"He Lost His Job"

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He Says

Matt: I guess I don't get it. I try to be there for her. I try to fix up our house and make it a real home. I try to help with the kids. But she's always mad at me. I sense it the minute she walks in the door. She has a look on her face that says, "He screwed up again." Often, I'll say, "Honey, what's wrong?" and all I get in reply is, "Nothing." Then, out of the blue, she'll turn on me and start screaming about something minor -- like the time I left the clothes in the dryer too long. I'm not used to being yelled at and I can't talk to her when she's attacking me. But I do know that's not the real Laura. She's been incredibly supportive since I lost my job. I can't help feeling like a complete failure.

Heitler: As benefits and staffs shrink, and whole companies fold or are swallowed up, experts talk about a national epidemic of job stress. If you come home from work physically or emotionally drained, with little energy or enthusiasm for dealing with family or person matters, you may be a victim, too. Job stress and burnout is a motivational problem, caused by a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. To regain a sense of control over your job life, as well as the feeling that what you do really does matter you need to think hard about who you really are, what you enjoy doing, and find small, attainable goals that give you a sense of mastery. Like many burnout victims, Matt lives by the mantra, "What's the use?" He's not yet at the point where he can focus on what triggers his feelings of powerlessness and re-think a better solution.

Matt: I'm surprised how hard this has hit me. When I was out of work the first time, I was riding on a wave of good feeling about the company I had been with. It was started by guys I'd known casually in business school. We knew that when they finally sold the company, we'd all be out of jobs. But as Laura said, my severance package and stock options -- which I can't use for awhile, but at least I know they're there -- gave me a cushion of financial confidence. But after I was fired -- right before Christmas, with no chance for discussion -- I felt as if I'd been discarded like yesterday's newspapers. I'd been warned that this guy, a venture capitalist, was tough, but I thought I could handle him. It looked like a great opportunity to be where the action was, and I figured that if I could just hang in for five years, I'd not only learn a lot, I'd be in a terrific position to head up my own company. That's always been my dream. Well, from the moment I walked into that office, I felt totally incompetent. My boss was unscrupulous and verbally abusive, not only to his own employees, but to everyone -- from the CEOs of other companies to the man who delivered lunch. Still, I kept thinking that somehow I could straighten things out and please him. Then, with no warning, he told me to clear out my desk.

It's very demoralizing to be looking for as long as I have. It's even worse knowing that Laura has had to put her plans to quit work on hold. I know she's unhappy with her job and that she misses being with our sons. Several times I interviewed with firms that I was excited about, but I never make it past the second interview. I don't know why. One thing I have learned, though, is that the person you work for is just as important as the kind of work you do. I want to work for someone I can look up to and learn from. Someone like my dad.

Heitler: Matt feels downtrodden. He looks and sounds it, too. I suspect that one reason he is unable to get past his initial job interviews is that he is unwittingly projecting a needy, hang-dog attitude, rather than one of an efficient, take-charge executive. His frequent references to finding a mentor in his work prompted me to point out that he might be unconsciously searching for a father figure in every new boss. "Remember, your prospective boss isn't looking to adopt a child; he or she wants someone who can help her business grow."

Matt: I grew up outside of Chicago, the youngest of four by seven years. Dad was a sales director for a major national company and my mother was a homemaker. When I was six, we moved to the Denver area. My parents had always dreamed of living near the mountains and Dad was finally able to arrange a transfer -- but only by taking a huge pay cut. Money was tight from then on. I was always aware that it was easier for other people, that other kids had more than I did -- but it didn't matter. My father made things happen: If I said I wanted to play baseball, he went out and signed me up for Little League the next day. If I was discouraged about something in school, or had a problem with a friend, he helped me work it out. All the kids used to hang out at our house because everyone loved my dad.

But when I was ten, my father was diagnosed with cancer and I watched helplessly as this man I adored withered before my eyes. Mother was never the same. We were never an openly emotionally family, but after Dad's death, it was as if we all dried up inside. Since my brothers and sister were either away at college or in law school, I learned to find my own way. I kept my grades up, went to a good college and business school. But until I met Laura, I didn't realize how closed off to people I had become.

Heitler: Matt may have initially projected an image of a confidence, but deep down, he's convinced that any success he's achieved was a fluke. His recent job setbacks have caused him to doubt his ability to sustain the level success he had achieved early on. Here's a good example of how your family of origin can impact the direction your life takes: Laura's life had been marked by lack of trust, Matt's by loss and benign neglect. His father had been an encouraging force, but his mother held out few expectations for her son. Matt established his own standards for himself, but they were often unreasonable. Not surprisingly, he frequently feels he never measures up.

Matt: Laura was a breath of fresh air for me: cute, smart and eternally optimistic. I know I tend to draw inward -- when I get busy with one of my projects, I can be very self -contained; people tell me it's as if I have blinders on. But that's how I get things done: I make a timetable, take notes, and go step by step.

I know this is a sore point for Laura, but renovating the house calms me down. She keeps bringing up that incident about the upstairs hallway as this supreme example of how I don't care about her. That's not it at all. When I realized that there were wide-planked floors under the stained linoleum, I knew it would improve the look and value of the house if I sanded and finished them. I just had to do it. I wasn't trying to pull a fast one on my wife.

Heitler: Since his mother had been emotionally distant during much of his childhood, Matt has a tough time with his emotions and he finds it hard to show his empathy for others. Frowning, sulking, walking away or burying himself in home improvement projects protects him from his real feelings, which are unfamiliar and sometimes scary.

Matt: Still, I know Laura's right. There aren't many things I find pleasurable anymore. I'm starting to question a lot of things, too. But I'll never question my love for her. I just wish I could make her see that.

Continued on page 4:  The Therapist Says


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