Baggage Check Live: Alarmingly casual

Dec 04, 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.

Want to read more? Read Baggage Check columns.

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Hi, everyone! How are you today?

I have just been gifted with my laptop's T, Y, U, I, and O keys ceasing to work. Now, that could have made this chat really fun! But can anyone tell me if there is hope for a spontaneous recovery when we're already multiple restarts in? (Thankfully, Wonderful Hubs dug up and rigged an additional keyboard-- granted, it looks like it may have come from the Reagan era-- but I am back in business temporarily.)

Today's column talks about a wine-with-dinner habit. When is it a problem? How much is too much? And in L2, we deal with someone who gets tongue-tied around a coworker they're intimidated by. Can anyone relate?

Let's begin! 

I've been dating a guy for a couple years and since my family lives in the area, we've gone to several family get-togethers for holidays and birthdays. I understand these occasions can be stressful for obvious reasons: a big group of strangers who all know each other, cultural differences (he's an immigrant and speaks English as a second language), and feeling pressure to get along with people he would never have met or spent time with otherwise. They have been nothing but nice to him (as far as I know) but last time we went, he got upset because he said I didn't spend enough time with him while there. I think he expects me to spend the majority of the time at his side, or at least a larger portion of time than I did. He apparently felt I was ignoring/abandoning him but I had actually made an conscious effort to go sit/talk with him that night, but there were 15 or so other people I hadn't seen in awhile and wanted to interact with each of them, at least a little bit.

Part of the problem was that instead of saying "I'm feeling uncomfortable/lonely/need a break" he said "nothing's wrong" and shut down for the rest of the evening even after we got home. But I asked about holiday plans recently and he's reluctant to go do anything with my family again. I think it's normal to feel a little awkward around new people for awhile until you get to know them, and avoiding them will just prolong the process. I would feel awkward around his family for same reasons listed above, so I get it. 

I also pointed out that we see each other often, much more than I see my family/friends, so when we go to family events we're going there to spend time with them, not only with each other. I suspect he's overthinking and stressing out about it and creating unnecessary expectations, but I know telling somebody to "just relax" generally doesn't make them relax. I'm not dead set on spending Christmas Day together, so I'm okay with doing out own thing. So I guess my question is, how do you handle family gatherings with a partner who feels a little out of place?

I suggested that 1) he needs to TELL me if he's starting to feel uncomfortable. I can't read his mind, and 2) it's okay to bring a book, go for a walk, or park himself on the couch in front of the TV with my dad, who is a severe introvert and times out of gatherings after about 10 minutes. Like I said, I DO make an effort to spend time with him in between catching up with relatives, but it's clearly not enough time for him. I asked somewhat jokingly what would the time breakdown be, 50/50, 25/75, 60/40? but he didn't really have an answer because like I said, it seems like he expects me to be at his side the whole time. 

"Like I said, I DO make an effort to spend time with him in between catching up with relatives."

Okay, I guess I'm a little confused by this. Shouldn't he be part of this catching up with relatives? At least a large chunk of the time, in these early days? Isn't that the very way that he's going to get to know these people better, and become more comfortable with them over time-- by you making connections and helping the conversation along? English is his second language and these people are new to him. While you are talking to Dear Aunt Sally about her latest job switch, is he supposed to be coming up with his own conversational volleys altogether with Strange-In-A-Good-Way Cousin Mike and his Game of Thrones obsession?

I agree that he needs to communicate with you that he's feeling uncomfortable, but it could be that the entire thing is uncomfortable for him. I may not be seeing the full picture here-- and I can understand your frustration and not wanting a way that he really feels comfortable with and supported by.

Like saying "It's okay to go for a walk or plop on the TV in front of my Dad"-- well, that may be easy to say but even harder for him to do. Whereas some of the middle ground would be for you to also plop down on the couch, have the 2-minute conversation about whatever Absolutely Fascinating thing was on television, mention a connection between him and your Dad, and help him settle in there before leaving. 

My guess is he could use a little more from you, that the sweet spot is pretty large between you spending all your time with him versus potentially leaving him totally out in the social cold. The more you have his back early on, the more it can pay dividends later-- and if need be, you can start adopting some of the compromises we mentioned last chat. But only if he really feels that you hear him and are truly trying to help him first. 

I'm the lurking recovering alcoholic that writes in on occasion. One thing that stood out for me in your letter was you said she gets antsy before she has the wine. Not a good sign. Another thing that was NOT in you letter was how much she is drinking each night. I'm not saying she has an alcohol problem. But alcohol can be a sneaky, insidious, persistent little beast. It can creep up on you and before you realize - BAM! It's a problem. At this point I'd just be watchful. You may want to explore other decompression ideas right after work that you can do together - walk around the block? yoga? I understand she has stress at work. I just am a bit worried that wine is becoming her self-medication of choice to relieve that stress. Good luck and keep us posted!

Helpful thoughts-- thanks!

I agree there are some important things to be explored and be watchful about here. Though I know some in the comments felt like we were getting a little puritanical. 

A few weeks ago I wrote in about issues with my roommate/landlord, and wanted to give you an update. We had our "Showdown at the OK Condo" last night after continued issues with her expectations, such as me saying that I don't need to get prior approval from her to have a friend over to watch TV on a Saturday afternoon, and that if her dishes are left on the drying rack for a week mine don't have to be put away nightly; she also implied that I'm an alcoholic out of left field. She had printed off the lease and I believe expected me to back down, but wasn't prepared for my response that you can't control "neatness" based on the legalese about "maintaining a clean and safe environment" (score one for my anxiety-driven legal research!). TL;DR- I'm moving into my parents' basement by the New Year. I think it says a lot about how stressful my living situation has been lately that I'm EXCITED to be moving during the month of December. Thank you for being an objective gut-check that reassured me that I was right to hold my ground against her issues

Thank you for this update! The alcoholism piece is strange, and although I am not in any way suggesting you need to give it the time of day (sounds like this person is prone to just lashing out), people have taken far worse opportunities for a reality check with themselves about substances-- so I just want to put that out there.

So glad that you are able to get out of a very stressful situation, though. And good for you for standing your ground and doing what you needed to do.  

I have a question about therapy. So often I feel like the people able to prescribe meds are separate from those that do talk therapy. Why is that? Is there any way to combine the two? I have anxiety/depression and while I feel like there are some behaviors I could improve I also think that some meds wouldn't hurt. I would think that the two people working with me would need to talk to each other (or be the same person!); at the very least to see how progress is happening or an outside opinion on if meds need to be tweaked.

It's a great question, and a matter of so much confusion. (You're ahead of the game by realizing this difference-- it breaks my heart when someone comes to me after spending time searching for therapy among psychiatrists who don't do it, and wondering what the issue is because no one ever bothered to explain it to them.)

Most MD psychiatrists tend to focus on medication, yes, and the ones who do talk therapy in general tend to use more psychoanalytic-techniques (relationship-based, longer-term, dealing deep into attachments and childhood). Whereas Ph.D. psychologists cannot prescribe medication (except in certain low-served populations in certain states, with some extra training) but are trained in talk therapy and tend to do more Cognitive-Behavioral therapy (which tends to be shorter term, more quantifiable, more structured, more focused on present symptoms, and-- I always get in trouble for this-- more empirically-focused.)

The main reason these people do different things is because it takes a lot of training to do either. Sure, there are some. But MLB pitchers aren't typically great hitters. And just because you can cook doesn't mean you can farm (to borrow a joke by the late great Mitch Hedberg.) I am not the one to know whether someone's four different medications may combine to affect their spleen in a problematic way, but an MD is. Just like most MDs haven't spent years honing specific skills through hard-core training in how to treat Social Anxiety Disorder through systematic desensitization, for instance.

The good news is, we can work together. I have plenty of clients/patients (another difference between the two modalities is terminology) that are on medication, and depending on the needs and situations, I may get a release to have regular conversations with their prescribers. So that could totally be an option for you. But I feel like especially with anxiety, it's important to not do just meds. because the need for solid behavioral coping tools is really strong. 

I agree with your advice about how the boyfriend should approach this discussion. It's worth considering that it could be the "ritual" that calms her after what seems to be constantly hectic days. I wonder if she'd be open to trying to substitute the after-work drink with an after-work snack, or bath, or something else...to try and determine if it's the alcohol or the routine that's calming her.

Great point. Thanks. 

I think the ritual can be such a powerful part of alcohol's pull, for better or for worse, for people with problems with it and without. Definitely worth investigating. 

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 40 with two young kids. I’ve tried all the medications I can to treat it, as well as non-drug related therapies, but I feel like I’m worse than ever. I’ve been successful in my career but I keep feeling like I’m going to get fired for doing something ADHDish. I’m constantly worried about how I’m acting and things I’ve blurted out impulsively that I should have kept to myself. Basically while the diagnosis finally helped me know why I am who I am, it has made me very insecure about who I am and my weaknesses. I was always a very confident person and now I’m losing that security in myself and my abilities. How do I come to terms with this new version of me?

See, I don't see this as an ADHD problem (not saying you don't have ADHD-- I trust your diagnosis.) But I see this now as an anxiety problem.

It feels like there was something about that diagnosis itself that has made you overthink things. You say you're "worse than ever," but you don't mention any evidence at all that your inattention symptoms have started to cause you new problems, but rather it is all your reaction to them-- your beliefs about yourself. (In fact, I'm guessing the inattention symptoms have probably gotten better given the amount of treatment interventions you've had. Then again, with two young kids it's possible that any given night sleep deprivation is rearing its ugly head-- which can make attention symptoms far worse across the board.) 

But here's the thing-- I don't think there is a new version of you, except in terms of your worrying about this new version of you. I think this is the you that has always been there. And it's just as fabulous a you as it's always been. 

I think you now are viewing yourself as more deficient just because you got the label. But the label can and should be empowering-- because it can help you focus on your challenges and do something about them. The label made you no more deficient. It just gave some structure and a name to what was already there, and some ways to address it. 

I'm thinking it's possible that some aspect of your treatment made you feel particularly less-than... or else maybe there have indeed been a few incidents that have been problematic in terms of your symptoms. Either way, though-- the anxiety/insecurity should be the new clinical focus. I think you could use some help with it, whether professionally or using some of the CBT techniques we talk about in this chat often (and in Detox Your Thoughts)-- visualizing the worries as something tangible and starting a meditation/breathing routine where you watch them dissipate. 

How would you handle? Coworker in a different department has a great deal of technical knowledge and is many times the only source of solutions on projects -- no one else can replicate her expertise. She is also juvenile, passive aggressive, whiny, and requires a lot of "managing." As in, if I go to her with a favor, I know I'm going to have to pay for it by listening to her latest grudges, stories about her aMAzing family who does all these aMAzing things, and stories about what naughty things her dog did this week. I usually grin and bear it; she makes life easier in a lot of ways, and I'm one of the few people she gets along with consistently, mostly because i know how to not push her buttons. (If she gets mad, we're talking months of grudge-holding.) Last week she did something pretty rotten. To me. She essentially tried to get me in trouble for something that (a) wasn't an actual problem, and (b) wasn't any of her business. She didn't express her problem with me personally, she went straight to my boss. Now, my boss knows what she's like and just rolled her eyes, but I'm having a hard time getting over this anyway. I actively try to be nice to this lady, and this feels like a betrayal. (There are layoffs coming. Not the time to casually get people in trouble over nothing, you know?) What would you do? Say something? Anyone else, I would, but it just seems like it would create so much more work. Quietly stop trusting her? That's what I'm leaning toward, but I expect she'll figure it out eventually. Get over it? I'm not sure how; I still get mad whenever I think of it.

And what's wrong with her "figuring it out eventually?"

She did something rotten. Though I agree that you shouldn't throw kerosene on this, it should definitely still inform your interactions with her. 

You gradually "get over it" by using this as data that informs your decisions, rather than viewing it as a wrong that still can be righted.

As it stands, in fact, the "righting" happened automatically-- your boss knows of her shenanigans, so she got nowhere. That is pretty awesome protection that even if you try to back off a bit from her and she tries to retaliate, not much bad can come from it. 

Can you find someone else (or a particularly detailed Reddit forum) to fix some of these issues that she is seemingly the only one to know how to fix? 

You deserve to be angry. You can sit with that for a bit, breathe through it, acknowledge that it's your right. Then use it to fuel a strategic plan to be as immune to her nonsense as possible moving forward. 

I was in a highspeed head-on collision when I was 15 during which my face slammed into the dashboard. The effects have been immediate and lasting as well as visible and invisible: spinal cord injury, teeth knocked out, broken jaw, and lower lip ripped off. I have gone through countless physical challenges, doctors, and treatments for the last 20 years and will continue to do so in some form for the rest of my life. The direction and quality of my life were altered in ways that can never be known, and those that can be known are at times devastating for me emotionally (e.g., deciding not to have children because of the physical pain and limitations and barely surviving alcoholism).

Over the years, I mostly stopped mentioning my physical pain to people because they seemed to have gotten sick of hearing about it (I have shared that I continue experience chronic pain with those closest to me recently, and they were glad that I did). Almost everyone who who has met me in the last 20 years knows nothing about the car accident and my struggles, and aside from immediate family, the people who were around 20 years ago have long forgotten about it. The only visible sign left from the accident is the scar where my lip was sewn back together. And nobody ever mentions it. I can't understand how all of these people who have come into my life over the last 20 years don't see it. I can think of maybe 3 instances when I have met new people and they have asked me about it. It's RIGHT THERE. Maybe everyone sees it and decides that it's not polite to ask, it's none of their business, or it will upset me?

But it hurts and confuses me that nobody ever asks me about it even after we establish a personal relationship. It feels like I have all of this invisible pain that I deal with on a constant basis and that nobody can see, that I just want or need people to at least acknowledge the one that I know they all CAN see. How do I get over this? How do I move toward appreciating that people don't mention it to me and brining up something that is painful for me (though I am already in constant physical pain anyway)? Or do people really not see it? I can't imagine they don't.

Well, I can't offer some type of objective visual assessment here, of course-- it could really be that no one notices your scar, it could be that it is quite striking and people actively avoid mentioning it, or it could be anything in between.

But I think the important thing here is that most likely, if people do see it, they are not bringing it up because they don't think it would be welcome.

And I really can't argue with that-- after all, if you're going to err on either side here, far better to err on the side of just treating you like a human being who does not have anything physically different about them, no? I'm sure their calculus is not only that it can be terribly inconsiderate to bring up an unusual physical characteristic (makes people thing that physical appearance is all that matters, or worse yet, that their appearance is negative), but also because they might indeed think that it is associated with negative emotions for you. And that it's not their right to know unless you bring it up first.

So I can really see where they are coming from here.

Here's the thing, though. This is a significant part of your life-- it matters to you. And you've overcome a heck of a lot because of it (bravo on that, by the way) and continue to face struggles that are more than the average person has to bear. 

That's the very meat and potatoes of a good friendship-- bringing up your emotional vulnerabilities to build trust and connection and intimacy.

So, can you choose some people that you feel like you want to be close to, and bring yourself to bring it up? And start a real conversation about it rather than waiting and wondering? I am guessing you may be rewarded just as you were for bringing up the chronic pain.

Good luck. And keep us posted! 

Hoo boy, the first question (about the girlfriend *needing* at least a glass of wine each night) sure is loaded. I had this same situation in my household. When in therapy for depression and anxiety my therapist inquired about alcohol use in the house. When I said my husband and I usually had a drink each night (in addition to occasional social drinking with friends), she asked why-“Out of habit or to relax, I guess.” She was concerned about the mindlessness of it--this wasn’t us carefully pairing wine with a meal. I thought her concern was really misplaced, and I was a little offended.

But then I started to reconsider. There’s been an evolution in the thinking about drinking that says you don’t need to be fall-down drunk to have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. And that everyone’s limits might be different. When I was honest with myself, I realized that I was getting really antsy for that drink each night. That scared me because one of my grandparents was an alcoholic. And by using alcohol to relax, I wasn’t using my other coping skills. There is also evidence of the link between drinking and breast cancer—a concern in my family. So I cut back.

I feel better and am saving a ton of money. But my husband still thinks the whole thing is ridiculous and has a drink (which is probably really 1 ½ drinks) daily. I think Andrea's approach about not necessarily focusing on the drinking first but pointing out that she seems agitated, antsy, whatever is best. There's a chance she realizes her drinking has escalated (because the eagerness is a sign of escalation), but doesn't feel a need to check herself on why because everything around us says its okay to drink daily and there's all this "wine culture" stuff targeted at women.

Yes. Thanks for this. Culturally we are all over the map about alcohol. Miles away from the everyone-drinks-at-lunch mores of the Mad Men era-- and more people abstain than did back then--  and yet binge-drinking is as high as it's ever been, and in some circles (and in some Facebook memes!) wine is embraced like a lifeblood. 

But I agree-- it's all a spectrum. You don't have to be a "Raging Drunk" to have a problem with alcohol. And on the other hand, just because you tend to have wine daily doesn't mean you have a problem. I hope they can explore it further. 

The first time I met my husband's family was at his Great Aunt's funeral. I got to meet just about everyone at the same time - and it's a large family. It could have been awkward, but his family could not have been more gracious. They included me in conversations, they even said sympathetically that it must be awkward for me. His family went out of their way to make me feel welcome. Now, I'm the first to say that I'm very lucky in my in-laws, but this is something to ask yourself. How much are your family making a point of being inclusive to your boyfriend? They have a role to play here too - they should also be interested in getting to know him.

Wonderful point. Thanks. 

My boyfriend and I have been together for 3 years. Everything is great between us and we both feel happy with each other and know that we want to grow old with each other. We are not big on marriage but earlier this year started talking about moving in together by next year. All good stuff, until my boyfriend’s business (he has his own company) started going south a few months ago. He has lost a lot of money and just been focusing on keeping his business alive. He even had to make the hard decision to sell his house and go back to renting out. He has been stressing out for quite a while but was hopeful some recent business endeavors were going to be fruitful, which didn’t… and now he is really struggling for air.

On top of this he has admitted to be experiencing severe burnout and in his words he feels “he barely surviving”. To make a long story short, I’m 35 y/o (he is 38) and in the face of all of this I’m starting to freak out at the possibility of a very uncertain future. One of my biggest fears is that I really want to have a kid, and worry that if we don’t start trying soon, I will miss my chance (considering my age). We have talked about this in the past (when things were good) and he was totally on board for us to start trying later this year until everything started going south with his business. Now he says he doesn’t think this a good time at all to start a family because he worries he won’t be able to provide for me and a baby (he also has a 9 y/o kid child from a previous relationship) and it scared to drag both of us down.

I am aware that right now, a baby will put a lot of stress on him (which I’m not sure he could take) and the relationship, no doubt it would also mean stress on me (as a side note all my extended family lives abroad, so my support system is not as strong as it could be). I’m confident he will eventually recover from this setback, but I’m aware it could take a few years. I don’t want an out of this relationship, but I’m terrified of missing my chance to have kids of my own. I know that the logical thing to do is to discuss this with him, but he is really not on a mental state right now where he can see or plan more than what is needed of him to stay afloat for the current month and I worry that bringing up my fears at this moment will not lead to any good outcome. I really need some advice.

Here's the thing: Sometimes you have to talk about difficult things even in the throes of a stressful, "barely surviving" situation.

In fact, when you're barely surviving, virtually any conversation feels difficult. But that doesn't mean they should be avoided.

I'm not saying you have to have him sign on the dotted line for Baby on X date. But I am saying-- life happens. Businesses have setbacks. And people age.

It is realistic that there might not be an "ideal" time to have a baby, for anyone. Certainly, I would not advise bringing a baby in to the picture when finances are not stable.

But I also don't think it passes the smell test that you should just stick your head in the sand for a vague period of potentially years of watching him get his feet back on the ground. 

You've got to talk to him. If not now, come up with a reasonable period of time that you think you can wait and that he should be showing signs of getting stabilized (even if taking a part-time job, etc.) Figure out together how you will weather this financial storm and how to make a plan. That's what families do. 

Chatters-- anyone faced this? 

My keyboard started acting squirrely after a Windows 10 Update, but a recent update to the update corrected my malfunctioning keyboard. Now, I'm just waiting for my scan-to-computer starts working again.

Oh, man. I have left a trail of dead scanners in my wake in this life.

This does give me hope! Even if I don't have Windows! And didn't just do an update! Hmm.......

"Shouldn't he be part of this catching up with relatives?" "Whereas some of the middle ground would be for you to also plop down on the couch, have the 2-minute conversation about whatever Absolutely Fascinating thing was on television". But that's what I felt like I WAS doing. Maybe not enough because I'm not a good conversationalist, but I made a real effort to do those things. At one point we were looking at some old family photos with my grandpa, and later on my partner made a comment that made me think he wanted to look at them with just me. I even helped him escape for a little while by asking him to come with me to walk my mom's dog. I think in general he was just uncomfortable, which I understand because in the reverse situation I would have been too, but he seemed to expect me to fix it all by myself, primarily by spending most the time event with him. Thanks for answering though! It's always helpful to get an outside perspective. We've talked about it a couple times and hopefully we'll figure it out...

Got it. Thanks for this update. 

I mean, it really is so subjective here-- I am betting it is hard for either you or your partner to be completely unbiased about how much you are doing or not doing to support him. 

So when you say that you're not a good conversationalist-- perhaps that can be a bit of empathy-building for you both? Imagine if he doesn't consider himself a good conversationalist, but add the fact that he is not a native speaker and also doesn't have a history with your relatives?

I know you already get this, but still. I think I'm feeling a little sorry for him, perhaps. And it's a great point that was just brought up about how much your family is willing to help. Might some of them be enlisted beforehand to make more of an effort? Might there be able to be smaller group visits or settings in the interim that aren't as intimidating? 

I wrote in a couple of months ago about how miserable I am. After that I gave a lot of thought about why I was so unhappy. I think I was mostly frustrated that I was doing everything right (eating well, exercising, sleeping, etc.), and still things weren't going well and I was feeling miserable. It helped a lot to read all the comments from people saying they have been/are there too. Just knowing it wasn't specific to me made me feel better! So thanks, to you and all the chatters - you all really helped me focus on the things that were right, and deal better with the things that were not-so-great. And happy update: I got a new job! I'm starting in January. It feels like a huge weight has lifted off of my shoulders.

Yay! I hope the new job treats you absolutely superbly.

I think one of the most valuable things in this chat-- by leaps and bounds-- is when people can find that they are not the only person who has struggled with something.

So powerful.

I really appreciate this update! 

People don't ask about your scar because it's considered rude behavior to ask questions like that. It has nothing to do with you, and nothing to do with not being interested. And people who see it and get to know you better FORGET about it after awhile. My sister has a scar on her forehead from a dumb teenage mistake but I don't even notice it anymore because it's just part of her. I have to consciously think about it for some reason and then consciously look for it, even though it's RIGHT THERE. In fact, I have a small scar on MY OWN CHIN that's obvious, but I don't even notice or think about it anymore and sometimes forget it's there. If people were constantly asking about your scar, you'd probably get sick of it and wonder if that's all they cared about or noticed.

Totally agree on all counts. Thanks. 

If you have a real deal alcohol problem, my method won't help, but every January I stake off the booze. One of the things I miss the most is my after work drink and the feel and sound (s) of a whisky glass. So I still use one, but pour sparkling water or ginger-ale into the glass instead and drink from it. Probably sounds crazy but it works for me.

Doesn't sound crazy at all. Just like part of what is so hard about giving up smoking is the ritual of the smoke break, or the feel of it in your fingers (or on your lips.) I think it makes a lot of sense. 

Thanks. 

I wonder if her relatives are making an effort to get to know him. Maybe she can enlist a couple cousins to kind of keep an eye on him and if he's alone, go talk to him. It's hard to be in a room full of people where you really only know one of them and she's off talking to other people. It sounds like he is shy or anxious on top of that, which makes it all worse. It doesn't sound like he is getting to know these people but I can't tell from the letter whose fault that is.

Yes. Great food for thought; thanks. 

Do you recommend couples therapy to a couple who has has a prior break up ? Is this a sign of incompatibility and defeat ?

Hmm.

I don't think blanket statements apply here, but I would wonder about what caused the previous breakup, and whether the same problem is the current problem-- and whether there was ever a true, good-faith effort to work on it. 

But I also admit I can't often get behind couples who are in and out of couples therapy before they're even truly committed. There's definitely a point at which that should be what dating is-- weeding out a high level of incompatibility.

If you're willing to tell us more, we're all ears! 

My mom always drilled into my brother and I that we needed to be happy with what we had. (My grandparents were chronically unhappy and lived beyond their means.) But... how do you know when what you have really isn't enough? On the surface I've got everything: husband, nice house, good job. But a lot of times I find I just don't want those things. Despite effort from both of us my husband and I revert to ok roommates after a few months of improvement, I hate my sprawling suburban neighborhood, and new management is sucking most of the joy out of my job. I find myself wanting to make drastic changes, but this feels like a personal failure. I feel like I should be able to be happy with "good enough" - I've done countless gratitude/positive attitude exercises - but I don't know how to make it stick.

Well, my first question is: what are the drastic changes you want to make? And how might they actually change things?

Because therein lies the key, for me. There is a big difference between the issue of never being happy with what you have, versus being stuck in a life that truly might not be a particularly good fit for you. Two very different problems with extremely different solutions. 

So.... what do you fantasize about changing? 

I consider myself pretty extroverted but even for me, that particular situation would make me nervous! I think in a situation where you are meeting a large group for the first time, it is helpful to have an activity to do together, like when you mentioned looking at family photos. So maybe you can brainstorm activities to do together next time (maybe bring a pack of cards and he can invite people to play a simple game?) or he can offer to help whoever is hosting the event with whatever they need. Keeping busy makes time go by much more quickly and provides some conversation openers.

Activities can definitely help! Thanks for this. 

I have a scar in my lower lip and on my chin from an accident when I was 11. I also have false teeth (upper and lower incisors) as a result. I don't wear lipstick and the scar in my lip is visible when I smile. In over 40 years I don't think I've ever been asked about these things except by doctors. Dentists recognise the false teeth and after awhile I realised I can tell when others have false teeth. But I don't ask about them because - as someone else pointed out - it would be rude.

Thank you. When it comes from someone who has been there, it always is particularly helpful!  

We're taught that it's rude to make comments on someone's appearance - and quite frankly, I don't think I want that to change. As it is, Far too many people pass judgement on appearance as it is.

Certainly can't disagree with you here!

People had no problem comparing my childhood eyebrows to those of Michael Dukakis, for instance. (Brooke Shields when I got lucky.) 

Dr. Andrea, I’ve been in a relationship with *Caleb for about 4 years. After the first year, I started having serious doubts about the relationship because I could feel myself wanting to be with and spend time with other people, but I convinced myself to stick it out every time. While Caleb is incredibly caring and devoted to me, his devotion comes off as very controlling. On top of that, I feel as if he is a child I have to take care of. I’ve gotten tired of the little things- talking about our days, where to eat dinner, and having the same arguments. While I care about him immensely, I think I’m ready to end the relationship, but i’m afraid I will eventually feel like this with any man after a few years. Am I being naive by letting go of someone who loves me? Do you have any advice for ending a long-term relationship when nothing has gone terribly wrong?

Yes. I think we should view the "nothing going terribly wrong" as a positive thing-- not a hindrance. 

I once worked with someone who wished that her boyfriend would hit her. Because that would be a deal breaker for her, and then she would feel "sure" that he was not the right one. That the negatives were truly enough. It sounds strange, but I think it's just an extreme version of part of the mindset you're expressing here.

Now-- before people get riled-- I am not suggesting that Caleb that is potentially abusive. But I am saying that it sounds like things haven't felt right for some time, and let's face it-- you did go ahead and use the word "very controlling" here, which anyone who hangs here with any regularity will recognize sends me into a bit of a Concern Tizzy. 

You don't have to compare Caleb to some Hypothetical Future Man. It's not about that. It's about right now, and whether you feel fulfilled. And yes, if you someday in the future detect a pattern, then you can do some exploration. But for now, I can't in good faith tell you to stick out an unhappy relationship now because someday in the hypothetical future you may have detected a pattern. 

And again, the controlling piece gives me the highest of Heebie Jeebies. 

This will maybe sound completely obvious, but do you think a person can choose to be happy? I mean, not always, because (stuff) happens. But do you think making a conscious choice to focus on the good stuff rather than the hard stuff really makes a difference?

You know, there's a lot research devoted to figuring this out. And the figuring out part still hasn't quite happened yet. 

It does appear that we tend to have a "set point" to some extent-- I'd rather call it a "set range"-- that can affect what we're capable of. I do think good health practices, therapy, and potentially medication can move you significantly within that range. But Sally's range might be slightly different than Joe's. 

And that range-- and the mindful nudges we've tried to make within it-- determines our happiness, most likely, far more than the actual life events that happen to us. Like the classic studies of people eventually returning to their same prior happiness level after winning lotteries or losing limbs. 

I have a scar that is on my right check. It's very noticeable and was created by a childhood accident, no one ever mentions it, and FWIW I didn't remember it until your letter. So, people won't ask because it's rude. Like asking a woman if she's pregnant., just don't! I think the LW might need some therapy to help process her pain, which she describes as physical, but might not be all physical. Good luck.

Thank you. Good points!

The concept of being happy with what you have is geared towards people who can't make changes, people who buy things to feel happy, and people who are always trying to get more to be fulfilled. But that's not you. You are unhappy with things than can be changed. Why can't you look for a new job? Why can't you move to a rural area or city? Why can't you get a new husband? I know that sounds alarmingly casual but nobody says you have to stay married to someone who isn't making you happy...just saying...

"Alarmingly casual" is my new favorite phrase. 

I am not alarmed-- and in fact think you're on to something. (Though I'll emphasize that no one's suggesting per se that she divorce her husband tomorrow.) 

Thank you.

And? Maybe that means you don't need to be in permanent relationships.

Perhaps it does. And yet she can't yet know anything with a sample size of just One Caleb.

Thanks.  

I found myself in the same boat a few weeks ago. I'm pregnant, and the first few weeks (heck, the first couple of months) were really difficult for a host of reasons but partly because I could no longer drink. I did a lot of thinking, because I was terrified this meant that I had a dependence issue, and I realized that it wasn't the alcohol so much as it is the fact that the vast majority of nonalcoholic beverages are sweet or just water, which gets so, so boring. So I did some researching and found some recipes for nonsweet mocktails that can help fill that void for me (I am still looking for a decent nonalcoholic beer, though, so if you know of any...let me know!) Bottom line: it can be so hard to figure out the motivation behind consuming alcohol, but it's important to do just that.

Very well said. Thank you. 

I certainly didn't mean to sound puritanical! If people can drink, more power to them. I was trying to say I actually did drink and manage it for quite a few years. The problem came slowly and it was hell to get over. I like the idea of changing to a special non booze drink! Virgin mojitos or flavored seltzer water with citrus wedge in a fancy glass are great.

Oh, yeah, I don't think anyone was calling you puritanical! It was in the column comments themselves, before we began here. With such a wide range of habits in this country (and this world), it's not unusual for those types of conflicts to come up. 

I've loved the points that you've made. They are much appreciated!

What's the failure part?

Yes, yes, yes! I meant to address that piece. Excellent question. 

When this happens to me, I try to remind myself that if I weren't "doing everything right," my situation might be even worse.

Great point! 

Some family members did include him and made an effort. Part of the problem is that a significant portion of them are introverts, shy, and/or reticent around new people in general and not him in particular. The weird thing is that my boyfriend is the talkative outgoing one, not me! Which is another reason I was a little baffled by this, and wondered if it's just pressure from Meeting the Family. Ah well. Thanks for all the feedback!

You know, this adds an interesting layer.

But I think it's actually very uncomfortable for people who are used to being extroverts to be striking out, having stunted conversations, etc. It's hard to not take it personally, and it's like a concert pianist sitting down with an untuned piano. (Not that your family members are untuned.... sigh. You know what I mean.) 

And yup, pressure from MEETING THE FAMILY!!!!!!!! can definitely add even more fun to the mix. 

Look up shrub! My favorite non-alcoholic non-sweet drink maker.

Ooh! Adding it to my Google While Procrastinating Later list! 

My mother has one vodka/tonic per day, and sometimes doesn't even finish it, but boy! you do -not- want to be around her if she misses it for some reason. So, call it an alcohol addiction rather than alcoholism: she never had more than one drink; she never increases the size of the drink; and it doesn't cause legal problems, since she never has more than she can safely drive on.

It's such an interesting question that I think so many people differ on.

At some point, it's not even about alcohol, no?

Let's say there was a sweater that your mother absolutely had to wear every single day or else you do NOT want to be around her. Most people would find that problematic.

So it's a great point-- there are all kinds of nuances here. 

What I really wanted to know: sure you want to catch up with Aunt Flo whom you have not seen in a year, but are you saying to your boyfriend "I see aunt Flo over there, I need to talk to her, seeya." or are you saying "I see Aunt Flo over there, come with me, I want to talk to her and you can meet her."?

Totally.

And yeah, you chose quite the pseudonym for this aunt! Not sure if that was intentional but I am laughing here. 

not crazy! This worked for me, too. A while back, I noticed I was having a glass of wine after work every day. I also noticed how much I was looking forward to it and how I felt like my winding down/relaxing was incomplete without wine. So every other day I started having a fancy sparking water instead. Then wine only once a week after work. And so I able to break the habit. Alcoholism as a disease and alcohol dependency are REAL ISSUES that shouldn't be discounted. But sometimes it's a ritual/habit more than addiction (like always having dessert after a meal) that can be broken with a little work.

Yes! 

There's a wide variation in terms of what makes people reach for that drink. 

I've been receiving your Detox Your Thoughts emails, and I've really appreciated them, particularly the one about the myth of arrival, which I find is pervasive in my life. Your suggested actions were incredibly helpful. However, I most recently received the one on "pleasure vs. meaning", and I find I'm struggling with it a bit. Looking for meaning in my life is actually anxiety-producing for me. When I think about my future obituary or my legacy to the world, as you suggest, it usually spirals downward quickly: asking "What can I do that will actually matter?" leads to looking at all my personal heroes for inspiration and then realizing I'm not capable of accomplishing anything remotely similar. In my estimation, doing something admirable or noteworthy requires having 1) exceptional skills/knowledge and also 2) a driving passion. I have neither of these, and even if I could somehow acquire 1), I can't manufacture 2). The search for meaning is also enmeshed with the myth of arrival: if my goal in life is to do something that matters, then will I feel like I'm not actually living my life until I've accomplished that thing - which, again, will never actually happen.

Thinking about this always leaves me depressed and paralyzed with self-loathing. Somewhat counterintuitively, I find that what helps me feel positive again is doing the exact opposite: I try to focus solely on my own pleasure and happiness, and refuse to even consider whether what I'm doing matters or has any meaning. In my work, in my free time, and in my relationships, I just try to devote my energy to what I enjoy, what interests me, and what I feel good about, even though I know it's ultimately meaningless. My obituary will never contain words like "discovered", "created", "built", "changed", or "inspired". I won't be "the first", "the best", or "the only" anything. And I want to say, "...and that's fine!" but it's not. I don't think I will ever be "fine" with that. So I've been working on throwing away the "meaning/purpose" yardstick entirely. What are your thoughts on this?

First, thank you for the kind words!

You bring up a really interesting quandary, here-- how if you search too hard for meaning in its own right-- by a particularly harsh yardstick-- it can trigger all the myth of arrival nonsense pretty fiercely.

Of course, that's the limitation of the Detox Your Thoughts emails-- they're so bite-sized that they can leave out some nuance.

But I do think you're conflating meaning with Meeting Big Societal Achievement Goals.

In fact, the way that you used "admirable" and "noteworthy" when talking about what could possibly be in your obituary that was meaningful, drives the point home even further-- you are thinking meaning has to mean something on a resume. 

That it has to meet some yardstick.

Meaning comes from you only, and it only matters if it feels good to you. 

Your legacy is not determined by the HR department. 

Meaning and pleasure don't have to be mutually exclusive either (ever giggled with someone you love while eating the cookie-batter-we're-not-supposed-to?  Or been moved by a really awesome piece of music?) Meaning can be the simple ways that you found joy in the little moments. It only becomes at odds with pleasure when the pleasurable moments are not fulfilling over time, but instead are avoidant or trying to mask something else. 

So, this is a long way of saying that I think the confound here for you is that there's a Big Yardstick that is plaguing you, and it is making you define what matters in your life on someone else's terms. I don't think the things you describe focusing on are "ultimately meaningless" in the least. Ever been to a funeral of someone who died in old age, never graduated high school, had a ho-hum job that he never talked much about and couldn't wait to retire from and yet the place was packed with people crying and laughing and remembering just what a character he was and how much they loved him? And they had a million little things that he said or did that they will take with them? 

I have. And I can't think of a more meaningful legacy. 

OP here again, I didn't want to give all the gory details but the comment was saying, "what, were you drunk??" because I had accidentally forgotten to throw the bolt on the door. Nope, just fell asleep at 8pm because I'd been helping my folks host a Christmas party. I fell asleep with my shoes on too!

Oh, wow!

What a charmer that roommate is. 

But what about the part where he said nothing was wrong all evening after the visit? And wouldn't SAY what he wants. That doesn't bode well for good communication going forward. His pouting and expecting her to fix it were the problem There will always be an 'it'.

Good catch, though I'm hopeful that if they work on this, the last sentence can be avoided. Thanks. 

I never noticed my sister has a scar on her chin!

See, OP? All kinds of scars flying under the radar-- thanks! 

I looked up and expected us to still have time left.

Wah!

Thanks so much to all of you. I will look forward to seeing you here next week, and in the column comments and on Facebook and in Detox Your Thoughts (I hear some of you have finished!) in the meantime. 

May all your mocktails be sweetened (or not) to your liking!

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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