued by a new woman but rather had revenge eventually. This eroded his quality of life. I wondered how such a man could avoid it. Some people reacted to him as if he were strutting but I think as well the problem is people try to exploit such men or women who have good hearts. There is jealousy toward them. I think also I always thought beautiful woman syndrome applied to men or women had to do with fearing a loss of worth/power/safety when looks vanish or fade, sometimes dramatically or quickly. THEN what is their worth, they ask. Or if people behave in such a way to damage their own relationships due to their looks, was it their fault? I have seen women go to zombie-like extremes around those two men. I tended to want to protect one such man but it was difficult to see the troubles charisma created for him and how it became necessary to double check with someone wiser about decisions related to backing his causes due to such charisma. Riding with him in a car once, a woman would drive by him and slow down to let him pass over and over just to look at him. She demanded her boyfriend who was driving do this over and over. We ended up at the same meeting. She herself was handsome enough to compete and so was her boyfriend with her. But like people want to see a sunset or a magnificent tree or horse or lake, people also appreciate beauty in men and women. It’s a rather complex issue, I learned. Men who set good boundaries due to their looks and treat others with formal courtesy but clear boundaries seem to do better but the risk to them is they end up “coasting.” They get elected to office and deteriorate publicly or they kind of develop a humorless mask or lack of empathy, I suspect. I actually fear it because their looks give them power. It’s a terrible gift to have in some ways and apparently also a kind of terrible thing to lose although if a person has other qualities, they manage better once that extreme charisma of beautify is faded. Maybe a goal of looking clean and neat and ready is adequate so long as the person is ready and able. Truthfully, most people seek to look handsome or beautiful in younger years. I think George Clooney handles this issue with humor and interest in causes…but it must take a certain kind of thinking to manage it. He can hardly write an article entitled: “how I handle my good looks.” LOL. But he manages well to pick causes and keep people from taking him or his looks too seriously. One has to own their looks and body to achieve that however. Not all of them can find good therapists. I think some therapists would be hostile or treat the situation by refusing to acknowledge this quality in the man and help them figure how to help others deal with it while it lasts and find other abilities to fill in to avoid a fiercely long identity crisis.

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