A Psychologist’s Perspective of Howard Stern: Why Therapy Works
I love Howard Stern. Like a whole lot. And people judge me for it. But when I’m done explaining him, they mostly end up loving him too. Mostly…
The “Old” Howard Stern set his stamp on the world as the so-called “Shock Jock” of the 80s and 90s. He wrote best-selling books, had a #1 Movie, a sitcom, and the list goes on and on. He was hilarious, angry, and pushed every limit possible. He put everything about himself on the air including his wife’s miscarriage. Howard was able to build an adult version of Mad Magazine, his childhood favorite childhood magazine and created a real-life “usual gang of idiots.”
While Howard was building his empire, he was also demonstrating very little self-awareness of his dependent and histrionic personality. Some consider him a narcissist, but I don’t buy that. Rather than having a personality disorder as suggested by the psychologist, Dr. Debbie Magids, I think he has significant issues related to attachment.
Attachment is formed early in life in which an infant or child learns that his or her basic needs can be met including not only food and shelter but also love and attention. The child can grow and learn that he is safe and the world is safe. But without such nurturing and the addition of emotional or physical abuse, you create a child who believes the world is bad and that he is bad as well. This child either gives up or takes on the strategy of controlling everything possible.
Attachment disordered kids attempt to control the world either emotionally or cognitively.
Growing up, Howard was chased by his mom with coat hangers, called names and screamed at by his father, and he received very little positive attention. Also, he was somewhat isolated in his hometown of Roosevelt, NY, a primarily black neighborhood where he was repeatedly subjected to beatings. Through these early formative experiences, Howard likely picked up attachment issues.
In adulthood, attachment can cause significant difficulties with intimacy as well emotional outbursts and periods of emotional flatness. Externalization of blame but inward self-loathing is common as well as lots of neuroses including obsessing on perfection. Ultimately there is a lack of emotional awareness or even understanding of emotions with a fairly steady fight or flight response.
Howard would describe pretty horrible events in his life which were very sad and difficult to hear. But the affect associated with these memories was laughter. Howard mentioned in an interview with Rolling Stone, “I was completely closed off from my feelings.”
In 2001, Howard divorced. By his own account, he never expected to be the guy who gets a divorce. After having been faithful to his wife for 25 years, Howard was on his own. And he went wild. He reported on air how he tried to have sex with every woman he could. His attachment issues unconsciously affected his decision-making. He couldn’t be alone and needed intimacy. But he had no earthly idea how to be intimate.
Howard stated, “I just wanted somebody with me every minute. I was using women as a surrogate mother.”
Not necessarily as a direct result but partly in response to the divorce, he turned to intensive psychotherapy to figure out a path forward. Therapy gave the world a New Howard Stern. He was terrified of therapy but went anyway, sometimes four days a week. His curiosity about people turned toward learning about himself, something he had never attempted and likely specifically avoided.
The “New” Stern became self-aware. Emotions matched his circumstances, and he could finally be reflective and not just impulsively angry or controlling. Therapy allowed him to recognize, integrate, and accept the severity of his childhood and his need for acceptance from his father.
“I had never really opened up to someone. I never had conversations like that with another human being, let alone a man. And I never in a serious way thought about how I felt about anything. I was completely closed off from my feelings...”
The best outcome for Howard Stern has been multi-faceted. Through understanding and working through his complicated and traumatic childhood, the basic need of emotional safety was met. He no longer needed to live in a world of fight or flight never being able to express his emotions. The interviews he now conducts are the best I’ve ever heard likely because his emotions are unlocked, and he can be in the moment, safe, and intimate.
With his basic need met, emotional safety, he can fully enjoy and explore life through marrying a seemingly self-actualized woman who can be his friend and partner (Bet Stern). Listening to Howard speak of his wife is now beautiful. And if you told me back in 1985 that the future Howard would be heavily involved in saving kittens, I would say you were insane. But guess what? He dedicates his home to rescue abandoned cats and supports the North Shore Animal League. The Old Howard could never have done this.
While his show still has all the profanity and crude bits that he is known for, everything about the Stern Show seems more clever and sharp. Howard Stern is a feminist, philanthropist, and finally a mature adult. Therapy didn’t kill his humor. If anything his humor is magnified, and he can channel that old anger and hurt into an even funnier material.
Some have said you can only be funny if your childhood was messed up. So based on that assumption in conjunction with Stern being one of the funniest if not the funniest humans I have ever heard, it’s safe to assume his childhood really was pretty messed up.
And so, here’s to you, Howard Stern! Congratulations on being an adult.
I appreciate your support of therapy and enjoyment of life. But also thank you for enriching my life through everything you do. And if you haven’t experienced him, sign up for Sirius and listen to him “On Demand.”