Baggage Check Mental Health Advice: Her niece's new fiance has a criminal record. Should she say something?

Nov 12, 2019

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior was online to take your questions about relationships, family, mental health, motivation, work-life balance, well-being, and more. Read past Baggage Check columns here.

Get mental health tips and an early glimpse at Dr. Andrea's next book "Detox Your Thoughts" by following Dr. Andrea on Facebook or Instagram.

Important disclaimer: this chat should not be considered a substitute for one-on-one psychotherapy, and is for general informational purposes only. (Dr. Andrea's advice on 80s song lyrics and snacking, however, is completely official.)

Hello, all!

How are you this week?

I come to you live from Amtrak-- so please forgive me if there seem to be occasional lags. Side story: I vaguely recall, in college, the concept of a "Party That Never Happened"-- it would go for the hour before we set our clocks back for Daylight Saving Time. Fun, no?

Anyway, I sort of feel like I am just completing The Trip That Never Happened. It's like this: hotel and train were booked so I could very briefly swoop in to NYC for a Very Special Purpose -- someday soon I hope to be able to tell you more-- and when that Very Special Purpose was thwarted at the Very Last Minute, my Wonderful Hubs said "You should go anyway!"

So I did.

(Okay, now that sounds like he was trying to get rid of me. Perhaps. But he also knows I love New York, I have friends crazy enough to see me for seventeen seconds on zero seconds' notice, and I really really (really!) love quiet hotel rooms. So all this led to me being in NYC for about two minutes for no discernible purpose whatsoever. But what's not to love?)

Alright, so that's why I'm en route. Whatcha got?  

Hi Andrea, I'm at a loss. My 24 year-old niece just got engaged, and I was so excited for her. She lives a few hours away, and has only been dating her fiance since June, so I've not met him or know much about him. His FB page didn't have much for me to see, since we aren't friends. So I thought I would just search and see what kind of things he did in high school and after. I was thinking did he play sports, was he in theater, etc. Well, his name came up in news articles about being arrested for theft valued over $750! I checked, and he was convicted, and served a year in jail. That's the background. I'm going to assume the best, that he has discussed this with my niece and has a decent explanation of what happened. My question is: What would you consider to be signs that he has indeed learned from this experience? If I get the chance to ask my niece over the holidays, what ideally should she know about his state of mind? What would be warning signs to you? This is not a situation that we've run into in our family, and I'm at a loss. (We are far from perfect, but our failures haven't resulted in jail time.) I certainly understand that people make mistakes, especially when their brains aren't quite done maturing. But looking at the court records, it seems as if he had a deal to make restitution and wear a monitoring device on probation, and then something happened and he had to serve a complete sentence. And now, they are engaged after dating 6 months. I'm hoping they are simply planning on a long engagement, but I'm a little concerned. I have not said anything to my sister, because either she knows, or if she doesn't, I'm not going to break this to her in a text or voice mail. Thanks for your insights!

Let's take a breath here.

You love your niece dearly, that much is clear. And there's no doubt that this can be concerning information from the start. But... there's also a hint to me in your letter that you have been looking to scrutinize this guy from the beginning. You googled him because...... you thought maybe there was a playbill from a hypothetical high school theater career?


And then you went on to become an investigative reporter about his court dates.

I'm not saying I don't empathize with you, but I also think it's helpful to acknowledge that maybe you are not completely objective here. I can't totally be on board with how you found out this information, and so I think you may be asking the wrong question.

You want to know what your niece needs to know about the man she is choosing to marry, so you can tell her how she should feel about him.

All while she has never asked for your guidance.

Do you see how this can become problematic?

And if you are truly assuming he has a decent explanation and that he's discussed it with her, then why do you need the chance to approve what that explanation is?

Again, not saying your concerns aren't justified-- but I fear that this could very easily veer into unwanted intrusion upon your niece's life, which may sever your relationship with her permanently-- and also keep you from getting to know him for who he really is now.

Which is the short answer of what you should be doing, by the way.


I've discovered through therapy that I've basically been letting other people control my decisions and life and have just recently "awakened" and started deciding things for myself. After 19 years! I am sad, but incredibly angry at myself. How could I have let this happen? I don't know how to deal with this anger at myself. It's starting to affect my work and my life. I'm irritable at work, and I cannot get this out of my mind. I have no interest in listening to my friends' problems or making small talk. Of course I'm going to talk with my therapist about this, but do you have any tips for dealing with this kind of intense anger? I think it goes beyond the advice of "just forgive yourself."

For sure, self-forgiveness isn't easy, and it can't automatically happen just because you tell yourself it needs to.

But can I play devil's advocate here?

Aren't you just continuing the same pattern, to some extent? Letting your anger control your life? Letting it keep you from deciding things on your own terms? Yeah, your anger is not another person, but it is just as invalid of a voice. It is just as dysfunctional (if not more) as another person in terms of guiding you. It is just as unhelpful.

So, you have a choice. You can continue to validate that anger by giving it a voice and making it part of you, or you can choose to acknowledge it and de-fuse from it, to live with that voice but not follow it, to calm your body in the moment using relaxation techniques so that the physiological aspects of anger and irritability won't further sabotage you.

In short, how long do you want to continue to not be able to be a truly autonomous person?

What purpose does engaging with your anger serve?

And aren't you arguably a more insightful person now than you were before this realization? So, shouldn't you let yourself enjoy this newfound clear and autonomous lens, rather than donning an entirely different lens that is blurry and scratched and foggy in its own way?

I know these words aren't a magic wand either. It's a daily choice that you have to make, a muscle you have to build. And it can start with identifying the thoughts that trigger the anger when it's at its worst ("How could I have done that?" "Look at all the time I wasted!" "What is wrong with me?") and learning to watch them pass and let go of them.

I recently realized it's been over a decade since I've been in any kind of relationship, casual or committed. I know some of the reasons why (life events, priorities, lack of interest) but have started to worry if there is anything wrong with me?

One-word answers typically seem unhelpful, I'm guessing, and I certainly don't do them often. In fact, I probably never had.


Is there anything wrong with you?


(Hope that helped!)

I need to make some life changes, including exercise, weight loss & a career move, but am having trouble getting into a real plan for change. I'm in therapy, but when do you need some other type of help vs. just talking about my feelings? How can I start taking action that will make a real difference? I need something to move me into action.

Therapists can certainly help with this, but they have to have a certain way of working with you-- which includes their theoretical orientation, their style, their personality, their philosophy, and their expertise. So I can't say for certain that your therapist can do this, but there's no way to know besides talking about it and asking for it and explaining that it's what you want.

Tell your therapist that you are looking for more measurable behavioral goals, more accountability, and a more concrete plan for specific life changes, and ask them if that is something that they can work with you on.

Good luck!

Thank you to the chatters who wrote in on creativity. I went to a great concert this week. The lead singer said, "We've been (X Band) for a long time. We've had good times and we've had bad times, but we've always been (X Band). So - don't be anything but yourself." For me, this has always meant engaging in creative effort. Reclaiming this is hard though - and I need to figure out why.

Yes. There are so many things that vie to take a bite out of creativity. Time constraints, self-doubt, professional commitments, exhaustion, family responsibilities, inertia.... I hope you can ask the hard questions and nudge yourself toward getting more creativity back in your life!

Dr. Bonior, I am 69 years old and seriously depressed. I have taken bupropion xl for years and that has kept my neck out of the noose, so to speak. I just have so many regrets and failures looking back on my life and I hate my husband on some level. I am very reclusive and and feel shame when confronting others. Is there any point to seeing a therapist? I feel like I deserve this sadness and despair and there is no cure. I take poor care of my health and will be dead soon enough if I can just hold on. Suicide would hurt my family so I will not go that route. What should I do?

This breaks my heart, and I am just so, so very sorry that you have struggled to this extent for so long.

But I also have a huge amount of hope for you. And it is very justifiable hope, I promise.

Of course I want to focus on the therapy piece-- you are NEVER too old for therapy, you are NEVER too old to change, there is ALWAYS a point in seeing a therapist when you are in pain.

But I also don't want to ignore that there can be additional medical treatments as well that can be considered. A different class of antidepressants. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. Clinical trials with psilocybin. Nasal administration of ketamine. So I don't want you to see a dead end on that front when there is no reason to.

But yes, therapy should most definitely be something you seek out. The fact that you bothered to write to me tells me that there's some motivation there. Try to seek out a therapist who specializes in depression-- truly specializes in it, not just how all of us somewhat specialize in it because it is so prevalent-- and has experience with treatment-resistant depression and behavioral activation.

There are so many additional avenues to explore, as well, once you get yourself feeling better on a day-to-day basis. Mindfulness techniques to help you better manage your shame and negative thoughts about yourself. Existential therapy techniques to help you find more meaning in your days. Finding a community of other people who get you and validate you and lift you up and make you feel less alone.

Speaking of which, you are not alone. Again, I have tremendous hope for you.

Please do keep us posted.

Last week during the discussion about the woman who was treasuring her independence over long-term relationships, you commented that some people never do find the right person, and that it is okay. Thank you! Thank you from the bottom of my single heart. That it is okay to be alone is not a point of view I see often in this couples oriented world; your validation is appreciated.

You are very welcome.

Our society has no shortage of boxes that we want to believe that everyone should fit into... sigh.

I went on a big international trip last year with my spouse's family to visit relatives and see their homeland. It was a special experience, and they are a relatively easy group to travel with. (In fact they are planning another big trip next year which we are considering joining!) My family, by contrast, just stresses us out. Nothing terrible, but general personality clashes as well as a lot of pressure and expectations for closeness. Of course, now that my parents saw us go on the other trip, they are asking to plan a big trip to a place that's important to them, and the idea keeps getting brought up. I worry that we've set precedent and can't say no without a lot of hurt feelings. Is there any advice you have?

Yeah, this is tough.

I think it's all about setting parameters that you can live with, though. Would a less ambitious trip be doable? A shorter trip? A trip where you spend part of the time alone with your spouse and meet up with your family later? Is there any wiggle room whatsoever that can keep both sides relatively happy?

I know there's a deeper issue here, though, and it's the different potentials for closeness and how those run afoul of your family's expectations. You may very well continue to deal with this over time, with jealousy or comparison or insecurity on your family's part ("How come you'll do X with them but not with us?") And so once you figure out what your parameters are, stick to them and establish a precedent-- or you run the risk of getting dragged down by this battle continually. 

I am very claustrophobic--I know why I am. How can I learn to conquer this phobia. My husband yells at me since I won't get in elevators or any small space. I've gotten locked in my car and that produced a panic attack. "I'll take the stairs" should be my name.

Okay, there's the claustrophobia.

And then there's your husband.

I know, I'm probably overstepping my bounds here, but I certainly don't like to hear that he yells at you for something you struggle with.

Are you willing to address that issue?

The claustrophobia, to be frank, will likely be more straightforward. You need a CBT therapist who specializes in exposure therapy or systematic desensitization treatments for phobias. When you find the right person, the good news is, the treatment can be very effective.

There's nothing sinister about using publicly accessible databases to learn about someone who is coming into your life forever. A felony conviction with jail time is a lot more serious than a typical social infraction, and marriage is a lot more serious than casual dating. For one thing, his conviction will affect his employment prospects, his credit rating and other aspects of their life together for a long time. He might not even be able to rent an apartment for himself. The aunt should ask the niece directly "What do you really know about your fiance?," and if his time in the Graybar Motel doesn't come up, she should hand her the court records.

Graybar Motel!

No, I get it, and I'm not saying what she did was sinister. But I also think it's a little disingenuous to pretend that it was all about "getting to know him" in a positive way when traditionally, getting to know someone happens by actually interacting with that person-- not doing a digital background check.

And the fact that she's the aunt rather than even the parent lends another potential layer of danger of seeming intrusive.

Your points are well-taken, though-- it's not a small deal at all, for the future or for what it potentially represents about his past.

I just think she has to tread carefully.

Nope, not a precedent that means you must say yes to everything your family proposes. Dr. Andrea gave some good suggestions, but the real answer is to decide what you can manage and then sticking to it. Not allowing your family to get inside your head and guilt you into what you don't want to do.

Bingo! Thanks.

My son is on a competitive Academic-type (not sports) team that just hasn’t gotten its act together— they get together to “practice” but really they just mostly hang out. Now the competition is a mere few practices away and the reality of impending sub-par performance is setting in, my son is getting anxious. At the last “practice” he started crying at the thought of it— even as the kids were all finally making a to-do list and realizing how daunting it is. They will pull something together and it will probably be ok, but not stellar— and failure is a possibility. I don’t have any issues with him reaping what he and his team have sown— what I am worried about is his propensity to cry in in public in situations where he feels like he’s screwing up— Maybe I’m being too much of a helicopter mom— and I don’t want him to never touch the sharp edge of anxiety— but are there words I can give him to help him control his visible emotions in the moment? Thirteen seems like old enough to suck it up just a bit. Feel free to slap me around if appropriate, too. Maybe I just let it all happen ?

I do think your last sentence hits the nail on the end-- that is, as I see it, the essence of what you must do, as tough as it might be to stand by and watch.

He will survive this, though-- even if he cries. Those two things are not at all mutually exclusive.

Of course, I understand that a teenage boy would probably not choose crying in public as his optimal social experience, so with that in mind, here are a couple of techniques to try to stave it off in the moment:

--Touching his tongue to the roof of his mouth.

--Paradoxically, TRYING to get his facial muscles to cry-- that can sometimes short-circuit the process.

--Drastically slowing down his breathing, inhaling through his nose and exhaling through his mouth.

This latter thing is a good anti-anxiety technique in general, too. Perhaps you can help him explore some of those tools-- there are a lot of resources online-- from visualization to Progressive Muscle Relaxation to diaphragmatic breathing.

Keep us posted!

How about asking the fiancé himself about it and taking it from there? You'll get a lot better read of the situation by his reaction.

It sounds great, but what if this is literally the first time she is ever meeting him? Can you imagine-- "Hi, Rob. I'm Auntie Sue. Care to tell me about your little dalliance with prison time?"

I just had my second child, and despite living just four hours away, my mom hasn’t made an effort to meet him in the six months since he was born. Actually, she hasn’t acknowledged his birth despite the fact that I called when he was born (I spoke with my dad). For background, since my first was born, I have had a cordial but very distant relationship with both of my parents, but especially my mom. Whereas my dad will at least make offers of help (even though they seem more like polite conversation than real offers) my mom just....doesn’t really try. My parents were ok parents but never warm and way too hard on me. We weren’t close after I left for college, but I thought we were close enough she’d want to meet her grandkids. My dad doesn’t have much to say about her non-reaction to the birth and we are not a family who would have an actual conversation about this. I’m at a loss about what to do. I don’t miss them. My older child doesn’t really know them. Is it ok to sort of let this relationship die a natural death or so we have to have a talk about why she’s being so weird?

This is tough. I was waiting to see that there was some specific falling out or conflict.... and yet there doesn't seem to have been one.

It could be that your Mom is just really, really deficient in her ability to connect emotionally. And that may never change.

If the urge to try to sort this out and have the inevitably difficult conversations just isn't there on your part, and you don't feel like you are craving trying to fill in this hole, then I say, for sure, give yourself permission not to fight it. Things may change over time, on either of your parts, and that's okay too. But for now, you may gain a lot of freedom by giving yourself permission to accept their limitations and not have to try to change them.

Okay, you say: "I really really (really!) love quiet hotel rooms. So all this led to me being in NYC for about two minutes for no discernible purpose whatsoever." I've heard of hotels that rent rooms by the hour <wink wink>, but never one that rents rooms by the minute! NY is truly a wondrous city...

ha! Okay, that juxtaposition definitely could sound awkward.

To be clear, I was there overnight. Two minutes was an absolute exaggeration... and there were no coin-operated vibrating beds involved!

There will be hurt feelings - it's inevitable. Allow them to have their feelings and try and show you love them in ways you can.

I love it. Thanks.

Hi Andrea, my mother is 79 and lives on her own in a single-family-home. Siblings and I have become a bit concerned about some small things that could be safety hazards. Recently my sister commented on throw rugs - -that those could be a trip hazard. Mom's response: "I hate these floors. And I haven't tripped yet." What's the best response to that? (And "get new floors" isn't realistic as she lives on a very limited income.)

I can see where your Mom is coming from, though.

Everything, of course, is a risk of some sort, and it's a spectrum worth paying attention to. But it's also easy to overstep here. "Small things that could be safety hazards"-- I get it, but is there a specific thing in terms of the rugs or your Mom's mobility that makes this particularly pressing?

I get it, I promise-- but I guess what I'm concerned with is getting into a tug of war where she feels powerless and stops listening to your suggestions altogether. I'd focus on a few small specifics that you have really sold evidence for being a problem-- and that you can propose a solution to that she is more likely to accept.

Dad's visit was awesome! He goes to sleep earlier than me so he would just head to the far side while I watched late night TV on headphones, then I would get into bed on the other side when I got sleepy. There was plenty of room even with the dog -- nothing awkward about it after all! We had such an amazing time at a concert as well! Cheers!

Love this update! Thanks.

(Signal too slow to find the link, but this was a question from weeks ago about the bed situation when hosting one's Dad.)

I have a a two part trouble with self forgiveness. One is due to my past, mistakes I made in my first marriage. I am no longer that person, and I have been doing great work to change old habits. I am in a new marriage that is emotionally abusive and I get stuck in these shame cycles. Like if my new husband “realllly”knew me he would never love me. I start to feel like an awful person and let some mistakes I have made in this relationship like confiding in other men completely swallow me hole. My therapist keep saying I have nothing wrong and he doesn’t need to know about the old me- and that I need to stop apologizing..

Wait, wait, wait.

This marriage is an emotionally abusive one?

As in, he is emotionally abusive to you?

I want to make sure I am understanding this right. Because if that is the case, then I'm wondering why there is so much work being done on how to stay in a toxic situation.

Hi, not a question but a note: Your head/link for the upcoming Nov 12 chat says Nov 5 still. I love your column! I wish it were the 12th already...

I never got a chance to thank this kind soul for alerting me to that mistake, so I'm doing it now. Thank you!

Hello, My wife and I have been together for twenty years and this is the second marriage for both of us and we are in our early sixties. As usual, everything was great, passionate and beautiful. Over the past couple of years she has become distant, during the week she doesn't get out of bed until I leave for work (she claims she isn't a morning person). I usually get home first, so I prepare dinner. I greet her when she come is and I get two, count them two quick kisses. When she is watching television and I go to say something, she holds up her hand. If I continue to talk, she tells me to shut up, something I have never said to her. When I go to bed, I again get two quick kisses. That is the extent of our romance. When her two grown children (I do not have any children) she rants and raves about what a great person I am, but once they leave, it is back to the silent treatment. I love her dearly and do not want to break up our marriage, but she doesn't seem to care how she offends me with telling me to shut up or how she rejects me continuously. Sign me Baffled

Of course you don't want to break up your marriage. But she's breaking up your marriage, as you speak. Or at the very least, she's putting quotation marks around "marriage."

Might she be depressed? It sure seems like it. So it's hard for me to immediately see this is a marital issue rather than a more general mental health issue. But either way, something's got to give. It sounds miserable for you both.

It's time to have the hard conversation. "Julia, I love you dearly but I can't keep going on day to day like this. It hurts me greatly when you're silent to me, or tell me to shut up. The distance is very hard for me to take. I want to understand how you are feeling and why this is happening. Are you unhappy in our marriage? Unhappy in general? How can we get to a better place?"

And then-- equally hard-- start listening.

If she doesn't give up anything, if it's just Silent Treatment The Sequel, then you have to start having the hard conversation with yourself about whether this is what you envisioned this stage of your life to look like and if not, how long you are willing to tolerate it and under what conditions.

Oh. My. Goodness.

The motion sickness.

Did not anticipate this part!

Lesson learned.

I'm fairly certain that my therapist's wife works in his office. She works in the back doing billing and such, and I rarely interact with her. I've recently become suspicious that one of the young women who answers the phone and schedules appointments may be another family member (likely his daughter) and I do interact with her a lot. It all feels a little...questionable. Am I right to feel uncomfortable with this and can I ask if he employs members of his family in his office? I've started to have some anxiety that they sit around the table sharing notes about their day that include specifics about clients.

Your discomfort is understandable, for sure. And why that does not at all mean that what they are doing is wrong, or a violation of anything-- they may have the strictest ethical standards around-- it is worth bringing up your discomfort.

Hi. First of all, so happy to see you are still here with us. Well, here goes. My 72 year old Dad has been increasingly ill for the past 5-8 years. It's gotten so bad that he is essentially bedridden, although he does rally on occasion. He's been to several Mayo clinics, dozens of doctors, holistic facilities and more but beyond being diagnosed with Parkinson's and several other auto-immune diseases, the doctors cannot offer him the answers he wants. He is convinced he has lymphoma but this has never been diagnosed. Basically, I feel he's trying to be his own doctor since none of the doctors ever seem to come up with a reason for why his health is declining in such a fashion. Anyway, with no terminal diagnosis he cannot get assistance to die (we live in a right to die state). Now my Dad is talking up VSED, although he says he'll wait til after my brother visits for Thanksgiving. How on earth do family members sit by and watch their loved one starve to death? As much pain as my Dad is in, I just don't know how we can do this. Any thoughts? Have you worked with anyone who chose this path (or had family do so)?

I am so sorry. There are no easy answers here, and there are no "right" answers either.

I can't claim any particular expertise or experience in this, though I do know it is getting more and more attention. You may have seen this piece that the Post did on it not too long ago, along with the documentary that is mentioned there. It may be eye-opening, and though it won't necessarily make things easier, it may give you a new understanding of what it would be like to go through, and how you can best prepare.

Do you have other 'grandparent figure' people around who would welcome becoming closer?

Ah, brilliant point. Thank you. Grandparent figures can come from unexpected places, and be beautiful all the same.

The main thing is for your mom to have her cell actually ON HER BODY all the time, since she lives alone. You can get tape that does a pretty good job on sticking it to the floor - had that in my elderly mum's condo for a while ... .

Okay, I read this too quickly and thought you were suggesting taping OP's Mom's phone to her body!

But yes, that tape suggestion for the floor is an excellent one. In fact that has been life-changing in our own house. Thanks for thinking of it-- and it could be exactly the kind of moderate, specific, problem-solving approach that feels more collaborative than just banning the rugs altogether.

Dr. Bonior, There seems to be a new trend in your profession, based upon my own experience as well as friends across the country from NY to CA. After extensive research which includes reading a professional's website, their reviews and insurance information, a prospective patient/client finally calls or emails a mental health professional, only to receive "crickets" (no response in any form). Would you comment on this trend? Thank you.

I am sorry.

I have no excuses, and I hate that this happens. I also won't pretend that I am perfect in this either; I get a lot of people reaching out, and though I try my best, I know that occasionally a response falls through the cracks.

Most private practice therapists are solo practitioners who don't have office staff. And though the trend of not getting back to people feels new, I also think in part it's a function of far more people reaching out to get help (which is a good thing) and being able to email/send in a submission form/call through an automated listing, etc...... I would venture that the average therapist is fielding so many more reach-outs than they would have years ago, because they can be done with a one-second click of a mouse.

Not that that is an excuse, but I do think it is an explanation.

It is not a good situation, though, and I am sorry.

Last night my fiance's best friend texted him to say he had broken up with his girlfriend of several years. We are very close with both of them (I nearly asked her to be in my bridal party for our upcoming wedding, and he's my fiance's best man), but I worry that we now are going to get dragged into the middle of the fallout from their breakup and will have to pick sides. Do you have any advice for how we can walk that fine line so we can stay friends with both individuals without turning into sounding boards for frustration about the other or getting stuck on one side?

Well, for now I think you a free pass to procrastinate.

No one's asking either of you to take sides yet.

In fact, you haven't even heard from her. Nor did you necessarily know much about the breakup, to what extent it was mutual, or acrimonious, or a horrible and uninvited surprise. In short, don't borrow trouble.

Deal with each of these relationships as they come. If Girlfriend wants to trash him, then you decide to what extent you want to be a sounding board versus tell her that it's a complicated topic. Boyfriend wants you to no longer go out with her, then you address that in that your relationship deserves to remain close in its own right, even as you empathize with him.

One step at a time, I'm thinking.

For 2 1/2 years I had an amazing therapist who really helped me grow and provide me tools for dealing with panic attacks. I had to leave her when I moved to DC. I've come to terms with the fact that I need therapy to continue/"complete" the healing process/manage my mental health. I am really stuck in a rut in just thinking about the idea how trying to find a therapist. Do you have any suggestions of where to start and what questions to ask during the initial visit to ensure that they will be a good fit for you?

Well, first question. Would your therapist consider some video sessions with you?

There a lot of jurisidictional issues here-- it's an ethical and legal landmine to make sure everything lines up-- but if it's a possibility even for the short-term, it could go a long way.

Beyond that, though, focus on the fact that the process of therapy helped you so much. And can help you again. Think about the characteristics that were particularly positive with your last therapist, and how you would recognize them in a new one. Make small goals about listings to look through and number of therapists to reach out to that are time-specific. And then, make good use of the consultation (which for many therapists, is complimentary). You're in a good position here, you really are-- because you know what helps you and what you're looking for. 

Silent Treatment the Sequel!

I think I've seen III and IV, as well!

I turn 25 in January and I feel really, really anxious about it. I know it's not a big deal, but I keep thinking about this before I fall asleep and it's freaking me out. I've worked hard to get where I am in my career, but it feels like I should be further along than I am. I'm in a job I like but not really living in a place I like, across the country from my family. Objectively I'm doing great -- 10 year-old me would probably think 24 year-old me is very cool. I've always dreamed of living abroad and traveling, but don't have the money to do so. I feel like the clock is ticking for me to do things that I want to do as people I know are starting to get engaged, have kids etc. I also was very freaked out yesterday because I kept dreaming of my family dying -- all my siblings and my mom live across the country, and I woke up in a cold sweat. I lost my dad when I was 18 so I'm not . I guess I'm just feeling so anxious and I want to know how to feel better, thanks.

Well, as I see it, you could use this anxiety as an opportunity.

Maybe you are meant to be asking the hard questions, shaking things up, exploring other options for your life right now. Note that this is not the same thing as saying you're supposed to be checking boxes because everyone else seems like they're checking them, or because a certain number of candles on a birthday cake should mean a certain thing.

In other words, give some credence to your dreams-- but not society's expectations of what The Clock means.

It's hard for me to know to what extent this anxiety is truly getting in the way of your life-- I am sorry about that awful dream-- but either way, I can't help but think that talking this over with a therapist can help give you some insight into what you're really looking for, and what changes you can make in your life (big or small, or both!) to help you feel more aligned with that.

Kind of an odd introduction. It’s not at all weird to go to New York for a day. You can go up in the morning, catch a matinee, get a nice dinner and still get home to bed (maybe a little later than usual). What’s this about “two minutes?”

I wish I could have been there for the day!

The weirdness came from the fact that I was there for the night.

It shouldn't be hard to set up some kind of auto-response that would just say "Dr. Andrea regrets that she is unable to accept new patients at this time." That wouldn't preclude you from calling someone back later ("Gee, I have an opening"), but wouldn't leave anybody hanging.

It's a good point. But I think auto-responses with email can be trickier than they look, though. Because you can easily cast too wide a net to who's getting the response.

Could your therapist recommend someone back in your area?

Yes, good point!

It may be a long shot depending on how long-distance the move was, but it's worth it to ask.

My friend's long-term therapist moved out of the US and they continue with video sessions. It works well for them and since they had years of in-person therapy there was a good basis already ... .


I happen to have just done my ethics CEUs so I have a spidey-sense about the legal complications of all this stuff, but there's no doubt that it's often in the client's best clinical interest.

A therapist can also help you deal with the trauma of losing your father so young, and your feeling of "maybe I don't have that much time left" that so often results from such a loss.

Excellent point. Thank you.

Hello! I love your chats! My sister is living at my house while she’s waiting for her new place to be ready. Normally we get along OK, being together a lot is bringing out issues. She judges me a lot and makes comments about my habits, how I spend my time. She’s judgey about everything from how many pairs of shoes I have, my gym/social/recycling habits. If I’m chilling out on the sofa using my phone to text/read news, blogs, etc, she’ll snark that “someone’s addicted to their phone” or that I’m being rude to her (even if she’s going in and out of the room or otherwise doing something that doesn’t involve me). Two glasses of wine with Saturday’s dinner and it’s “wow, you’re sure drinking a lot”. If I push back, she says someone else did whatever and that’s why she doesn’t like whatever I’m doing It’s never that what I’m doing has some negative consequence for her, or is so out of line, it’s that someone else used to do it too much/inappropriately. For example, her old boyfriend used to be always on his phone when they were together, so she hates it when I’m looking at my phone. I’ve kindly opened my home to her when she needed a place to stay. I resent feeling I’m always on and like every little thing I do is up for judgement because it’s not how SHE would do it or because someone else did things that negatively impacted her. I’m really tired of living under a super-judgey microscope in my own home. I don’t want to hole myself up in my bedroom for 6-8 more weeks hiding out from the self-appointed life police. I’ve tried being direct “please stop judging me in my own home” or “You do you” but it’s not helping. I want it to stop or to find a way to not let it bug me. Any ideas?

So it's time to be direct, squared.

"Sis, I've told you how it bothers me that you are judging me so frequently when I have opened my home to you. That hasn't seemed to change anything. To be honest, it is making the time you are staying here miserable. I love you dearly, but it's like I am being punished for extending my welcome to you. It's damaging our relationship, and I am hurt that that doesn't seem to matter to you. If you can't make a significant effort to change this and stop making me feel unwelcome in my own home, then I'm afraid you aren't welcome in my home. I don't want that to happen, so how can I help you do the right thing here?"

First, Thanks to WaPo for still being here! I hope they keep it up! Second, Thanks to you! I grew up in a family where codependence/enmeshment was encouraged. Years of work, therapy, 12 steps, reading advice columns, I still find it hard to set and keep boundaries. Especially when my young adult pushes them. But a few columns ago you published a letter from someone with similar struggles, and suggested actual words to use in such a situation. I copied, pasted, kept in a note, wrote my versions of it, wrote variations of it, read it over several days in a row. I'm not saying it's gone perfectly, but the other day it went really well to use these phrases to set and keep my boundary. It was in a recurring situation that has the potential to go really badly, and instead, I just set a clear but kind boundary, repeated it for clarity, got more push back, restated the boundary, and walked. It worked! They had to deal with their own emotional regulation, instead of pushing that to me. I felt twinge of guilt (still working on that), but also really healthy, and for me, the episode took a lot less time and energy. So, thanks for the help, the words, the encouragement, the knowledge, and the generosity!

Aw, this response is left over from a previous chat but I am just so, so glad to see it. It takes time, but establishing limits does work-- especially because you gain your own strength with each new time you assert yourself. Thanks so much for taking the time to write in. May your boundary-flexing muscle have gotten even stronger since you first wrote this! 

Not that her telling you to shut up is okay, but how often are you interrupting her while she is in the middle of a show? You know what happens if you do it, so what is your game? Definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result and all. Again, I am not blaming you for the seemingly lonely situation you find yourself in but you know this is what happens! Stop doing it! Write down the thought and save it for the commercials if you have a hard time holding on to whatever you want to say.

I see this point, absolutely.

But if the shows are always on..... it gets pretty murky, I'm thinking.

The claustrophobia post reminds me of a comedy sketch I saw (can't remember the duo). As I remember it, a woman goes to a shrink because she's afraid to use elevators, and he gently, sweetly guides her through a desensitization process. First, they just stand in front of an elevator and watch other people get on and off. Then he locks the elevator door open, and she practices just stepping in and out until she feels safe. Then they ride the elevator together until she feels comfortable. At the end she says "Thank you, Doctor! I feel so much better! You've helped me so much!," and she leans over to give him a kiss on the cheek. He screams "GERMS!" and runs away.

hahah! That's great.

Hopefully you packed enough clothes for the change in seasons overnight.

And I'm coming back to a supposed blizzard in DC, aren't I?

(Kidding, kidding. I think?)

Template Responses make things easy. But I think Andrea's point is that with more people reaching out and most of them being one person bands, accidentally people fall through the net. I think having only email as a portal helps because you can check if you've responded.

Yes. I think it's the fact that contact can come from many different places-- much of it as automated on the client's end as clicking a button-- that is part of the problem.

Dr. Andrea, as I recall, you had Lori Gottlieb on several months ago and I liked what she said so much, I got her book ("Maybe You Should Talk to Someone"), which had a very similar story in it that the OP might benefit from. It's never too late to make your life better and happier.

Ah, yes! Great point! I can't recall the pseudonym of that person in that particular story, but it was a powerful one. Thanks.

Can you recommend a good coping skill? Today is the first time in 14 years I'm not celebrating a wedding anniversary. I'm doing OK otherwise, but today is hard, and I'm trying to focus on work. Eventually I'll go home, and it'll be quiet in my apartment.

I am sorry.

I think it depends on what you mean by coping, though. Because as I see it, you're coping pretty darn well already. Yes, the day is hard. And my heart goes out to you. But just because it's hard doesn't mean it needs to be avoided. I am not sure the nature of your loss-- there is different meaning to be found depending on whether it was a loving relationship that ended through your partner's passing versus a tumultuous relationship that ended through separation-- but there is meaning there nonetheless. Insight, depth, growth.... you have taken something from this relationship, and its ending, that is valuable.

And it may also be painful. That doesn't make mean you have to turn away from it, though. Be kind to yourself today but know that getting through this day is a positive step.

Hi Dr. Bonior, One reason to be concerned about lying about age in a dating profile that I didn't see in last week's chat: this is a person who will potentially ignore or devalue the boundaries others have set if they get in the way of what they feel entitled to. It may seem a small thing that "everyone" does, but it's a decision that pretty much states "I've decided that you don't really want what you say you want" or "you're not a good judge of what you really want."

As much as I may get walloped for revisiting that particular topic, I think there's a lot of credence in your point! Thanks.

What were some of the issues you identified with long-distance therapy? I'm curious because my therapist and I occasionally use this modality (we both are avid travelers and it seems to suit us save for time zone issues). I'm self pay when we do the sessions, but other than maybe some technology concerns around privacy, I didn't really have any concerns - should I be more cautious about this?

The short answer is that technically the therapist is supposed to have a license in the state where the client is. Because that is where the treatment is "taking place." At least that's the way it is for psychologist licenses.

Oof, right?

Many states are developing temporary reciprocity for X number of sessions, or something akin to that-- but nothing is standardized, and so, depending on someone's risk tolerance, it can be a landmine. 

I wrote in last week about my mom. Thank you for the response, and for the commenter who responded as well. I am trying to take things one situation at a time, so far so good. I know my mom can sense I’ve pulled away, but she hasn’t asked so I guess I am just riding it out? Also the commenter said something about her father feeling better when her mother was away. I don’t miss my mom at all when she is away, but I feel so terrible about that. I have a lot of ideas about how I am “supposed” to feel and what I am “supposed” to do as a daughter, but the truth is when my mom is around I am emotionally drained and when she’s not around I’m fine, other than feeling intense guilt that I am not being a good daughter and calling her to chit chat or ask for a recipe or whatever wonderful things I imagine other people do with their moms. I guess I am not sure what to do now that I have sadly realized I will never have the mom I wish I had? And what do I “owe” her as a daughter? I know I am not living up to her idea of a daughter any more than she’s living up to my idea of a mom. The only difference is I am not abusive to her - I’ve given it a lot of thought and I am pretty confident about that, though the nature of the way she treats me is I always question myself.

Thank you for writing back in.

This is a process that a lot of people have to go through, and though that doesn't automatically remove the painful aspects of it, it hopefully helps you realize that the "idea" of what you are supposed to be like or how your relationship is supposed to be, or what a "good daughter" does is neither helpful nor realistic. Relationships come in all different forms. There is no prototypical script that you have to follow, no amount of recipes that you are supposed to be exchanging with your mother, no amount of what you "owe" her other than relating to her as a human being.

Because you two are both human beings with your own personalities and histories and lenses and vulnerabilities and hopes.

Don't force yourself into categories, especially categories that are only, at best, hypothetical, or created by The Hallmark Channel.

That's not to say you shouldn't allow yourself to mourn missed expectations. You probably had a variety of hopes about what your relationship with her would look like, and those have gradually taken a hit. That's not a comfortable experience.

But don't let it get in the way of embracing the relationship on your terms, with your own limits, that you have every right to own. She is your mother;  you are her daughter. But you get to define what that means to you.

Hi, thanks for taking my question and I think you hit the nail on the head. I did want to clarify - it's a real sleep disorder. Trying not to provide identifying details. He doesn't drink often but I have to believe he knows that drinking makes it worse? So this - "more realistically that he chooses to drink when there is objective evidence that it makes his sleep disorder worse and hurts the people he loves." - is super accurate. I feel like pointing this out to him, though, will make him feel badly over something (the sleep disorder) that he can't control...and he is otherwise so wonderful, I guess I wonder if I should just count my blessings in every other way and recognize that no one is perfect.

Thanks for writing back in.

I do think that sentence you highlighted is still significant here. Yes, no one is perfect. But the toll that his drinking takes on others is not insignificant, whether it's a drinking problem per se, or not. How much is he willing to care about that?

I really love your new FB and IG posts on Detox Your Thoughts themes. They are short and easy to digest and good food for thought each day. Thanks for taking the time to do them, it means a lot to those of us looking for the little ways to stay grounded and be intentional.

Thank you-- it's kind of you to write in. The response has been really positive, which has been wonderful, so I will definitely keep at it!

Or one of those LifeLine pendants or bracelets.


My goodness, the ridicule those things got with the commercials from the 1980s! And yet they probably do so much good!

This was before 9/11 ... . I had a friend who up at about 5am to be able to spend an hour or so with me on a layover at Heathrow. Love that you went to NYC anyway and hope to hear about the Very Special Purpose soon.

Friends like that are the best, no?

And thanks for the good wishes-- hoping the Very Special Purpose (shall I apply for a trademark?) can get revealed soon, in its un-thwarted state!

I'm kind of a "because you're a pain to travel with, that's why" kind of person, but I acknowledge that that's not for everyone. Can you suggest any way of gently conveying that to the jealous family and then dealing with the inevitable fallout?


Ideally, this is a conversation that could pay off. I do worry, though, that sometimes the type of characteristics that OP described go hand in hand with an inability be self-aware and vulnerable enough to see the damage that one's behavior is causing.

Can you try the acupressure treatment? Find the spot on the center of the inside of your wrist that is two finger-widths below the crease. Press for a minute, then do the other wrist.

Thank you! I did indeed, and it did help a bit.

(That pressure point is an old friend. I was rocking those acupressure bracelets throughout three pregnancies!)

I'd actually be interested in talking with you in greater depth about Woebot (PhD in Digital Media related field here, but it's probably too in-depth for the chat), but just briefly, the interaction is actually quite sophisticated for AI, and fairly in-depth, but after a while of use it gets repetitive. I actually used it as a thought experiment - I suffer from depression and anxiety, and I'm interested in AI, and also do CBT when I have time, so I wanted to explore the technology. I found it fairly helpful at first, but then found myself becoming irritated with it. It was an interesting experiment, but none of the people I foisted it on (I was trying to get a sense of whether it was just me) kept up with it. Maybe as a short-term bridge for when you can't talk to your therapist, rather than a long term solution, though.

Thanks for this take. I imagine it is shared by a significant amount of people. I certainly am interested to see how the technology grows and adapts over the coming years.

My therapist who I love very dearly is under the state licensing issues. I am not in a state that she can virtually practice in. You are very right. Thank you for the reassurance it was just what I needed to start.

You are welcome.

It really is a shame that the various state licensing boards can't get together and get this sorted out and standardized. I have seen too many people end up stopping therapy prematurely because of these issues, when some video sessions would have been so, so helpful to see them through the transition.

So in our case this wouldn't really matter because we're both in other countries when this is going on (Central America, UK, EU). It's really hard to keep track of local regulations where we are at the time, but I see your point! I suppose medicine will have to come up with a compromise for the digital age, eventually.


Other-country issues are even more problematic! Or maybe it means you don't worry about them at all.

Sort of like when I took a U-Haul on the Garden State Parkway. I realized that I wasn't supposed to be there in the first place.... so should I even have to pay the tolls?

(Kidding. Sort of.)

Lots of people can’t drink or don’t drink because of physical issues that make drinking unwise. It’s not a judgment about an alcohol problem— it’s a health problem that precludes alcohol use. You are not judging him personally by bringing this up.

Helpful perspective. Thanks.

Too Old, You are not too old. It is your depression telling you that you feel old. It was only a few months ago that I felt just like you. I think most of all I hated the feeling that I was just counting down till death. Then my doctor changed my medication at my request, because, like you, I recognized that I was not feeling right. Things are so much better now. And I no longer feel old.

How glad I am that you wrote in. And even more glad that you are doing better. Thank you so much.

Are you out there, OP?

Especially the ones with the "Fall Detection" function. If the wearer falls and can't manage to press the button, the service is activated automatically.

Oh, wow!

That's really good.

Yes - this is the problem. Someone who was self aware would a. have let it drop b. have a chat about it (where I would say, love ya, won't travel with ya.


It's the double-whammy of so many dysfunctional personality characteristics-- the dysfunction itself prevents them from being talked about in a reasonable, healthy manner.

Good (rainy) afternoon! I know how much I enjoy reader updates, so here's mine: I'm the OP from Boundaries vs. Selfishness, and hopefully I can answer some questions and provide follow up. First, Vacation Person (I'm going to call them V) is Older Relative's (OR) child, not some distant cousin or something. V later nixed another weekend OR requested as a possible celebration weekend because of a work party. V apparently "deserves to celebrate" a "perfect year" at work. So, um, maybe that helps clarify for you and readers where V's head is at here: A vacation they "really need" and a work party they "really deserve" over a parent's request for a (quite possibly last) family Christmas. Obviously you can never know how another person's childhood was, but V does not appear to want estrangement; just family time at their convenience. And maybe this is early grief on V's part, except that the "family time only at my convenience" bit is something that's been around since I've known V. The question of actual holiday timing is now moot because of OR's evolving treatment plan. One reader wisely asked why it mattered how I categorized these things. To me, I guess it matters because if V is drawing reasonable boundaries, that makes it easier to accept the hurt they're causing, than if V is just kind of a selfish jerk. That's a lot to reckon with...that your relative isn't the good, caring person you want to think of them as, along with the grief and anger and sadness and everything at OR's cancer. Does that kind of make sense? In a way, there's now two losses: the relative with cancer and the loss of the idea I had of who V is. So that's what I'm trying to grapple with now. Anyway, thank you for hosting this chat and for your advice and reader advice!

Thank you for this update. It is indeed a lot to reckon with, and it does make sense.

I think, ultimately, dealing with the disappointment of someone not living up to your expectations is a process that takes time. And within that time, you may also realize that your perspective shifts, that there is more to the story, that V offers other positive things that go above and beyond.... or it could also be that you will decide that V truly is someone who falls short of what you would have hoped, and you can then adjust your behavior accordingly.

In either case, it can be empowering in time. I hope that can happen for you sooner rather than later!

And I am very sorry for the other impending loss, too.

It's that time again, unfortunately. Thanks so much for being here today and tolerating my rather unusual setting. I've got to say-- the wifi was pretty great overall, so thank you, Amtrak! Even if I feel like I need an oil tanker's worth of Dramamine.

I'll look forward to seeing you next week, same time. In the meantime, I'm on Facebook and Instagram with daily mental health tips. Be well!

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 two books in addition to the upcoming "Detox Your Thoughts: Quit Negative Self-Talk for Good and Discover The Life You've Always Wanted."
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