Armchair psychologists were atwitter yesterday speculating why Anthony Weiner would have sexual conversations with women online after it turned him into a national disagrace and nearly destroyed his career.
But real psychologists — forbidden from diagnosing people not in their care - shared carefully parsed observations as to why a successful politician might indulge in behaviors that seemed almost professionally suicidal.
The “incredibly self-defeating” behavior of seeking faux kicks with strangers on the internet, is not really about sex, but a fake high for a flaccid ego, said William Pollack, PhD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Seeking online approbation from strangers on line “gets in the way of real sexuality," that involves true intimacy, Pollack said.
As for the “Carlos Danger” screen name Weiner used, men create alternate personas in cyberspace not just to hide their identities, but to be, for a moment, different from the inadequate man they imagine themselves to be.
“There's a split within," Pollack said. "They feel weak and puny, but they're in so much psychological pain. They know that men are not supposed to feel that way," and so they adopt another, more virile and powerful, persona, he explained. Such a split comes easily to politicians, who often have a split between their public identity and private selves, Pollack added.
But it's not only narcissists attracted to the lure of naughty internet hijinks: Depressed men may also resort to compulsive behavior when they can't find "an alternative way to get satisfaction and to soothe themselves out of depression," Pollack said.
But can voters be assured that Weiner won't once again resort to an online fling with an inappropriate partner?
Sam Alibrando, PhD, said he was encouraged to hear Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, remark that the couple had received therapy, but that it would be "even more assuring" if Weiner said he were in ongoing treatment, and a support group, such as a 12-step program for sex addiction.
"Addicts lie: It's almost instinctive," said Alibrando, a psychologist and author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: How to Change for the Better When Life Gives You Its Worst."
For a man not to refrain from sexual adventures on the internet after the behavior cost him a job he loves, "is like someone with three DUIs continuing to drive," Alibrando said. "Part of true recovery is a fierce honesty about oneself — about who you are and what you're dealing with. Narcissistic people don't come by that easily," though depressed people have an easier time, said Alibrando.
"I am troubled by the evasiveness and lack of impulse control," said Carol Landau, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University's Alpert Medical School, noting that Weiner has every right to run and that younger people often had a more lenient perspective on his foibles.
"People in recovery say they're in recovery, even if they haven't had a drink in 40 years," and present a humility about their struggle and a respect for the power the compulsive behavior wields, Pollack said.
But lapses "are part of the process of recovery," from a troublesome behavior and can sometimes prove helpful in teaching a person "what their triggers are," said Mike Friedman, PhD, a psychologist at Manhattan Cognitive Behavioral Associates. Whether a person can truly break free of such a self defeating habit depends on his ability to make recovery a priority in his life, his willingness to self monitor, and working in an ongoing way to understand and short circuit "the sequence of events that leads to the behavior," Friedman said.
If Weiner got into politics to help others, it's not too late for him to behave in a positive way, mused Alibrando. "He could help people who have sex addictions by being transparent. Transparency is the key to recovery from compulsive behaviors," said Alibrando.