Baggage Check Live: "Those potatoes won't burn themselves!"

Dec 12, 2017

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior was online to take your comments about her advice column, Baggage Check, and any other questions you might have. These comments may appear in an upcoming column running in Express and online.

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Hi, all! I am so thrilled that now that Baggage Check is a teenager (thirteen years in Express as of next month!) we can celebrate with this fantastic new forum for it. This chat will allow me to get to so many more of your questions, and so many of the questions that traditionally get the axe for being too long for the printed paper. I look very forward to seeing what’s on your mind—so bring it on!

My older sister, now in her early 50s, just doesn't like me. I have spent many years trying to build a relationship with her and return her hate with kindness, but no matter what I do, things don't change. She often hosts family gatherings and doesn't invite me, or when she does, it's at the very last minute and through my mom. When we are both at the same gathering, sometimes things go well, and once every year or two, she'll start screaming at me for no apparent reason except for "you think you're better than everyone else," which I don't, though it is true I have always been very different from the rest of my family, which is very conservative politically and socially (and I'm not). Another sister said that my siblings are uncomfortable with me and keep their distance because I had been in a same-sex relationship in my 20s and am now married to a man. My son is an only child, and he longs to have close relationships with his cousins. And I would like to know my nephews better. I keep trying to initiate get togethers, and she either doesn't answer or is noncommittal. A few weeks ago I called and she didn't call back, though she did look up my LinkedIn profile, which was very strange and hurtful to me. My son keeps asking me why he can't see his cousins (who live 1.5 hours away). I'm trying to figure out how much to keep trying to amend the relationship with my sister, and if so, how. Or maybe I should stop trying, for it causes me so much pain, especially this time of year.

I am sorry. I think this time of year can be so ironically cruel for anyone who doesn’t have a picturesque family experience (even the decorations at Target are screaming at us to “BE MERRY! BE BRIGHT!” Good grief!) that it makes it worse, when you start to imagine what families are “supposed” to be like, and how warm and welcoming and communal everyone is supposed to be feeling all the time. But unfortunately, that warm and loving family relationship that you wish for—and that you may very well have done your part to try to achieve for years and years—simply might not be possible with your sister. I get why you want to give the gift of close cousin relationships to your son, but honestly, for him to see his Mom treated this way, and to associate family gatherings with potential explosive behavior is not anywhere near the fun frolic that good childhood memories are made of. I think it might be time to give yourself some peace by understanding that your sister—for whatever reasons, but all her own—is incapable of building a truly sisterly relationship with you. And that you have to take what you choose to embrace of the rest of your family relationships. They may be your allies or not, intervene on your behalf or do nothing of the sort, but that is almost beside the point – right now, you’ve been spending years trying to move a boulder that not only won’t budge, but somehow manages to spit on you as well.  As for your son, you can reveal more and more to him over the years as he is old enough to understand, but for now, a simple “I wish we could be closer to them too. Sometimes, though, families can’t always spend time together” can start a conversation, seeing where he goes from there, and following his lead. And over time, you can put some of that no-longer-wasted energy into building an extended “family” of friends and neighbors who actually are capable of providing the connections that you’re longing for.

Any tips for dealing with seeing relatives with wildly different political views over the holidays? We'll be seeing some family who are ardent Trump supporters. We liberal, and believe that all human beings have equal worth, no matter their color, religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. In fact, we have gay people in our family, and people of different ethnicities have married into our family and now there are children, and we welcome and are so happy to have our diverse family. Are these relatives blind???? How do they not see how hurtful some of their statements are? Any ideas on how to steer clear of disagreements, or graciously redirect if they start singing the virtues of politicians who are hurting the people we love?

Yeah, this gets even more personal than the typical political disagreement, since this cuts so deep into who you are as humans. So, beforehand, it is all about having a plan. I'm talking a full-fledged plan: an escape route conversationally, emotionally, and logistically. Go heavy on the subjects that have been thought of beforehand that won't steer you into awful territory. Have an agreement with your comrades-in-arms about ways to help each other not be drawn into an escalation. Have ready-made excuses about walks to take or phone calls to return or kitchen tasks that you must absolutely help with (those potatoes won't burn themselves!) Have deep breathing exercises, visualizations, and pat answer to certain questions that can change the subject momentarily. Figure out ways to limit the visit if the situation demands it. I think overall, as tough as it is to see that people we love have views that we find abhorrent and may cut to our core, if we choose to spend time with them then it's about accepting the limitations of what the gatherings can and will be, and willing to embrace what little bits of enjoyment we can get within those limitations.

My 22 year old daughter suffers from anxiety and depression. She was doing well for a few years and worked for a couple of years and earned enough to get a car. She then decided she didn't like the job anymore and got hired at a new place but her anxiety prevented her from starting so she had to withdraw. She was in bed for about a month. Now she is doing better but still refuses to see a doctor, get medication prescribed and is not working. She does chores at home, usually reluctantly, but my concern is that she is stuck. She uses the excuse of her anxiety to not do certain things (including chores sometimes) but also for getting another job and even agreeing to professional help. I love her but it's time for me to stop paying all her bills. I can I help her move forward?

The only way out of anxiety is to face that anxiety and get treatment-- it's the same with depression. Her avoidance only makes the problem worse, so, in some ways, this is a very simple situation. You are perfectly within your rights as a parent housing her to set parameters about the requirements for her to live with you, just as you would if she was struggling with addiction or any number of more overt behavioral challenges. This is a health issue, and you may choose to require that she start small:  a cognitive-behavioral app on her phone that will get her some mindfulness exercises. A list of outside-the-house outings (even taking a walk) that she will do daily. A book chapter she will read about anxiety. Ultimately, she needs to get in to see a CBT therapist, and though it might feel "cruel" to make that contingent upon your housing her and paying for her food, ultimately it's exactly the help she needs-- and you have the tools to make it happen.

With the political climate today, at what age should we be discussing with our kids, what is really going on?

This is so tough! I think it depends on your definition of "really." No doubt, the process of making this particular brand of 2017 political sausage is too gory for even most adults' sensibilities-- but I think if you weave in the discussion about your own values as a human and as a family, then it can feel like you're talking about something positive rather than all doom. How do you as a parent choose to live out your values, even when the political goings-on do not match them? How does your family, on a micro level, choose to act in ways to reflect those values? How have members of your family in the past dealt with times of adversity? What do you want your child(ren) to know about standing up for what they believe in, doing good for others, and protecting people who are in need of it? Any of these questions can be as small as a playground anecdote with a toddler or as a big as what's going on in the halls of Congress with a tween. I think most of all, you listen to where your child is in understanding these issues, and you calibrate what you're saying to their level, as something that they can relate to. And you perhaps retreat right afterward into your hall closet to take deep breaths or let out a primal scream.

My dad died of pancreatic cancer very suddenly (we only knew he was sick for four days before he died). His second wife, who shunned my brother and me, not wishing to have anything to do with us while he was alive, now sends cards, and suggests that we come visit (but does not want to ever come from Maryland to Virginia to see us). Brother and I are in mid-twenties. I don't know how to feel about this. My mother would feel very betrayed, since dad had an affair with this lady while still married to mom. I mentioned that the second wife wanted to us to come visit, and saw my mom just deflate and look very wounded. So confused.

First, I am truly sorry about the loss of your father. That sounds like a particularly painful way to say goodbye. But what I'm not hearing in your letter is what you actually want in this situation. What would it be like to spend time with her? It seems to me that if she shunned you while he was alive, then it's completely understandable that you'd have negative feelings toward her that may never be able to be bridged. And you might even have reason to doubt her motives-- what exactly she is after. On the other hand, if your father loved her, and you feel like spending time with someone who meant a lot to him at the end of his life might help in your grieving, then that is a possibility that you can broach with love and understanding when and if it comes up with your mother. But all of this is your (and your brother's) own personal choice that you have every right to make on your own. The only right answer is the one that you choose and that you communicate with respect and love toward your Mom.

My daughter has been best friends with one girl since first grade. They haven't always been in the same class and they don't play the same sports, but they've remained very close, regardless. This year, I would say that my daughter tells me something "mean" her bestie said to her almost every other week. The friend has made a lot of new friends in her class this year and my daughter wasn't already friends with them. I've suggested that my daughter get to know the other girls, but she is very reluctant and won't tell me why. She seems happy enough, but I can tell that the sometimes feels left out. So, my question has 2 parts: 1. Is what is happening with her best friend normal for this age? Is it a sign that they've grown apart (or at least she has grown away from my daughter)? I don't want to helicopter, but I don't know if I should offer advice to my daughter. 2. How do you teach social skills, like making friends once you are past the age where your parents make all the arrangements. I feel like my daughter's circle is shrinking every year and I'm afraid that if she doesn't work to build relationships with new people, next year is going to be pretty hard. Thanks for your advice!

Ugh—just because it’s “normal” doesn’t mean it’s good. Yes, unfortunately, weapons of mass destruction have nothing on the power of preteen girls who have decided that finding their own place involves edging others out.  I think there’s a beautiful balance somewhere to be struck between helicoptering and ignoring, however. And it has to do with empowering her to further understand the situation on her own terms, and decide what she thinks real friendship looks like, and what she wants and deserves out of her social life. I don’t think there’s one magic bullet solution but rather a continuing discussion that is part of growing at this stage, and that keeps your connection strong. How does she feel about what this girl is doing? What does the friendship offer her, and what does it not? What does she want out of a friendship, and what is she willing to give? What are signs that a friendship is unhealthy or unbalanced? What does it mean to stick by someone through a period of not-great friendship, but what limits and boundaries can she set for herself? What kind of qualities does she want in a friend, and where can she find more that have those qualities? This should all be an ongoing conversation, with her beginning to assert herself in the ways that you can nudge her And finally—if she does want to take a step back, what is the kindest and most respectful way to do that?

Hi! So I just got out of a five year relationship after finding out I was not ready to take that next step. I'm back out dating, but find it hard and nerve racking (i.e. intimacy, physical aspects), as I never had any experience to begin with. What is some advice you can give to someone who never really had any real relationships except pretty much one! Thanks!

I remember the day Baggage Check came out, talking about the whole concept of "baggage" itself in its initial column-- and how everyone has baggage, and even people who have NO relationship baggage because of a lack of dating often think of that as being baggage in its own right. I think you've got to take a step back and figure out where this "How many people have you dated?" yardstick is coming from, and why you'd bother to ever consider comparing yourself to it in the first place. Ironically, I hear from a lot of people who have had nothing but the "date-a-person-for-three-weeks-and-then-they-disappear" type of relationship experience and they feel completely unable to measure up to someone who has been in a more serious, lengthy relationship such as yours. So, stop trying to define yourself by any of this. The next relationship you are in will have merits and headaches and idiosyncrasies all its own, without regard to your past. As will the human being that you connect with. Of course, if the whole "not ready to take that next step" thing is something you feel like you're concerned with, then I'd be the last one to argue against doing some exploration of it to further get to know yourself!

My boyfriend suffers from anxiety and compulsive wash his hands many times a day, the skin of his hands are cracking and he doesnt do anything about it. He also is putting gradually more weight and eating unhealthy and drinking beer almost everyday. I wish i could help him but i don’t know how, he doesn‘t let me talk to him about it and as much as i love him this issue is damaging our relationship. Please help! Thank you

This is classic obsessive-compulsive behavior that is leading to (perhaps) unhealthy patterns of substance abuse. The Abnormal Psychology professor in me (as opposed to the abnormal Psychology professor in me, also very present) is screaming "Treatment! Treatment!" Because, look-- the longer this goes on, the harder it will be to handle, the more problems it will cause, and the longer it will take to ever get rid of it. You've got to help him figure out why he is afraid of getting help for it, and for him to understand how important it is to you that he does so. Ultimately, of course, he needs to do it for himself. Perhaps educating him more about how common OCD-type behavior is, and how straightforward and successful some of the treatments (like Exposure and Response Prevention, a subtype of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy) can be is the first step. I'm pulling for you both!

I recently connected on social media with an acquaintance from high school. It quickly became apparent that he had come out as bi-gendered. (I'm not sure what his/her preferred pronoun is, so I will use "he" for convenience.) He lives in a pretty conservative area, and not many people were "liking" his pics where he had makeup on or was wearing a dress, so I tried to be supportive by liking his posts. At one point he messaged that he might be visiting my city, and he asked for my cell number, so I gave it to him. At that moment, I was waiting to meet some friends in a bar; he asked what I was up to so I told him. Then he asked if people were hitting on me, with a heart emoji. Um, that was weird. I immediately regretted giving him my number. A few nights ago, he posted some pretty racy pics on social media, including a close-up GYN-level-view of his pelvic area in an extremely short skirt and fishnet stockings. Then he text messaged me that I should take a look at his pics. And then he messaged me on another social media platform that I should take a look at his pics. I haven't answered any of those messages (but did "like" pics he posted about his event planning business this week). Anyway, I feel badly for him because I think he's lonely, but I'm creeped out because I think he may have been hitting on me (I'm married and he knows that). What do I do now? Should I just be politely distant? What if he does come to town and wants to get together?

So I'm guessing from your hesitance to say "Burn, baby, burn" to this bridge that you are concerned that if you take a step back, he will think it is because of his gender identity. But there is a world of difference between identifying as bi-gendered or genderqueer versus forcing someone to look at your upskirt pictures. He's steamrolling over realistic, healthy boundaries and making you feel uncomfortable. That is enough reason to take a step back, and if you choose to communicate further or even get together and give him one more shot, you might choose to tell him that those pictures made you uncomfortable. But it's not your responsibility to teach this to him. Your heart is in the right place to be concerned about his loneliness, but ultimately as a grown adult it is up to him to pay attention to the reactions of people and adjust his behavior accordingly.

Consider that she might not have been shunning you, but rather was keeping her distance out of respect for your mother's feelings. She may be reaching out now because she is desperately lonely after your father's death.

This is a really good point, thanks. I'd love to hear more about what the "shunning" looked like, and whether or not it could have been open to interpretation.

My brother and sister-in-law live across the country and make a lot (a LOT) more money than we do in the private sector. I don't work outside the home and my spouse is a public servant. They have several young kids and we have two children -- and the kids love to spend time together. I flew out to see them when they had their kids, and once or twice more with my kids (we also drove once). They've come about once a year to this coast. But it's awkward when they keep saying how we are welcome to visit. We don't have a close relationship anyway--what we have in common now is kids and the desire to get those cousins together. Because we don't have a close relationship, I'm embarrassed to say that flights are not in family budget (and won't be for awhile). But I realize that my avoiding the topic and not responding to texts/emails about visiting is the wrong way to go about it, too! I thought he would know from our lifestyle/house/etc that while we aren't in bad financial straits, there isn't extra money for flights. How can I let him know that this is stressing me out without making us both feel bad? (plus my own kids make me feel guilty!)

Money situations can take on such an "embarrassing" quality when they really need not do so. Cross-country flights are no joke, and even for people that are quite well-off, they might simply choose to prioritize their kids' college funds/vacations to somewhere different/their growing addiction to antique brooches instead. So, when they say you are welcome to visit, address it simply and without hand-wringing. By avoiding the topic, you risk doing far more damage to the kids' (and your own) potential relationships with them. "We always love to see you and would love to come visit. This year it's not in the budget, unfortunately. Can we talk about a trip for the following year?" And this next "trip" can be adjusted, too-- meeting in the middle, doing a long road trip, even maybe someday when your kids are older sending them on a jaunt by themselves to see the cousins. I promise you, you make this more and more of a "thing" the more you avoid it, and you can't expect them to be doing a detailed home appraisal the next time they come over to somehow mind-read what your budget may or may not allow. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Now, just figure out what IS doable, and work together to make it happen.

Hi Andrea, My husband suffers from erectile dysfunction that hasn't responded to various kinds of medication. We otherwise have a terrific relationship, but things started to go downhill around the time our first child was born, five years ago. (We had been together for many years before that with no problems in the bedroom.) We went to therapy to discuss the issue, but there don't seem to be underlying psychological/medical problems, and their suggestion of sex toys, etc. to help compensate wasn't satisfying (because I don't want to have sex with a toy, I want to have sex with HIM). Seems like the issue has something to do with him getting nervous about not performing, and of course, that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I sympathize, and have tried to be very understanding, but it's getting extremely difficult to suppress my frustration and my own sexual desires. Please help!

From the letters in my inbox over the years, this is not at all uncommon, and I think it's unfortunate that the "parenthood changes your sex life" discussion always seems to focus on the stereotypical lowered drive in a woman rather than a man. He's probably stuck in a vicious circle of performance anxiety, with potentially other things involved that he's not yet come to grips with (mild depression? hormone or vitamin deficiencies? a potentially problematic relationship with porn?) The more openly you two can communicate about what he thinks the problem is, the farther you will get. Most important, what is he willing-- or not-- to do about the issue? Would he rather be having sex less overall these days, and the main problem as he sees it is that his motivation is lower than yours? Or is he really troubled by the erectile dysfunction as well? It could be that an individual therapist who specializes in sex issues-- along with another attempt at a truly thorough medical workup, and possible medication-- could do the trick. But first, you have to know more about what he truly wants and doesn't.

What do I do if my wife desperately wants to move away from where we live and I just as desperately don't? We've been married for more than 10 years and have three small children. We have a solid, loving relationship and share equally in all aspects of child-raising. We also both have very demanding, good-paying jobs that make it possible to live in the D.C. area fairly comfortably. Problem is: My wife is (understandably) burned out and hates her job and our hectic lifestyle (she often works more than 60 hours a week), while my job is deeply meaningful and rewarding for me and affords me a great deal of flexibility for family matters. My job is also one-of-a-kind and truly can't be replicated elsewhere. Leaving it would mean the end of a career I've spent almost 30 years building (that's not catastrophizing -- it's reality). It would mean starting over with a completely blank slate and no idea what to do. She has ruled out trying to find a different job here. She's just done and wants out of the Washington rat race. So in short: Staying will make her miserable, leaving will be devastating for me. No pressure, but ... how do we get past this?

This seems like a stalemate, but I don't see it this way-- if she can actually break down what the "rat race" really means to her. Traffic? Competitiveness? Overcrowding? Lack of nature? Money/power/status-grubbing? It seems to me that the hectic lifestyle (60+ hours a week? She's the one building the rat race!) that is tied to this particular job for her is the crux of the problem. So why would she not search for a different one? She may very well be conflating her hectic lifestyle with DC in general, which is unfair, because for you, DC is the place that houses a career you love. She may also be exhibiting the myth of arrival-- where she is so miserable overall that she convinces herself an entire new location is the only way for her to be happy, and once she "arrives" there, things will fall into place-- rather than seeing the nuances of how to make things better in the here and now. So, if she wants to get out of the rat race as I see it, she's got to get out of her definition-of-the-rat-race job first-- and only then will she be able to make the argument that it's the metropolitan area that is the problem.

I hired an employee a couple of months ago who is not doing a good job. She has no short term memory so training her is useless. However, she let us know about possibly having cancer so firing her may be problematic. None of the other employees want to work with her because she is very emotional and cries or can be belligerent when it is pointed out to her that she did something wrong. How do I get rid of her without causing additional problems?

Okay, as respectful as I'm trying to be here, "possibly having cancer" is pretty murky-- I "possibly" may become a basketball star someday-- and it may even be beside the point. The first step really seems to have a direct and specific conversation with her about the concrete aspects of her behavior that have become problematic. I don't know if your workplace has an official probationary period, where she can be put on notice, but jumping ahead to "How do we fire this person?" seems premature whether there is an ominous diagnosis or not. So, document. Discuss. Be respectful. Listen to what might be going on. Give concrete parameters for improvement. And then cross your fingers not only for her health, but her ability to take in feedback.

Thanks so much for taking my question! The vicious cycle of performance anxiety seems closest to what my husband thinks it is. He will initiate and then have performance issues, and feel really bad---and not know why things didn't work out. He doesn't seem to have underlying issues based on medical tests, so I would say this is a problem about half the time....and neither of us seem to be able to predict when or why it will happen. But "half the time" is especially frustrating for me, b/c I never know what to expect, and feel really disappointed a lot (though I try not to let it show...which results in a lot of pent-up frustration on my end). We did see sex therapists, but their suggestions of sex toys and "making time for things to happen" didn't seem to work. ("Making time" makes both of us nervous, since the problem has to do with him overthinking things to begin with.) Maybe things will be better when we're not so exhausted with work, two kids, a hectic schedule, etc...? (I appreciate your note that this is not uncommon, as it feels very lonely.) Thanks so much!

Got it. Thanks for your response. Yeah, it's good that his motivation is there. I am surprised that the sex therapist didn't suggest the idea of sensate focus, which is a kind of treatment (or more specifically, homework!) that removes some of the problems of performance anxiety by taking away the end-goal of "performing," as it were (ahh, the age-old "How much can I get away with in a family newspaper?" question.) Do some exploration of it, and even think about how you might philosophically change your expectations of what physical intimacy looks like, at least for a while. Sticking with this together really will make a difference. Good luck!

Guys, this exceeded my wildest expectations. So many great questions, and still lots of ones that I didn't have time to address. Look for those in print in an upcoming Baggage Check, and even better, join me next week here online at this same time, where I may answer some of this week's questions, too! Thank you SO much for being with me today and kicking off this new frontier!

In This Chat
Dr. Andrea Bonior
Dr. Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist and the voice behind Baggage Check since its start in 2005. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University and is the author of the Publisher's Weekly best-seller "Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World" and "The Friendship Fix.”
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