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The Marilyn Monroe Effect: The Nonverbal Communication of Confidence

I remember hearing this story many years ago and it has become a powerful teaching tool for my clients who I see in my therapy practice and in classes/presentations I offer.

“I’ll never forget the day Marilyn and I were walking around New York City, just having a stroll on a nice day. She loved New York because no one bothered her there like they did in Hollywood, she could put on her plain-Jane clothes and no one would notice her. She loved that. So, as we we’re walking down Broadway, she turns to me and says, ‘Do you want to see me become her?’ I didn’t know what she meant but I just said ‘Yes’ — and then I saw it. I don’t know how to explain what she did because it was so very subtle, but she turned something on within herself that was almost like magic. And suddenly cars were slowing, and people were turning their heads and stopping to stare. They were recognizing that this was Marilyn Monroe as if she pulled off a mask or something, even though a second ago nobody noticed her. I had never seen anything like it before.”

~ Amy Greene, wife of Marilyn’s personal photographer Milton Greene

I refer to it as the Marilyn Monroe effect since the attitude she embodied on that day can help people transform from the ordinary into the extraordinary. Many people were taught not to see themselves in that light. Marilyn (a.k.a. Norma Jeane Mortenson) herself harbored raging insecurities and was said to have had early childhood trauma that set the stage for her eventual suicide on August 5, 1962. In her book, entitled Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, author Lois Banner offers her insights into the juxtaposed images of the superstar.

She suffered from dyslexia and from a stutter more severe than anyone has realized. She was plagued throughout her life by horrible dreams that contributed to her constant insomnia. She was bipolar and often disassociated from reality. She endured terrible pain during menstruation because she had endometriosis. She broke out in rashes and hives and eventually came down with chronic colitis, enduring abdominal pain and nausea. She surmounted all this, in addition to the well-known problems of her childhood — a mother in a mental institution, a father she never knew, and moving between foster homes and an orphanage. Then there were the drugs she took to cope, once she entered Hollywood and had to endure its pressures: she especially took barbiturates to calm her down; amphetamines to give her energy.”

This revelation makes the chameleon-like transformation even more remarkable and is the mark of a talented actor.

Many who seek therapy for the direct messages they received or interpreted about their own worthiness or place in the world. I have heard people who don’t dare hold their heads up, make eye contact or speak their truth since they were told that it wasn’t their place to do so. Some were severely reprimanded or punished for being authentic. Others had no role models for assertive or fearless interaction with others.

One of the first things I ask someone who has had that experience to do is to lift their posture, place their shoulders in a relaxed position, make eye contact and practice smiling. I tell them about a character in one of my favorite shows from the 1990s called Ally McBeal. His name was John Cage and was one of the partners in a Boston Law Firm, who practiced what he called Smile Therapy by which he would spread a Cheshire Cat grin across his expressive face before going into court or in the midst of emotional distress.

I also teach them a relaxation technique creating the peace sign symbol with their fingers. They take a deep inhale and then as they exhale, they say the word “peace” as they elongate the word and smile. I ask what happens when they say it that way. They reply that they feel uplifted or happy. As they leave my office at the end of the session, I ask if they can make eye contact and shake hands. They even tack on a smile.

My mother used to remind me often to “Walk in like you own the joint,” with head held high, shoulders back and in confidence. It has served me well when feeling overwhelmed by life circumstances such as illness and setbacks. It has supported me through what could otherwise have been intimidating meetings and interviews on either side of the desk or microphone. 

The paradigm of Impostor Syndrome comes into play here. It is the idea that despite appearances and measures of success, one feels inadequate and will be found to be less than they are presenting themselves. It is more than the proverbial “fake it ’til you make it.” It is “acting as if” they were as confident as they would like to feel they were. 

Another exercise I use in my personal life and professional practice starts with the question, “How would someone who is living the kind of life I desire, stand, speak, think, feel and move through each moment?” It is a spin off from the business prompt that we should, “dress for the job we want, not the job we have.” If you could put on the attitude and persona who is embodying the existence of your dreams would it be easy or challenging, comfortable or uncomfortable? When I am joyfully embracing that role, I worry a whole lot less about whether the desired outcome has happened yet. I ask myself and clients about the feeling we want to have. Not knowing the difference between an actual event and a perceived event is a hallmark of human existence. 

William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, offered this wisdom, “If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.”

The Marilyn Monroe Effect: The Nonverbal Communication of Confidence


Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author. www.opti-mystical.com


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APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2019). The Marilyn Monroe Effect: The Nonverbal Communication of Confidence. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 20, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-marilyn-monroe-effect-the-nonverbal-communication-of-confidence/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 2 Sep 2019 (Originally: 2 Sep 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 2 Sep 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.