Part Two: Sleeping with Your Boss Comes at a Cost
Jen, a strikingly beautiful high-powered executive and mother of three children, worked hard for what she had—and she was about to throw it all away. When she walked into my office, panic was written all over her face. Her expression of fear and sadness sharply contrasted with the way she presented: She was dressed in the sort of expensive garments fit for her position as senior vice president of sales for a tech services company. As I would soon learn, that outward presentation extended beyond her looks—she and her husband Bill, who worked as an EMT, had just purchased a large house in a premier neighborhood in DC and their children attended one of the most prestigious private schools in the region. And yet, as I would also learn, her fear was very real. Jen had spent the last few months engaging in behavior that not only put her career on the line, but also her relationship with her husband and her entire family’s wellbeing. As she poured her heart out to me, there was no hiding it: Jen was a Self-Saboteur. I feared that if she didn’t address her self-sabotage now, her very life could be in danger.
Jen’s problems began five years earlier, when she first began to feel both lonely and alone in her marriage. Bill was rarely at home, opting to spend his time at the firehouse with his buddies. To mask her hurt, Jen began drinking heavily—especially when she was away on business travel. Her trips often included close contact with Harvey, her boss and the CEO of their company. Harvey was well known for his deceitful and manipulative dealings, both in business and in his personal life. Despite being married, he’d propositioned and slept with a number of former female employees at the company. He was also known for his vengeful personality—he had no problem crushing those who got in his way. Harvey had an eye for Jen for months before Jen finally took the bait. They slept together—and then they did it again, and again. She knew his bad reputation, but let herself be seduced by his flattery and compliments. Harvey made her feel beautiful, indispensable, brilliant, and desired. Jen knew the cost—her family relied on her salary for their new house and private school tuition—but she couldn’t pull herself away.
Months into the affair, Jen felt the weight of her decision—but when she hesitantly told Harvey she thought it would be best to end it once and for all, Harvey expressed his love for Jen and suggested they both leave their partners to be with one another. If she pursued the break-up further, Harvey could fire her… or worse. Paralyzed and panic stricken, Jen made her first appointment to see me.
Sitting across from me, panic-stricken and distressed, Jen spoke of a longing for stability in her life—and yet she behaved in ways that were seriously disruptive, even beyond the affair. She dabbled with cocaine and ecstasy, went on periodic spending sprees, slept too little and regularly walked a fine line between immense productivity and explosive outbursts of rage and anger—usually directed at her children. She was the center of her own tornado, neglecting everyone else’s emotional needs while she spun along in survival mode.
After listening intently to her story, I knew the first thing Jen needed was to know that she was not alone. I made a pact with her that day, directing her to call me the next time she was considering acting in a way that might threaten to damage or destroy her life—this included taking drugs or sleeping with her boss. By making myself available at all hours, I indicated that this would be a shared journey towards untangling her life. Only time would tell if my emotional support would help.
I also ordered genetic testing, and additional laboratory evaluations, and used them to more precisely prescribe medications and vitamin supplements to treat Jen’s underlying mood disorder and vitamin deficiencies. Talk-therapy can be invaluable. At the same time, it becomes far more effective when a person’s underlying brain cell functioning is normalized.
Self-Saboteurs unknowingly sabotage their lives by engaging in behavior that jeopardizes their prospects for longer-term happiness. As you learned in last week’s post, these behaviors can often arise in three key ways: We create narratives in our heads about why someone may be behaving in certain ways, generally based on past relationships, which may have nothing to do with the current relationship in question; we enact repertoires of behavior that are comfortable and familiar, and have been learned over the years, but may worsen our present prospects; and we respond reflexively to “triggers” that take place in our day-to-day lives.
As Jen continued to divulge her story, it became clear that her primary form of self-sabotage centered around enacting repertoires of behavior that were deeply rooted in a painful past. Our refusal to leave abusive relationships—or our entry into them in the first place—is often due to emotional underpinnings that make things “not that simple.” Jen’s complex relationship with her CEO was anchored by memories of a childhood in which love was scarce and unreliable. She grew up just above the poverty line in the care of two blue-collar parents. Jen’s father was distant and her mother was deeply critical and uncaring— their combined indifference left scars on Jen’s psyche and left her emotionally vulnerable. Her behaviors were often driven by deep needs not met in her childhood—to feel validated, to feel pretty, to feel special, to feel powerful. Harvey met these deep needs by fawning over her during their affair. At the same time, Jen was also driven by a need to avoid returning to her lower-middle class status at all costs. This made it especially difficult to break up with the man who held her career in his hands. Her vulnerability drew her to Harvey, who was able to discern this susceptibility and exploit it to his advantage, caring little about the havoc it could wreak.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Jen would often sob uncontrollably in our sessions. She felt unworthy, exposed as a fraud, and deserving to die. The way she spoke about herself led me to tears—and my visible displays of compassion made her feel less alone. She knew I was there by her side no matter what, and over time she began to believe that she was worthy of happiness.
Eventually, Jen began to break her self-sabotaging behavior. Instead of acting on her feelings, she brought them into therapy. Slowly, painstakingly, she found the courage to end the affair with Harvey. By working together on this issue, we saw that Harvey was in a more precarious position than she—Jen consulted an attorney who confirmed that if he fired her, she could sue him and the company for millions of dollars. Harvey didn’t take no for an answer—but when he understood the legal implications, he backed down.
Once we were able to stabilize Jen’s moods and bring her (and her brain function) back to solid ground, she could see her life more clearly—rather than through a lens of chaos and reactivity. No longer threatened with the specter of her marriage ending with a terrifying and publicly humiliating revelation, she began to see that it may need to end anyway. Now that she felt deserving of love, she realized the loneliness she felt was unfair to both her and Bill. Together, we began exploring the implications of separation and divorce. No longer focused solely on her own survival, she’s now able to once again begin to care for others. She’s no longer neglecting the needs of her children—and is slowly working through the ways in which she can be the best possible mother, rather than repeating her own mother’s mistakes.
While Jen has not completed her therapy, she is emotionally stronger, more resilient, and her self-esteem and sense of self are far more stable than at any prior time in her life. Jen was fortunate to be able to afford long-term therapy. There is absolutely nothing wrong with staying in therapy for a period of years, if it helps you to more fully untangle your life, grow and develop as a person, and strengthen your sense of self. If this is what you need, and you can’t afford to pay private practice rates, search for a psychotherapy or psychoanalytic training institute in your region, as they not infrequently offer sliding scale fees for this type of treatment.
Perhaps you identify with some of Jen’s childhood traumas. You also longed for more loving and stable parents, and are fiercely determined to do a better job with your own children. Jen grew up feeling unloved and unlovable. Part of my role as her therapist was to relate to her like a loving and empathetic parent, and to have her internalize a new set of experiences that would change her self-perception that she was unlovable, and help her begin to love herself. Her heart was set on becoming a more loving parent, and my caring empathy enabled her to mirror this with her own children. Jen, like most of us, wants to do a better job parenting than her own parents.
Are you being sexually harassed by someone senior to you at work, someone who has power over your future, someone you are frightened to confront? Have you resisted their overtures, or are you already sexually involved? If any of this describes your situation, consider taking these steps to avoid self-sabotage, or prevent further damage to yourself and your self-esteem:
- Consult an attorney to explore your legal options.
- If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, panic or depression as a result of this harassment, seek treatment as soon as possible, to ward off a worsening of your condition.
- Get emotional support from loving friends and family members, but only those who you trust will keep confident what you disclose.
And ask yourself these questions:
- What are your employment options if you choose to leave your current job? Is there much demand for your skill sets and capabilities?
- Does your field have recruiters you can seek out with whom you can confidentially explore your options?
- How much “financial runway” do you have before you run out of money, should you choose to leave your current employer?
- Are there family members you can turn toward if need be (swallowing your pride) who might help you out financially until you get back on your feet?
- Other than the superior who is sexually harassing you, are there colleagues at work who would endorse you to prospective employers?
It is critical that you take thoughtful, informed, decisive action to remedy the untenable experience of sexual harassment at work. Prolonged social defeat stress and learned helplessness predispose one to serious emotional and physical illnesses. By taking the steps above, you can begin to empower yourself, feel less emotional pain, less alone, and achieve greater self-esteem.
You may feel less alone, and find some courage, by watching this video of my interview on ABC News about women’s sexual abuse – simply click on the image below:
There is also additional help available in Session Two from my book, Becoming Whole: A Healing Companion to Ease Emotional Pain and Find Self Love. This chapter helps you identify patterns that sabotage your happiness and search for some of the root causes in your childhood. Learn more at https://drbrucekehr.com/about-becoming-whole/.
And watch for an upcoming announcement about my weekly Go Live on Facebook video sessions, where I will answer challenging questions from the audience in real-time.