What do Lance Armstrong and Bernie Madoff have in common? Are they a different species from each other and from us? No, they are all too human. Like many of us, they want to be superhuman. The difference from the rest of us? They feel driven and entitled to go for it at any cost.
It starts out with feeling entitled to get what you want no matter what. You want to look good and be great, without the work it takes.
It's like being the "Great Impostor." Lance and Bernie alike are great impostors. The goal is power and glory -- without the work, but even more so without the risk of failure and humiliation.
A subsidiary goal involves looking benevolent and being adored. You're on the board of charities, you give away some of your money, without letting out what a paltry amount it really is compared to what you're stealing.
If you are lucky enough to succeed through your lies like sports dopers who break all the records, like dishonest politicians who rise to the top, or like fraudulent investors who become wealthy -- then you are stuck living the fiction forever. Your lies become the very fabric of your life and there's no turning back. It's not that you believe your lies; you're not stupid. You cannot live without your lies. If the truth comes out, then it's all over for you.
Lance Armstrong is among the most successful dopers of all time, but there are lots of lesser dopers as well, right down to the lawyer who takes cocaine up his nose to keep up his courage and energy in the face of his upcoming trial.
Some dopers and financial frauds need a group in order to succeed. They need co-conspirators. Lance had his team, Bernie his family. They may even feel some loyalty. The pressure of lying and the fear of getting caught sets the little group apart, a kind of mini-cult that breeds an "us against the world" mentality. It keeps up their spirits while they lie and cheat. But these attachments are likely to fall apart when the truth comes out, and when the scandals and the prosecutions begin.
A comparison to drug abuse and lying in childhood can be enlightening. Working with families as a therapist, I see children begin to lie when they feel alienated from their parents or fearful that they cannot meet their expectations. The lying becomes a habit, so easy to use, and so automatic, the child seemingly cannot let go of it.
The answer for children is not punishment but a rebuilding of trust. I tell these children -- and they get it -- that lying is like drug addiction. It seems easy and even indispensable, but it will make them feel more alone and even less able to succeed or gain approval in the normal ways. Then I work with the parents to help them to guide their children toward more fulfilling lives.
If and when children start using drugs or alcohol, the gulf between themselves and their parents grows. Lying becomes yet more embedded in their lives. The chemical "high" that they get replaces their shattered dreams of being successful, respected and loved in the real world. It's similar to doping, but in doping the individual is actually working at something, and the high comes from reaching superhuman greatness, power and glory, regardless of the cost.
With the child, setting limits and trust building can help to change the youngster's life. Any child with the right help can outgrow the shortcuts and detours of lying and drug abuse or addiction.
What about remorse when adults like Lance Armstrong or Bernie Madoff see the light and fess up in public?
Lance Armstrong is now playing the "mea culpa" card. Don't believe it. The odds are overwhelming that he's too embedded in a life of lies to work his way out of it. Besides, he's still under assault from a teammate-turned-whistleblower, and the U.S. Department of Justice may be going after him. He wants to hang on to the shreds of his life and to protect his embattled fortune. He'll do what he does best, without or with drugs. He'll lie.
He left that behind decades ago.
Peter R. Breggin, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice in Ithaca, New York, and the author of more than twenty books and dozens of scientific articles. His most relevant book to this blog is The Heart of Being Helpful. His most recent book is Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal: A Guide for Prescribers, Therapists, Patients and Their Families. His professional website is www.breggin.com. Dr. Breggin's national nonprofit organization, The Center for the Study of Empathic Therapy, is holding its annual conference in Syracuse New in April of this year. Learn about the organization and conference at www.empathictherapy.org.
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