Joan Poelvoorde

Psychotherapy & Healing Arts

The Charismatic Personality Disorder

The spiritual athlete often changes the color of his clothes,
and his mind remains gray and loveless.
He sits in a shrine room all day,
So that the Guest has to go outdoors and praise the rocks.

Or he drills holes in his ears, his beard grows enormous and matted,
People mistake him for a goat …
He goes in the wilderness areas, strangles his impulses, And makes himself neither male nor female …

He shaves his skull, puts his robe in an orange vat, Reads the Bhagavad Gita, and becomes a terrific talker.

Kabir says: Actually you are going in a hearse to the country of death, Bound hand and foot!

Kabir, 15th Century
From The Kabir Book, Robert Bly, Trans.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1971, p. 50.

The word charisma (Greek "kharisma," meaning "gift," "of/from/ favored by God,/the divine") refers to a trait found in persons whose personalities are characterized by a personal charm and magnetism (attractiveness), along with innate and powerfully sophisticated abilities of interpersonal communication and persuasion.

– From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Charismatic Personality Disorder (CPD) cannot be found in the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The term CPD was humorously coined by a small group of us who had experienced, first-hand, the insidious ramifications of dealing with these charming, bright, and persuasive characters. To be fair, though we did not know it at the time, Kohut writes about the Charismatic Personality vs the Messianic Personality. According to Kohut the Charismatic Personality is identified with his grandiose, highly inflated self.

A good percentage of Indian Gurus and other spiritual teachers exhibit the qualities of the CPD. I have said for many years that gurus land here in the US to deal with their issues of money, sex, and power. They come to a country that is starved for a spiritual connection and a charismatic leader. Other CPDs arise as money gurus, success gurus, health gurus, etc.  

When we speak of the CPD, we are really talking about a high functioning psychopath. The word "psychopath" was replaced by the term sociopath in the DSM in 1952. Sociopathy and psychopathy are two related but different disorders, and CPD is related but different from both sociopathy and psychopathy. Otto Kernberg refers to psychopathy/sociopathy as malignant narcissism, which says it all very succinctly.  

Most "cult" leaders qualify as malignant narcissists or CPDs. In one way or another, they come to us as teachers. There has been plenty of reportage on these destructive cults and their leaders/teachers, so there is no need to repeat it here.

Among the qualities that define the psychopath are: superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, shallow affect, lack of remorse or empathy, lack of personal insight, cunning/manipulative behavior, lying, egocentricity, parasitic lifestyle, and more often than not, sexual exploitation. The sociopath, in contrast, has all the same qualities of the psychopath with a single difference: the sociopath is capable of guilt, caring, and building relationships, but only within a certain context (family, team, group etc.). What separates the CPD from these two personality types is an ability to conceal his/her baser motives and maintain an unsullied reputation—at least in the beginning. The CPD, in my own experience, is highly intelligent, possesses esoteric information that is very attractive to others, and is a clever manipulator. The CPD may use techniques both obvious and subtle to keep the student psychologically off-balance. Some use the technique of undermining the follower's sense of self by subtle criticism or exposing him/her to personally embarrassing situations—all this in the name assisting the person to transcend (i.e., obliterate) ego. In fact, many of the followers of the CPD are asked to relinquish an ego that is not yet consolidated. The CPD maintains her power-over stance by what Yalom identifies as magic, mystery, and authority (see February and March, 2008 Newsletters).

What is most important for those of us who are seeking spiritual guidance is to begin with a caveat emptor stance as we approach any spiritual teacher, keeping our critical thinking alive and sharp. The questions we must ask ourselves are:

Once these question are answered to your satisfaction, this somewhat paranoid stance must be relinquished in order to assimilate the instruction you desire, and to create an open-hearted relationship with your teacher.

Joan Poelvoorde, a professional psychotherapist in Manhattan (NY) offering relationship, personal growth, anger management, creativity, shamanistic & Imago Relationship Therapy