Baggage Check Live: "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!"

Nov 13, 2018

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!

What is on your minds today?

I am so happy to have you here.

In today's Baggage, we've got a LW whose conservative-ish aunt has been fully supportive of his coming out (yay!) but now is trying to set him up with any random gay dude she knows (boo.) And in L2, we've got not-so-fabulous treatment on the part of the LW's boyfriend's mother.

Let's begin!

My sister and I share a mutual friendship with "Marsha". Due to an unhappy situation with her soon-to-be Ex, she's now dealing with a great bit of anxiety. My sister invited "Marsha" to join us for Thanksgiving. "Marsha" has refused to commit to the holiday dinner, and has said she's not sure. My sister has retracted the invitation because she feels as if "Marsha" is making her into "Plan B" and is waiting for a better invitation. As a close friend of "Marsha", how do I approach this situation? We don't live close enough to see each other, but do call/email/text often.

Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!

(Sorry. My fingers just couldn't not type that.)

So, Marsha is going through something difficult. She is anxious-- and holidays can be a particularly stressful time even in the most normal of situations. What about that says that she is waiting to see if a better offer comes? (If she has a history of doing this, you don't say so.) I feel like your sister is being needlessly punitive here. 

If you still think Marsha deserves some understanding and patience-- and I hope you do-- then you can lobby your sister on her behalf, and try to remind her that an exact place count is not more important than the warmth and understanding and connection that the holidays are supposed to be about in the first place. Well, that and the pie.

And then you can let Marsha know in an empathetic way that you understand her anxiety makes it tough for her to commit, but your sister is under pressure to have an exact count before Y deadline. That's the best mediation I can imagine in this scenario-- although if your sister already retracted the invitation (we are a week and a half out for goodness' sakes!) then I can understand if Marsha passes after all.

Thanks for taking my question last week about Julie, the baby free friend. It really hit home that idea that I can't fix this for Julie, I need to let go of that idea. In trying to condense my letter, I didn't include that I try to meet up for dinner or coffee without the baby, although Julie loves her like an aunt and wants to spend time with her. In an ironic twist, the day after my letter and advice aired, that third close friend (who had been trying for several months) shared that she is pregnant. But since I had your advice, instead of panicking for Julie, I realized that she needs to figure this out on her own. We can all support each other's place in life and do our best to not exclude anyone, but ultimately she's in charge of her anxiety. Thanks for the response!

Thanks so much for writing in. I am glad that it helped you crystallize some things in your mind.

I do strongly believe that there is a point at which "helping too hard" backfires, and ultimately our loved ones do have to make the choice to work on things on their own. Good luck with this!

I wrote this in the comments of last week’s chat and I meant it: “I can’t believe the advice to the mom with a baby free friend included dumping her. Wow, just wow. Julie may have an anxiety problem and advising her to seek help with that might be a good idea. However I also think better advice would be to acknowledge that things might change while saying you very much care about her and want to continue the relationship. Saying “don’t worry” to someone who is worrying isn’t helpful. Insisting that change won’t change things is also not true. Be careful not to negate Julie’s valid feelings. It might be helpful to point out that the friendships survived the introduction of partners and can survive the introduction of babies but really I would recommend talking about how to deal with the challenges a bunch of babies create, not denying them. You don’t dump loved ones if they cancel plans because of physical illness and you shouldn’t dump them if they cancel plans because of mental illness. Shame on the doc for saying this. If the mentally ill can learn to cope with mental challenges, then surely the mentally well can learn to cope with a “little frustration”. “ Should everyone dump Julie until she conquers anxiety? If finding herself miserably alone she kills herself, will you then declare that nothing could have been done and she was selfish for doing it? I expect more from humans and I expect A LOT MORE from a mental health professional. It is no wonder the suicide rate is up.


I didn't advise dumping her, but rather understanding the limits of what OP can do, and letting go of the expectation that she can fix this. And any way you slice it, that includes acknowledging that Julie's anxiety may not get better and Julie may not do anything about it, and that if Julie goes on to continue to not show up to things-- after many, many talks where OP has already done exactly what you described (tried to find ways to reassure her and support Julie through the transition), OP can neither drag her to events nor drag her to therapy.

This obviously struck a nerve in you. But suicide is a serious, complex and devastating issue, one I've spent my career learning about and trying to do my part to prevent-- so I'd really rather not see it thrown around as some oversimplified, hypothetical plot device. Especially when intended as a weapon to try to shame other people. You're clearly upset, but I don't understand how you made the jump from my telling her to be prepared to let go if Julie continues letting go, to "dumping" Julie. Especially when I emphasized above all that OP should try empathetically to connect with Julie and to get her into help.

That's all any of us can try to do for each other, is it not? But it's not right to let it get to the point where OP has to sacrifice her own mental health in the process.

I agree that more emphasis should be pushed on acknowledging that there will be changes-- but I fear that Julie is so anxious already about them that even that could be hard to talk about without sensitizing her further and making her more fearful and avoidant.

I do appreciate that you wrote in.


Hi Dr. Bonior, (By the way, loving the goodful newsletter!) My family is going on a cruise for the holidays this year, and it's a BIG group - me and my husband, my parents, grandmothers from both sides, my cousin, my in-laws, my husband's sister, my sister & her boyfriend, and potentially some family friends. After a stressful year I would like to be able to actually enjoy the vacation, but I'm starting to think that may be directly orthogonal to the other goal of spending family quality time/getting along with the group. Basically, the group will probably be very interested in sightseeing & taking lots of pictures & generally being very loud and talking over each other, and having every minute planned out for fun activites. I don't find any of that relaxing, and would probably prefer to just go to the beach or sign up for different activities, but I feel guilty for leaving the group since we're all supposed to be having! fun! together! Compounding this is that most of the other "children" in the group (my cousin, sister, and sister-in-law) tend to be much better about going along with these activities. They are also much better about being highly solicitous (i.e. making sure elderly grandmothers are ok while walking) than I am, so I feel like all of their nice solicitousness both a) adds to the general noise & clamor and b) makes me feel worse b/c I feel like I am failing in comparison or looking bad in a competition that I didn't actually apply to be in. (For the record, I am nice to my grandmothers, but wouldn't think to do something like run ahead for water or translate EVERY SINGLE museum placard for them, since they don't speak English) And my husband's ideal vacation is actually probably for all of us (including me!) to leave him alone so he can read :) He probably would even be fine not getting off the ship :P Anyway, with all these complicated family dynamics & my poor history of being able to set boundaries, I'm concerned that I won't enjoy the trip at all. I generally enjoy spending time with maybe ~2/3 of the family and already find the rest annoying even under the best of circumstances.... any suggestions for how to set myself up for success (or at least prevent a messy explosion?) Thanks!

Repeat after me: this is not a competition for Best Grandchild.

And: Cruises offer options of activities for a reason-- because different people want to do different things. Even in the same family.

The first step here as I see it really is to give yourself permission to not be so all-or-none about this. A cruise day has 24 hours in it just like any other day (main difference is that they're all stuffed with food.) That means that the expectation is not reasonable nor healthy that your Huge Brood has to spend every moment together. Can you be okay with asserting this, first to yourself? And then actually enacting it?

Come up with guidelines and boundaries that feel reasonable to you-- yes, this may be less relaxing than a vacation totally on your own with your husband, but it does not need to be misery. Prioritize what you want most. Some quiet each day? Some beach time to yourself? A daily meal alone with just your husband? Then build that in. Be gentle but firm. And use the logistics to your favor. If Huge Brood has arranged it so that you will be having the sit-down dinners together every night, then that already works in your favor-- you can disappear in the afternoons with the easy promise that you will look forward to seeing them at dinner. If your cabins are not adjoining, use that distance to slip off to a quiet breakfast yourself. Heck, use bingo or the gym or the comedy club or the 80s karaoke revival or the ridiculous skin care seminar or palm-tree-species trivia or any of the other things that make cruises such kitschy fun to your favor-- state that you are going to go, but you look forward to meeting back up at XYZ time. It's not a question that you need permission for-- it's a statement of what you are about to do with the next two hours because-- guess what? You are a grownup and it is a fun ship and you get to do that.

Finally, when you feel yourself start to get into the Most Solicitous Grandchild competition, take a breath and don't engage with those thoughts. You are you and they are them. Heck, it could be that your grandmothers feel somewhat overly coddled or condescended to and appreciate that you give them some breathing room.

No one at all benefits if you run yourself into the ground with unrealistic expectations of how you should behave.

This is a vacation-- I hearby grant you permission to treat it like one.

Any veterans of this situation want to chime in?

I was abused for many years by two different family members as a child, and have spent years in therapy for PTSD and other abuse-related issues. I have really made great strides. I went from being on disability and unable to leave the house to having a good job living independently and supporting myself. I am very happy with my life and proud of myself for getting here, and I do a good job of passing for a mid-40s professional woman. That said, I have never had a serious romantic relationship. I don't say "never" but I am enjoying my life as it is. I have been pretty good about setting a boundary of "I am not currently looking for a romantic relationship. Maybe someday." I feel like refusing to discuss this beyond that statement creates a distance in my friendships, and building a network of friends has been a pretty big priority of mine for the last few years. My question is really "how do I build friendships when big sections of my life feel "off limits" for casual discussion?"

First of all, a serious bravo on the work you've done, and how far you've come. I have no doubt that recovery has been a hard road, but it speaks a lot about you that you stuck with it and have been able to make such progress.

In terms of friendships, I think at the heart of this issue is the tension between "casual discussion" versus truly building friendships. I would venture that the difference between a casual acquaintance and a friend that feels strong and close-- without distance-- is emotional intimacy. And that takes vulnerability, and it means that you are willing to go beyond the superficial limits of casual discussion.

Does this mean that you should force yourself to reveal things that you don't want to? Definitely not. But it does mean that you need to define exactly what you're looking for. If you want intimate friendships without the "distance," it does call for some vulnerability. And again, you don't have to do anything you're not comfortable with, but if you totally shut the door, that takes away from that vulnerability and connection. Even if you were willing to say "I've been through some things that make me not wanting to pursue a relationship right now," that is something. It's not about doing it for their sake-- it's about doing it to allow yourself that incremental step forward in building a friendship-- if that's truly what you want.

So, a casual acquaintanceship network can do without these types of vulnerabilities and connections and intimacy. But if you really are craving something more, I do think you should see what it feels like to open up even a little. If it feels not good, then you can take that information and adjust. But I wouldn't be surprised if it felt like it helped you get more onto the path of the connections you crave. After all, the best antidote to distance within a friendship is to actually let someone in .

Good luck. And keep us posted!

Hello! I signed up for your Detox newsletter after it had started and missed the "Trap #1" email. Can you please provide a link for that in this chat, or perhaps include links of the past emails in the most recent issue and/or the Buzzfeed page? Thank you so much, and I have liked the advice thus far - simple and practical, can be put to use right away. Thanks again!

Thanks for this!

It is my understanding that no matter when you sign up, the challenge will unfold from the very beginning. So there shouldn't be any such thing as being "late." The first Trap email comes a couple of days after the introductory email, so might you still be in that waiting period? They are just sent every other day from then on.

Unfortunately I am not allowed to duplicate the actual content here for copyright reasons. But if you haven't gotten Trap 1 yet but just signed up and have only gotten the intro email, it should still be coming.

The link is here.

Do keep me posted!

(In response to today's column.)

UGH. This is the worst excuse for bad behavior that I can imagine, because it's feeble and defensive and it means your BF doesn't have your back. He's accusing you of being oversensitive to genuinely mean comments.

Yeah. I didn't like that either. Thanks.

I've tried 3 or 4 different email addresses to sign up for the Detox your Thoughts newsletter, and nothing happens. I've checked my spam folders too. Is there another way to get on the list?

What a pain-- I am so sorry!

The first email should come soon I believe. I did hear from a few people that their pressing "enter" hadn't been recorded-- do you know if after you pressed enter in the green box whether it actually said to you that you were signed up?

Ugh, I am really sorry about this.

How big a dinner is this, and is it a sit-down dinner? My family T-days are always crowded and buffet-style, so one more or less doesn't matter. If the table is going to be set for five vs. six, that might be more important, but it's still not so important that I would take offense at a stressed-out friend's dithering. A) is Marsha always dithering? B) is sister always quick to take offense?

Great questions, thanks.

And yeah, I can see needing SOME sort of deadline for the seating-- but we're still a week and a half out so I really hope Marsha will get a little more lenience.

My partner is an entrepreneur that started his own business 6 years ago. Recently he has been going through very tough times that have started to affect his mood. Unfortunately, he comes from a culture that doesn’t believe in therapy. I had always tried to let him know that I’m here for him and willing to help in any way possible. It’s a bit of a struggle because he tends to “go into his cave” when times get tough, and also because I’m not an entrepreneur myself so I cannot offer advice from experience. When I notice he is feeling down or stressed, I ask questions but don’t push if he doesn’t feel like talking, and when he does talk sometimes, I try to offer my best advice or just listen if I don’t have any. For the past 6 months, I feel that he has been sharing less of his struggles with me, but I tried to tell myself that he needed the space. We are currently facing and unrelated difficult situation that made him bring up the fact that he is going through the most difficult time ever. I mentioned that I wasn’t aware that things were this bad because he doesn’t share much as he used to do. He said that it has been difficult to share his feelings with me and that sometimes he just didn’t feel like it because I would just get quiet, offer overly optimistic advice that doesn’t help or just not be able to be empathic. To say that I’m hurt about his remarks is an understatement. I don’t even know how to address how I feel about this with him, knowing that because of how he is feeling he might not be the most receptive. I also have to add that many times during arguments, he says that every time he tells me he is hurt or upset about something I did “I find a way to make it about me”. I feel lost.

I am sorry.

But I would urge you to take a step back here, and even though you're hurt, to try to acknowledge that his attempting to tell you how your reactions come across-- well, that's an attempt to connect with you. To make things better. To give you feedback that will help him be able to discuss things with you more. So as much as it might have stunk to hear that (and as unfair as an assessment as it might have been), I do vote that it was a step forward. It could help create a better road map of what he needs from you.

So, this is hard-- no doubt. This hurts. But this is also the meat and potatoes (the tempeh and kale?) of relationship intimacy. Will you be able to open yourselves up to each other's feedback, listen to it, and grow from it? Or will you shy away from hearing what your partner is saying?

Again, maybe his assessment isn't even accurate. But for now it's what he feels, and what he's willing to give. So I'd urge you to try all you can to meet him there. Ask him more. Find out what he would like you to do instead (not in an exasperated "Well, what do you WANT from me?" but rather in an open, vulnerable "What could I have said that would have been more along the lines of what you were looking for?") Help him help you. Tell him that now that he's brought this up, you want to use it as an opportunity to improve your communications-- not make things worse. Say that it hurt you but you want to learn from it. That this pattern is not sustainable and you want to be supportive of him, not at odds, because it's also tough for you when he is going through things that he is keeping to himself.

In short, face this. The way out is through. If it's really hard to talk about and you both are shutting down, then if he won't consider therapy on his own or with you, getting your own support could help you navigate this in as clear-eyed a way as possible.

I married into one of those raucous, always together, perpetually loud, always talking over each other sorts of families. It's fun for about an hour, then I'm totally exhausted! What works for me is simple: I remember I'm an adult, and I don't need anyone's permission to be myself and do what I want to do. So after an hour of rowdiness, I say good night and go curl up with a book. Since I don't make a fuss over it, or explain myself (because I don't have to, I'm an adult), everyone just sort of accepts it's how I do things and then goes back to the shouting.

Love this. I really hope OP can navigate a path toward this outcome. Thank you!

A few months back I wrote in to Dr. A because I too was having trouble setting boundaries with my family. She gave me great advice about setting and holding boundaries, and that is absolutely what you have to do here. Decide what you need (and believe that it is ok to need it), respectfully communicate that need and your plan for getting it, hold the line. Next time a potential boundary violation came up, I used this. I advocated for myself, my husband backed me up with his family, everyone accepted it and moved on. The system worked! Good luck

Thank you! I'm so happy that it was helpful for you as well.

Incidentally I've got a new boundary-setting piece in the works as we speak. It's really tough for a lot of us!

The same thing happened to me. Good to know I'm not the only one. I def signed up and got the welcome email, but no other emails. (Signed up after last week's chat)


Those little green men hate me so, so much.

Sorry about this. There is most definitely a lag between the welcome email and the further trap ones-- at least two days-- but it shouldn't be a week.

I will confer with the little green men's minders. In the meantime, it might be worth trying to sign up again.

So sorry.

Be a good friend and tell Marsha she has everyone's blessing to do what she wants, even if it's a last minute call. Please point out to your sister Marsha's life is in a bit of turmoil right now. She may not feel up to a dinner with people. Would it kill your sister set an extra plate out but be ok for a no show? Marsha may decide to spend the day at home, eating Stouffer's lasagna followed by a pint of B&J ice cream. And watching what ever crappy movie she can find on Netflix. What ever works for her that day.

Marsha, you've got a lot of love and understanding here!

Stouffer's and B&J for Thanksgiving....a girl could do far worse!

Do you get a lot of that kind of response since you started doing this chat?

Every now and then, people have a strong need to share their.... feelings.

Thankfully, since I've been writing Baggage Check for almost 14 (!!!) years now, I've gotten a wee bit better at handling the "feedback."

But you have applied to be in it, by taking others' actions as a reflection on yours. Do you actually believe that your other relatives are being solicitous of the grandmothers in order to make you feel bad? If you're always giving this much thought to how you look in others' eyes, I think a good therapist could help. I agree with a lot of what you say about the noise level and activity level being tiring and not your kind of thing, but that statement really jolted me.

It's true that that comparison game sounds like a mental trap that is doing a lot of damage. Thanks for this!

I tried a different browser (Chrome, rather than Firefox) and when I pressed the sign-up button it did say 'signing you up', which it didn't do in Firefox. Yay!

Ahhh. Thank you! A potential solution?

I know, I know, Chatters Who Hate the Tech Trouble-Shooting Talk-- I am sorry and will try not to make a habit of this. Please let your eyes just skate on by to the next question!

I, also, signed up multiple times and never got the email. Then I tried a different browser (Chrome, instead of Firefox) and got the confirmation message that I was signed up. I don't know if it's actually a browser issue or some setting that I have in Firefox that was causing the problem. In any case, once I got the confirmation message from the sign up screen, I almost immediately got the email message.

Clearly I harmed certain browsers in a past life, and they are coming in for the kill.

Thank you.

When my husband and I were dating but serious we took a cruise with my parents, brother, sister and friends. My mother called our cabin on the first day to say that they were all heading to breakfast. I replied, thanks for letting us know. We are going to sleep in. I know she was surprised because I had always spent every minute of vacations together. But we did exactly as you suggested: did our own activities during the day, then everyone met up at the formal dinner later. Sometimes my brother and sister joined us on activities in port, sometimes not. We also hung out with my family at the after dinner shows. I know my parents were surprised at first, but it was fine.

Yes! You got it out of the way right at the beginning, and as much as it may have felt a little tough to do (or not!) it created much more smooth sailing (har, har) for the rest of the cruise.

Love it!

I come from a large family of social introverts, and one of my favorite family photos is of a big gathering in which my father, his liveliest brother, and the brother's liveliest daughter., are all taking naps in the next room in the middle of the party. We all accept the need for a little time out.


Now I bet those were some "lively" naps at least.

Very sweet!

And also " He says I need to make more of an effort". Seriously, putting it back on LW!? I hope the conversations don't actually go like this because that is a serious non-sequitur. "I don't like the way your mom talks to me." "That's just how she is." "But it bothers me." "You should make more of an effort." Um, lot's of red flags here - no mention of support and understanding from the bf.

Yes. He needs to step up here, for sure. Thanks.

I usually host Thanksgiving, and, yeah, I need a headcount in advance. Marsha would drive me bats. I do the menu and the shopping the week before, and I need to budget and plan accordingly (it's not cheap!). Plus, one person can make a difference between whether or not I'm dragging the folding table from the basement and moving furniture around. Finally, in my experience, when people dither and dither over an invitation, and then say they're coming, they usually flake the day of. So if Marsha can't make up her mind, then it's pretty likely she doesn't actually want to come but feels like she's obligated. I'd probably cut Marsha some slack because she's going through a rough time, but seriously: it's a major holiday, not a kegger. Hosts need headcounts. Yeah, the sister is being harsh, but she's probably at her wit's end managing flaky guests.

For sure, hosting isn't easy and headcounts are helpful. But is the potential of plus or minus one so dire that it needs to be ironed out two weeks in advance or the invite revoked, especially when the person is going through a rough time? I do get it, though, that if Marsha has been a flake before (say it ain't so, Marsha!) then Sis is understandably already annoyed with that potential.

Thanks for this!

While I am not an unhappy person, I wonder sometimes if I have a sort of low-level depression. I’ve definitely experienced situational depression. I went to counseling 20 years ago, (I'm in my 40s now) after a long string of family deaths and other losses, when my normal baseline worrying/anxiety started impacting my day to day functioning. (I was never formally diagnosed, but told I had some symptoms of PTSD and some thought patterns similar to OCD patterns). Cognitive behavioral therapy helped that immensely, and I’ve never gotten to that point again. But in general, there is just a sort of….depressive thrum beneath the regular noise of my life. I still feel love and loved, I can still experience joy and enthusiasm, I look forward to many things in the future. Most people who know me would say that I am a positive person, which is true, though it takes me much more effort than I let on. But that feeling is there, like a birthmark I’m always vaguely aware of but no one else seems to notice. Concrete examples are hard to articulate, but I guess the most troubling one is that I sometimes think to myself that after I die, it won’t really matter much to anyone. I don’t want to die, and I don’t have suicidal thoughts or anything like that. I just sometimes feel like I am invisible and insignificant, despite my happy marriage, my large and loving family, and my many friends. I also have some trouble getting motivated to do things that are complicated or risky, like starting my own business (something I’ve talked about for years but am afraid to do despite having my husband's full support and enough financing to start). This doesn’t seem to interfere in my day to day life, and I am hesitant to be screened because I think medication would be an extreme treatment for what is basically old timey melancholia, and I don't think the side effects would be worth the gains since honestly, I am fine most of the time. Also, it feels like it’s a part of me now, and maybe I don’t want to change that. But should I? How do you know when you’re clinically depressed? And when does it become a problem that needs to be treated? Can it be treated without medication?

I think what you're describing is very, very common, and I think there are a few ways to address it.

Lots of CBT therapists might go the direction of advising therapy-- and I do think it could be helpful. Just as it was helpful with your obsessive patterns decades ago, the same types of success could be found in dealing with depressive thoughts as well. And we are learning more and more about the physical aspects of depression, so it could be that some behavioral interventions are warranted in terms of exercise and changes in sleeping and daylight patterns. Which also reminds me that you should get a full physical, to see if there are potentially hormonal or nutritional deficiencies that are contributing to this.

So-- yes. CBT can be helpful in these cases, and I agree that medication does not necessarily seem warranted. But I want to take off my symptom-focused, quantitative CBT hat for a moment (ahhhhh. That feels better.) A significant component of what I'm hearing for seems to be about the search for meaning. So I am hesitant to make this all about depression versus "happiness"-- a purely mood-oriented calculation-- when what I think you are crying out for is something deeper. There's a lot of research that tells us that the opposite of depression isn't really pleasure and "happiness," but rather a sense of purpose and fulfillment through meaning.

Cultivating that could definitely be helped through therapy as well-- but maybe not in the strictest of CBT-type approaches. It also could involve asking deeper questions about the direction of your life, reading and talking and thinking about the larger aspects of what you DO want your impact on this Earth to be. And maybe if starting your own business could give you some true sense of purpose, you need to work on the anxiety surrounding that so that you can go ahead and go after it!

We could potentially get really heavy and even spiritual here. But my point is just that yes, treatment could help-- and so to can some deeper exploration.

I didn't know that! I thought it was just the time that I've seen you in the Wash Post

Yup! 14 years in Express next month. The Post has had various ways of handling Express stuff online all these years and it's gotten better and better. I remember in the early days you'd need to download a pdf to read it!

I don't think this is just a browser issue. I tried on Chrome and haven't gotten anything past the confirmation email.

Well, it does need at least 48 hours for that next one to come I believe.

Maybe he doesn't want her to always be finding a solution to what is bothering him, maybe he'd just like someone to listen.


I was struck by this line: "I cannot offer advice from experience." If it's your habit to give advice when your spouse expresses a feeling or mentions a problem, you're probably stressing him out even more. Most people just want to be heard. When you barge in with advice, yes, it does come across to the other person like you're making the problem about you and how you're a great problem-solver.


And I dare say, often when this dynamic happens, the genders are reversed!

I just stopped using up my vacation time on my extended family. They got Thanksgiving Dinner, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, etc. Repeat after me. You don't have to go on a cruise with them. I think an ideal vacation is hiking in National Parks, not a cruise. Even if I loved the idea of a cruise, going on a cruise with them would just be a waste of money.

The proverbial ship may have already sailed on this (couldn't resist), but something to keep in mind for the future if said ship does not sail well. Thanks.

Do you actually have reason to think saying 'I'll give this a miss, but have fun and look forward to hearing about it at dinner' will go down badly. Why are you in your mind failing at being a grandchild - is there evidence that your grandmother thinks this?? We all bring different things to the party. From where I'm standing, you're scaring yourself with a lot of assumptions that there is one way to behave properly and everyone will be aghast if you don't behave the one way. You don't have to buy into that. You write 'with all these complicated family dynamics & my poor history of being able to set boundaries'. This seems to be the nub - are the complicated family dynamics really there and how about working on your boundaries?

Yes. Definitely useful to challenge these assumptions. Thank you!

Dear Dr. Bonior, I'm subscribed to your Detox Your Thoughts newsletter and am enjoying it very much! I have a habit of pulling on my eyebrows for "loose hairs" and obsessing over "unsightly" hair removal. I've been this way since middle school (I'm 28) and have received counseling for it, which has helped. I find one issue remains: in a society that says women should be hairless baby seals, I often convince myself that removing "unsightly" hairs is good and useful. I agree it is to a point. But once I start removing said hairs, I reach that point where I know deep down I want to stop, but I feel like I'm on autopilot; I've lost control of the situation. How can I manage "unsightly" hair without obsessing over it and loosing control? Thanks for considering my query! Sincerely, Fuzzy Greek Babe

Ah, yes-- the Hairless Baby Seal expectation. Was it in this chat where someone brought up all those apocalyptic television shows (or the ones set in times pre-Gillette razor, for instance) and the jarring paradox of the men looking as scruffy as an apocalyptic hellscape would call for, while the women apparently are still spending time and resources shaving their armpits?

So I hear you. But this is a particularly weighty issue for you as someone with a history of trichotillomania. There's a slippery slope between a reasonable pluck that helps you feel presentable and confident, versus a skid into the compulsion taking over, and zapping your confidence and self-efficacy with it. So, I think you have to define things realistically, and then use your cognitive-behavioral tools (which I presume you got in therapy, but things like relaxation exercises, other coping mechanisms, challenging your automatic thoughts, reasonable distractions, physical anxiety releases, etc) to stop the skid.

So, get specific: how often are you going to "allow" yourself to shave your legs? Your underarms? Pluck your eyebrows? What, exactly, is a "loose" hair, and how will you know you are being too broad with that definition? (As much as this seems like the opposite time to add in another cosmetic product, I wonder if some sort of clear eyebrow gel could make you less likely to pluck.) What will you do or not do about other areas of your body? If you find yourself not sticking to your limits, what coping tools will you use, and how will you reset?

The key here is to establish your own guidelines-- not society's. And the stronger your own guidelines can be (and the more they align with your values) then the less likely you are to let society pressure you to keep skidding.

Good luck in this.

Sincerely, Fuzzy Part-Armenian Babe

Do you have any tips for developing a thicker skin for criticism at work? I can handle feedback generally but when it is delivered in a more "shouty" manner I tend to get teary and take things more personally. Then I get chastised for being too emotional at work, which further upsets me...

Yes. Attack it twofold.

Cognitively: have a mantra about the "shouty" manner that reminds you that it is not about you. Identify the negative automatic thoughts that are not rational, and label them as such: "I'm having the thought that I'm going to get fired. It's okay to have that thought, but it's not accurate. I tend to have this reaction when I am shouted at, which is human. And the shouting is dysfunctional and not my fault." Retrain yourself to take a step back and look at the situation more objectively in the moment, rather than going with the negative narrative that automatically pops into your head.

Then, physically: explore some breathing techniques that help you in the moment. These will also slow down the negative thought process, and will go hand in hand with your cognitive tools. Slow yourself down. Experiment with different "tricks" to potentially stop the tears-- from touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth to trying intentionally to get your muscles to cry (sounds strange, I know-- but sometimes it short-circuits the involuntary nature of crying and can help snap you out of it.) Practice this over and over again. You can even practice this in your mind, summoning a pretend "shout."

By the way, I know you didn't asked this, but... your workplace doesn't exactly sound like the bastion of emotional health! 

Good luck.

This is pharmacological Calvinism, and it infuriates me. "Old-timey melancholia" is a ridiculously catch-all term for clinical depression, and it vastly oversimplifies a complex problem. Please go to a doctor and find a therapist who will straighten out your misconceptions. " I just sometimes feel like I am invisible and insignificant, despite my happy marriage, my large and loving family, and my many friends." is a classic description of depression, and the recipe for coping with it is different for everyone. Talk therapy alone helps some people, medication helps others, and a combination of the two helps still others. Don't handicap yourself by thinking you know what the diagnosis and treatment are already; you're not a doctor.

It's true that there are all kinds of ways of minimizing what is real, treatable depression, and you make a good point that that was one of them. Thanks.

Ever family member has a strength, so maybe try to identify yours. It's not water breaks and translation and thats fine! Is it bringing baked goods to share? Or sitting quietly with someone taking a break on the hike? Or quietly refilling the water pitcher when it runs low? Different strokes for different folks!

Yes! Or maybe even having some deeper conversations here and there that are more able to be engaged in because you're not exhausted from spending 24/7 together with superficial chitchat!

not so much a question as a rant -- because it happened again this week. After a mass shooting, someone commented "they're crazy! they're sick!" and someone else went on about how "the crazies" should all be locked up. Let me just repeat: people with a mental health diagnosis are more likely to be harmed by members of the undiagnosed crew then to harm them. As a member of society who has worked and lived successfully for more than half a century with my mental health diagnosis, I'm tired of saying this. Just because I have an illness above the neck doesn't mean I'm dangerous! and just because you've never had a diagnosis doesn't mean you're *not*. and don't call me the 5-letter "c" word!

100 percent. Thank you for articulating this.

I've said it before and I'll say it again-- the vast majority of those who kill (especially with guns, which allow for more impulsivity and spontaneity) are NOT diagnosable with a mental illness at all. Often they do have a history of aggressive or violent behavior, though.

And people with psychological disorders are far more likely to be victimized by others than to victimize. The data bear this out soundly for anyone who is willing to read it.

Unfortunately, nowadays, it's not usually just one person dithering. I've been stuck not knowing if it will be four or twenty people at a gathering, because people are just that flaky. I set a deadline for RSVP's now, and if that ruffles a few feathers so be it.

Yes. This is an important point, and one that might help us understand Sister more. There really IS an epidemic of flaking-- I've railed about it in several publications-- and so with that backdrop it's even harder to be understanding as a host, even when lenience may be more truly called for. Great point.

Could it help if someone else did the hair removal for the LW? E.g. get legs waxed or eyebrows threaded at a salon (at predetermined intervals, like you suggested)

Yes! Thanks. I was wondering about this myself, but then wondered if it started to sound a little hoity-toity to actually advise only letting a professional take care of your needs in this arena....

Honestly, unless Julie has a baby soon, the friendship will peter out. I am the perpetually single, child-free friend. The friends I had since childhood all married and reproduced. Other than an occasional like on facebook, we're not friends anymore. When all these friends began pairing off in our mid-20's, I just found new friends. Some of the new group are married, but most have no children. (The one that does has a single, young adult child). Here's the thing my former friends never got - sometimes (most of the time) I was cool with hanging out with the partners, but when we make plans for just the original group, don't show up with the husband.

That latter point is so, so important. Thanks.

Am I naive for thinking it doesn't have to be that way, though? Granted, I might be coming at it from the opposite end of the spectrum-- I had kids so much earlier than the rest of my friends that they probably wanted to stage an intervention-- but I've helped many people through the mismatched-life-phase transition in friendships and I truly don't believe it has to peter out if the genuine motivation is there to keep it going.

Perhaps the OP would enjoy watching the legendary episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" where Mary Richards has Sue Ann "The Happy Homemaker" Nivens cater a dinner party at Mary's apartment for precisely six guests. Like, what could possibly go wrong? It's an object lesson in the risks of strict planning.

Haven't seen this but now want to. Team Mary Tyler Moore 4-evah! Thanks.

I second the doctor's mention of purpose and meaning, but want to add how many treatments that are not medication - exercise, meditation, yoga, good nutrition, sound sleep, aromatherapy, music - keep me off of medication. Maybe therapy plus a natural serotonin boost would lift your spirits enough to tackle the first steps of the big things which would lead to that meaning and purpose.

Yes. All kinds of behavioral treatments that do have empirical support. Thank you!

Person who gets teary at work when being shouted at, really, it is not about you. You haven't done anything egregiously wrong. That person who is shouting, shouts at everyone. It's what they do. You just happen to be in their field of vision and in their chain of command, so they are going to do what they are going to do. Which is shout. I don't have any cognitive tricks to help you further, but maybe this thought will get you started.

Yes. Another mental tool in reframing this-- thank you!

AND I WILL HIT THE ROOF IF THIS DOESN'T GET RESOLVED... sorry, that was what was in my head when I read that sentence. I laughed to myself.


I really didn't take it that way, though I definitely have seen my share of those emails as well!

How do I deal with my older sister who has not done anything to help me and my husband take care of my mother, who has dementia and Parkinson's; my mother has been with us for the past 8 years, but my sister has not agreed to come and see my mother.

I am sorry. What reasons does she give? What is she like generally? What is your relationship like?

Some people fall short of doing the right thing in life-- including people we love. And some people have limits that make them incapable of holding up their end of what is a reasonable bargain-- and yes, that makes it very unfair to others. I don't realistically know if there is hope of changing here here, because I don't know the real reason that she has not stepped up (and it sounds like this isn't even a matter of not stepping up, but rather not even maintaining contact.) I could think of a dozen reasons right off the bat. That doesn't make it right, but it does mean that there is a wide variability on whether or not she will ever reckon with this and change course. And that at some point there is not much you could do.

I have talked to many people in your shoes who are ultimately able to make peace with the person's limits, because they realize that although caregiving for someone with dementia is backbreaking, bone-tiring work that can also be emotionally exhausting (added bonus!) it can also provide some intimacy and love and connection to someone in those last days. It can be a gift in that sense, even if only for the fact that you know you are doing the right thing-- no matter how tough-- and will live on without regret.

So-- depending on how much you have actually talked to her about this and asked her to step up, the acceptance of her limits may be near. And that comes with some freedom, for you to find meaning in the experience in its own right, and no longer be beholden to expectations that aren't going to be met.

And you can focus on getting your own support, for the situation as it really is-- not as you wished it would be.

My heart goes out to you.

OP here! Thanks Dr. Bonior + chatter for the advice and suggestions! :) BTW, what does "LW" stand for (I'm new here)? Thanks!

You are very welcome!

LW = Letter-writer.

OP=  Original-poster.

Treat this as an exercise in anthropology, and run the David Attenborough voice-over in your head. "Here we see the Angry Middle Manager in its native habitat"

Oh my goodness, I am laughing so hard here.

I may like this reframe best of all. Thank you.

Yes, but THAT person is doing something egregiously wrong. Unless there's a fire and the person being shouted at isn't holding on to the fire-hose properly, there is no need for feedback to be clothed in a tantrum. If the workplace doesn't have a remedy for abusive behavior, I'd recommend looking elsewhere for employment.

My mind was definitely wandering down this path myself. Thank you.

“Also-- sadly-- letting go of the friendship, ultimately, if she is not willing or able to take care of herself enough to be an active participant in it.” This is where I got that you advised dumping her. I thank you for responding to my comment and still think including this in your answer was really premature and a mistake. Yes, it struck a nerve. Trust me (or read advice column comments) and you will see that there are a lot of people who erroneously believe treating mental illness is like treating a broken bone – that you go get therapy and are then well. Of course that is true for some people but for many people with deep problems, it isn’t. We should all know by now that things like PTSD, OCD, and Schizophrenia are very hard to overcome. Many people continue to suffer from them despite seeking treatment and trying hard to “take care of themselves”. Trust me again that many people see people continue to struggle and decide that treating them with compassion is “enabling” them to “stay sick”. I believe sick people deserve compassion. Yes it isn’t fun to deal with anyone who is sick but of course being sick is worse. I will even agree that some people might need to put their own mental health first. However I didn’t see anything in the original letter that indicated it was causing that kind of a problem for the letter writer and I saw lots of evidence that the friend could really use a good friend. What I saw was a good person asking a medical professional for advice on how to help someone in need of help. To me, your response contributed to false notions that are harmful to people who are already suffering. You didn’t say withhold friendship if she fails to seek treatment in order to encourage her to get professional help, you said a long time friend might want to dump someone who is not ABLE to care for herself. Do you honestly have patients who get well because people stopped be loving to them?

I appreciate this added response, but I maintain you are reading something in to my answer that is not there.

If Julie stops coming to planned outings, what is OP supposed to do? Show up at her house with a meathook, abduct her, and shove her into the restaurant seat?

And how is it "dumping" someone to not do that?

Please make that clear when making plans with coupled friends, especially if the gathering is more casual in nature. If they usually attend, the friend probably assumes the SO is always invited if no fuss is made. I have no problems with "girls nights" but am now more aware of asking if my BF is invited to plans, without assuming.

Yes. Communicate, and don't assume. Thanks.

I'm at the point now where the "see you in 18 years" has actually happened. The kids are in high school now and don't want to hang out with the parents that much, so I'm reestablishing ties with those who dwindled to the occasional e-mail.

It's lovely if these can be rekindled!

Hi Dr. Bonior, I really love your chats and your column, and I’m so glad that they’re more visible now on the WaPo Advice page. I’m really hoping you can take my question this week, because my husband and I could use some help figuring out our travel plans for Thanksgiving. Backstory: My in-laws were visiting this past weekend and as part of a discussion of several high-emotion topics, my FIL either said directly or implied (stories vary based on who you ask) that because I disagree with our President, and because I think that international protests are justified ...that I would be OK with [my SIL/his daughter] being attacked while going for a run in the countryside while traveling in a foreign country. I was speechless and stammered to say something about how obviously no, that would not be OK. I then said that was completely inappropriate and he doesn’t get to come into our home and insult me like that. MIL took him out of the room and ILs went upstairs. I was pretty hurt and angry at my husband for not standing up to his dad, and at one point said I didn’t want them in our home and around our kids if they were going to insult me by saying that I wished physical violence on my SIL. I then went for a walk to calm down. When I got back, ILs had left. No apology. Husband said they were “sorry I was offended, but that I said hurtful things like not wanting them to be around our kids.”

I find that ridiculous because I think that’s perfectly reasonable to not want people insulting you around your children. I also didn’t say that to their faces; I said it to my husband in a moment of hurt and anger and they overheard. I find it upsetting that apparently they think they can insult me, then I can’t be angry about it *in my own home* without them making it about them and their hurt feelings. 

Complicating things is that unbeknownst to my FIL, I actually *was* attacked while running in a rural area as a teen. The fact that he just threw that scenario out there as a rhetorical flourish, and not a very real and terrifying experience, and then said that I’d wish that on my SIL- that’s a deep wound for me. That’s not something you joke about or use to shut down an argument. We were going to visit them for Thanksgiving, but it’s an 8-9 hr drive with 4 kids 5 and under. I have no desire to be in their presence right now, but I won’t stop my husband from taking the kids. Considering that we have 4 small children, me staying home could potentially be unpleasant enough and stressful enough to do solo that he wouldn’t go. They live in a small town, there’s no “escape hatch” for me- if I go, it has to be in their home full time. I don’t feel up for that. Even if FIL apologized, I’m not sure I would. I also don’t want to keep my husband from going and keep them from seeing their grandkids. Despite their flaws, they’re pretty good grandparents; my MIL is mostly great and my kids love her. Can you help give us a framework for how to discuss this that’s respectful of everyone? I just don’t see a path forward here. 

Thre's a lot here, and I know we're under a time crunch, but this also is time-sensitive so I will do my best here!

Bottom line: feelings may be too raw for Thanksgiving to happen together this year, BUT I think you need to be careful that it is not conceptualized that you are "punishing" them, or a precedent set that will break the relationship for good.

Husband's mediation is going to be key here-- which worries me a little bit because I am not certain that he is willing to fully see your perspective here. Was he just relaying what they said? Or does he also believe the "but"-- that you said hurtful things, and that kind of justifies their behavior (never mind that what you said came AFTER what they said?)

So... proceed with caution. Write it out if need be. Say that you love them and that you know there will be a path forward but right now, feeling are too raw. That there needs to be a larger conversation and understanding in there eventually, but you don't want to wreck things by starting that prematurely when things still feel so acute. That you don't want to say things you don't mean (in either direction-- false apologies NOR an escalation out of anger).

There are no easy answers here, and probably no right answer. Plenty of people would say to suck this up for the sake of your kids, and I can certainly see some credence in that. But if you think that it will only escalate things for the long run, then you're not really doing a service to anyone by checking that box of going.

I am sorry I can't be more nuanced here with the time left, but I did want to at least give you something!

I'm straight, but one of the few single people in my group of friends. As soon as they realized that I was open to dating rather than being "actively single" they've all been working to set me up with all of their single friends. I tend to think of it as getting a better chance than someone completely random; if the person setting us up is friends with both of us there's likely something in common, or at least not a glaring personality mismatch. YMMV though, good luck!

Thanks! I do think that's a privilege of straight people at times, though... to be able to trust that at least a little scrutiny went into the match-up. I have certainly seen on more than one occasion that when it is a gay person, sometimes it seems like that was the only box checked-- that that was as far as the thought/matchmaking criteria went.

I do like your giving Aunt the benefit of the doubt, though!

When someone asks, "Can my BF come?" it puts the other person in the position of saying no, which is not always easy. Asking something like, "Is this going to be just girls?" is better IMO. Saying yes is easier than saying no.

Yes, yes, yes-- great point. Terminology is important here (which can make it seem that one is assuming something even if they're not really assuming.)


Can you talk to her about contributing in other ways that she might be able to do? Pay for respite more help to give the two of you time to recharge your batteries? Take over dealing with your mom's bills/taxes etc. Where can she lift some weight of that she might agree to do as a way to contribute?

Great ideas-- I do wonder if these have been broached yet. Thanks.

to deal with the stress of not being able to get the newsletter!


How sad will that be, if "Detox Your Thoughts" has a net NEGATIVE effect on people.....

I noticed someone wrote in about not being able to see the comments for the most recent chat. I have had similar problems. I use Safari/Google, but not Chrome and am not able to see comments for 11/6, but was able to see comments for the previous chat. I can see comments for archived Hax chats. Maybe WAPO is shutting off comments after a designated period? Inquiring minds want to read comments! Please.

Maybe the Little Green Men Overlords will see this and answer our call!

A couple weeks ago I asked how you know when therapy is "working," and several posters piped up that you know when your life starts to get better. But what if it doesn't? Does that mean you haven't given it enough time? Or that you're not trying hard enough? Or that you and the therapist don't see your issues the same way? Or what? Certainly a therapist brings his/her own world view and life experience to his interactions with patients. If you feel that therapy is NOT working, how do you know whether it's you, or the shrink, or his particular therapeutic orientation, or the circumstances, or something else, and what's a reasonable amount of time to give it? (I speak as someone who had what I would consider an unhelpful experience with a shrink who had trouble remembering basic facts of my life from week to week, let alone providing useful guidance and support.)

I think it really does depend.

First things first-- the example you gave. I am unclear if that is the current therapist you are seeing, but let me be the first to say that basic facts need to be remembered, as a lowest common denominator of therapy. Look, I can't remember where I put my keys (shoot-- I actually think that's true at the moment), but I can darn well remember what goes on in a session with my clients, and all the parts of their life that are pertinent. Because that's what a therapist strives to do and it's an absolutely crucial requirement for being a good one.

In terms of when it's more murky, I do think it all comes down to goals, and trying to figure out exactly WHY they're not being met. There is such a wide range of possibilities here, but it needs to be brought up with the therapist. I know that this feels so incredibly awkward, and yet it's soooo necessary. The therapist and you can help troubleshoot what's going on. Sometimes it's clear-- like things are being uncovered in therapy, but none of the behavioral or cognitive work is being done in the week outside of therapy, so the gains are just evaporating as the person walks out the door. Other times the insights themselves don't really feel like insights. Something is missing. And plenty of times, indeed, the fit is wrong-- with the orientation or style of the therapist, or the client's willingness to talk about what's really going on, or any number of other things.

So-- the first step in trying to get to the bottom of what's getting in the way is to talk about it.

This is in response to last week's chat, about how to support friends who were going through the deaths of their children. Personally, I dislike when I hear people say "If you need anything, let me know". That point the onus on the grieving person to reach out, and really, what are they going to ask you to do? People say it all the time but I don't think it's as helpful as they intend. Just DO something. When my sister was dying, my MIL gave my mom fresh flowers every week to bring to her hospital room. I will always remember that (even though she's my ex-MIL now!). She just thought of something she could do, and she did it. I would much rather see more people adopt this philosophy.

Great point. And a truly beautiful gesture (and most important, ACTION!) by your ex-mother-in-law.

Be specific, and OFFER something. Rather than putting another task on their plate for them to come back to you and ask for help-- not easy for many people even in the best of circumstances.

Parents today feel they have make kids their number one priority above everything else. I have a few friends who keep up with child free friends and talk about things other than baby. But it's become a truth universally acknowledged that kids take over your life. I really don't think this is healthy. My parents went out and had outside interests - I wasn't their sole focus. We need more air here folks!

I do think you're right and that there are some generational shifts about this that are problematic. It's true. And it may very well be making today's parents far more miserable than before.

Can you say to Shouter that you absorb constructive feedback better in written form and ask them to email it to you rather than sit down to talk to you about it? You can say that there can be a follow-up conversation but if you can absorb an email first it'll be more fruitful.

Great thought.

I dare say Chronic Shouters aren't necessarily known for being the most thoughtful and responsive to other people's feelings-- especially when it comes to someone telling them to refrain from shouting-- but there's always hope!

I think there may be a way in here when tempers have cooled. You are so sorry that happened to him, but the way he brought it up meant that you were in a no-win situation. Can you meet over that communication misstep.

I do agree there is a way in here-- but want to clarify that it was not the FIL that was attacked, as I understood it. It was actually the OP that was, which makes this even harder on them.

But I share your sentiment that in the long-term, this doesn't have to wreck the relationship. And I like your diplomacy. Thanks.

Make types of food that can be frozen for later use, if the recipient can't use it right away.

The Casserole Brigade exists for a reason. Thank you.

Such great responses here-- I felt like we were a mile a minute today. In a good way! I'm sorry there were so many questions left unanswered. We do try to keep some to address in future chats.

As for future chats-- can't wait to see you next week already, where I'm sure the pre-Thanksgiving drama will be in full force. Thanks again for being here. See you on Facebook, in the comments, and in Detox Your Thoughts.

Take good care!

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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