3801 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20008-4530
Nancy Shaffer, Ph.D.
Community Mental Health Center
Washington, DC 20007
Dear Dr. Shaffer:
This will offer a few thoughts about one aspect of our work that merits some consideration: the appropriate way to handle a patient’s report about his psychological position or victimization in a disturbed environment, in which the disturbance is subtle but pervasive--an environment whose disturbance can only be understood as a totality but can only be explained by the patient as a series of seemingly trivial incidents.
This is an important issue for me since it seems that both in my developmental environment and in later work environments I have had specific, identifiable, and recurring difficulties that seem to relate to victimization in narcissistically-regressed environments.
In several of our recent consultations you seem to dismiss in one way or another my attempts to discuss my difficulties in family and work environments; you cite my obsessiveness, my need to get over these details, and the lack of therapeutic value of my discussion of details.
I have identified language in a federal court opinion relating to the litigation of an employee’s claim of harassment based on the creation by the employer of an abusive or hostile work environment. The court recognizes that the very nature of certain disturbed workplace environments (or any environment, really, including the developmental environment) is that the disturbance can only be appreciated by looking at the environment as a collection of disturbed interactions. And, further, that the victim’s only means of communicating the disturbance is to list the details. Robinson v. Jacksonville Shipyards, 760 F.Supp. At 1524 (1991).
- [T]he analysis cannot carve the work environment into a series of discrete incidents and measure the harm adhering in each episode. Rather, a holistic perspective is necessary, keeping in mind that each successive episode has its predecessors, that the impact of the separate incidents may accumulate and that the work environment created thereby may exceed the sum of the individual episodes. “A play cannot be understood on the basis of some of its scenes but only on its entire performance and similarly, a discrimination analysis must concentrate not on individual incidents but on the overall scenario.” Andrews, 895 A.2d at 1484. It follows naturally from this proposition that the environment viewed as a whole may satisfy the legal definition of an abusive working environment although no single episode crosses the Title VII threshold.
I would like to offer the tentative idea that your own act of dismissing the “process” of my narrative on the grounds of obsessiveness is really a deceptive way of rationalizing and identifying with the disturbed environment. The real problem for you, I suspect, is not the process, but your appreciation of the fact (at some level) that it is by means of analyzing the details of a narcissistically-disturbed environment--perhaps only by such means--that an appreciation of the “content” of the disturbance can emerge.
Likewise, the lawyer who wants to prevent the admission of evidence damaging to his cause will rely on procedure or process to prevent its admission. The lawyer points to procedural rules--he emphasizes process-- to prevent the damaging content to come to light.
I offer the tentative theory that a therapist’s reliance on attributions of “obsessiveness” or other attributions that discount a patient’s narrative relating to a disturbed environment constitute a defensive maneuver by the therapist that amounts to a form of identification with the disturbed environment (i.e., it constitutes the therapist’s “identification with the aggressor.”) This is so since the only way to appreciate a subtly disturbed environment is to consider the patterns of behavior of the actors in the environment. Those behaviors may be ambiguous or meaningless in themselves. See Jacksonville Shipyards at 1524.