“I take full responsibility and I deeply regret any hurt or pain I might have caused anyone by my actions and indiscretions.”
How manly. How mature. Yes, I’m talking about Anthony Weiner, and the long punch line of men (I really can’t think of an equivalent errant woman) who have eloquently apologized for their misdeeds—after the fact.
Let’s back it up, shall we? The pundits ask, How could you be so foolish as to tweet, cheat, stray, deceive, and so on? Or they wonder, Why would you risk power, position, family? Were you so deluded that you thought you’d be the one not to get caught? Theories abound about narcissism and power, which help us understand the confounding behavior. Think Bill Clinton or Arnold Schwarzenegger or . . . well, you know the list.
But before the sneaking and the secrets and the lies and the cover-ups comes the impulse to “act out” in the first place.
“Oh, but it feels good. I want it,” they think. Or, “Because I can.”
True responsibility, Weiners of the world, is not acting on the urge in the first place.
What they’re missing is good old-fashioned impulse control. You know, the kind we’re supposed to learn as kids. The kind that keeps us from eating every cookie in the cookie jar just because we want to. The kind that keeps us from beating up our little brother whenever we feel like it.
And that’s not so easy in a culture that celebrates instant gratification and pleasure over mindfulness and maturity.
I’m a therapist working with drug addicts and alcoholics. Most of them are in treatment because they’ve gotten into some kind of trouble— physical, legal, financial, marital, academic, professional—as a result of their substance abuse. Some are in treatment because they want to be, some because other people want them to be.
In my recovery groups, we talk about relapse prevention. One strategy is to identify triggers—people, places, things—and learn to manage them. Another strategy is called “playing the tape all the way through.” If I act on this impulse—this desire to feel good or powerful or numb—what will it lead to? What has it led to in the past? Stop. Think. Project into the future. How will I feel about myself? Is it worth it? What will I gain? What will I lose?
I have a kid in one of my early recovery groups, let’s call him Mack. Mack is nineteen and drank beer and smoked marijuana all through middle school and high school before getting into painkillers like Percocet, Vicodin, and Oxycontin. He became addicted and, because of the expense, picked up a heroin habit. Not an uncommon path.
So Mack hasn’t used anything in a few weeks. He comes to my group late, chomping on a big, thick chocolate bar, high-fiving all the other guys upon his entrance.
“Mack,” I say. “You’re late. Please sit down and put away the candy bar.”
“Whaddya mean?” he says, flashing an angry look.
“You know the rule. No food in group.”
“When did you ever say that?” he says.
The other boys jump in, “Yeah, you never said that. Why shouldn’t he be able to eat? He’s hungry! He’s probably had a hard day! He deserves it.”
“Mack,” I say. “You can choose to leave the room and finish your candy bar and come back next week, or you can put it away and eat it later.”
He continues chewing. He tries to stare me down. Then he jumps up with a dramatic flourish, walks past me, and throws the candy bar in the garbage can. Later, he apologizes profusely and promises it won’t happen again, after I threaten him with a few weeks’ timeout from the group.
Bottom line: We don’t get to do whatever we want whenever we want to. We don’t get to express our every thought and act on our every whim. It causes problems. And apologizing after the fact doesn’t cut it.
But how do we learn to control our urges and impulses? Practice, man, practice. Counting to ten. Taking deep breaths. Redirecting action. Identifying triggers. Asking for help. Putting as much time and space as possible between the thought and the action. Then we’re at least empowered to make a better choice.
So back it up, boys. Grow up. Think before you act.
And if that’s too much to ask, at least keep your candy bar in your pocket.