Anthony Weiner’s disturbing behavior suggests that he may suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Many other politicians could as well, leading to the need to reconsider the way we choose leaders.
I used to be a fan of Anthony Weiner’s. Before all of his sexting difficulties, I liked how he actually seemed to care about doing the right thing. I even sent around videos of his impassioned speeches on the floor of the US House of Representatives, and told people that he was definitely someone to watch. How right I was.
To be honest, I didn’t think what he did initially — exchanging sexts with willing women and accidentally sending a risqué picture to all of his Twitter followers — was really all that bad. When measured against the other sexual peccadillos of our government leaders in recent years, it was nothing. It was consensual, legal and not done with public monies. I was not the only one who was underwhelmed by his behavior. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow demonstrated on her sex scandal chart — the Consequence-O-Meter — the relative harmlessness of Weiner’s actions when compared to the men who solicited prostitutes, used taxpayer dollars to go visit their Venezuelan mistress or appointed their non-US citizen boyfriend to a high level position in Homeland Security. As The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart commented, “…in terms of these types of scandals, the depravity was on a very low scale.”
In fact, it might all have blown over, had Weiner handled the fallout from his sexting escapades better. But instead of admitting what he did, he lied and even went so far as to insult reporters for daring to question his veracity. Once he realized that the truth was going to come out though, Weiner finally admitted what he had done, and resigned from Congress. He and his wife went to therapy, had a baby and tried to pick up the pieces.
But then it started again. A year later, Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin gave an interview to People Magazine in which he said he felt like “a very, very different person” and that he believed his troubles were behind him. Despite his words, it was in this very same month that he began yet another inappropriate online relationship. The public probably never would have known about it except that Weiner started running for Mayor of New York City, and details about his new online sexting soon came out.
Weiner’s sexting was not illegal or even all that uncommon, but this time it feels worse. Not only has he betrayed his wife yet again, but the lies he told to the press and the public reveal a stunning lack of good judgment. Moreover, some of the sexts were quite degrading to women, and the impulsivity implied in continuing such behavior is extremely disturbing in someone wanting to be a leader. So what on earth is going on with Anthony Weiner? While I cannot know for sure (since I do not personally know him), Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) certainly could explain a lot.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists nine criteria for NPD, including a constant need for attention and praise; a willingness to exploit other people for personal gain; a belief that he is unique and special; an expectation of special treatment; and a preoccupation with power or success. Any of those sound familiar? A recent New York Times article on Weiner lends support for some of the symptoms. For example, Weiner explained his sexting behavior as, “…just another way to feed this notion that I want to be liked and admired.” The sexting in general could be seen as exploiting others, as could some of the rumors about the poor way he treated his staff. Even his willingness to continue with the dangerous behavior can be viewed through a NPD lens, given that he didn’t think he would be caught: “It wasn’t until after the train had run me over that I really understood that playing on those tracks was going to be problematic. I just had this disconnect.”
Another example comes from the story of when Anthony first asked Huma out. She initially said no because she had to work, but then he then turned to her boss (Hillary Clinton) and asked if she would be willing to give Huma the night off, an indication that he believed he should be granted special favors. Finally, it is clear that he has some level of fixation about power. Unfortunately, people with NPD can’t or won’t change their behavior when it causes problems at work, when others complain about their behavior, or even when their behavior causes a lot of emotional distress to others. And that sounds very much like Anthony Weiner.
Yet, he doesn’t seem to be alone in his NPD-like behavior. One could argue that, despite the rare prevalence of NPD, the criteria could easily describe most US politicians. The thought of this is truly disturbing because, if many of our elected officials have NPD or develop NPD-like symptoms once in office, then we have a whole country being run by severely mentally ill people. The more I think about this, the more true it seems, as we obviously have a lot of elected representatives who have a sense of grandiosity and tout their own achievements (real or not), while having only a modicum of empathy for the rest of us. Yikes!
So what should we do? Perhaps we should consider the ways in which our current electoral process promotes narcissistic tendencies, and work to change them. We could decrease the amount of special treatment elected representatives receive, increase the consequences of exploiting people for personal gain, call out exaggerated accomplishments and — above all — emphasize empathy for others. And, maybe while we’re at it, take the money and excessive power out of politics. After all, elected leaders are supposed to work for the people and not for their own personal advancement. It’s possible that we could even make the phrase “humble public servant” popular again.
As for Anthony Weiner, it is up to the people of New York City to decide whether they can trust him to effectively guide them. If it were up to me, I’d have serious reservations about someone whose need for admiration leads to stupid behaviors and who cannot seem to stop what he’s doing even when he knows it is damaging to others. But hey, it’s politics. Until we change the way we do things, narcissistic behavior is just business as usual.