I can't stop stealing!

I keep taking cash out of the safe at work and feel terrible about it.


Cary Tennis
January 30, 2008 4:20PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

A year ago I started working for a small company. The day I was employed, I was given the keys to the business and the code for the safe. At that time I realized the trust behind those bestowals and vowed not to break that trust. In addition to working, I'm a full-time college student. So, with no criminal background and no visible tattoos, I'm generally perceived as a hardworking, motivated, honest young adult.

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I would think of myself in those terms except that I've recently started to steal from the small business I work for. At first it was just small bills rationalized by purchasing items for the office and pocketing the extra change. Now I'm taking several $20s a week with no justifications. The longer I get away with these thefts, the more money I take. I'm scared that one day I'll be caught and I'm saddened by the effect of my embezzlement upon my boss. She's a wonderful woman struggling to expand her small business and she consciously pays a very competitive rate.

I don't understand why I continue to steal from someone I respect while risking a job I enjoy. Well, I probably know why I'm doing it. I come from a dysfunctional family in which finances are always tenuous and as a college student I'm always looking to save as much as possible. I just don't know how to stop a behavior I know is wrong. On several occasions I've discreetly encouraged my boss to implement better accounting practices, but she seems uninterested in the idea, since she trusts everyone who works for her. What can I do?

Helpless Thief

Dear Helpless Thief,

You have gotten yourself into a fix. So you need to go see a lawyer. Explain what you have done. Ask the lawyer what crime you have committed and what the possible consequences are.

Identify your options and craft a plan of action. Perhaps restitution can be made secretly before anyone discovers the loss. Or perhaps the loss has already been discovered.

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There are risks in coming clean and there are risks in keeping it secret. You need to have the risks explained to you by a lawyer, and you need to weigh the risks.

Not knowing all the facts, I can only guess at your options. But in one scenario, having determined that it is not likely the money has yet been discovered missing, you would calculate the amount you have stolen and replace it. Having done that, you would then resign.

Afterward, your conscience might bother you, but you would deal with that privately. You could avail yourself of psychotherapy or religion or take whatever actions you take to deal with matters of conscience. You might well find yourself worrying about your actions being discovered and feeling guilt and remorse about deceiving the business owner. But you would know that you had not materially harmed her and that the money had been returned.

Such a secret settling of accounts would, unfortunately, leave your tendencies essentially untreated. So I would suggest that if you do make secret restitution, you also commit to understanding the deeper reasons for your stealing.

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In another scenario, having determined that there is no way to return the money without being detected, you would resign, effective immediately, and make full, explicit restitution. In concert with your lawyer's recommendation and the dictates of your own conscience, you would make some kind of statement.

Your actions in this matter could have serious long-term consequences. So you must consult with an attorney and follow the attorney's instructions.

The law is not my field. However, I can talk about the reasons we steal and the process by which we come to do it. Yes, I have stolen things. I was never a big thief. But I took things that weren't mine.

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I knew it was wrong. I was scared. I was also kind of elated, though. It was a marvelous secret. I was getting something for nothing. Yet I feared there was something wrong with me for doing it.

Why do we do these things and why can't we stop? We think we have to have it. We think we won't get it unless we steal it. We fear that we won't survive unless we have this thing, that we won't survive our own feelings if we don't have this thing -- this blanket, this safety, this forgetfulness, this balm. We must take what we need, and we must be secretive about it because that's the only way we can get it. We must have this thing. We must.

And yet why? Why are we doing this? What terrible fate are we avoiding? What feelings are we avoiding?

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To get better, to find our way through it, we must experience the feeling of not having this thing and see that not having this thing does not kill us. We learn what it is like to live without certain things. It does not kill us. In fact, it brings us peace. We survive without those things; we see that it is not so bad to feel their absence; we even feel their absence as a kind of exultation.

And later, thinking it over, we see that these things we stole were symbols of the impossible. They symbolized an end to difficulty; they symbolized something for nothing. And we remind ourselves, not with cynicism but with warm embrace, that in our world there is no end to difficulty and there is no unencumbered gift except the inward gift, the spiritual gift, the gift of understanding that always increases while everything else decays. We see that we can always endure the occasional loneliness and occasional fear, that we can always embrace the occasional uncertainty. These things will be with us always and will not kill us. We can live with them. We will survive. We do not need to steal.


Don't steal this book!


"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.

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