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Self-defeating Behavior

What could he have possibly been thinking?

What could possess a man to act with such recklessness to jeopardize everything he’s acquired personally and professionally – a US Congressional seat, a strong and growing political reputation and the powerful friends that come with it, a brand new marriage to an attractive and bright up-and-comer in her own right, a future of limitless promise – over something so astonishingly stupid?  We’re not talking about a novice adult here, some nineteen year old kid filled with naïve trust in the good will of others and belief in his own imperviousness.  Been there- most of us have – and it didn’t work out as well as we hoped but, oh well, lessons learned and we moved forward with a few small battle scars and whole lot more knowledge of life’s realities. 

No, we’re talking about an experienced, well-educated, well-mentored, and well-regarded 46 year old man who knew better.  We’re talking, of course, about Congressman Anthony Weiner, he of the now infamous twitters of his… well, of his “little namesake.”  If you’ve been in deep cover in some third-world media desert, or a coma, these past few weeks and you’re not up on exactly who Anthony Weiner is, take this time to Google him.  Go ahead, we’ll wait.  For added fun, type “erect wiener” in the search bar (especially if you’re on a work computer right now; you’ll get to have a hilarious, fun-filled talk about it with the Chief, your union rep, an EAP counselor, and the city attorney later on).

It’s not like Weiner didn’t have plenty of examples of politicians mastered by their own poor judgment.  Earlier this year, Congressman Christopher Lee of western New York (the same state Weiner serves) resigned amid the scandal of sending shirtless photos of himself to a woman who had posted a “women seeking men” ad on Craigslist.  That he had a wife apparently slipped his mind.  Who could forget Senator Larry Craig being brought down by his now infamous “wide-stance” in a Minneapolis airport men’s room?  And Weiner’s officiate at his own wedding was former President Bill Clinton (“…and do you, Anthony David Weiner, promise to forsake all others… heh heh, heeee… I’m sorry, that gets me every time!  Okay, movin’ on…”)!  You would think he’d know better, or at least have enough cautionary role models to make better public choices.

So, what could have come over him and caused him to act out in such a self-destructive way?  Was it temporary insanity?  A cry for help or attention?  A collective answer to the bedtime prayers of late night TV talk show hosts and stand up comedians everywhere?  Maybe, but more likely it was just a very public manifestation of one of humankinds’ most mysterious but common afflictions:  our strange propensity for self-destruction.

Public figures are easy targets.  Politicians and entertainers (and doesn’t the line between them seem to blur more and more every day?) fall hard and with great infamy.  Sports heroes become uncomfortably ordinary in their failings.  Everyday folk crash and burn in relative obscurity – with law enforcement often holding a front row ticket to their unraveling - although their failings are no less devastating as they derail careers, shred families, shatter reputations. 

And even cops can be remarkably human in their ability to “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

A recent incident from an Illinois city very near us illustrates just how fast and shockingly the self-annihilation of personal and professional reputation can happen.  A 37 year old Deputy Chief, a fast rising star both inside and out of his own department, is alleged to have been caught stealing prescription drugs – specifically narcotic painkillers such as hydrocodone - that had been turned in to the department as part of its unwanted medication disposal program by city residents.  Charged with a felony, demoted and placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an administrative review that will likely cost him his job, and having almost certainly destroyed any possible future in law enforcement, we can only wonder, “What could he have possibly been thinking?”

Unfortunately, his is not the only story of high-profile police meltdowns leading to criminal or civil charges, career destruction, personal loss, and black eyes for the profession. 

Fortunately, stories of such gross malfeasance, although certainly prominent when they happen, are actually relatively rare.  Imagine a US city populated – solely - by every sworn US law enforcement officer.  The population of that imaginary city would fall somewhere between that of San Francisco and Detroit, but its crime rate would be miniscule in comparison.   Overall, we are statistically a very well-behaved bunch!

The problem for most of us, whether in law enforcement or not, is not the high-profile, hugely destructive meltdown exemplified above.  It’s the small, day-to-day rejections of success, failures to launch, and acts of personal self-sabotage that haunt us and hurt us in our careers and personal lives.  They are more common than you think. 

Consider these (not so really) hypothetical people you may know (or be):

  • The veteran patrol cop, bitter over his lack of promotion or career advancement, who blames the administration, his bosses, the “brown nose’s” who do get the assignments or stripes he feels entitled to, politics, or any number of other villains for his woes.  Oddly, that he never puts in for anything, takes the promotional exams (or bothers to study if he does), or considers politicking on his own behalf never comes up.
  • The veteran patrol cop who does take charge of her own destiny and advancement,  only to pull a stunt so thoughtless as to derail herself on the eve of succeeding – sometimes over and over again.
  • A buddy, married to wife number four (and vowing to really make it work this time!!) whom you catch striking up a dangerous flirtation with that new Records Clerk.  It was flirting with wives two, three, and four that derailed marriages one, two, and three, respectively.
  • That old college friend who, despite being bright and hard-working, never quite closed the deal and dropped out just short of graduation.  He’s spent the last twenty years four credits shy of a degree and light years from achieving his potential.
  • There are even college instructors (always an adjunct, never a Prof) whose unfinished and unsubmitted dissertations collect dust, who will never enjoy the benefits their doctorate could bring them. 

These are just a few examples we can probably all relate to, because we probably all know someone just like them.  There are countless others out there. 

Psychologists have questioned and studied self-defeating behavior and found that it does exist, in some to the point of almost having the traits of a separate, specific mental illness.  For the most severely self-defeating people, there was a proposed, but rejected, diagnostic classification of self-defeating personality disorder suggested for the third and fourth editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III and DSM IV). 

Whether self-defeating/self-destructive behavior is part of a persistent pattern or situational, it is something that touches all of us at some time or another.  Whether the alleged behavior and personal and professional collapses of Anthony Weiner and the Deputy Chief were intentional (even if subconsciously) I cannot say right now.  It’s likely they can’t either, unless and until they get help from a professional to dig into their psyches.  What I can say is this:  Patterns of self-defeating behavior are something that hold a great many people back from their maximum achievement.  Do you have any holding you back?  Are you interested in finding out?  Do you want to correct any you may have? 

Self-defeating behaviors are something we all need to be aware of and look closely at so we can recognize, root out, and discard them.  Choosing success is the theme we consistently push, and specifically what we will be looking at further in coming columns.

In the meantime, Stay Safe!

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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.