While Bernie Madoff’s empire was falling apart, remember how he would walk past the cameras with no sign of emotion except for a small, nervous smirk? That impassivity was more infuriating to many of his victims than if he had cracked under the strain, wept, and tried to explain or apologize for what he had done.
Despite scattered signs of hope and recovery, many of us face the real or potential crash of our own “empire” every day: a job loss, shattered dreams, a strained or broken marriage, loan default, even bankruptcy. With all this stress, it’s no wonder so many people are experiencing various forms of meltdown. Some of us react, like Mr. Madoff, by acting as if nothing serious were happening; others reach out for help, and still others shut down and hide from the world. These different behaviors require special understanding–and different interventions.
Q: I happened to walk into my colleague’s office the other day, and he was sobbing. While it was a little tough to get him to open up about what was going on, it turns out that his marriage is breaking up, partly because of the economic crisis and the money pressure it’s put on his family. He’s usually a strong person, and I told him to talk to me if he needed any help, but I don’t know how to really help him. Does he need a grief therapist? How do I find a good one in my small town?
A: Our society values stoicism, and tends to view breaking down in public as a sign of emotional instability. (When Hillary Clinton misted up under stress, it made many people doubt whether she was presidential timber.) But it’s both normal and healthy for people to need to grieve for life disruptions that involve loss and letting go of the past. No matter whether your colleague has had a good or bad marriage, something is being ripped apart as it ends. The pain may catapult him into the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and at last (hopefully) reconciliation with a new reality. Meanwhile, his financial losses are engendering grief and sadness as well. In short, this normally well-functioning guy is reeling from a double whammy of loss and sorrow. No wonder he’s sobbing at his desk!
You’re a sensitive friend to tune in to his concurrent losses and think about finding assistance for him. I would suggest taking him out for coffee or lunch and asking him about his sources of support. If he isn’t making time to de-stress himself, you may be able to help by taking walks with him or going to the gym together. Find out if he has access to a pastoral counselor or spiritual support group.
Although a grief counselor is a fine eventual choice, he might consider a marital therapist, who can help him and his wife decide if this is truly the time to call it quits. If so, this professional will help them give the relationship what I like to call a respectful burial, honoring what they had even if it has now ended. Or, he may be able to get through this crisis with the aid of any good therapist who connects well with him. If this is necessary, many therapists charge on a sliding scale for clients who are financially stressed.
Q: While taking the train to work today, I ran into a former client who was also headed into the city, dressed in a suit and tie and carrying his laptop case. Having heard through the grapevine that he’d recently been laid off, I thought he might have a new job. However, he volunteered to me that he goes in to “work” at an Internet cafe every day. It’s to “keep the rhythm going,” he said. I understand that it’s important for some people to keep up appearances, but this seems like he’s in denial. What’s your opinion?
A: It’s perfectly understandable that you first thought this might be a charade. However, there is considerable therapeutic value in people’s resilience and ability to “act as if” they are confident in the midst of a serious setback. Your former client’s determination to keep his routine going and make job-hunting at the caf? his work may be just what the doctor ordered. With this discipline, he is able to keep on keeping on instead of being paralyzed or laid low by his job loss and concomitant sense of failure.
David DeSteno, a Northeastern University psychologist, points out in an April 7 New York Times article that pride is vital “for thriving in difficult social circumstances, in ways that are not at all obvious.” Research noted in this article (“When All You Have Left Is Your Pride”) indicates that whether you feel “authentic” pride, based on real accomplishments, or “hubristic” pride, which is closer to arrogance or narcissism, putting on a good face can convince others that you are worthy of respect.
So I applaud your client’s continuing to function in this way, with one important caveat: unless he is one of those people who recover better from trauma or crisis on their own, his solo solution may fail if he tries to hide his true situation from everyone in his world, thereby isolating himself from sources of comfort and support. An awareness of when you need help, in combination with “acting as if” you feel confidence and hope, may be the best remedy to restore balance.
Q: I’m at my wits’ end. My clients are so needy that I haven’t had a chance to reassess my own family’s financial situation. Everyone at the office is earning less, my wife complains that she never sees me, and our youngest child has just been diagnosed with a problem that may require surgery. I know these worries aren’t even in the right order. I haven’t slept well in days, and keep having episodes where my heart races and I think I’m having a heart attack. I need to get a grip on myself, but how?
A: It sounds like your personal tachometer is definitely redlining–a warning to ease off before you break down. To begin with, I’d suggest that you put all your work aside at least once a week (twice is better) to spend quality time with your wife, doing something that costs little but brings you respite and fun. Take care to exercise and eat well. Meditation, breathing exercises, or relaxation practice can all be beneficial ways to shift down to a lower gear.
You should also consider visiting your family doctor. If there’s nothing organically wrong, he or she may recommend that you see a pastoral counselor or therapist to help you cope with your stress. As to your money worries, have you considered consulting another financial advisor for some impartial assistance? Just as therapists need therapy from other therapists (because we can’t easily mirror our blind spots and patterns to ourselves), I believe that advisors occasionally need to consult their peers for help in planning for themselves.