Carolyn Hax Live: Advice columnist tackles your problems (Friday, December 14)

Dec 14, 2012

In her daily column in The Washington Post Style section, Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there. Hax is an ex-repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

Carolyn was online Friday, December 14, at Noon ET, taking your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

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Got more to say? Check out Carolyn's discussion group, Hax-Philes. Comments submitted to the chat may be used in the discussion group.

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Hi everybody. The week after the Hoot always feels a bit like coming into the living room the morning after a wild party. My shoes are crunching on broken ornaments. 

Perhaps fittingly, I have to quit today at the appointed time (2 p.m.; you can be forgiven for not ever knowing what the end point is supposed to be, since I don't think I've ever once ended on it).

Finally, for the person who has everything, consider a signed Nick Galifianakis cartoon (link). They're 25 percent off and time is running out. 

I am a nurse practitioner in a children's hospital. Last week we were doing rounds and a 6 year old girl who has been dealt many of life's toughest cards wanted to tell us about the Grinch movie. We were feeling a little rushed but sat at the end of the bed as she described the dog with the reindeer antlers and the songs the Who sang. The Doc I was with spoke to her in the gentlest voice about the Grinch's heart growing too big for his chest. He asked her why she thought that had happened. She replied, looking as innocent as Cindy Lou Who, "it's not about the presents or the toys, Christmas is about love". Needless to say, not a dry eye in the room. This simple statement has become my mantra when the emotional "stuff" of this season makes me act in ways I am not proud of. Maybe it will work for some others out there as well. All the best to you and yours!

Cheez, poor kid. I don't know how you do it. Thanks for posting.

For those whose bitterness only deepens at the idea of love, maybe out of a sense of abandonment by people close to them, there's also this: Christmas (and the late December celebrations by other cultures that predated Christmas) is about light at the darkest time of the year. So, I see it as an understanding that we have to create our own light and joy for a while, until time and nature take over. 



For today's letter: What is the expression, missing the forest for the trees? She doesn't want a spoiled brat yet seems perfectly content to cast off all her former classmates because they had parents who dared to pay their tuition for them. Suffering isn't always something people display for everyone to see, yet everyone is human and struggles in life. I am sure that some of these classmates with the tuition "falling from the sky" were dealing with a host of personal issues she had no clue about. If she wants raise a decent human being she needs to gain the understanding that human suffering does not only come in a single shape and form.

Well said, thanks.

Hi Carolyn! Your Thursday column really got me thinking. The letter writer could have been me at 17. The problem is that she could still be me now, 6 years later. I know all the reasons I've never dated; there's logistics (I went to a college that had a very small male population), my self-esteem (very low when it comes to guys), and I don't know what you would call "The First Guy to Show Interest in Me Was A Home Visit Away From Being A Stalker & All My Friends Found This Hilarious Rather Than Help Me", but I'm guessing it didn't do me any good. The problem is that I don't know where to go from here. I've always been the smart girl, so having no idea what to do in a relationship terrifies me. I'm scared that I'll mess up, or that any guy will drop me the second he finds out I've never even kissed someone. On the other hand, being single is the only thing I know and I'm afraid I'd feel smothered in a relationship, or that now I'll be meeting people at the age they really want to settle down. Like I said, I just don't know what to do next, but I know my current way of thinking and anxiety over this is not good. Do you think I should be looking into counseling, or is this something I need to work through on my own?

Working backward here  ...

"Should" isn't the issue with counseling, and "need" isn't the issue with toughing it out on your own. Go to counseling if you want to or have reason to believe it might help. (It might--a place to air your anxieties is useful in itself.) Or, work through it on your own because you want to, or, more important, because the way you're tackling it is starting to show results. There's no supervisory authority here to tell you there's a right or wrong way to go. 

As for the possibility you feel smothered in a relationship, there's a fix for that: request a little space. If you don't get it, then break up.

Backing up to the concern prior to that, "I'm scared that I'll mess up, or that any guy will drop me the second he finds out I've never even kissed someone," there's a fix for that, too. If you mess up, then you get corrected or dumped, then feel lousy for a little while, then get up and try again with someone new. There are billions of men out there; you don't have to get everything right with the first one who catches your eye. Actually, you don't have to get everything right with one you choose as a life partner, should it come to that, and probably won't even get close to perfection. Not only is that not possible, it's also very off-putting to others, to be right all the time. Frailties are what make us vulnerable, interesting, human--and handling frailties with grace is what makes a person lovable.



After all this, I'm going to suggest for you almost exactly what I suggested for the 17-year-old: Make whatever effort you reasonably can to get to know men as friends. Often the best way is to become part of something that puts you in the company of others on a regular basis and involves a concrete goal or activity besides hitting on each other. If that sounds a lot like an office, then you understand why so many people meet their romantic partners through work. There are also the usual suspects of volunteer gigs, rec sports, places where you're a regular (coffee shop, say), church, school ...

Most important, go into these venues with an understanding that you will mess it up, early and often, and that's okay because that's what everyone does. Good luck and have fun.

For today's column: I grew up like the LW's kids would be, as the child of parents who were the first in their impoverished families to go to college and make it into the middle class. My parents showered me with the academic advantages they never had, but it never felt like they were giving the world to me on a platter-- they always made it clear that I had to work really hard at my academics for them to keep funding it. As a result, I always worked incredibly hard, because I knew their story and saw the poverty of my relatives, and did not want to be back there.

Helpful in a different way, thanks.

Dear Carolyn, My colleague, who is also a close friend, is so deeply unhappy that a co-worker likened her to a virus that has infested the work force. She is permanently angry and vents constantly about being over worked and unappreciated. I've tried to be a supportive listener. She is NOT my supervisor but, following, our boss's recent resignation, she has come to believe that she alone is responsible for our department. Yesterday she reamed me out for a half hour for not supporting her and undermining her position. I was speechless. My husband says that she is North Korea: suspicious, insular, and paranoid. She insists that no one, including the people who run the company, are supposed to contact me directly about tasks, but rather go through her. Interactions that don't flow through her are seen as undermining her position. I am so angry at her office road rage that I can't even look at her. I certainly cannot accommodate her crazy demands. As I withdraw from her both personally and professionally, she will see that as disloyalty and come after me again. Short of taking my concerns to HR or company leadership, which would likely take her one step closer to termination, is there anything I can do to stop her from launching her rockets in my direction? I wish she would look for another job already. Thanks, Liz

"Short of taking my concerns to HR or company leadership, which would likely take her one step closer to termination ...":

Why are you ruling out the one thing you need to do? Your colleague may be your friend, but her primary role in this scenario is of employee; she is beholden to the people who run the company. 

As are you. That means you need to approach this not as a relationship problem but as a productivity problem. There is a problem in your department serious enough to impede the progress of that department, so you need to take it to the correct place in the chain of command.

I know this will sound like a heartless answer, but if I were your (and her) supervisor, I would be expect you to tell me so that the appropriate person in the chain had the chance to address the problem.

Be careful, of course, in what you say to HR/supervisor. Stick to the facts.


My mother is a heavy smoker. I have a baby on the way, and won't want her to smoke around my child. What complicates this, however, is that I got my mom started smoking! As a teen I smoked, and she caught me. Somehow I convinced her to try it herself. She had never smoked before; I am certain of this because I had to teach her to inhale. Now she is never without a pack of cigarettes. Since I got her started, how can I possibly ask her to restrict her smoking?

Wow, that's a new one. 

You can ask her not to smoke around the baby, because you have to. The research is too clear on the harm cigarette smoke does to a baby. Feel free to acknowledge your discomfort with asking her this knowing you got her to try cigarettes. 

Not for nothing, though, she was an adult who chose to succumb to your pressure to try it, who chose to buy and smoke every pack she has smoked since then, who continues to choose not to seek or submit to a smoking-cessation program. 

This doesn't erase your responsibility; I offer it merely to put your responsibility in perspective. That plus the compassion you feel for your mom will make the message reflect your true intent, which is to protect your child, no vilify Mom. That message would come through nicely if you said, "I feel responsible for your smoking; I can't have another person's lungs on my conscience."  

Hi Carolyn! My husband has a bad temper and his first reaction is often an overreaction. This was not a big deal when it was just the two of us, but has been more of an issue now we have a two-year-old son. Whenever our child does something naughty, my husband responds with a ridiculous, over-the-top punishment. For example, as we drove to buy a Christmas tree the other day, our son began spraying his juice box all over the backseat. My husband ranted and raved, pulled the car over, and announced that we could not have a Christmas tree this year because of his bad behavior. I didn't say anything at the time, not wanting to undermine him, but it was clearly a silly punishment that didn't even fit the infraction. I waited until we got home and my husband had calmed down somewhat to tell my son that he was responsible for cleaning up the mess he made, and maybe, if he did a good job, Daddy would reconsider the Christmas tree. My husband did relent, but this kind of incident happens with some regularity and I'm not sure how best to handle it. Parental unity is important, but I don't want to teach my son that his dad's outbursts are reasonable or acceptable. Is there a good compromise here that I'm missing?

Parenting class for both of you, stat--try a Parent Encouragement Program if there's one in your area (link), otherwise ask your pediatrician.

But that's not all ... I think you also need marriage counseling so you can figure out how to talk to each other in a way that walks your crucial line between unity and sanity. 

These are painting around the problem, which is your husband's temper, but they are also pathways to that central problem might be oblique enough to secure your husband's cooperation. Now, if you think he'd be willing to get some anger-management counseling after a direct appeal--a la, "Your anger seems really disproportionate to the situation, and I think it's time you talked to someone"--then by all means do that. It's just so common for the temper-afflicted also to be dismissive of counseling that I default to Plan B.

Going to a counselor doesn't mean you don't still have to work out your issues yourself. It just gives a place to talk out loud and a person to bounce stuff off of. They may have suggestions, or they may just ask more questions. You're still doing the work.

Right, of course, thanks.

I work in HR, so I have two pieces of advice: 1) Do not use the North Korea analogy when you approach HR. I can see why your husband said this, I can see why you put it here, but a lot of people would be offended by that. It just does not look articulate. It looks like you want to damage her image, not right your own. 2) Why wait for her to look for another job? Look for another job yourself!

Good points both, thanks.

Hi Carolyn, I pride myself on being a person that doesn't get emotional and can logically work through any problems that life throws at me. But I have no idea how to get through my current situation. My Dad is dealing with serious health issues that his doctors haven't been able to diagnose yet (but they have mentioned ALS as a possibility), my Mom (divorced from my Dad) is bipolar and suffering from major anxiety to the point she can't travel for the holidays and my Grandmother is currently recovering from cancer surgery. I have no idea how to help my family members deal with their health problems and I'm scared of how helpless I feel. Any recommendations for support groups or advice to help me get through things one day at a time? Thanks for your help

That does sound overwhelming, I'm sorry. Funny that you use "one day at a time," because what came to mind as I was reading your words was how much a staple of 12-step programs can offer you right now. Your happy Friday atheist proudly presents the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Applied to your situation: Please see that you can't diagnose or heal your father, you can't remove your grandmother's cancer, you can't render your mother capable of travel.

What you can do is show these people you love them in whatever way is available to you. You can call, email, etc., just to say hello and listen; you can offer to help, also in ways that are available to you (bringing by a meal, filling out insurance claims, making calkls for them, etc.); if any of them live out of town, you can check your calendar and your budget and see where you can go, when, and for how long, and what you can accomplish if you do visit any or all of these loved ones.


Perhaps the biggest thing you can do is for yourself, inside, by tackling this:

"I pride myself on being a person that doesn't get emotional and can logically work through any problems that life throws at me."

Taking pride in our strengths is part of what keeps or spirits up and engines running, but too rigid a self-definition can feel like a straitjacket. In fact, get too tied up in being The One Who Can Handle Anything, and your first wobble will suddenly become the next thing on your list of terrible things you have to deal with. 

Instead, build some humanity into that self-image: "I'm human, I get emotional, I get overwhelmed, but then I find my way back." 

Is that any less admirable, or strong, or productive a self-definition that the one you offered? I don't think so, but it does leave you room to wind up sucking your thumb in a corner occasionally without having to rethink your whole concept of who you are. You're just as tough and capable as you've always been, you've just taken a body blow unlike anything you've seen. Allow yourself to feel the feelings that come with it naturally. Then, when you're ready, let your logic team take over. 

All of Carolyn's suggestions are great. I would add, consider solo counseling yourself. You must have another emotional exploder in your life ; I know because I grew up with one too. That may be why you've never addressed this with your husband before now - it felt familiar and you had the "tools" to deal with it. But you don't really want to teach your son that placating and walking on eggshells is how you deal with difficult people, do you? "If you please the king, perhaps you can have Christmas after all...." It makes me cry to even read it.

I don't know if it's true, obviously, but it sounds like an excellent call to me. Thanks.

Another great reason to go to HR - I had a similar situation (or so I thought) in a job when I was just starting my career. I too didn't want to get my supervisor "closer to being fired" but did go to HR...where, to my great surprise, they told me much of the problem was actually the way *I* was handling things. I was just too young and too close to the problem to see that. (Luckily we were able to work through it, but sometimes that outside perspective really comes in handy.)

Good point, thx.

I find myself overwhelmed by the news from Newton, CT today. I can't focus. It's too much to fathom. Any advice?

I've just learned about it myself, through questions coming into the chat. How devastating. I don't think there is advice for this--for one, I try to adhere to the Gavin de Becker rule of not giving the culprits any attention. And for the victims and their loved ones, we can only grieve--and put our societal muscle into dealing with this problem. how? I don't know, I feel as helpless as anyone, though it does seem that no one thing is to blame, and also no topics should be taboo.

When Bob Costas started talking about gun control on a national NFL broadcast, I was shocked enough to stop what I was doing and walk over to the TV to listen. Agree or disagree with what he said, it shouldn't have been shocking that he said it; shock just says we've been trained to regard some topics as too hot to touch, and that in itself is one of the many parts of this problem. 


In light of today's shooting at the elementary school at CT, can you give all the parents some ideas of what to say to our ES-age kids when they get home? They may or may not hear about it, but I want to be ready and good lord, how can I tell them the truth?

When I have to tell my kids about these things, I always say that sometimes people do terrible things to each other. I also say we're all very fortunate that these things are still very rare, even if it doesn't seem that way from the number of times they appear in the news. If they ask for details, I might say that I'm not sure of the specifics myself, and that I am going to wait till the full story emerges so that I can learn what I need to know instead of just getting hit with images that will haunt me.  

I also let them ask questions, because I don't think talking at kids is ever the whole of what they need; they need to process the news and what we've said about it, and form their questions. Which I will try to answer honestly, though with stuff like this I can't get away from my inability to get my mind around it. 

Ever since 9/11 my reaction to this sort of news -- especially when it's something that's over and done -- is to push it away and not think about it so I don't get too wrapped up in it. Is that wrong? Does that make me a coward?

I don't think so, no. I could argue that consuming this news is wrong (since there's little to draw from it but wretched titillation), and that not consuming it is wrong (since informed people are going to be the ones who find a way to stop these things; since we owe it to the victims to bear witness). We do have reason to believe that saturation coverage is partly to blame for how common these mass killings have become, and we certainly know, from our own experiences, that such coverage contributes to our anxiety--and what good is having our fight-or-flight mechanism triggered for a situation that is over, that is hundreds of miles away, and is statistically unlikely to happen to us directly?

I think that until there's a coherent idea for how we as a civilization can stop this trend, one we can work to achieve, we are all left to manage it as we can.

there's really good stuff on how to talk to kids about things like this at I can vouch for it. (From Lauren at Defend Yourself)

Thanks. More coming.

Turn. Off. The. TV. Don't read minute-by-minute news coverage, check tweets or whatever else. Watch one broadcast about the event a few days from now, when the facts have come out, and leave it alone otherwise. You can't do anything about what happened and obsessively following the story won't change anything. I'm not referring to a larger political discussion, just going along with the media's notion that we all need to keep up to the moment on events that won't affect us directly and that we can't change. (I refuse to let Diane Sawyer tell me how "we all" feel one more time.)

Another vote for waiting till the full story is known, thanks.

Here's a tip sheet from Sesame Street on how to help kids deal with tragedy: Might be useful since the shooting happened at an elementary school.

Thanks. And:

Give/get a hug. Seriously. Nothing else will make you feel as good as t hat can right now.

And you're right, you know. 


I want to move onto other topics in the interest of not being party to saturation coverage, but I'm finding it difficult to focus. Please bear with me.

My ex remarried & they have a 5 year old; we don't live in the same town. My ex and I are parents to a 20-something-yr-old. I just learned that ex & new spouse have never told the 5 yr old that I exist; the child thinks the parents are the only set. Shouldn't a 5 yr old know something by now? I know it's not my child's place to have said anything, especially when specifically told not to do so, but why does this hurt my feelings so much?

I can see why it hurts; you've been erased.

But I don't think it's personal at all, it's just cowardly. It's hard to explain adult complexities to kids, so these parents decided to punt. It'll cost them more and more down the road, the longer and more actively they prop up this lie--their child will find out, obviously, and have that eureka moment, "They lied to me about this, so how can I believe them on anything?"

Again, not a personal issue for you, since this is their family to mess up run as they please. And i really don't think they're choice reflects anything about you as a person. 

As for what was your child's place to say, I think s/he would be better off now for having said then, "I'm not going to keep your secrets. I won't offer them, but also won't lie when asked." so much distress could be preempted by refusing to be involved in "Don't tell ..." deals. 

A coworker recently Google sleuthed his way into discovering that I post anonymously to an online message board. I use an avatar and there is no link to my real name, so I had been writing with the sense that my movements and opinions were anonymous except to close friends. Now he mentions in work meetings and directly to me that he's read whatever my most recent post was, and I feel weird about it knowing that he gets home at night and looks at whatever I said that week. This message board has a real sense of community, which I would miss if I simply cut ties to my old profile and started a new one. I guess it's a good tip that nothing that we do is truly anonymous, but I feel uncomfortable about the coworker (with whom I have a friendly enough, but not a "friend" relationship) tracking my movements online. It's made me post quite a bit less, and feel self conscious about whatever I'm saying. Can I mention to him that it makes me uncomfortable and I'd prefer it if at least he didn't tell me?

This is a boundary violation, so, no, don't try to reason with him. He had to do some legwork to find you, right? Creepy. And never take creepiness lightly. ("Gift of Fear"--a quick read, and you can use the time you used to spend on this message board.)

Stop posting completely--pull the plug on him. Yes, it will cost you a community you value, but it will likely be there after whatever time it takes for your coworker to realize you've stopped posting and there's nothing to see any more. Still don't come back as you, though; create a new profile, and only do it after a good number of months without mention by this guy of your online life. 

Hopefully it doesn't come to this, but if Dad does have ALS, the daughter should contact a local hospice in her area and ask if she can be a part of their grief counseling sessions. They might be able to help her, and it would include a local clergy member and a social worker. Good luck!

Or the local ALS Association (link), which is a source of comprehensive services for people with ALS and their families, including support groups, respite care, medical devices, social workers, and chances to do something to help via research fundraising and political advocacy.

If it's not ALS but still serious, hospice is also a good resource for finding whatever kind of support the diagnosis warrants. 


Please get help, for the sake of the kid. I'm that kid, and that fear of displeasing people permeates every area of my life, still, at age 34. I'm working on it, but it took me a long time to figure out where it came from. It's not a minor issue for your kid, I promise.

Yes--the ability to find the line between living for yourself and living in fear of others is one of the most useful life skills there is. Helps with friend, family and romantic relationships; with schooling and career; with the kind of service you get in retail and civic business; with the quality of health care you and your family receive; and so on. 

Most online message boards offer private/direct messaging. You can message a few of your closer online friends to explain why you won't be posting for a while and they may offer you links to their accounts on other networks (Tumblr, Twitter, etc.), or email addresses, at least. That way, you could still keep in touch.

Thanks much.

Are you just supposed to randomly mention that the older sibling has a third parent? I wouldn't know how to start that conversation with a 5 year old. I have an almost 4 year old myself, wand while I know a year is a long time in terms of development, I really don' t think she'd get it. She doesn't even grasp that she has four grandparents because one died before she was born. Even when we try to talk about him, she just does't seem to grasp that he's her grandpa. It seems like something best covered when the child gets older and asks questions rather than throwing it at them unprovoked.

I didn't say you have to make the young child understand; you just mention the thing (that 20-something sib has a different mom, that one parent died and that's why your 4-year-old has 3 GP's instead of 4, etc.) and let the child grow into the full knowledge over time. usually that takes place through the child's questions as s/he begins to notice and undertsnad things more. That's a lot easier than info lockdown followed by a later-date revelation.


HI Carolyn, I went through a break up about four months ago. The relationship didn't end in the best way, I simply stopped taking calls from him because I could no longer take the lies and deception. Now that the holidays are here I am terribly lonely and missing companionship. I am seeing a therapist to make sure that I'm taking care of myself while going through the healing process. But, I'm sad and I miss him (or I miss companionship). How do I get through this? I feel dumb for missing the man who caused so much drama and distress in my life, but we also had many good times. How do I get through the holidays without being a sad, Debbie Downer?

Branch out, please. I won't suggest how, because it has to be in ways that have personal meaning to you--but the way you present this it sounds like you see your world generally as The Past With Your Ex, The Present Without Your Ex, and The Future You Construct So You Don't Think About Your Ex--and there's so much out there that's better than someone who lies to you on a regular basis.

Whenever you're not sure what that is, exactly, then start by finding ways to give to others. Such a reliable way to get out of yourself and also stay positive when you need it. 

Okay, that's it--I've gone a bit longer than I intended, of course. Thank you so much for stopping by, and I hope to type to you here again next week. 

That is some seriously scary behavior. I'm really curious if this coworker has taken other actions that make the poster uncomfortable. That sort of thing should really be reported to HR. A stalker gets to you psychologically and instead of hiding and curtailing your life, the poster needs to find ways to stand up to the creep.

It's a GofF staple that you cut off the supply of information to people who have crossed that line. Yes, report to HR, but do not keep feeding the person's interest.

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Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis. The column has since gone daily and into syndication, where it appears in over 200 newspapers. Carolyn joined The Post in 1992 as a copy editor in Style, and became a news editor before turning to writing full-time. She is the author of "Tell Me About It" (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon on She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their three boys.

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