Anthony Weiner sent lewd texts to a series of young women even after he resigned in disgrace as a congressman for having done the same thing while in office.
Steven A. Cohen went on a buying spree of multimillion-dollar houses and paintings even as his firm, SAC Capital Advisors, was being investigated as part of a huge insider trading scheme over the last decade.
Bob Filner, mayor of San Diego, admitted to inappropriate behavior with multiple women who’ve accused him of sexual harassment, but refused to resign, even as members of his own party urged him to do so.
Ryan Braun, one of the best players in baseball, accepted a suspension without pay for the rest of the season for using performance-enhancing drugs, after adamantly denying the charges for two years.
What were they thinking?
The answer is, they weren’t thinking. They were acting out, compulsively – following a pattern we’ve watched over and over in recent years among men like Alex Rodriguez, Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Bernard L. Madoff, Rajat Gupta, Raj Rajaratnam, John Edwards, David Vitter and John Ensign. The list is long and growing.
It’s scarcely a reach to suggest that these men, each in their own ways, were desperately seeking external validation – proof of their own value and worthiness: more money, power, achievement, adulation or desirability. It’s no different than using any drug. When it stops working – as a sedative or as a stimulant — the impulse is to increase the dose. And what’s the symptom they’re all seeking to treat? No one can say with certainty, but I strongly suspect it’s a vast feeling of inner emptiness.
I say this, in part, because I’ve struggled mightily with some of these demons myself. I know well the feeling that if only my next book could get on the bestseller list, or I could be invited to some important gathering, or I was accepted into some inner circle, or earned a certain amount of money, then finally I’d have what I want. I know the devastation of not getting the recognition I’ve sought, and I also know the short-lived satisfaction of getting exactly what I thought I wanted – and how quickly I began looking for the next source of validation.
I also know what an immense relief it is to stop looking for love in all the wrong places.
Labels and diagnoses are necessarily reductionist, but they’re also useful. The classic symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder offer a window into the otherwise baffling behaviors of the men I’ve mentioned above – and hundreds more like them whom I’ve met over the years.
Severe narcissists are obsessively preoccupied with power, prestige and personal success, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They require constant attention, praise and recognition. They exude a sense of entitlement, grandiosity and superiority, and a lack of empathy or interest in others.
Most important, this public pose is a defense against deeper, often unconscious feelings of inferiority and being unlovable. The hunger to be valued can become so desperate, overwhelming and preoccupying that it pushes people into a survival mentality in which they will do nearly anything to get validation, including acts that are destructive to themselves and others. Sound like Anthony Weiner? Or Lance Armstrong? Or Steven Cohen?
More than ever, we live in a culture that enables these impulses – and even serves as an accelerant. We continue to reward the most self-interested among us with attention, adulation, votes and immense wealth.
We worship at the altar of “winners,” without recognizing that it sets up a zero-sum game in which the consequence must necessarily be a lot of “losers.” We undervalue qualities like humility, vulnerability, personal responsibility and compassion.
There are antidotes. The first is self-awareness, or the willingness to honestly face our deepest insecurities and fears, to keep pushing through our infinite capacity for self-deception.
The second is the capacity to accept our own deepest opposites – our best nature and our worst, rather than inflating the former and denying the latter. None of us will ever be completely free of our shortcomings and our compulsions, but by recognizing and accepting them, we can exercise more choice about whether to act them out.
Finally, there is no more powerful antidote to the havoc we can wreak out of the desperate hunger to prove we matter than to truly serve others without expectation of reward. Paradoxically, nothing makes us feel better about ourselves.