Psychoanalyzing An Employee’s Betrayal

Sunday, September 1, 2019
Glendale, California

Psychoanalyzing An Employee’s Betrayal

The most painful of interpersonal trauma—betrayal by spouses, relatives, or friends often leads people to seek help from psychoanalysts like me.

Of all people, it was Sigmund Freud who identified the three major sources of pain in life.

Anyone can be felled by a sudden injury, develop a life-threatening illness, or be rejected, abandoned, or otherwise hurt by another human being.

In Freud’s view, this latter type of pain, namely the interpersonal one, was the worst. 

It makes sense to me because love helps with these other misfortunes.

Disruptions in the area of love itself seem, indeed, to be the most painful.

Evil may be understood as a uniquely human breach. In other words, deadly cyclones, earthquakes, or floods are tragic. And, yet, none of them involves one person doing to another what the perpetrator knows would pain the victim. Evil involves malice aforethought—knowledge of how the injured party will be affected.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of interpersonal evil would be the banner over Auschwitz’s work yard which read:

Work shall set you free. 

That was a total and complete lie, really a form of sadism.

In this posting, I dissect a much more benign example of evil, namely a betrayal of an employer by an employee.

Not as painful as the straying spouse, or the sudden ending of a friendship. However, the colleague who consulted me to work through his employee’s sudden and unexpected resignation exemplifies a more unusual form of betrayal. Also, it allows an opportunity to demonstrate how psychoanalysts, or psychotherapists of any ilk, might work with such a case—one involving possible racism, unconscious hostility or guilt, enabling, or other complex interpersonal themes.

Here’s the painful story:

My colleague, a Caucasian, male, Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in his mid-40s who I shall call Dr. Doe, had employed a part-time administrative assistant throughout his career as a psychotherapist. His first admin aide worked more than eight years. The employee gave him more than two-months’ notice when she quit. She trained her replacement. His second one worked only two years but also gave him notice and trained the next employee. The first two assistants were African-American.

As far as he could tell, Dr. Doe paid little heed to the race or ethnicity of the person he employed. He tended to hire people referred to him when he let out the word that he was looking for an assistant. He considered himself too fearful of hurting people to interview effectively. His most recent assistant—who quit after four years of employment without giving any notice whatsoever—was a Latina who I shall call Ms. Lopez.

One other relevant detail:

Dr. Doe, likely related to his own sensitivities, tended to be unusually generous. Although part-time administrative assistants tend to make around $20 per hour, Dr. Doe gave regular raises to his one employee. He paid the one who abruptly quit $35 per hour—a factor that may play a part in the betrayal. Also, he provided two-full weeks of PTO. He was extremely flexible with schedule, wanting his assistants to work only three half-days in his office and the rest at their homes.

In the month prior to the resignation in question, Dr. Doe began negotiating with Ms. Lopez for a reduction in her hours. He had less need for the assistance. He understood the significant reduction, from 20 hours per week to 10, might provide a financial hardship. Dr. Doe began discussing the reduction in November, hoping to have a new employment agreement signed by both parties by the first of the new year.

Dr. Doe and Ms. Lopez exchanged emails during the last two months of the year. She requested an hourly increase to $38 per hour—a full, $3 per hour raise. He considered the salary excessive, particularly since he had raised her rate from $33 to $35 at the start of the year.

Their email discussions reached a “paralysis,” the specific word Ms. Lopez used, during December. Dr. Doe wrote up a “final” employment agreement, noting he had tired of negotiating and thought his offer was fair. He indicated that he hoped she would accept it.

I read the emails, as well as the termination later he later received. I too thought Dr. Doe was kind and fair in his email exchanges with Ms. Lopez. But that was my interpretation. Dr. Doe’s and Ms. Lopez’s interpretations would always be more important than mine.

Meanwhile, at Ms. Lopez’ request, Dr. Doe provided her with an excellent letter of reference. (I reviewed it, and it was glowing and included specific, behavioral examples of her work.) He offered, repeatedly, to connect her with his colleagues who might her help—providing a way to help her make up the lost hours and income.

Dr. Doe had, for many years, depended upon his administrative assistant to do all of his billing and, most significantly, to complete complicated insurance forms for him. She worked 8a to 12noon, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Because half his practice involves working with children, he also asked Ms. Lopez to call parents to confirm or change appointment times for psycho-diagnostic testing or play therapy sessions. Dr. Doe had little working knowledge of his own billing program.

On the fateful Wednesday, Dr. Doe left the “final” employment contract for Ms. Lopez with a post-it reading, “please read, sign, and date.” Ms. Lopez came into the office, worked with a smile on her face, and asked him to sign the usual insurance forms before she left. Dr. Doe noticed the new employment contract was not among the documents. He chose to remain silent on the topic, assuming he and she would talk through the issue on Friday.

Earlier that morning, and fearing she might react to his “final” offer, Dr. Doe left Ms. Lopez a message noting he’d be free between 10a and noon in case she wanted to talk with him. Ms. Lopez left without comment at noon, as usual.

Around an hour after she left, Dr. Doe looked through his inbox and found a sealed envelope addressed to him. He opened it, thinking it might be a note left by one of his patients or their parents. Instead, it contained Ms. Lopez’s key card to the parking garage and the key to the suite.

It contained no note.

Dr. Doe immediately texted Ms. Lopez, asking,

are you resigning?

Feeling acutely annoyed, Dr. Doe added, a few minutes later,

PS. If this is your resignation, please forget that letter of reference I wrote for you.

Dr. Doe received no reply from the text.

The following day, a Thursday, his biller emailed him a copy of an email he had received from Ms. Lopez which read,

Please send your statements directly to Dr. Doe. I no longer work for him.

Dr. Doe waited until Friday to see if he heard from Ms. Lopez.

He did not.

Late Friday evening, Dr. Doe sent an email he entitled “closure.” It recounted the events of the prior two days, interpreting the biller’s note as a resignation, and wrote that he accepted Ms. Lopez’ resignation. In describing his reaction, he noted he felt,

stunned and saddened.

Dr. Doe left me a message that Friday night. I called him right back, and we met the next Monday.

During our initial session, he described feeling angry, hurt, and frightened. He was obsessing over the situation. The “unprofessional, even mean-spirited nature of the resignation” enraged him; he felt saddened by the loss of a woman with whom he’d had at least a courteous if not friendly relationship for four years, and; he feared for the future of his practice, particularly because he had relied so extensively on Ms. Lopez, like he had with prior assistants.

In unpacking the situation with him, we started, per usual, by looking at his part in the situation.

Proclaiming victimhood has become particularly popular in contemporary American culture.

Sometimes individuals are truly victimized—injured in a car accident, for example, dumped by their boyfriend or fall prey to a chronic medical condition like diabetes—to name just a few.

None chose their fate.

But they play a significant role in how they deal with their victimization after the fact. The person injured in the car accident can work aggressively to recover, the woman rejected can explore signs she missed or some part she played, and the diabetic, ideally, also works aggressively to adhere to the treatment regimen, i.e. eating healthily, monitoring blood sugar levels, etc.

Also, of course, psychoanalysts work with only their patients’ worlds.

As one of my early supervisors, Jim Grotstein, put it:

Patients present dreams during their sessions, dreams of their lives. If they happen to present a real dream for interpretation, then that is the dream within the dream of the session.

Depth psychotherapists exert extra caution when attempting to interpret anyone’s behavior save the patient sitting before them.

All psychoanalyses are necessarily incomplete, but here are a few of the themes Dr. Doe and I uncovered:

First, Dr. Doe shared with me a handwritten note which Ms. Lopez left in his office waiting room early the Monday morning of our first session. In it, she recounted her own version of the prior few days. Ms. Lopez remembered the post-it attached to the employment agreement as reading,

Sign this and then file it away.  I’m done talking about this.

Later in the note, Ms. Lopez wrote, referring to the post-it,

I found this very threatening. 

She also later referred to Dr. Doe’s,

volatile and aggressive nature.

Dr. Doe explicitly denied that he had written anything on the post-it other than,

Please sign and leave us both copies.

Apropos the dream analogy, we’ll never know exactly what that post-it said.

(The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan famously said,

all communication is mis-communication.)

I had known Dr. Doe for years, mostly through professional association meetings. He seemed somewhat of a moody guy but certainly neither volatile nor aggressive. Nonetheless, we carefully considered the possibility that he could come off in a more angry way than he knew. We covered relationships with his wife, his one son, his friends, and his other relatives to look for other examples of anger. I saw none, and he saw none. But, unconscious anger or even just irritability still remains a possibility for him to consider.

Second, we explored possible racism on Dr. Doe’s part. He would be considered, to use the common, somewhat racist phrase (true irony), a white man of privilege. However, as a progressive liberal, he certainly did not consider himself a racist. He pointed to his generosity in salary, parking, and yearly bonuses as examples of his not only not being racist, but helping those less advantaged than him.

Much talk abounds these days of unconscious racism and sexism. To my knowledge, none of this has been empirically validated—the unconscious part, that is.

It is certainly possible, however.

I left Dr. Doe, after our total of four consultations, more aware of this possibility and more open to exploring it and thinking about it.

Third, and most powerful, was the possibility of enabling a sense of entitlement in Ms. Lopez. One of the more noteworthy elements of the case was Dr. Doe’s rather obvious over-generosity. Together, we uncovered an unconscious theme of his tending to over-give, to build up resentment at same, and then to become angry at whoever had benefited from his largesse. Interestingly, as you’ve already surmised, this lit up the first theme, namely him potentially sporting more anger than he knew.

We both concluded that his enabling a sense of entitlement at least contributed to the abrupt dissolution in the employment contract. It was noteworthy, for example, that their yearly discussions of salary increases had never had this level of animosity to them. In fact, no animosity had ever occurred previously, at least overtly and at least according to Dr. Doe.

Nonetheless, the fact that Ms. Doe had asked for an almost ten percent raise, from $35 to $38 per hour, after he’d raised her from $33 to $35 less than a year earlier, was surprising. He explained, and she understood, that he could not be expected to make up for the hours she was losing. He reiterated his offer to help her find part-time work with colleagues. It remained possible that Dr. Doe had contributed to a sense of entitlement which, when denied Ms. Lopez, elicited such anger in her that she quit in a huff.

Closely related to this entitlement theme, Dr. Doe and I also considered the fourth possibility that he had missed envious rage building up in Ms. Lopez. She was aware of how much Dr. Doe transferred from his business account each month. She knew the type of cars he owned, the vacations he took, and the restaurants where he ate.

Here, we risked veering into Ms. Lopez’ psyche, like we did with the entitlement issue. It seemed relevant, nonetheless, because our focus remained on what Dr. Doe might have missed. He considered this a possibility. Ms. Lopez had never overtly expressed any envy or jealousy. Also, Dr. Doe thought his generosity would have overshadowed it. In any event, it too was left open as a possibility for Dr. Doe to contemplate.

Fifth, and I am now clearly peering into, or at least hypothesizing, about Ms. Lopez’ mind, her behavior might have been motivated by an unconscious sense of guilt.

Ms. Lopez had, in terms of the overt nature of their employment contract, a fantastic deal. When she’d first started working, the 30 hours per week he paid her rarely required the full 20 hours of work.

Perhaps she felt guilty at exploiting him, even unconsciously, all those years?

Interestingly, when he reduced her hours from 30 to 20 per week, at around the two-year mark, they had no difficulty. But this might also explain the unconscious guilt theory. That level of reduction reduced Ms. Lopez’ guilt.

However, the more recent negotiation, reducing hours from 20 to 10, could still have left Ms. Lopez feeling, albeit unconsciously, guilty at the level of her compensation. She asked for a salary nearly double the market rate for admin assistants, still had a reserved, underground parking space, and could expect handsome bonuses at years’ end.

Like any theory of an unconscious motivation, particularly in a party not in the consulting room, it remains just that—a theory, a hypothesis, a possibility.

I consider it plausible.

Only Ms. Lopez herself can or will figure that out some day.

The final thing which left both Dr. Doe and me puzzled was the degree of anger demonstrated by Ms. Lopez. She was well aware that the timing of her departure would unsettle, if not outright frighten, Dr. Doe. A highly sensitive man, the episode upset Dr. Doe sufficiently to keep him up at night, ruminate about what occurred, and make an appointment to consult me.

Also significant was the potential self-destructive nature of the act for Ms. Lopez herself. If she were to apply for another admin assistant position in the Covina area where Dr. Doe practices, the going rate would be around $20 per hour. She’d be taking an almost 75 percent pay cut! Also, she could hardly expect a letter of reference, or even a friendly phone call, from Dr. Doe to a future employer. This fact supports the various hypotheses of pent-up rage, envy and jealousy, or thwarted entitlement as motivating Ms. Lopez’ behaviors.

As I bring this unusually lengthy posting to a close, I emphasize the always-incomplete nature of psychoanalytic work. Also, intellectual knowledge of an unconscious pattern alone has an extremely limited effect on change.

Reflecting on our four sessions, I believe the insight into Dr. Doe’s overly generous pattern—one intending to make up for the loss of love he experienced early in his life—was the most growth-enhancing theme for him.

Ms. Lopez was never my patient, and the hypotheses about her are only guesses and only relevant in terms of helping Dr. Doe.

Hopefully, Dr. Doe will reflect on how he may be more aggressive than he realizes, will consider the possibility of racism in his attitudes, and will be more aware of how his lifestyle could elicit envy and/or jealousy in others.

Most importantly, I hope he ceases, or at least reduces, this cyclic pattern of over-giving, followed by expecting love and admiration, followed by increasing annoyance. Here, Dr. Doe risks enabling many others, including friends and relatives. He left clearly aware of the pattern, even pained by it. I expect he’ll be back because four sessions barely broke the surface on this well-worn if rather common pattern.


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