Baggage Check Mental Health Advice

Jan 21, 2020

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.)

Hi, all! How are you doing this week?

I'm a little behind with this Intro so I'll make this quick before we get right to it-- but I wanted you to know that next week we are having Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D., on as our guest for the second half of the hour. I can't convey to you how I excited I am for this-- he is the co-founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the branch of psychotherapy whose techniques I discuss a lot on here. So I trust you will fill up the queue with questions to him about unwanted thoughts, rumination, anxiety, negative self-talk and breaking out of behavioral patterns. His latest book is "A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters."

Okay, onward. What's on your mind today?

My young adult child and I started therapy together. My suggestion, s/he readily agreed. I was feeling optimistic after our 2nd session, then in the 3rd things unravelled/got stormy on Child's part. The therapist is good at reflecting our feelings, but I wish she'd take an active role. By 3 sessions, shouldn't I/we be feeling the healing, at least somewhat?

Well, there are a lot of variables here. What made Child stormy? And how did the therapist handle it when it happened?

Sometimes, something coming up that causes conflict in the therapy room means that you are getting somewhere, finally addressing the issues that need to be addressed, finally highlighting the different lenses that people are looking at and being able to get them out and the open and start to find a common ground.

Other times, the storms are indicative of something off in the therapy room where someone is not on board or not feeling heard or not feeling like they are safe or valued in the room.

It'd be impossible for me to say here exactly what's going on, and I certainly am not a One-Woman referendum on someone else's therapy experience. In general I would say that by Session 3 you should be able to feel like you are clear on the rationale and the path that you are supposed to be on-- even if the changes that you're looking for haven't been able to be put into practice yet.

Naturally, I'm wondering if you've brought this up directly with the therapist?

My husband retired 5 years after I did. He now wants to be together 24 x 7 it seems. He hovers when I have my morning coffee making up excuses to talk, when all I want to do is read the papers (he has been up already hours). He pouts if he has to go to bed alone if I want/need to stay up later. He even set up an office for his consulting business literally next door to my art studio, where we now share a bathroom and kitchen. I used to have issues with him being and IT workaholic and never seeing him, even when he was in the house. It wasn't so good when I hardly ever saw him, and I'm discovering it isn't so good for me when we are together constantly. I'm asking for help on how to explain that I need "alone" time without seeming rejecting, unkind, or actually hypocritical. He has low self esteem and sees rejection around every corner, and not just from me. Otherwise I might need to start taking long trips to Walmart, which he hates, to wander the aisles just to have time to enjoy solitary thoughts - only partly kidding.

It is so good that you are facing this, sooner rather than later. Trust me, I hear of this type of friction quite frequently, with any kind of major transition-- from working from home to unemployment to going part-time to retirement.

In your case, it's gone from famine to feast-- the fact that he wasn't around enough before, and now he's right in your grill too much-- well, that makes the adjustment even tougher, I'm thinking.

So, make it about that-- the adjustment. It doesn't have to be about him per se. (I know he may see it that way because he is prone toward rejection sensitivity, but keep your eye on the big picture here-- no matter who he was, this adjustment would feel off, and the imbalance is too extreme.)

"Honey, I need to have a conversation with you about something that I worry you are going to take personally. And I have hesitated to bring it up because I don't want to hurt you and I really don't want you to take it as anything negative about you. But I'm having a tough time with the adjustment to not being alone as much as I used to be. I used to get swaths of alone time-- too much, in fact, I missed you-- but I guess I got somewhat used to it because now I feel like I don't get enough time with my own thoughts. I love having you home more but I'm having trouble finding a balance between wanting to interact with you versus making sure I get some space. Can we try to figure this out together?"

No, just happened today. Script?

Sure!

"I'm feeling a little discouraged about what happened with XYZ. As you know, I want to be totally invested in this process, but am wondering if we got off track somewhat? What do you make of what happened-- and do you think we are still on a good path here? Is there anything I should be keeping in mind for my interactions with Child outside of the therapy session?"

Yes, this may be a better question for Ask a Manager, but am curious about your take. I’m in my 40s and a couple of years ago received ADHD diagnosis. Suddely so much about my life made sense. I am trying meds, but they don’t seem to help much, and cannot afford frequent therapy, so am struggling at work with my inability to start & complete tasks/projects. I don’t know how to deal with this or how to try to address it.

I'm wondering if the person who prescribed the meds had any additional resources to offer you?

I know there are a ton out there. In fact, there is often a middle ground between self-help and therapy when it comes to ADHD, in the form of a coach. You need someone who can get some tangible, objective structure into your day, and help you reorganize your environment in order to maximize your productivity and motivation. And the more you build momentum, the more it will snowball (as opposed to moving in the wrong direction via inertia.) 

Does anyone have any online resources for OP, specific to trying to create a work environment that mitigates the effects of ADHD?

For tackling more general in-the-moment procrastination, I am a big fan of the 5-minute rule.

Dr. Bonior, I just wanted to say thank you for your article from December 24 about things to discuss before you get engaged. My partner and I have been talking about getting engaged and decided to use your article to guide some conversations. It's all stuff we've discussed previously, too, so none of it is a surprise, but it's nice to have it in a structured conversation. Plus it became a jumping off point. Neither of us is remotely religious in a lot of senses, but it did lead to a discussion about the role of religion in our lives and how we see that changing in the future. So, just a massive thank you!

Oh, it just makes me so glad to hear this. I did get some pushback like "What a buzzkill!" from people who I assume thought I was suggesting using those questions as some sort of interrogation technique to be used on Date 14. But certainly, when people are about to get engaged, the "buzzkill" conversations are often the most worth it. I'm so glad you and your partner were wise and brave enough to do it. Thanks for writing in!

Hi Doc -- What is a reasonable expectation of when young adult kids will become more open to meeting my new wife and how hard should I push it? I have always been a loving engaged father and their mother and I hid our marriage problems from our kids for years. So it was a shock to them when I asked for a divorce and my infidelity was revealed. My ex was understandably terribly hurt and she definitely unloaded that onto our kids which she now regrets. And I do fully respect her desire never to meet my affair partner whom I married. Meanwhile, two years after leaving the marriage and six months into my new marriage, the kids (all in early to mid- 20s) refuse to acknowledge my wife's existence. I'm working hard to repair my relationship with my children and I continue to provide -- college, insurance, cars, etc. plus huge spousal support as my ex didn't work outside the home -- but they are extremely distant to me. I text them and call them and show up for parents' weekends. I mention my wife in sharing about my life but I'm not trying to "pitch" her to them nor do I berate them for their choice to avoid her. My wife is not pushing to meet my kids at all, but there is a graduation coming up in the spring from which she has been banned by my graduating son (and my ex) and considering I paid for every expense associated with that journey, I am upset. I know that is not the time for a first meeting, I'd like to make some progress toward a meeting this year. Thanks for any advice. -Discouraged Dad

I'll be honest here-- I have worked with more than one person in your children's shoes, and I have seen it take several years for them to come around to acknowledging a parent's new spouse when things didn't start off on the right foot.

And let's face it.... the foot in your case has a lot of things going against it. Some fair, some not-so-fair, but I'd urge you to see your kids' perspective here.

To them, your new wife is something of an assault toward their mother. Again, I am not saying that that mindset is objectively accurate or just, but it's what they see. The paradox of keeping your marriage problems hidden-- while an understandable impulse and one that is probably a kindness and help for the kids overall-- is that they don't get any time to process that fact that their parents were not a good match. They weren't able to do any pre-mourning of their parents' marriage, for instance. The shock of it is sudden and packs a different kind of punch than the kind of divorce that comes after years of squabbling and the kids coming to their own conclusion that their parents would be better off apart.

Add to that the fact that you got married to your affair partner only one year and a half after leaving your marriage. Again, I am not pointing figures here except in the context of how it may be feeling to your kids.

You mention a lot of financial stuff in terms of how you are trying to make things right. But this isn't about tuition or car insurance (much as those may indeed be the right things to do to support your kids.) Instead, though, even more important is their ability to feel heard and understood.

So, I say, drop the goal. Your wife is okay with not having the big meet and greet anytime soon, so remove it from the table. Ironically, this will improve your own individual relationship with your kids which in turn will open the door to them actually wanting to meet her down the road-- even if it's in a couple of years. But by making her part of the package right now, you are asking them to swallow something they are not ready for-- so they're going to be more likely to decline the meal entirely.

Just show up and celebrate them-- their interests, their lives, their perspectives, their accomplishments. Have conversations about them. Show interest and curiosity and pride. I feel like that's the best path here for all involved (and ironically, it protects your wife as well.)

Have any chatters been through this?

When my father retired, my mother made it quite clear that they were married for better or worse but not for lunch. My dad had to find things to do. My mom's daily activities were not going away because he was around. He volunteered, took himself out to his favorite places for lunch, played golf, went swimming. Worked out great.

I love this!

"For better or for worse-- but not for lunch."

I smell an opportunity for some embroidered throw pillows!

(And this reminds me-- I do wonder if part of what's going on with OP's husband is that retirement is hitting him harder than he realized, and that coupled with the self-esteem issues make me wonder if he is somewhat depressed. Food for thought.)

It sounds like he's an extrovert who's also very insecure so he needs the constant validation of other people. Constant. Hence the workaholism (IT guys interact with people pretty constantly), and at home he was probably on line with other people. Try to get him to a therapist for the low self-esteem, then, if necesssary, couples counseling. I feel for you!

Great potential insight here. Thank you!

Is it common for a parent and adult child to be in therapy together? Seems like that would be a place where each should be able to talk freely about the other.

It's not uncommon as a form of family therapy, especially when there are constant ongoing parent-child conflicts. But you are right in that it shouldn't necessarily preclude individual therapy for each if that is what is needed. Those different spaces have different purposes altogether. But especially in modern times, a lot of adult children are very much still pretty enmeshed with their parents. So I dare say I see this more and more.

My immediate family is expecting the first grandchild and everyone I have mentioned it to expects me to be excited. Like I am happy for them in theory, gave a nice baby gift at Christmas, but why would I be "excited?" I have never been a baby person, honestly, and it also really got me down when my friends started having kids for awhile. I am fine with it at this point and a happy surrogate aunt/godparent and such, but I still miss the friendships of youth sometimes. And I just think of all the normal family life of 4 decades changing and it bums me out a little right now. Is that so bad? It's not like I am unloading this on my family but I don't understand why I'm supposed to be "excited." Is there something wrong with me?

Nothing wrong with you at all.

You may end up loving being an aunt/godparent/great aunt (not positive of the family tree here) in ways you never dreamed of. Or you may not.

It's all okay.

If you don't have a particular affinity for kids, it makes sense that you aren't necessarily excited. Part of the demand to even be that way comes from conversational expectations: babies get a lot of attention, and asking your thoughts on it is somewhat akin to "How's married life?" (At some point, people just need something to say.)

So, I would encourage you to develop a pat answer in those situations that neither lengthens that particular conversation nor is considered a fly in the ointment to the extent of "No, not really excited, thanks." How about something like "The first grandchild-- it's really something!"

And your feelings of how things change when a critical mass of loved ones have children-- well, that's more than understandable as well. We've talked in this space about it before. You're a human being and I think you can allow yourself a little compassion on this!

Especially if the wife also had no idea that she and her husband "were not a good match."

Yes, this is an excellent point. OP made it sound like they were both hiding their problems, but of course that could be in the eye of the beholder. Thanks.

Yes - talk to him, and make plans with him. 'Honey, I'm going to read the paper, enjoy my coffee and get the day going in the art studio but I look forward to us having lunch together.' My husband is an introvert and when we were dating we didn't see a lot of each other, but we always had something planned on the books for me to look forward to so it felt fine. We now always watch a show together over dinner. I'd prefer to chat, as I've always done, but this is good snuggling time and after the show if finished we chat for a while. You'll find your rhythm - and you have to be clear as Andrea said.

I really like this-- being proactive about planning specifics of what times of day will be "me" time versus "us" time. That is less likely to result in his feeling rejected, too.

Thanks!

My first question is: how, if at all, were your kids involved in your marriage to your current wife? Speaking from experience, being completely excluded from a parent's decision to remarry has had an irreversible, negative impact on my relationship with my dad

Good point. If it was undertaken in such a way that it felt like they were just spectators and the impact of it was never really discussed, I could imagine that that just adds to the sense of resentment and/or alienation... the idea of their not being heard or their perspectives being unimportant.

Thanks.

Hey all. I was diagnosed nearly a year ago with breast cancer. Been also battling depression and I have to admit I feel like giving up. Tired of feeling sick all of the time, tired of being the "cancer girl", etc. Been through chemo, surgery, radiation, back on chemo again and just worn out. When you are initially diagnosed you are surrounded by folks wanting to help but after a year they are tired of hearing about it (guess I can't blame them). Not sure what I am looking for, maybe just need to vent. Also have the flu which isn't helping.

I am so sorry. My heart goes out to you, truly.

What kind of supports do you have? I feel like it could be so helpful for you to truly connect with people who really, really get it. Who have been in your shoes. Who aren't "tired of hearing about it" because they're living it too-- and want to talk about it as well.

And as for the depression, of course I want you to be able to get support there as well. Have you talked to your doctor about it? Have you considered therapy or medication?

You are not alone. I know that there a lot of people reading this who will be cheering you on from afar.

You hold the purse strings so your kids “can’t” refuse to see you. Instead they blame the person you cheated with. My parents had a rocky time. My dad was a glass bowl but my mom cheated and my sister refused to talk to her at all for YEARS. You probably raised your kids to think cheating and lying were wrong. Then you lied to them about loving/good relationship with their mom, and cheated. I know you and your ex may have been virtually separated but not in the kids’ eyes. To them, you just cheated and left. You shouldn’t tell them everything but you should consider therapy with them or bring open to apologizing. You seem like you want them to accept your affair partner but not like you want to own that you completely disrupted their lives repeatedly. I am on civil terms with my mother’s husband but I barely know him and my view of my mother’s and his character will ALWAYS be stained by her immaturity. She could have gotten a divorce before she started a new relationship. She could have apologized. She never did. Sadly, I think much less of her now.

This is a candid and frank take from someone on the other side-- and I think it's so, so helpful, even if it's not what OP wants to hear. I am sorry that things worked out the way they did in your own family.

But I so much appreciate your writing in.

I think the key is in your post’s title - give up the expectations, don’t hold the payment of expenses over them, and just keep showing up, without your wife. Who knows if you successfully hid your problems or not, but all they can see now is that you’ve moved on and your ex-wife - fairly or not - was initially blindsided, and belatedly shared too much with them, which makes it all the harder for them. Eventually, they may see that there are two (or more) sides to every relationship, but they’ll never see it if you push them in any way.

Yes. Excellent point.

Keep showing up-- that really is the crux of this, no?

Im a 24 y/o lawyer and I am sure that I dont want to keep working at my parents law office (which has amazing benefits like leaving for 3 week holidays ) and I want to work at an NGO or abroad. How do I get the courage and discipline to find a new job?

Well, as for the courage part, first you have to get specific about what the fears are. I can imagine quite a few-- charting your own course in a totally new environment, disappointing your parents, having the awkward conversation of even telling them in the first place, wondering what the "real world" is like outside of your parents' firm. But, the more specifically you can break down these fears, the more easily you can overcome them-- because you can come up with a specific plan for them, accordingly.

As for the discipline, that works with specifics too. "Get a job abroad" is one of those amorphous blobs that really doesn't give you any sense of direction about how to make it come to fruition. Get as concrete and manageable as possible. "Open up my resume file and rename it." "Contact X who works at Y and see if she'll meet me for lunch." "Make a list of four positions from Y website that are hiring."

It's cliche, but it's true-- things have to be broken down into tiny, tangible steps in order for you to make a move. But I will also say, doing it at 24 is worlds and worlds easier than doing it at 54, and the years get faster and faster-- so try to bring yourself to start sooner than later!

I thought they were really useful even though I am already married and we have covered a lot of this. If you haven’t already discussed these things - you should. And if you don’t feel you can safely discuss them, maybe this partner isn’t really the right one after all

Great point.

I'm so glad to hear that they resonated!

The problem with coaches is they are expensive (I live in the DC area!) and not covered by insurance. I have read oodles of suggestions, and have tried a number of them, but nothing has stuck.

I am sorry to hear this.

So, my next step for you would be to become a scientist and observer about why they haven't stuck. There could be all kinds of reasons-- from avoidance out of fear, to depleted physical energy, to learned helplessness, to poor habits, to friends or family or coworkers who are enabling dysfunctional patterns.

Take one of the suggestions from the oodles, and try it for a day or two. When it fails, observe yourself. What were you saying to yourself? What behaviors got in the way of it? What emotions made it hard for you to follow through? Self-sabotage comes in a variety of flavors, but the better you can identify your own, the better you can overcome it.

You’ve also revealed yourself to be untrustworthy about a very emotionally big ticket item. I have a good friend who ended up questioning everything she ever thought she knew about her father in a similar situation, because not only did he lie to the family for more than a year, it revealed a selfishness she never was able to forgive. They no longer talk. Consider yourself lucky your kids are speaking to you.

Again, probably not easy for OP to hear, but I think it's an understandable take that deserves some airtime. Thanks.

Dear Dr. Bonior, I am in a mental funk, or not what I consider to be my normal sparkling personality after several years working for a micro-manager second guessing all of my work. On top of it, I have been busy as a care-giver for parents and just euthanized a beloved pet last week. I have an interview scheduled later this week with the CEO of an organization I would love to work for in a leadership role. I used to give a wonderful interview, but I have been feeling crushed in my current work environment for years that I feel like I don't have my razzle-dazzle any longer. I am worried about turning on the best of me to give an outstanding interview this week to "stick the landing" on this job. What mental exercises do you recommend to get ready? What about other readers? Thank you in advance!

First, I am so sorry to hear about your stress, and the loss of your beloved pet. And admittedly, this was a left-over question that I never got a chance to answer but put aside-- so I am sorry if right off the bat, this advice is too late for your interview itself.

I would say, first thing, that we need to reframe the loss of this "razzle-dazzle." Could it be that you have not truly lost your ability to be sparkling in an interview, but instead you have lost your ability to recognize your own potential to have that spark? I have worked with many, many people who have been beaten down by toxic jobs, toxic bosses, toxic overwork-- and it's a classic pattern that they start to doubt themselves, that they feel like their past (or present) dysfunctional work situation has fundamentally changed something in them. But this is a skewed lens. Your potential-- that razzle-dazzle (of course now I have the musical "Chicago" entering my head) has not gone anywhere. It's just been buried and unused, which is a shame-- but not a permanent condition.

Think about the ways that you want this job; its attributes that will be better than your current situation; the ways in which your potential can be used (and can flourish!) within this new environment; what it would be like to be in a leadership role....talk about those things, to friends and family. Don't make it just "Help me rehearse for this interview" but rather for you to be able to get into a new mindset about it. For you to help yourself find that mojo.

For the mental exercises in the moment at the interview itself, I would create a visual-- one that resonates with you and represents the new, exciting beginning and your moving toward it. A new sunrise? Getting into a driver's seat on a picturesque new path? Hokey as it sounds, what's important is that you have it in mind to recenter your focus and also calm your body. Many people find mantras helpful in these situations, too. "I am moving forward into new opportunities." "I bring a lot of experience they will want." "My skills match well with this organization." "I will learn a lot from this interview."

Chatters, any additional words of wisdom?

I just note that children, even as adults, often fail to recognize that their parents had and have lives apart from their relationships with their kids. The fact that a marriage failed and mom or dad found someone new is in that category. A cliche I've heard often is that you're not really a grown-up until you see your parents not as Mom and Dad, but just as people. You can still choose to like them or not, but you have to accept that whatever they did wasn't always about you.

Oh, for sure. It's a great point.

But just because it wasn't about you doesn't mean it doesn't impact you. I do think the street goes both ways here.... OP has to understand that his actions had consequences, and affected his kids in ways that are purely their own, too.

Oh, how I wish a friend had read something like that list before she got married. I get the feeling she wasn't completely open about how seriously she struggles with mental illness, and he won't acknowledge that he's essentially a caregiver. Be honest with who you're marrying! If you're holding something back because you're worried they won't accept you, then for the love of everything holy, don't marry that person until you've talked things through!

That last line should be shouted from the rooftops!
Much appreciated.

My take: The same way that parents don't have a right to have an opinion on their adult children's sex lives, I do not think that children have a right to have an opinion on their parents' sex lives. They will never know if if one parent was particularly frigid, or selfish in bed, or withholding, or emotionally lacked intimacy, and because they can't possibly know that, I personally have very little sympathy for kids who are so quick to judge their parent's marriage from the outside. Also, they will probably find that as they grow up that life is rather more complicated than they imagined and those black and white good and bad sides that they have taken get very gray.

Yes, but at some point this isn't about their Dad's sex life at all, is it?

It's about his having a new partner. One that he someday hopes will be at their graduations and weddings, etc. We can't pretend that his life with his wife exists in a vacuum apart from his kids-- especially given that they love their Mom and see that it ostensibly caused her pain as well.

An anecdote to share with the OP: in the mid-1980s a former boss of mine completed an undergrad degree in accountancy and promptly became a CPA at his dad's firm. After 6 months he left and took a 6-month temporary position at the local university. He will soon retire as the Senior Associate Dean for Administration. Puh-lease follow your instincts!!

Wonderful!

(OP, you have no idea what's waiting for you in this big ol' world!)

Also, have you apologized to them - without blaming their mother in any way, or trying to excuse yourself? Just a flat-out acknowledgment that you know their lives have been disrupted by your actions, and that you hope that, in time, they will find their way to forgiveness? I’m not sure if it will help, and maybe you just need to acknowledge it to yourself and sit with it for a while - they’ve been thrown a real curveball, especially if they had no clue of the problems, and even if they did - it is going to take a while, but no pressure and a straight-up acknowledgement - again, even if only to yourself - that you engaged in behavior that hurt their mother and upended all of your lives would seem to me necessary first steps. Bottom line, actions do have consequences, you have to accept the good with the bad -

Another good point. Thank you.

I am a middle aged woman and for my entire life I have constantly replayed my negative memories and experiences. Even now I can recall incidences in high school and college that will upset me, make me blush and generally feel like an idiot. I also have a hard time letting go of everyday slights. Often this is because I analyze what I said and did and then feel bad because I didn't handle the situations better. I have worked on my self-talk to try to quickly get past these negative memories. Unfortunately I am still having this problem. Is there anything I can do to let this all go? It often affects my sleep and makes me irritable with my family. Thank you.

I do think that the ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) techniques are tailor-made for you. What they involve, at their heart, is being able to de-fuse (separate) from your thoughts to the point where you can be a curious, nonjudgmental observer as you view them, but you no longer empower them by letting them stick. Because this has been such a longstanding problem for you, I would highly consider searching out an ACT therapist for help. I would also be remiss if I didn't tell you to search out Dr. Hayes's books on the topic-- and of course, Detox Your Thoughts which will be out from me in May. Good luck!

I love what Andrea said - especially about possible getting to the nub of things! Talk to Therapist about 'The therapist is good at reflecting our feelings, but I wish she'd take an active role'. It sounds like you're looking for therapy that will ask questions more and / or help guide your ideas. That might not be this Therapist's approach, but talking to them will help give you some more clarity.

Yes yes yes! Thank you.

Well, it's that time again, unfortunately.

I look forward to next week already-- please join us as we welcome Dr. Hayes in the second half.

In the meantime, stay connected via Facebook, Instagram, and my website.

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 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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