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.

John Cuneo’s insightful cover for this week’s New Yorker aptly captures the dynamic.  Anthony Weiner sits astride the Empire State Building, his cellphone aloft in his left hand, snapping a photo of the blunt roof wedged between his legs.  In his right hand he clutches the building’s broken-off antenna spire, its shape suggestive of a hypodermic needle. Helicopters circle in the sky above him.   In a single image, the cover conveys Weiner’s grandiose political ambition, his narcissism and his “addiction” to sexting. By alluding to the iconic scene toward the end of King Kong, just before the giant ape topples from the Empire State Building to his death, Cuneo suggests that Weiner is headed for a tragic fall.

Despite the contempt, moral opprobrium and brutal mockery that have greeted this latest revelation, there is in fact something tragic about Anthony Weiner’s coming downfall.   In the classic sense of the word, tragedy concerns the fate of a prominent figure brought down, not by external events, but by a flaw in his character. Weiner’s “flaw,” his primary psychological weakness, is the relentless pursuit of admiration and sexual excitement in order to ward off an unconscious sense of inferiority. Sexting with multiple partners bolsters narcissistic defense mechanisms, but tragically drives him to behave in ways that lead to further exposure and deeper shame. The public attention that comes with a high-profile political campaign inflates his sense of self but draws the kind of media scrutiny that inevitably deflates him.

In the wake of his resignation from the House in June 2011, Weiner no doubt felt humiliated, overcome with shame and self-loathing.  His tearful public statement at the time that wife Huma “deserves much better than this” was no doubt sincere. But like the alcoholic who awakens following a bender and immediately resumes drinking to escape from the shame of falling off the wagon, Weiner soon returned to sexting and eventually clambered for the political spotlight, recklessly ignoring the risk of exposure. Instead of facing himself and learning something about what drives him, Weiner resorted to his familiar, self-destructive defenses to escape from shame. 

Despite his claim in People magazine that he is now “a very, very different person,” Anthony Weiner has remained very much the man he was. Nobody could believe that three days of psychiatric evaluation at The Gabbard Center in Houston, Texas would constitute effective treatment for such a serious problem.  Calling his behavior an ”addiction” doesn’t explain much and won’t really help – we’re all too familiar with the celebrity rehab-recovery-relapse cycle to put much stock in such a superficial diagnosis and “cure.” Only an in-depth examination of his complete shame-ridden character – where sexting addiction, narcissism, and political ambition all serve as psychological defense mechanisms – will allow Anthony Weiner to grow into the sort of person he (and the rest of us) could truly respect.

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