Baggage Check Live: Hoping for pumpkins

Jul 09, 2019

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior will be 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.

She’ll discuss her recent columns and answer any questions you may have about relationships, work, family, mental health and more.

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Hi, all!

How is your week going?

Today's Baggage has an LW in danger of getting used for her beach house. Can anyone relate? And in Letter 2, what kind of calculus goes into deciding whether to leave in a marriage after nearly five decades?

I am living dangerously here, by doing this chat from the neighborhood pool. This could either be a win-win for work-life balance and meeting the needs of the whole family, or a horrific disaster on par with the likes of "Waterworld." I suppose we'll see soon enough!

Whatcha got?

No, no, no, do not try to explore the possibility that the evil sister has changed or will change. At your ages, the relationship is fixed, and she still thinks you’re her convenient idiot. Worse, you have a shiny new toy better than anything she has, and she vehemently wants to break it and spoil it before you can enjoy it. DON’T invite her there, give her the exact address, anything! We have a (distant, thankfully) family member like this. She attempted to burn a cousin’s vacation home down. Disengage!!! As in, hang up when she calls, and tell other family members she is not your friend and is NOT allowed to tag along when they visit.

Oh, my goodness! Burning down the house (where are we, in a Talking Heads video?) is definitely a whole other level here.

Since they're only in their 40s, I do hold out the possibility — though slim — that if LW wanted to give her another chance, there is hope, but of course, no one can blame LW one iota if she does the equivalent of enter her beach house into the Witness Protection Program. (And of course, giving her a chance doesn't necessarily mean letting her come anywhere near the beach house — it just means opening a conversation about their relationship and calling her out on her behavior and giving her a chance to answer for it.)

First, I'm sorry your sister was so unkind, and that apparently no one intervened on your behalf. You deserved better. Sending you lots of virtual hugs. BUT...You're not that little girl anymore: you're clearly an accomplished & successful woman with a happy marriage, and you have a second home now! Yay! And guess what? You owe your sister nothing. Zilch. Nada. Zero. It's up to her to show you that she can be a true friend---especially since she seems to want special favors! I have several siblings. One is particularly difficult. (I just tell myself the nice brothers & sisters make up for the dud, and count myself lucky.) I also own a vacation home. When we bought it, my husband and I made a pact. No one would visit if we weren't there to host them. We've stuck to it. Andrea, you won't be surprised to hear the only sibling who has asked to use our home is the entitled/difficult one. I said no, we don't let anyone stay in our home when we're not there. And that was that. (Did my sister talk trash about me afterward? Probably. Who cares? Not my problem, and the nice brothers and sisters--because they're nice!--didn't say.) My husband and I stick together. Although at first it may be awkward to say no, it gets easier. Other people have asked, but never my nice siblings. See why I say I'm lucky? You are, too, OP. I'm sorry your sister isn't the person you needed her to be, but you seem much too nice not to have other friends who support you. Focus on them, and on your happy life. Don't let your sister hurt you any more. You're beyond her reach now. I wish you the best. Stay strong! Enjoy the beach!

Love this. From someone who was walked the walk. Thanks!

Hi Dr. B, I'm wondering if you or other chatters have any resources or advice for how to parse this: I'm considering a career change, and I'm having trouble deciding on various paths within related fields. How do I know whether I want to do something because I really want to do it, or whether I want to do something because I want to be seen and known as "the person who does X"? To give a concrete example in a different field ... if I want to work in healthcare, how do I know if being a physician is really what I want to do, rather than a nurse practitioner? Or do I want to be a physician because I want to be known as a "doctor"? Does that make sense? If I'm honest, part of my motivation *is* the title and respect and the implicit recognition that yes, I did this objectively challenging program. I also know that that piece alone is not a good reason to pursue a given path. So how do I parse this out? Thank you!

I think you're hitting on something important here — that it is not all-or-none. That it's virtually impossible to COMPLETELY separate out the desire to BE a certain person in a certain position (salary, prestige, status, identity) with the desire to actually DO what that person does day to day. And it is further complicated in fields where you can't just try out doing the job (hello, medicine and mental health!) in order to figure out whether it fits. 

I don't think it actually has to be fully separated out, though. An example: private practice and teaching part-time appealed to me more than being on a tenure-line faculty or on the staff of a mental health center in part because of work-life balance (again, kids at pool!) And that does matter in my day-to-day satisfaction, so I don't think it's an invalid consideration. Just like I wouldn't judge someone who shoots for the job that makes more money than the job below it in the same field because they want the financial stability or comfort or autonomy or flexibility that that extra cushion provides.

That said, it's a balance. If half of the reason you want to be a doctor is the prestige, that's FAR too much of a percentage. In my ideal world, you will explore, explore, explore — with a career counselor, with "shadowing" doctors and nurses (or the equivalent in your own field, as I know it was a hypothetical) if possible, with talking to those who do it, with volunteering or getting part-time gigs to whatever extent possible to come as close to seeing the true nature of the work as much as possible. There's not one magic answer here. But the more you can be honest about yourself and keep track of your thoughts and feelings as you seek answers, the more informed your choice will be.

Chatters?

“I want to say “no” outright. Or even charge her rent! But I don’t want to be as mean as she’s been.”

It is *not* *mean* to decline to let anyone use your home (first, second, or otherwise) I am concerned LW1 doesn’t value or respect herself and her own boundaries enough.

It's true. So many times there is that false equivalence, especially among women — that not being overly accommodating to someone is the same thing as being mean. Thanks.

The poor LW is conflating two things: her relationship with her sister and the rules for her new beach house. First the beach house as that is easier: in the short run, LW and her husband should just decide not to let anyone use it when they are not there. This is not mean, it is practical as they get used to ownership. "Sorry, we are not loaning the house out for now." (Now can last for years, of course.) Then see if sister's behavior stays cordial without beach visits. If so, LW can then invite sister to join her at the beach for a designated time (say a long weekend) as a test run. If not, then arms length is a good place for sister. LW and her husband do not owe anyone beach time, sister or not, and charging anyone rent may have tax consequences (consult an accountant).

- Beach House Owner

I like this wait, see, and evaluate approach! Like me determining whether I have hope of growing pumpkins again.

I would just add that if she DOES want to loan it out to other people, she shouldn't feel like she can't just because she gets to say no to her sister.

A quick addendum to pre-empt any concern: my kids are far past the stage of needing my supervision at the pool. In fact a couple of them barely qualify as "kids" anymore.

I have 2.5 years more of volunteering on a project that is meaningful to me (I'm in an important position to make a difference), but I'm working very closely with a another volunteer who is so used to getting his own way - has hundreds of employees, knows his stuff. But he makes mistakes on our project, quick judgements, and is impatient. I've told him he is headstrong and overbearing and he responds by saying "I always ask your opinion" (he doesn't, or if he does, he doesn't change his mind after I've given a dissenting opinion). I almost feel obligated to butt heads with him as I see myself as an equal, but he clearly has never learned to back down. How do I keep my sense of equanimity; how do I keep a sense of joy in the work? After 70 years of getting his way, he isn't going to change, right? So how do I enjoy this work when I have to spend hours every week with this guy? I'd like to feel confident and calm, but I feel aggravated and then hate myself and feel vulnerable for getting upset. He says I react to him more intensely than necessary, or would be expected in a situation. Do I just roll over then, so I can stay with the work, or quit, or is there a better way? THANK YOU! You are a hero.

Thanks for the kind words. I can imagine this is truly frustrating — but I think you'll get the best results by being as specific as possible. The kink with telling him that he was headstrong and overbearing was that it probably put him even further on the defensive (overbearing folks are not known for being lovey-dovey and accommodating when being given negative feedback) but also it was general enough that he could bat it away even in terms of the factual content of what you were complaining about. And it allowed him to level criticisms about your "reaction" to him rather than seeing specifically what he was doing and being able to consider adjusting it.

So, get back to basics, and use the ever-cliched (but helpful!) "I" statements when giving feedback, but most important — give specific feedback about specific situations. When he makes mistakes on something, discuss those specific mistakes respectfully — with a plan to remedy them. When he rushes to judgment, offer an alternative perspective that highlights his impatience.

Rehearse what you will say each time beforehand, and figure out how your aggravation shows up in your body — and target that accordingly (diaphragmatic breathing, visualizations, muscle relaxation, head or neck rolls, etc.) If he shows absolutely zero ability to make any adjustments at all in his behavior, then yes, you need to ask the question about the big picture — and whether his bullheadedness gets in the way enough to make this work cease to be worth it for you.

My 4 y/o granddaughter "Lisa" seems to be neglected. Lisa lives with her maternal grandparents who seem to have grown weary of having to take care of a 4 y/o. Lisa's mom has mental illness and drinking issues — doesn't take her medicine — has been in and out of rehab & psych hospitals more times than I can count just since January. Lisa's mom lost custody of her older daughter. It seems that Lisa's mom would rather hang out with her friends and party & she's not allowed to be alone with Lisa — child protection was called recently. Lisa's mom will get angry with her parents, take Lisa, and has ended up in homeless shelters until her parents pick her up. My son, her father, is in recovery from heroin — he's in a sober living home, working, but struggling to get on his feet. He was recently released from prison. He loves Lisa but can't take her every weekend because of his living arrangements and is no where ready to take custody of her. Lisa's grandparents have texted me begging me to take her every other week — I work full time, I live in a one bedroom apartment, and am 70 miles away. My daughter offered a compromise of taking Lisa every other weekend where we've planned family time & her dad gets to see her, but Lisa's grandparents have consistently ignored us when it's time to pick her up or us drop her off. They've completely blown us off for a day at a time & it hasn't been until we've dropped Lisa off at their door that they've accepted her. My daughter is uncomfortable with this — she's concerned that they'll completely abandon Lisa, then she'll be forced to go to court. We fear is that Lisa may have to go to foster care. This past Monday, after Lisa was dropped off at 9:30 at night on Sunday to reluctant grandparents, the grandparents texted my daughter demanding that she take Lisa Wednesday until Sunday — citing family gatherings etc that they need to tend to. My daughter is exhausted and needs some time with her own children — she works too and she lives in a neighboring state. They called my son begging him to take Lisa, but he can't — he's in a sober living home with 6 other men — no place for a little girl. Lisa is sweet and confused & loves her father & I'm told she misbehaves when she's with her mother & grandparents — but given the chaos, I'm not surprised. The grandparents have told Lisa that it's her fault her mom goes to the hospital — at least that's what my son has told me. I don't know what to do — and at nearly 60 I'm not willing to accept the responsibility of raising a child, but I don't want her to go into the foster system. Any thoughts?

This is a heartbreaking situation.

It is also reaching crisis-level and needs some long-term, strategic and concrete thinking-- not just fears and hopes and worries.

It is clear that the current arrangement with her grandparents is not sustainable. The trajectory is moving in a troubling direction, with them taking less and less of a direct responsibility for Lisa and looking more and more like they are dropping the ball.

It is time for a real conversation between you, your son, and your daughter about the reality of what you can offer Lisa, and what the alternatives to that are. You don't want her to go to into the foster care system, but at the same time, there do not seem to be solid, viable options. Would your daughter consider adopting her, with the understanding that you could play an active role in helping, and someday your son may be able to have a truly primary role in her life? Of course it is not her responsibility to say yes, to this, but it needs to be asked. All options need to be considered, and it's not like we can manufacture a perfect solution just by wanting it to exist. I would highly recommend going into this with as open-eyes as possible and contacting a family law attorney.

Please keep us posted.

If you’re both in retirement you may need to talk to a lawyer about the realistic financial picture you would have, should you get divorced. Not that one should have to tolerate belittling, but if the other option is destitution, you probably would want to know that before you proceed.

Excellent point. Knowledge is power here. Thanks.

Staying with someone who belittles you and is emotionally abusive to you is no hedge against loneliness in old age. I just went through this with some relatives. The man stayed with his partner because he didn’t want to be alone. And she seemed to step up a bit during one hospitalization. But when things got bad (Leukemia) she abandoned him. She continued to live in the house with him but refused to do any caretaking at all. He wanted to die at home and when he was weakened she tried to have him shipped off to a hospital instead. She complained constantly about how his illness was affecting her life. She even snatched a bedspread from him because she didn’t want it “ruined” when he inevitably soiled the sheets. It was truly awful and gave him and the rest of the family so much stress in his final days. Maybe some people see the light in crises and change. But it’s better to believe people when they show you who they are, rather than hoping they’ll change their whole approach late in life.

Oh, what an awful story. I am so sorry to hear it.

And sadly, a potentially important consideration. Thanks.

It's around the time of year that my marriage blew up, so my boyfriend knows it's a rough month for me. I talked to him over the weekend about the feelings you suggested I talk to him about and he was very understanding and sympathetic. He knows I love him and the life we have. I guess my problem is I can't get the pictures/posts I've seen of my ex out of my head and they really p*ss me off. It's like they keep resurfacing at the weirdest and most inopportune times and I HATE that I can't stop thinking about them! UGH

I am so glad you had the conversation with him, and that it was at least a bit helpful. (I bet it will continue to add emotional intimacy to your relationship — added bonus!)

I wish Detox Your Thoughts were out already, because I spend some time in it talking about neutralizing distressing visuals in your brain. The key is to be able to separate them from their power, and part of that is desensitizing yourself to them by stopping mentally avoiding them, as hard as that seems. Breathe through them. Label them. You can even start to distort them — flip them around, add a funny photobomber, imagine a caption, mentally draw a sharpie mustache on your ex's "new" lady. I am not able to explain this well in this brief, fast space, but you're looking to make the visual no more significant than a random photo file on your screen. You can look at it. It doesn't have to hold power over you anymore. (Running away from it over and over again in your mind conditions you to keep getting agitated by it. Whereas by conditioning yourself to relax your muscles, breathe through the pissing-off, and let it pass, it won't keep bringing that agitation to the same extent.)

Please keep us posted.

Don't let her stay there for free, and DON'T rent it to her. What happens if she ruins things?

It's true. A couple of you have zoomed in on this — the real potential for, say, seriously broken seashell sculptures or horrifically mangled wicker — and it's an important point!

I get the person who says they'd be super hurt if someone dropped out of their life because of being busy. At least for me (single, childless), I'd totally understand if a friend said something like "I still care about you and want to be your friend. I have a lot going on right now and might drop out for a bit, but will give you a call when my schedule is better." I might even check in with them every few months just as a "Hey, I'm still here and care about you, even if your busy."

For sure. Yeah, I think there's a really big spectrum here, from bad behavior to totally acceptable behavior. And I think it hinges on what "dropping out of their life" looks like. Ghosting without explanation is hurtful. But giving an empathetic heads-up about what's going on can make it a much more workable situation.

How do I learn to stop feeling guilty over little things, and resisting the feeling so harshly? When a family member tells me I made a small mistake (this is not often), and even though they're right and they say it kindly, I tend to get angry and snap at them. I know all I'm doing is feeling an unnecessary feeling of guilt and am pushing back against it, and my family knows also that that's what I'm doing. Is there a way to learn to face a mistake for what it is, something not that important, instead of getting so many bad feelings from it?

Yes, but it does take time!

I do think a skilled therapist could help speed up this process pretty significantly, but if you go it alone, what you'll want to do is examine the underlying narrative that the kind-noticing-of-your-mistake is leading to. Because that's the dysfunctional story that you are taking as truth, that you need to be able to label and identify as false. That's the fake news (sorry!) that you need to recognize as such, and stop absorbing as some sort of valid judgment.

It could be "I'm a screwup" or "I've let them down" or "They don't love me anymore" or "I can't do anything right" or "I'll never be good at XYZ" or "They're judging me like they always do" or  "I've made a mess of things" or any number of millions of other forms of dysfunctional negative self-talk. But the bottom line for you is to be able to identify that story as a heckler, not a voice to be lent credence. Then you can learn to identify it, name it, breathe through it, and watch it pass. And your response to your family will be more functional in the process.

I’ve just read the July 2 chat and I’ve come away with a very honest question: Why are people so quick to judge an adult’s right to self-determination? In the case of the younger, working man who was quoted as saying “Good thing that the Golden Gate Bridge is so far away,” I certainly see the concern as this is suggested that he is a man in the prime earning years of his life. I would assume that a statement like that was just a one-off and if his listener was comfortable enough that all the other elements in the man’s life were good or at the least, on track, then nothing more needed to be said and a rush to judgement could firmly close the door of the man’s further sharing his frustrations, feeling and the back and forth of friendly conversation. But also mentioned was a much older man who didn’t want to move from his home and his self-determined end. Sure — we can call it suicide but the fact remains, for older people, it is a comfort to know that they can check out when there is so little to live for. It’s a situation that I’ve thought long and hard about. My husband died after he retired and we moved to another state. In our first two months, he was diagnosed with stage 4 fully metastasized cancer. He lived only another six months and we celebrated our 43rd anniversary in the hospital. We were childless by choice, and our families were gone. Except for friends (living everywhere but where we were) I found myself totally alone and thinking very often of taking my husband’s ashes to his chosen resting place and not returning. After several weeks of this, I knew I needed an anchor to help me not give up on life, and I adopted a wonderful eight week old puppy. (Our 14 year old, whom we’d rescued at ten months of age, had died during the first week our house was on the market in a MD commuter community. We were utterly heartbroken.) The puppy is now a three year old, and after the first year here, I finally found the courage to attend a Newcomers’ coffee and have made some delightful friends who I cherish as much as my friends from my past. But you can be sure, now that I’ve made my will and found a friend who would love my pup, that if I find myself in a health situation that has no good end in sight, or means going into a nursing home, I will take the measures necessary to end my life, in my home, under my own hand. And this attitude and determination is NOTHING that I am ashamed of. Highly opinionated people who can’t share in my belief just need to back off. I’ve had a wonderful life, as great a career as possible when moving with my husband every three to five years, we’ve lived overseas and travelled great lengths and have visited many countries, not as tourists but as travelers, have had adventures I could have never imagined. It’s been a life well lived. And when the time comes, and it is nor longer worth living, I will go my way.

I certainly understand this, and the general sentiment of people being the architects of their own lives, and how important it is to respect the integrity of people's individual choices and freedom.

That said, I come at it from a different angle, as a person who has spent a career treating mental health disorders that can put someone in a suicidal frame of mind that is then removed through treatment. And they are glad that they had treatment, and in retrospect recognize how badly their lens was skewed, and how grateful they are that they chose to live (or that someone intervened and made that possible.) No two cases are alike, of course.

But I don't think that engaging in suicide prevention strategies — whether on a macro level by giving talks on college campuses, for instance, or on a micro level by asking your coworker when they say something concerning if they are okay and letting them know you will be an empathetic listener — should ever be abandoned. We can respect autonomy and also recognize that sometimes people not only could use some help, but in retrospect are very, very glad that they received it.

My condolences on the loss of your husband. That sounds like a particularly heartbreaking way to lose him. But I am so glad that you were able to see some light and hope to help you climb out into another stage of life. The fact that you chose not to give up when you might have, and now have connections that have meaning to you — I think that is part of what I'm driving at here.

I would, through therapy or self-reflection, get at the reason other people's perceptions of you carry so much weight. It's entirely normal, but as people get more secure, they care less. I would work on feeling more secure, and then you will be more confident that you're making them for the right reasons.

As you say, I'm not certain that this person is on the far side of normal, but if it's part of a larger pattern about over-valuing other people's yardsticks (or abstract yardsticks of "achievement" in general, which we've heard about a lot the past couple of weeks!) it is most definitely worth exploring.

I've come to realize over the last few years that something is not right with my brain. Whatever it is, I'm pretty sure at least one of my parents and a couple siblings are the same way. In lieu of seeing a medical professional, I've been casually surfing the net but can't find anything that really matches. Basically, even though I like people and want to see them and be close/friends with them, it's extremely hard because my brain's default is "nope." When presented with an opportunity to socialize, or even make eye contact and wave at a neighbor, my instinct is always "NO DON'T WANNA DO THAT." The closest thing I found is "avoidant" personality disorder but even that doesn't seem quite right, because I don't feel like I'm afraid or nervous, I just don't WANT to ... even though I really DO want to be friends with everybody and have people around a lot. It's like my lizard brain is a hermit and involuntarily dragging the rest of me into the cave with it. Is that an actual thing? Hermit Personality Disorder? :) I don't expect a chat diagnosis, just wondering if this is a thing you've seen and what do people do about it?

I've definitely seen people who have a lot in common with what you're describing. And you're right in that with Avoidant Personality Disorder, the anxiety is overwhelming — people avoid because they are terrified of negative evaluation and judgment and rejection. And it's gotten so chronic and extreme that it debilitates them on a daily basis and gets in the way of their happiness.

Speaking of your happiness ... I'm still unclear how much this is affecting you. Even as someone who gives keynotes for a living on the importance of relationships, I'd be the first to emphasize that not everyone needs a ton of friends. The importance of quality dominates quantity every time.

So to me, the most important thing is the gap between the temporary "NO DON'T WANNA DO THAT" and the "really DO want to be friends with everybody and have people around a lot." What exactly does the latter mean? What specifics does it entail? Company? Activity? Emotional intimacy? Having a second layer of "family" to trust? Sharing each other's daily lives? There is a very broad spectrum of what friendship looks like, and you have to figure out what parts of it you REALLY want, versus what parts of it you just want the idea of.

Once you decide what you really, truly, want, then you can choose what it's worth to you. And you can choose to push through that voice of "NO DON'T WANNA DO THAT" slowly but surely, and rejoice in the fact that pushing through not "wanting" to in the moment is probably easier than pushing through abject fear or anxiety. (Especially when you're fully on board with the prize of it all, which will make you motivated.)

You're both volunteers on this project - so where's the volunteer co-ordinator / employee in this picture? That person should be part of the solution with this guy's mistakes and quick judgements.

Very good question!

It is implausible these 2 volunteers are the only ones working on a multi-year project. Surely there are others in the organization, especially those higher-up, who could be called upon to provide some inter-personal guidance? And let's not overlook that the OP could choose to say: "I wish you, and the project, all the best. But I'm afraid I won't be volunteering any longer."

Yup, this is a point — about a potential higher-up —  that I was too embedded in the relationship dynamics to think about from a basic logistical level. Glad that chatters are filling in the gaps!

This is an existential question, as well as a question of respect or reputation. At the end of the day, if you did good work, is the work itself going to satisfy you? Or will you need boss & colleagues & customers to acknowledge that you did a good thing? Or will you need other, disinterested parties - your family, a friend, a random stranger on the Internet - to acknowledge you. Figure out which of those will make you feel most fulfulled, and that will tell you whether you're doing it for the thing qua thing, or rather for the social prestige that comes with thing-ing.

I like what you're getting at here. We all seek meaning in different ways, and the more OP can drive at what will actually give the meaning, the better the chance for fulfillment they have.

I get that the LW doesn't want "the responsibility of raising a child" but no one else in her family apparently does either. So if none of you are going to step up to the plate and do what's best for Lisa and do it NOW, you need to send her to foster care ASAP. She needs stability, care, and love, right now. Not in a few years after the family flails around trying to decide what to do and passing the poor child around like a hot potato, right now.

Thank you. It does all boil down to this.

There is simply no magic solution to pull out of a hat to avoid foster care. It could very well be that foster care is what's best for her, and they need to figure out the realities of this sooner rather than later, for Lisa's sake.

Are you renting it out for income through a property management company? We have a vacation house and do that. Then by IRS laws you are limited to 14 personal days per year if you want to call the beach house a business for tax purposes. Certainly limits mean sister's access! Even if you are using it for personal use only please straighten up your backbone and say no. I totally agree with other posters that say no one uses the house unless you are there. You and hubby didn't work flat out hard for years to buy a vacation home for her benefit.

Interesting new angle! Thanks.

Or, much worse, ruined plumbing, broken appliances, police called by neighbors ... Just DON'T.

Very true.

Despite my being flippant about it, the potential harm of having someone in your home who does not want to take care of it in the proper way is pretty huge.

Heck, our house has three different types of leaks this week alone (wish I were making that up) and we are trying our best!

I agree with "no one visits unless homeowner is there to host it" so make that the rule (for everybody!). I come from a less dysfunctional family than some of the other readers, so I'd say sure, invite her (and her family) to stay with you and your husband for a long weekend, or even a week. If she wants to come more often, just say "Sorry, I really don't have any more free weeks; I have a lot of guests coming to stay (and I want a little time to myself with hubby (wink, wink)!). Oh, and get electronic locks for the doors with a combination that's easy to change.

Great point about the electronic locks!

I want to take this even a step further and say that LW need not feel the need to make any excuse about whether her weeks are free or not. (And of course, no pressure to invite her even when LW is there!)

In this internet era, I fear it would be easy for the mean-girl sister to find out the location.

Could be.

Ay.

I'm hoping this "mean girl" veers more toward critical, emotionally neglectful and less toward "I'm going to break in and wreck your place." 

Love your chats and columns! I’ll get right to it. My mom has a terminal illness and the 20+ years I expected her to be around and be a grandmother to my young child has vanished. I love her because she’s my mom, but we have a really hard time getting along. She’s selfish, delusional, defensive and angry* (not just by my account but according to everyone who is trying to help her). Unfortunately it’s not a wholesale personality change but rather an exaggeration of her lifelong personality traits. How can I be kind to her at her end of life but pull back from the emotional toll of the entire situation? It has been so difficult to face my mother's mortality while also being berated regularly by her. And how do I protect my child from the toll of losing his grandmother?

I am sorry. Losing a parent is never easy, and when the relationship is fraught, the feelings are even more complicated.

You mention the toll of this situation a couple of times, in terms of avoiding it or protecting yourself or your child from it. I think it might be helpful to reframe that. This will take a toll on you, as loss does — no matter what. And it will take a toll on your child in their own way. So, what can you DO with that toll? You need not run from it. Instead, you can find meaning in it. What is it that you want to have done, when this particular part of your path is over? What traits would you have wanted to extend to your mother even when she didn't extend them to you? What meaning can you derive from this in terms of who you want to be, and what example you want to set for your child? What can you make of a situation where you give something but don't get validated or appreciated for it? How can you show compassion to someone who shows anger toward you? (Ironically, new research shows that that may actually extend your own life!)

A similar exploration for your kid. What messages do you want them to get out of this? How do you want them to remember your grandmother, and understand her passing? What opportunities can you take (and this depends immensely on your child's age) to address the complicated nature of love, and loving someone who doesn't always treat you well? And obligation, and family?

There's no quick answer here. But I really think that your guiding light can be to figure out how you want to emerge at the end of this. It's not that it won't take a toll on you. But it's that that "toll" can actually give you insight, strength, and depth that helps you gain something, rather than having something only be taken away.

Obviously, you have hope. The question remains — Is your hope realistic?

hahah! True.

A friend of mine, when my kids and I grew our first pumpkins successfully and were (more than a little) proud of ourselves, mentioned how one year, pumpkins just literally started growing in her yard. She had practically a patch! And it turned out to be because her kid had buried a rotten pumpkin the Halloween before, unbenownst to her.

So you never know!

My sister gives the appearance of an angel, but in fact is deeply selfish. Because she gives the appearance of an angel and has been lauded as such her whole life, she is incapable of understanding how selfish she is. In her eyes, she's perfect. We had this conversation in our 20s, and our 30s, and again in our 40s. And she does not remember any of them. We have very little communication. She suddenly wants to reconnect. I suspect it's because she is unhappy in her home life. But she's presenting as if it's just time to rebuild our relationship. She has betrayed absolutely no grasp of anything I've said to her about the problems we had before. In fact, she's exhibiting the same fundamental conduct: she wants a relationship, and therefore it's all about executing that, without regard to my feelings. I initially responded pleasantly to emails from her, but now that she's pushing her reconnection agenda on me, I simply don't want to respond. What on earth can you do with someone who refuses to hear you?

Well, we know you most definitely shouldn't offer her a beach house!

I am sorry. It has to be doubly frustrating not only to have had these conversations over the years, but to have to see her trying once again to push her agenda without any regard to the feedback you've tried to give — ugh.

I think this is very similar to the beach house answer, though — you have to decide what YOU want. If you want to cut things off, do it. (But it seems reasonable to send a note stating that you feel like you are going around in circles, that you have tried to help her see your perspective but it never seems to sink in, etc.) If you want to give her another chance, then have that same conversation but even more specific and point-blank and give her the chance to decide overtly if she wants to try for a relationship with you. But ultimately, it's you who sets the boundary.

I don't have one but a close friend's family did and they invited folks (including me) but only when they were there. I remember an offhand comment of the mother saying, "I pretend the house is my last newborn and I wouldn't want anyone there I didn't a) know well, and b) without me."

Finally, your line about "not having heard from you for a while" was genius. Wonder how loudly the nasty sister would scream.

Thanks!

Yeah, I am hearing from so many of you today about this "only when I'm there" rule. Seems to offer a nice boundary line. Of course, that means that you actually are then obligated to spend time with each and every guest themselves! (Ideally, the guests are good enough people that that's the whole point, I guess.)

I know I read your answer and your professional take on what a statement like this could mean ... But what is the difference between that and my "If anybody has booze hidden in their desk now is the time to share"...

Well, you hitting the sauce during the workday won't likely kill you.

I am sure plenty of folks think I'm prone toward overreaction in the suicidal comment arena, and that could be. But I also know the data about how the majority of people who die by suicide have given some pretty specific warning signs. And it is only in retrospect that people tend to realize they weren't just "joking." And they live with that regret the rest of their lives.

I've had clients, too, who will readily admit having tested the waters that way — tossing out a comment to see if anybody really cared and was listening. And if nobody was, they can just pass it off as a joke.

If you believe your "brain is broken," yet you say "In lieu of seeing a medical professiona" the priority question is: "Why are you AVOIDING (ahem) seeking care?"

I am glad that I didn't have to be the one to ask this!

Missed the live chat last week but wanted to add to this from experience. Friendships take nurturing to continue. I was also someone who was too tired (really more laziness from complacency in my case) to put in that effort and instead put all my effort into the family I thought I had in my fiance, who I lived with, and his kids. I was very satisfied with that relationship and didn't have much motivation to put in the effort for others. Then he unexpectedly broke up with me and I lost all of that and realized I was very alone. It was a good lesson in remembering that you never know what will happen and it's good to make sure you have a real team you around you, even if it means allocating some of your energy resources from your family to your friends to stay balanced. Also I loved this: "Some friends text each other 37 times a day just to talk about their new moisturizer or the fact that their new boss looks like Alan Alda." OK 37x a day is way too much, but as I've been trying to build new friendships (so hard because everyone says they want more friends but then they're all too busy!), this so perfectly stated the kind of easy going connection and intimacy that I hope to cultivate! I mean, I definitely want to hear that my new friend thinks her boss looks exactly like Alan Alda and I make it known I want to know about all the cool and great things people buy so I can get in on that but maybe that's just me!

Thanks. I think recognizing this about yourself is important. And the truth is, friendship is a two-way street that sometimes involves putting in effort even when it's not totally convenient. I hear complaints all the time of folks whose friends decided to come back into the fold only once their romantic relationship/family wasn't there for them. Its not something to turn on and turn off.

I wish you continued luck in nurturing this balance! And in deepening the kinds of friendships that you are looking for!

(Long live Alan Alda doppelgangers! Actually, Alan Alda himself would probably be the best boss, don't you think!)

Be careful of framing it like this. You cannot protect your child from Life, and losing one's grandparents is as much a part of life as starting first grade. You can mourn your mother with your child mourning his/her grandmother, say things like, "I know, honey, it's sad, let's hug for a while," but you can't pretend that there's a magic way to shield your child from reality ... and you wouldn't be doing the child any favor by trying to find one.

Bingo. Thanks.

It can all lead to growth, as pollyanna-ish as that may sound.

Not really avoiding, just didn't realize until recently that there was something specific I could be seen about.

Got it. Yeah, I didn't get a strong avoidance vibe, but even if a behavior doesn't have a label, it could still sometimes be worth exploring in therapy! A therapist won't shy away from helping you gain insight into yourself just because you don't have a diagnosis. Promise. (At least I hope so. I should have a disclaimer there, I guess.)

Hi there, Thank you for your awesome chats! Can you talk a little bit about how you decided to go into clinical psychology? Can you talk about how family therapy is different from what your Post colleague Meghan Leahy does with parent coaching? (I’m planning to ask her the same question to see what her take is, as well.) I’m feeling at a bit of a crossroads right now. After a number of years in early childhood education, and then staying home with my children, I’m looking to go back to work. Because I have a gaggle of kids myself and have been working with young children for many years, I’ve found myself doing a lot of de facto parent-coaching-type stuff, even being asked to give talks about topics at local preschools. I really enjoy this (unpaid) work, and I love talking about child development, and how to support our tiny humans and their growing brains. I’m just not sure the best way to parlay it into a paying, more professional operation. Can a family therapist focus on supporting parents in understanding their child and their child’s behavior? Does a therapist who works primarily with children get to do a combo of working with the kids and helping their parents understand how to support them? I have a master’s in education, and I’m open to going back to school/pursuing necessary training- I just want to be sure I have the right fit. Thank you for any guidance you (or other commenters) can provide! :)

This is a great question! And Meghan will likely be able to give even better insight since I work neither with kids nor with families, so I hope she will chime in in her chat as well.

Therapists who DO work with families can do it in all kinds of modalities — it's pretty common for them to see family members individually (as part of the whole family therapy shebang — this is different than having an individual one-on-one relationship with one of the family members that impedes the goals of working with the family as a whole) in addition to working with the whole family together in the room. Some child therapists do this same thing — working with the parents separately, at times, to help them understand their kids too. Again, this is not directly my expertise but I am betting the main question that you have to ask is whether you want to be a therapist doing the actual clinical work or someone who does something more systemic within a school or community setting (like teaching or training or coaching). And if you decide that it is the actual therapy work you want, then you'd need to decide what type-- whether social work or clinical psychology or counseling psychology or even psychiatry. Time is too short for me to go too much deeper, but hopefully that is the start of an answer!

I asked this on Hax yesterday, and I'm asking again here: Why, oh why, were all the orphanages/children's homes in the U.S. closed in the 1960s? I reside in Israel, and we do group homes for children exactly in Lisa's situation. They're well run and have good reputations. Why does it have to be either/or? Abuse/Neglect or foster care?

I can't pretend to have the historical expertise to dive into this, but you raise a good point in that in an ideal world, there would be far more options in this situation than appear to be at hand. I will say, one summer in college I worked at a home such as this — so they do exist in the U.S. — but it was typically a temporary way station between foster care placements (typically a child would stay no longer than a few months) rather than a more stable arrangement.

Not the boss he played in "What Women Want," though. ;-)

Hoo boy. Haven't seen the movie, but if it's the one I am thinking of with Mel Gibson, then that could be a discussion in and of itself!

Alda the person for the win, not any characters he may have played!

I'll be friends with you so we can text about which celebrities our bosses resemble! Lol

Love it!

I do hope someday some friendship matches are made through this chat. In the comments, perhaps? (And I still dream of a meetup. Maybe when Detox comes out!)

I'd consider this question as one does sunk costs when considering a future investment (on the same project). Sunk costs are irrelevant to future investments, or in your case 45 years of marriage is irrelevant to your future investment of time, either in your relationship or your happiness elsewhere. Put the 45 years of sunk costs aside and decide what's best for you. I think it will give you a better perspective.

Very good point. I am glad, as always, to have my Sunk Cost backup singers!

I think part of what OP is help up by is the idea of the fact that those 45 years lead to a certain level of companionship for the future. A comfort (despite the negativity) that feels less scary than starting over from scratch with someone.

To the poster that suggested mean sister could find the address on the internet ... This is why vacation homes have such cute names (Pirates Bay) and are at the end of a series of confusing unnamed, wooded streets. We all have a mean girl sister. I unfortunately have 2.

So sorry about the sister(s).

Wow — so is that part of what goes into the naming of those houses? I figured it was just a spin-off of the boat-naming game. ("The Codfather," anyone?)

Maybe it's because I'm an only child, but my friends are like family. I nurture my friendships and have learnt over the years to discern with whom I should extend that nurturing energy. I now have a large family — my husband comes from a lively rough and tumble large Irish American family. I love those connections, but still nurture my friendships. I take great pleasure in the fact that my husband says I have a genius for friendship. It's mostly showing up, being there, being present and being supportive.

I really love this. Thank you.

I am not an only child, but I too have friends that I consider family. Truly. It's one of the greatest gifts of my life.

For some of us, receiving emails like that would be a nightmare (and I say this as a fan of Alda). Please make sure you know your audience well before sending such messages.

True. And that was the original context of my comment last week — different strokes for different folks, and everyone has a right to have a friendship that takes their own needs into account.

The main reason it causes trouble is that most people seem to think there's a switch at not suicidal and someone is about to harm themselves if they are out of your eyesight for a minute. It can be very unhelpful to have someone assume you need help as someone in crisis. I have found this most problematic in dealing with therapists because when I need help for the stage I'm in I need to be guarded about what I say. It can take a while to trust a therapist to not over react. Also, it's very discouraging to think I've formed a bond with a therapist and share that suicidal ideations have started percolating into thoughts and they go straight to talking about what to do if I'm in crisis. I know they've stopped listening to what I'm saying about my particular situation and how to help me in the moment and are working off a theoretical, which isn't helpful to me in my therapy session.

Yes, I can certainly understand this. And in my ideal world, a therapist can deal with suicidal ideation in a more nuanced way and not immediately go into crisis-mode.

I do maintain, though, that on the whole, a false positive about someone's risk to themselves is better than a false negative.

They were closed because they weren't providing good care and it was thought that home environments (foster care) would be better for the kids.

Sounds reasonable. I am sure that "Annie" didn't do much for the public image of the orphanages either.

I wonder what kind of research has ever been done on how the homes could have been improved, though, and what the gaps might be between what the different scenarios can provide. I am not well-versed in that area of study.

 

I'm confused as to why the LW thinks orphanages are better than foster homes? Foster homes are not bad, they are GOOD. It seems to me that kids in crisis are better off with a loving foster family than dumped in a large institution where each kid gets little individual attention.

Certain foster homes can be absolute godsends, for sure.

The foster home system as a whole, however, sometimes has some holes. I've seen it firsthand.

One resource that Hax recommends a lot is Childhelp. It's an advocacy group, not child protective services, so they might be able to answer questions about foster care. For example, my impression of child protective services is that they try to keep kids with relatives if possible. Sounds like LW isn't up for that, but there might still be a lot of visitation available. If that's the case, Lisa might get a more stable daily home without losing contact with LW.

Thanks so much for this. Very helpful.

Non-only children have such families, too; a friend says "My friends are my family because I've divorced my bio family."

Haha!

It's that time again, unfortunately!

Thanks, as always, for being here. I'm pleased to report that my keyboard is dry and my sanity at least as intact as usual!

Looking forward to seeing you next week. Until then, hope to see you in the comments and on Instagram.

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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