The Psychology of Lord Sewel's Risk Taking
Another summer and another mind-boggling scandal. John Sewel, Baron Sewel, Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords and Chair of the committee committed to raising standards of behaviour in the House of Lords, was secretly filmed apparently sniffing cocaine with two prostitutes. He appears half-naked making derogatory comments about Asian woman and his parliamentary colleagues. He is 69 years old, married with four children who must be going through hell at this exposure. ‘What a fool’, ‘what a hypocrite’ are some of the milder terms used about his behaviour. Yet how do we understand this level of risk taking? He is certainly not alone. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the IMF, was accused of raping a chambermaid in his hotel room. Bill Clinton was nearly impeached for his improper relationship with a young intern. Not all men who commit sexual indiscretions are the same but I think there is at core a certain mind-set and personality that makes their behaviour possible.
Each time you take a risk and get away with it you feel more invincible.
Firstly, they don’t believe they will be caught. I would assume John Sewel has taken this kind of risk before which is why he was targeted by the Sun on Sunday newspaper. Each time you take a risk and get away with it you feel more invincible. In fact the odds are just stacking up that you will eventually be caught.
Secondly, I think that there is a belief in their ‘uniqueness’. One law for others, another for themselves. They don’t have to obey the same rules as ordinary people. They are different. Thirdly, I suspect that they tell themselves that they deserve special treatment. They work hard, and need ‘a treat’. After all, who is going to get hurt if no one knows. The personality I am describing is surely a narcissist. Concerned with his own needs with little or no empathy for the needs of the other. The fact that Baron Sewel did not immediately quit the Lords despite his previous vocal concerns about the damage done to Parliament by scandals of this nature tells us that he can’t see the full reality and impact of his actions. Others should me punished by exclusion, not him. Only when more video evidence emerged did he accept the fact that he could no longer stay on in the Lords.
But why isn’t his successful professional life and quite possibly a reasonable home life not sufficient?
His middle class parents burdened him with the middle name of Buttifant. It speaks of their expectations rather than his personal needs. He is clearly an able and talented man. But why isn’t his successful professional life and quite possibly a reasonable home life not sufficient? Narcissists need success to feel good about themselves because success can, for a time, cover early, deep emotional wounds of not feeling loveable enough, good enough or simply enough. At their core, narcissists feel empty and disconnected from others. No success however large can forever cover such feelings and so risk taking becomes a way of feeling alive and special.
Each risk taken and survived gives a buzz and a high. I am not an ageing, 69 year old with my best years behind me. I am Master of the Universe. And so blindly he hires prostitutes, paying with a traceable cheque, an intelligent man not giving a second thought to the lives he will wreck so that he can feel potent.
Sue Cowan-Jenssen is a therapist on the welldoing directory