D has been reacting to difficult situations with moral outrage for years. A thirty something married white man with one child, he holds a prominent position in a city government, and has been tasked with the management of a financial crisis amidst the Coronavirus outbreak—a crisis now largely traversed, he exclaims. Our exchanges are marked by venting outbursts: diatribes about workplace associates, political rivals and once allies, most of whom are turning their backs on him, blaming him for the budget cuts that they said were unfair and discriminatory, but which he says were necessary. D is a tall man with broad shoulders, the beginnings of a middle-age paunch, but the square jaw of a one-time high school football star. With a brittle, barely-holding-his composure tone in his voice, he decries the selfishness, the dishonesty, the immaturity of his peers. Sounding further like an indignant father of a spoilt pack of children, he speaks to an imagined audience, saying “wake up, people!” and “you’re lucky you even have a job”, half aware that his listener of the moment—me—is waiting to deliver a matter of fact observation. I’ll paraphrase:
“You chose this. You’ve come across this before”
I was referring to feelings stirred by previous, albeit lesser known public crises; by previous workplaces with hard authority figures as well as underperforming subordinates; by a detached, reportedly passive aggressive spouse; by an alcoholic and still difficult father. In each of these contexts, D’s discontent is not constant, but the pattern of reaction to stressors is consistent. When he feels betrayed or devalued, he responds in kind, whether he is acting upon frustrations with others or else suppressing his words and then releasing them upon me. Though he is not psychotic in his functioning overall, there are moments when he shares, and further holds eye contact with me, when it seems he might lose track of who is who in his life and in such moments, and therefore who merits the emotional deposit he wishes to make. At these times I feel pressure to respond. A hint of indignation rises up in me as I think of D’s entitlement (just as he is speaking of the entitlement of others) and pose to myself a provocative question: What did he expect?
“You feel turned upon”, I say, biding my time with a comment that seems benignly empathetic.
“It makes me question my path,” D eventually says, suggesting he’ll soon focus upon himself, observe something beyond the present moment of frustration. “I should get out,” he adds predictably. I think this set of words defensive: an escapist fantasy coming to the surface versus an understanding of what’s happening inside him. But D’s been talking like this to me for two years, which is likely sufficient for him to predict what I might think and then say. I know the backstory, of course. I’ll recall, he’ll expect, that he’s often described himself as selfish, immature, and—well, not dishonest. D asserts that with rare exception he’s always been honest. Integrity. With a crispness in his voice that he seems to reserve for that word alone, he’ll insist that integrity is the most important quality in a person. It’s a non-negotiable standard that he expects of himself and nearly everyone around him, save perhaps his three year old daughter. He might chuckle after that kind of righteous expression/whimsy. Again, though he likely won’t inventory the stories, he knows that I know the backstory: the teenage mischief; the locker room bullying, both received and dealt out; the college-era alcoholism and blackout sexuality; the sporadic thirty-something affair that preceded the birth of his child. These bullet-points don’t represent my judgements, but rather his.
What did he expect? The question didn’t leave the session. What had he hoped for, I nuance? I was softening the task with my wondering. I asked something like, “What vulnerability had you shown?” after he’d used that word—vulnerability—alongside trailing externalizations, words like “fairness” that further suggested what he’d expected, or what he’d hoped for. “I was warned not to make friends,” he states ambiguously, heralding another pattern that I’d noticed at least a year before. When D starts speaking of himself and his inner experience versus others plus his guesses about them he becomes vague with his language. The structure of his phrases becomes passive. Often, antecedents of pronouns are difficult to locate. All in all, there’s a sense that he wants to say something but wouldn’t mind if his listener becomes confused. Still, I gather his meaning, which has to do, ultimately, with his desire to bond with others: peers, subordinates, and authority. The reality of crises, of hard work and hard decisions disrupts the harmony of a happy family, a good team, friends, lovers, etc. He thought people loved him, cared about him, and would therefore “be supportive”, be understanding. Forgiving? And does D feel guilty?
What does he expect of me? Well, perhaps the same list of qualities and/or gestures, but he seems to expect a reality-check from me, like some manner of kick up the butt, which I don’t give. He gives it to himself. “Sure”, he utters offhandedly, not quite dismissively, after I’d given him the interpretation that I’d more or less summarized in the previous paragraph. I say, “You say ‘sure’ like the feelings are something else to shrug off, as if you shouldn’t really be feeling what you agree is there”
He chuckles. Is he laughing at my awkward turn of phrase, I wonder? Think I’m being playful? “It’s my way of swallowing it,” he replies by way of explanation. Tiredly, he then references his co-workers and the earlier diatribe, which now seems a spent force. “I’m a hypocrite”, he says, kicking his own butt again.