High profile misconduct cases have impacts at many levels
Psychologists offer strategies to reconcile conflicting emotions
On Wednesday morning, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie welcomed viewers to the “Today” show by announcing the firing of the program’s long-time co-anchor, Matt Lauer.
Guthrie read a statement from NBC News Chairman Andy Lack that cited “inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace” as the reason for his termination.
“All we can say is that we are heartbroken,” Guthrie said on air. “I am heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear friend and my partner, and he is beloved by many, many people here. And I’m heartbroken for the brave colleague who came forward to tell her story and any other women who have their own stories to tell.
“We are grappling with a dilemma that so many people have faced these past few weeks. How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly? And I don’t know the answer to that.”
Hoda Kotb, sitting alongside Guthrie at the anchor desk, said on air, “I’ve known Matt for 15 years, and I’ve loved him as a friend and as a colleague. And again, just like you were saying, Savannah, it’s hard to reconcile what we’re hearing with the man who we know, who walks in this building every single day.”
In the cases of Lauer, Harvey Weinstein and dozens of other powerful men now accused of sexual misconduct, their accusers, their friends and the general public are struggling to reconcile two sides of people they once admired and may still even care for.
The terminology some women once used to describe these men included hero, mentor, champion, idol. Now, they don’t know what to call them.
’Can you love someone who did bad things?’
A few weeks ago on her Hulu series, “I Love You, America,” comedian Sarah Silverman spoke candidly about her good friend and fellow comic Louis C.K., who stands accused by five women of sexual misconduct.
“This recent calling out of sexual assault has been a long time coming,” Silverman said on the show. “It’s good. It’s like cutting out tumors. It’s messy, and it’s complicated, and it’s going to hurt, but it’s necessary, and we’ll all be healthier for it. And it sucks, and some of our heroes will be taken down, and we will discover bad things about people we like or – in some cases – people we love.
“It’s a real mindf**k, because I love Louis, but Louis did these things. … So, I just keep asking myself, ‘Can you love someone who did bad things? Can you still love them?’ “
It’s a question many people across the country are asking in light of recent revelations.
“Of course you can still love people who do bad things,” psychiatrist Gail Saltz said. “It doesn’t make you a bad person that you love them, but it (also) doesn’t mean that it’s OK for you to give them a job and a pass and a ‘That’s OK, keep going about doing your crime.’
“On a societal level, we have to have rules, and rules when broken have to have punishments, or we don’t have a civilized society,” Saltz added. “To some degree, these things have happened so ubiquitously because there have not been ramifications because … the system has been broken.”
Psychologist Jeff Gardere said, “What I see with Sarah Silverman and many people that I’ve talked to, they actually go through a grieving process, because in many ways they feel like they have placed their love and their trust in someone who wasn’t really ‘real’ to begin with.”
How to reconcile multiple truths
Guthrie, Silverman and numerous others are painstakingly processing how someone they trusted, respected and thought they knew could do these until-now-unspeakable things to their vulnerable colleagues.
And this dilemma is not just about public figures. Claims of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior happen in companies of all sizes.
So, what do you do if someone you know and care about – a good friend or family member – is accused of wrongdoing?
“If it’s really horrendous and traumatic, sometimes what goes on is a dissociation and compartmentalization in an extreme way,” Saltz said. “In other words, not letting your mind know of the bad stuff when you need to be feeling the good stuff. And denial can be incredibly powerful, to the point of symptoms like depersonalization. Kids who have been through a trauma literally do not feel present in their bodies when the bad things are going on.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Saltz said, is a realization that this person you like or even love has been good to you in some ways but not in others.
“People are very complex, and throughout history, there have been people who have done good things and who have presented themselves in particular ways, but yet they have a dark side,” Gardere said. “Depending on what it is that they’ve done and how dark that side is, does that dark side completely overshadow the rest of their lives?”
Saltz, who is also the author of “Anatomy of a Secret Life,” said that sometimes the inclination to act out is balanced out by guilt, shame and regret.
The result, she said, is something called “splitting,” which happens when “people who have had urges to do some very bad things, rather than allow themselves to really think about that or process that … they compartmentalize it and in fact deny it vigorously in their head by doing the opposite.”
When it comes to reconciling your own feelings, Saltz recommends trying to be “aware of it all” at the same time: allowing yourself to feel the conflict and ambivalence about the person who let you down.
“That’s what’s so hard for people: to be ambivalent,” she said. “Everyone wants it to be black or white. It’s more comfortable. It’s less anxiety-producing.” On the other hand, “it’s more anxiety-producing to go, ‘I love you, but I don’t like you … and in some ways that makes you not a good person to me.’ “
The risks of role models
For the close friends and families of Lauer and Louis C.K., the challenge of reconciling conflicting feelings is undeniable. But even for people who have admired a public figure from a distance, it can be difficult to come to terms with negative revelations.
When CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently sat down with singer Jessie J to discuss her songwriting, he asked a straightforward question: Who are your role models? Her answer was unexpected.
“I don’t do role models; I do inspirations,” Jessie J replied. “I used to be proud to be a role model, and I’m not anymore, because people put you in a box. And as soon as you break it, they’re disappointed in you. … There is no one in this world that can do everything that you want them to do. It’s impossible.”
Instead, the pop star said she draws inspiration from her family, her friends – even patients she’s met through her work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“Just people on the street that I watch; people on my team that I’ve seen get through things that I don’t know how they could,” she said. “Artists like Lauryn Hill, Nina Simone, Whitney Houston – and people going, ‘Oh, what inspired you?’ And I’m like, ‘Just moments. Just little things that they did that maybe I’m not ready to do yet, but I could do it because they do it.’ “
“Insightful” is how Saltz described Jessie J’s point of view.
“We all have strengths and weaknesses,” Saltz said. “It’s human nature to idolize and have this role model idea that everything is great and perfect. It may be a human wish and desire, but nobody is all-everything.”
Gardere, who is also an assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Touro College, said this is a lesson we should have learned a long time ago. “We are so invested in what we see as far as appearances – especially people in the media or political figures – that we buy in lock, stock and barrel that these are our heroes, these are our leaders, these are our mentors, these are our idols,” he said. “I think we’re learning that the reality is, you just can’t embrace someone based on one aspect of their lives.
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“With TV, movies or what have you, you can admire a character a person plays, but don’t blend the lines in thinking … the persona they give on TV is necessarily who they are in real life,” he said.
“I think looking up to aspects is, in a way, healthier,” Saltz said. “Or, you can have a role model, but understand that a role model is not a perfect person, because there is no such thing.”