Category Archives: shame


A fellow attorney thinks I’m crazy

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Cary’s classic column from Sunday, Jun 5, 2011

Sure, I’m crazy — for him! But I botched my approach! Now how do I wriggle out?

Dear Cary:

I have been following your column for years. I hope you can help me — I need concrete advice, almost like a to-do list on what to do next. I have ruined a wonderful friendship, and I want to repair it.

I am an attorney. My workspace, and all others who are similarly situated, is a cubicle, so there is no privacy. I really like one of my co-workers. He is close friends with our boss and is one of the most respected attorneys here. I wanted to have a physical relationship with him. He said that he found me attractive but did not want a physical relationship for a number of reasons. He repeatedly said that women are crazy. He has absolutely no patience for “out of control.” We managed to develop a fairly close friendship. I started to get too deep. Yesterday I left him a voicemail message saying that I needed to dial back, that he would meet the woman he has been looking for, maybe even this weekend, and that I didn’t want to be in a position of missing my friend when he started spending all his time with that woman, so I was dialing back. He got upset. He said that we were never dating, that the message was the type of message one would get from a girlfriend. I thought I was being honest and self-protective. But instead I revealed myself as being in too deep and like another one of the crazy women in his life (his term, crazy women). I called him on the telephone as we drove to our homes. He said that it was a crazy message. My voice rose. I asked how it was crazy. He said, “Well, you’re the one who left it.” I truly value our friendship. I feel as though I have lost all dignity and revealed my worst (to him), most emotional side. I need concrete and specific advice on what to do. How do I repair the friendship?

Please do not reveal my name.

Emotional Attorney


Dear Emotional Attorney,

Here is some clear, practical advice. Stick your head in his cubicle at your very next opportunity and say, “About that phone message. Just wanted to say. Sorry. I was a little wound up.”

Then he will probably say, “No problem. Don’t give it a second thought.” Or, “That’s OK.”

After he says that, be very careful. You are on your way out now. You are already done. Do not open up another line of argument.

He might say one or two more things. But you are already done. You’ve delivered the message. No matter what else he says, just say something like “Thanks. Just wanted you to know.” Or, “No problem,” and get out of there.

The next thing is the exit. Make your exit swift but not sudden. Make it even. Don’t rush out, but don’t linger. Try to get a rhythm into it, like, in terms of beats, it’s: One, pop your head in; Two, deliver your message; Three, acknowledge whatever he says; Four, turn lightly, in rhythm with your shrug, or your acknowledgment, and walk away with a light, relaxed step.Then settle into your cubicle and start reading a brief. Visualize a soundproof plexiglass wall between you, reaching up to the ceiling. He is not there. You are alone in your cubicle.

This should reassure him. The matter will promptly leave his mind.
Of course, the fact that it will promptly leave his mind is part of the problem. There is a huge issue remaining. It is an issue that, if you talk about it with him, will not settle things but make them more complicated. It would probably be a losing argument. At the same time, it would be intellectually dishonest not to mention it. Feminist advances in pay and freedom were won in hard-fought battles house by house, bed by bed and cubicle by cubicle. So while you may want to keep this huge issue out of the air for professional workplace reasons, let’s just state it for the record: He thinks women who express their emotions are crazy. He’s friends with the boss. So your long-term prospects for professional advancement may well be in the hands of men who think women who express their emotions are crazy.

Maybe you can change their minds. Or maybe you can find another law firm. There are lots of  law firms.

‘Nuff said, OK?

As far as maintaining your friendship with him over the coming months, do indeed “dial it back.” But telling him you’re dialing it back does not dial it back. It ramps it up. That’s what happened with that phone call. It’s one of those paradoxes. The way you actually dial it back is by changing the way you act around him. Visualize detachment. Look at him as though he were far away and tiny, like at the wrong end of a telescope. Speak with him in a controlled and deliberate way. Don’t share your feelings. Don’t ask about his romantic life. Keep your friendship professional.

And one more thing: Don’t call him on the phone from your car. If you find yourself having erotic thoughts about him, transfer them to someone else outside the office — a waiter, or a judge, or an attorney on the other coast you met at a conference.


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I got caught stealing money from work

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Cary’s classic column from

I was fired and I’m making restitution, but I’m dying of shame.

Dear Cary,

I stole a large sum of money over a period of time from my job and was appropriately fired. I agreed to work out a repayment plan for all the money that I owe.

Although I am extremely lucky with the outcome, I feel remorseful and ashamed of what I did. I even attempted to commit suicide for the pain and guilt I felt (because of this situation, coupled with other things going on in my life). My career is probably shot to hell, I probably lost the trust of many co-workers/friends and I can’t seem to move forward with my life.

I knew that what I did was wrong and I am deeply sorry for what I have done, but I can’t seem to get past this. How do I forgive myself for what has happened and move forward?

Ashamed and Lost in Chicago

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Ashamed and Lost,

Self-forgiveness comes from a recognition that though we have done wrong things, we retain a core self that is worthy of love.

There is a paradox, or difficulty, at the heart of this, whether you believe in an external power of forgiveness or not. We face what we have done, no matter how awful, but we come to this action filled with self-love. How can this be? How can we not hate ourselves for what we have done? How can we not grind our teeth at night for how we have screwed up our lives and the lives of others? And if we still love ourselves, does that mean that we believe we are innocent?

No. We are not saying we are innocent of the crime we have committed. We are saying that no matter how great our crime, we retain some kernel of innocent humanity, and that we remain deserving of love.

We balance these seemingly contradictory truths and live with them: Yes, even after committing a crime, we retain an innocent core self; it may only exist as a ghost self, or a fragile impression, a faint tracing of past innocence; but it is there. We were born into innocence, and that fact remains. It is to that self that we direct our nurturance and love.

This is a matter of the heart. But that is not all there is to it. There is a worldly component. When we transgress, we are cast out. A firing is a casting out. Yet unlike a society or village that might cast you out and then welcome you back from the forest, or a penal system that might imprison you and then release you, a company may fire you and forget you. There is little hope of being welcomed back to this particular company. Yet you need, for your own resurrection, to enact some kind of return. So perhaps you will feel it necessary to return to this same field with a different company. Or you will embark on a similar field, in a way that is informed by what you have learned through your transgression. In this way, having been cast out, you reinvent yourself in order to make a kind of return.

The ritual of exile and return makes vivid our passage. It gives us the feeling of “moving on.” Lacking that ritual, you would naturally feel stuck. Look for ways to live in the world openly as a person who has committed a transgression and is making restitution. Perhaps you can be of help to others who are also struggling with feeling stuck and full of self-hatred. That will take your mind off your own problems and give you a way to be useful. Being useful in the world heals us and gives us back our place. It is one way of “returning.” Speaking openly of what we have done and how we are working to correct it empowers us, and it empowers others; it takes the sting of shame away.

Finally, let me just say, as a layperson with no religious or political standing, as somebody you might sit next to on the bus: You are a flawed human being just like the rest of us, deserving of love and respect just like the rest of us. You needn’t punish yourself any more. You’re doing your time.