This article was written by Elizabeth Corsale, MFT, co-director at the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control.
It was recently reported that six employees of the San Francisco Unified School District have been arrested for stealing and that they face no less than 205 felony charges stemming from the alleged misuse of an estimated $15 million in grant funding. The allegations include redirecting money into slush funds, bonuses and non-approved pay increases. The San Francisco DA reports that approximately $250,000 went towards the SFUSD employees’ personal use.
One of the defendant’s attorney, stated that his client “felt she had the right to do it”. Currently there are many unanswered questions in this troubling case but one very important question is can it be possible that people are so unclear about what stealing is or are able to justify it to themselves? Is it so complex and confusing to understand what is and isn’t mine, either professionally or personally? It may seem clear to some of us, and we can only imagine people in this scenario acting out of pure greed or selfishness. And that may be the case. But people with stealing disorders – as with other addictions or compulsions – often use justifications and twisted logic to rationalize their out of control behavior.
In our years of working with people who have stealing disorders we have discovered that there are many people who steal who otherwise spend most of their time contributing to society and their families in a positive way. These people are therefore very confused about their stealing behavior. While they are almost always clear that when they go into a store and steal a watch they are stealing, they are often unclear if it is stealing to taste fruit at a grocery store before purchasing it, take something out of the communal fridge at work without asking, skim a little money from their wealthy employer, or take home office supplies from work. These scenarios (and even stealing a watch from a store) get rationalized and thinking becomes distorted in the face of emotional reactivity.
In our work with people with stealing disorders, therefore, it becomes a priority to help them keep their thinking simple. In other words, we encourage them to ask questions such as: Does this thing or money belong to you? Have you already purchased it for it’s full price? If the answer is “no” and you take it, then you are stealing. If the answer is “I don’t’ know” then you have to ask if you can have it for free.
People with stealing disorders are often unable to distinguish what is stealing and what isn’t. Their impulsivity overrides their thinking and their emotional empathy which would allow for them to formulate the question of whether or not a certain thing or money belongs to them. The impulsivity is often driven by several factors which include: internal and/or external stressors, at times co-occurring mental or medical health issues, co-addictions and the neurobiological dopamine reward cycle taking place in their brain each time they steal. The urge to get something for nothing feels like a “high” or a “win” but most importantly it is feels really good (and even alters their brain chemistry) and therein lies their problem: people get addicted to it. When people are addicted they formulate all kinds of defenses, cognitive distortions, rationalizations, conscious and unconscious that allows them to repeat the cycle in order to get the payoff of good feelings again and again.
It is disheartening when we see cases like this and of course can’t imagine how could someone who has spent their life serving the public good get caught up in something like stealing from the very institutions and people they serve. It is easy in a case like this to be cynical and political in our commentary, and it is possible these people are stealing out of pure greed, lack of empathy, and criminality. However, stealing occurs every day all day, all over this city, country and world, and some of it is by people who can’t help themselves. There is treatment and help for individuals who compulsively steal and it is our hope that everyone with this problem can get the help they need so we can all live in a safer world.
If you need help with your compulsive stealing, please contact the Pathways Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org or 415.267.6916.