Almost a month ago, I wrote a blog post about manipulators who insist that they’re straightforward and honest. In that post, I wrote about how I’d seen a meme on social media that really spoke to me. I saved it, and three days later, was presented with a real life situation that pretty much described the wisdom of that truism someone shared on Facebook. I will repost it below for those who don’t want to read the older post.
Bill and I were talking about this subject again this morning over breakfast. It’s Veteran’s Day, and he’s a veteran, so he’s at home. I asked him if, looking back on his experiences with people who turned out to be toxic and manipulative, if they had started off trying to look like they were “above reproach.” He said they mostly had… and in fact, thought of a few people in my life who had acted that way at first, and then turned out to be controlling, manipulative, deceptive, and underhanded. It’s as if someone designed Spanx for the psyche, put them on, and then tried to sell it to the unsure.
You know what Spanx are, right? Spanx are foundation garments designed to make people appear to be thinner and more shapely than they actually are. While Spanx may make a person look more attractive by compressing and smoothing out those trouble spots, people who wear them are basically hiding their true selves. Just as today’s featured photo implies, that’s all well and good until it’s time to get more intimate. Then, the truth comes out, and you find out if your partner only loves you for the illusion of your “perfect” body instead of your personality.
To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a person covering up their physical flaws if it makes them feel more comfortable with themselves. I do, however, think trouble starts when a person hides their authentic selves with “shapewear for the psyche”. That’s when a person behaves like someone they’re not for the purpose of shaping or manipulating your opinion of them. Then, when you realize who they really are, you find out you were duped. It’s like the person wore psychological Spanx to hide their unsightly ego bulges, sagging virtue, and flabby morals. The next thing you know, you’re wondering if you’re crazy or stupid. Surely this person is as good as they first seemed. You wonder if you’re the problem. But nope… they were just hiding their true selves in psychological shapewear, designed to trick people with an illusion.
This type of behavior is a form of “gaslighting“. According to Medical News Today:
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person or group makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. People experiencing gaslighting often feel confused, anxious, and unable to trust themselves.
A person who comes on strong, and tries hard to make a great first impression on you, is trying to shape your opinion of them. Then, when the behavior changes for the worse, as it always does, you will think back to that initial strong and positive first impression and be more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. You will wonder if they’re just having a bad day. You will assume that someday, they’ll be that person with the warm, winsome personality who insisted that they are above reproach, and would never lie, cheat, steal, or do anything that isn’t for someone other than themselves. The reality is, they were never that person. They just wanted you to think they were. They want you to second guess yourself as you start to realize that they deceived you.
These folks are the ones who take it upon themselves to set a good example for others to follow. To give a recent and relevant example, there’s a woman I know casually who, when the pandemic was first in the news, made a point of posting pictures of herself wearing face masks while she was hanging out with her friends. She added a “PSA” of sorts about how important face masks are and– oh look!– she’s wearing one! Obviously, she was putting it out there that she’s a “caring” person, and you should try to emulate her. She sacrificed wearing lipstick so we could see her taking one for the team, dutifully wearing her face mask and being an example to all.
Later, I noticed that she deviated somewhat from that initial caring for the masses message she put out on her Facebook page. I got a taste of her control issues and the underhanded ways she tries to rope people in to doing her bidding. I realized that the first impression I got of her was just a facade. The reality is, she was wearing “Spanx for the psyche” and I had bought into that initial false image of her. I don’t think she’s a bad person, per se. I just think she tries to put forth an image that isn’t quite authentic or accurate. I find myself being more careful in my dealings with her.
Looking back, I can think of other people who made dynamite first impressions on me. I came away from meeting them thinking they were amazing. They were cordial, witty, charming, funny, and entertaining. Then, after awhile, the mask slipped, and I realized the first impression was just their version of a sales pitch. They were just trying to sell a false version of themselves so that when their real personality inevitably came out, I might cut them more of a break.
This phenomenon reminds me of that old joke about the man who visited Heaven and Hell to see where he’d like to spend eternity. Heaven is quiet, serene, beautiful, and comfortable. Hell looks like a raucous party, with sexy people having a blast with endless games. The man likes how Heaven looks, but ultimately chooses Hell, because it looks like it would be more fun. Then, when he shows up on this first day of eternity, he sees how miserable and awful Hell really is. He asks the demon who is showing him around what happened to the fun version of Hell he’d seen. The demon says, “Yesterday, we were recruiting you. Today, you’re committed.”
It’s easier in hindsight to acknowledge that sometimes people cover up who they really are. When you’re actually meeting them for the first time, it may not occur to you that they would be deceptive about their real selves. Most of us want to give people a chance, and try to see at least some good in others, especially when we first meet them. That’s kind of what our culture teaches us. If we let a negative impression cross our minds, we might hear the stern reproaches of someone from the past, chastising us for being “prejudicial”. However, I have found that that initial gut impression is often correct. There have been many times when I’ve regretted not heeding that impression. Because, once the more “intimate” part of a relationship begins, and the “Spanx for the psyche” is peeled off, the real ugliness sets in… and the person tries to sell that fake version of themselves again. I’m left wondering if I’m crazy or they’re just lying to me.
I’ve often discovered that people who need “psychological Spanx” also tend to be surface acquaintances. They aren’t interested in getting to know other people as much as they want some dirt on them so they can use it to their advantage at some point. Most of the fake people I’ve known are much more concerned about their reputations and images than they are in forming solid and honest relationships with other people. They’re more worried about how they look to others than they are in caring for friends and loved ones who have already committed to them. They don’t value deep relationships; they just want people to submit to their control tactics. Once someone is on the hook as a supporter, they aren’t going to go to the effort of covering up their flaws anymore. And if that’s not acceptable to you, the person who was duped, they’ll make it painful for you to object.
It’s kind of like when we first met our ex landlady. She tried hard to present herself as caring, understanding, and decent. But there were a number of signs that she was being deceptive. We chose to ignore them, even though I know I picked up on the signals from the first meeting. Her words and actions weren’t congruent. And later, after we heard many assurances from her about what a good and responsible person she is, she became the worst landlady we’ve ever had the displeasure of dealing with. Over the course of our relationship with her, she made a number of external improvements to the house, but they were mostly cosmetic and meant to make the house more appealing to people on the street. She couldn’t have cared less about the comfort and convenience of the people who actually lived in the house and paid rent to her. That’s why she replaced the driveway and put up a flimsy fence instead of replacing the weird toilet that repeatedly backed up and required her husband to give me a tutorial. That’s also why she didn’t get rid of the disgusting carpet that reeked of cat piss. People on the street can’t see those things and don’t have to deal with them. But tenants have a contract, and are subjected to seeing her as she really is when things go wrong.
I have also seen how these types of people, when they have a commitment with others in their lives, feel free to mistreat them. I always pity people who are born to manipulative liars. It’s much easier to get away from someone who is a not a close blood relative. When it’s your parent or sibling, the stakes are much higher, and people tend to tolerate their bad behavior for longer. Then, when they can’t take it anymore, other people judge them for escaping the clutches of their tormentors. More often than not, the judgmental folks have only seen the charming, appealing, “psychological Spanx” wearing versions of the relative who is being abusive. They haven’t see them when the Spanx come off and the person lets everything unattractive about their true selves hang out.
Now… I’m not saying that it’s wrong for a person to try to make a good first impression. To some extent, most of us try to do that. What I am saying is that when a person tries too hard, or, when you first meet them, they insist that they’re “good, honest people” who never have problems with others, that’s a red flag. Nine times out of ten, they’re going to turn out to be the opposite of what they claimed to be. Or, at the very least, you’re going to find out that they aren’t authentic.
Authentic people don’t have to tell you how good they are. It shows in the honest way they behave and how they relate to other people. They don’t need “psychological Spanx”, because their personalities are naturally attractive. It’s possible to meet someone who is lovely and that’s who they really are. Usually, those types of people don’t give you a bad feeling. You don’t have that little voice in your head, warning you. The authentically good people don’t need to bowl you over with charm. They have no need to impress. They’re just good people who are real. No psychological Spanx or shapewear required.