Where Narcissism Meets Addiction

Is Anthony Weiner's behavior an "addiction" to sexting, or something more psychologically defining and pervasive?
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Following the latest revelations in the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal, some in the media have predictably labeled his behavior an addiction. But a closer look at the exchange of graphic sexual text messages between Dangr33 (Weiner) and Sydney Leathers explains much more about what drives him.

Early on, Weiner informs Leathers that he is “deeply flawed.” On another occasion, after telling her that he has been staring at pictures of her, he wonders if she finds him “pathetic.” At various points, he asks which picture of him most “turned her on,” whether she “likes what she sees” (presumably in response to an anatomical image he texted) and whether he would “have a chance” if they were to meet in a bar and he tried to strike up a conversation.

Implicit and overt requests for reassurance by Weiner are interspersed throughout this months-long sexting exchange. Leathers gives him what he asks for:

We all are [deeply flawed].  Imperfection is beauty & madness is genius.

Not pathetic at all.  Deeply flattering.

You’re such an amazing man.  I still can’t believe someone like you would pay attention to someone like me.

Again and again, Leathers insists that he is physically attractive and sexually exciting. Weiner’s messaging is largely pornographic, focusing on the ways he would like to dominate her sexually; Leathers’ responses, much less graphic, convey her submission to his fantasies and appeal to his ego:   

I’ve never wanted anyone as much as I want you.  You are perfect.

Is this an addiction to sexting or something more psychologically defining and pervasive?

***

In recent years, the language of addiction has been applied to an ever-increasing range of behaviors – one recent study even claimed that college students are “addicted” to self-esteem! Unfortunately, as the psychoanalyst Donald Nathanson has noted, attaching the addiction label to someone’s behavior “is merely shaming or frightening unless addiction has been defined in terms of” its psychological function. Rather than simply calling these various behaviors “addictions” or “compulsions,” we need to ask what lies behind them:

Why do some college students continually need to be told they have personal value? 

Why did Anthony Weiner seek ongoing reassurance from his sexting partners that he was attractive, virile and worthwhile?

What does the addict seek to avoid when he turns to his drug of choice, be it pharmacological, relational or sexual?

The answers seem obvious enough. If no amount of praise or positive reinforcement can satisfy some college students, if they continually “come back for more,” it must be because they struggle with low self-worth, or what I would call a sense of basic shame. If Anthony Weiner needs continual admiration and reassurance from a variety of sexting partners, he must feel bad about himself on some level. As Nathanson has noted, a struggle with profound shame lies at the heart of a broad range of addictive behaviors such as over-eating, alcoholism and sexual compulsivity.

In other words, addictive behavior is a defense against unconscious shame.

As I discussed in an earlier article for The Atlantic narcissism is another way to ward off unconscious shame – indeed, narcissism is the primary defense against shame. In the sub-title of his book on the subject, the psychologist Andrew Morrison refers to shame as “the underside of narcissism”: hiding beneath grandiosity and narcissistic behavior is a painful sense of internal defect or damage. With Anthony Weiner, a man whose political ambitions drive him into the spotlight, we see the combined defensive power of narcissism and addiction for warding off such unconscious shame.

Presented by

Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist and the author of Cinderella: A Tale of Narcissism and Self-Harm, Why Do I Do That?, and The Narcissist You Know. He has written for After Psychotherapy and Psychology Today.

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