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.