Dear polar-vortex-and-tweet-storm survivors,
In 1974, the highly acclaimed 26-episode series, World at War, was released which began with a segment chronicling Hitler’s rise to power. In the opening scene, we see a massive torch-light parade snaking through the streets of Berlin accompanied by triumphant Wagnerian music with a voice-over of the narrator, Sir Lawrence Olivier, saying the following:
Germany, 1933. A huge, blind excitement filled the streets. The National Socialists had come to power in a land tortured by unemployment, embittered by loss of territory, demoralized by political weakness. Perhaps this would be the new beginning. Most people think the Nazis are a little absurd here, too obsessive there. But perhaps the time for thinking is over.
Later in that same segment, a German citizen who had witnessed first-hand Hitler’s rise to power made this statement:
I think everything that came to us when we were living in Germany came very gradually. That was perhaps the way Hitler managed everything. It came upon us rather drip by drip. And it was only when a specific he did hit you personally that you realized what was actually going on.
To illustrate, she described a time when her son was ill and their pediatrician came to the house and stayed up all night long with her son, providing treatment and monitoring and his condition. As he was preparing to leave the next morning, he asked the mom if she’d like for him to continue to treat her son and she replied, “Well, for goodness sakes, of course. Why would you ask me that?” He then told her he’d been informed by the authorities that Jewish doctors were no longer permitted to put their hands on Arian children and, therefore, he could no longer be her son’s physician.
At that moment, she realized what was actually going on.
I bring this up not to suggest that all manipulators—or drama people as I like to call them—are Nazis. They aren’t and that’s obviously not my point. My point is to illustrate the principle of incremental acclimation. That is, we all tend to acclimate ourselves to change in increments in such a way that we end up inadvertently normalizing behavior that would previously have been considered abnormal.
Hitler didn’t start out as Hitler. What I mean by that is hearing the name Hitler today immediately conjures up images of the Holocaust, a system of death camps that ultimately exterminated six million Jews. But that’s not how Hitler presented himself to Deutschland. He came in as the guy who would restore German pride, put the citizens back to work, and “get the trains running on time.” And he did those things—all laudable accomplishments. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, plans were afoot to rid the world of European Jewry. Had he initially presented himself as a genocidal maniac, he would’ve never gained power. (He actually did voice some of his intentions in Mein Kampf but such things got overlooked because, after all, unemployment was down and German pride was up.)
Incremental acclimation is the drip by drip approach. It’s coming to accept that which is unacceptable. It’s the frog-in-the-water fable where the frog ends up boiling to death in water that’s heated up gradually.
For years, I’ve worked with clients who are either currently in dramas or they’ve left the dramas and are picking up the pieces. We’ll be doing some post-snooker analysis and they’ll say things like:
- How could I have been so stupid?
- Why did I fall for his act?
- How was I so easily fooled?
- I sort of saw it but fell for it anyway. What’s wrong with me?
- It seems so clear now. Why didn’t I see it?
The answers to those very good questions often has to do with incremental acclimation. At the outset, the manipulator was so winsome, charming, sincere, and convincing. But as time went by, there were subtle indicators that signaled trouble up ahead. Indicators that are clear in hindsight but weren’t clear then. Indicators that were easy to dismiss at the time as normal human flawed-ness because, after all, don’t we all have our flaws? Negatives that faded into the background behind the bright lights of the manipulator’s positives.
I always try to convey support and empathy by saying things like, “Look, it happens to all of us.” Indeed, we can all be snookered. I’m pretty sure it’s a rite of passage of sorts to get burned by a manipulator sooner or later. In fact, that’s how we become wiser about the nature of human nature.
Remember the old saying: “Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me.” Learn from the experience and use that learning as a way to avoid future burnings.
Or as the writer of Proverbs says: “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”