Carolyn Hax Live: "Treat your brain just like any other body part"

Dec 01, 2017

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax chats live every Friday at noon to answer any questions you might have about this strange train we call life.

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Hi everybody, and thanks for your patience with the time change.

UPDATE: and the tech difficulties.

I feel third-party agony for today's letter writer. Did the in-laws buy the house across the street without discussing it with the couple first? Or did they talk about it with the husband and it's news to her? This looks like a case of boundary impairment. I'd be in a panic, too. 5 minutes away would be one thing - but across the street? It's not practical to think their privacy hasn't taken a major hit. She'd be right to be pretty upset with the husband if he knew about the move but let it be a surprise for her.

I might have some of the details wrong--just going on memory here--but I think there are boundary issues with all parties. In-laws don't have them, son/husband doesn't understand them, DIL/wife doesn't articulate or enforce them.

This was unlikely to break in the wife's favor no matter what the family geography was, but I'm hoping the extreme proximity forces her to work on her own limits. Best case scenario, perhaps, but it's time. 

The reward for doing it will be to unlock all the benefits of proximity, which aren't trivial. 


I wrote you in a live chat almost 8 years ago about my mother finding me after an estrangement ( I'm almost 33 now and have been dealing with depression on and off since my adolescence (that I can remember). I grew up in a household with every kind of abuse you can think of, but I didn't start seeking help until my early 20s via talk therapy, and cut ties entirely with my abusers in 2009/2010. A decade, many cities, and some 7 therapists later, I finally sought out a psychiatrist because the mood swings and depressive episodes were intensifying. For the last 6 months I've suspected I have a mood disorder along the lines of bipolar II, but two days ago the doctor actually diagnosed me with chronic PTSD. It makes sense and explains a lot in hindsight, but I'm having trouble accepting and dealing with the diagnosis. I can't blame any of this on a chemical imbalance, and now I know that I have a lifelong fight to change the way I think about myself and others, and my very broken brain is the only thing that can fix itself. I almost feel more hopeless than before. I have always felt fundamentally flawed, but this feels like confirmation. I'm so angry at my family for causing this, and I hate myself for not being able to let go and get over it. I feel so lost. Do you have any words of wisdom?

I have words of perspective, at least, because I have the comfort of distance here.

Which means I can, without emotional engagement, treat your brain just like any other body part.

So, let's treat it like an arm, for the sake of argument.

Your family's abuse was terrible, and over time it caused you a significant injury in breaking your arm. You have known all this time your arm was injured, but for whatever reason doctors never xrayed it.

Now, you have X-ray results. Broken arm. It's bad, and it's terrible that your own damn family abused you do badly that your arm broke, but at least now you know exactly why your arm has hurt so much for so many years.

And, even better, now you and your doctors understand exactly how to treat it.

And, best of all, you can officially stop beating yourself up for feeling pain for so many years. Who would expect your arm to "fix itself" properly? It's the kind of injury that needs treatment--and it's also an injury that has a treatment protocol that has a good track record of success. 

So now you *and your treatment team*--as in, not just you all by yourself--know what your jobs are and can finally do them right.

And who on earth would treat you as "fundamentally flawed" for having a broken arm? And how would the party you "blame any of this on" be any different now than it was before? Your abusers are on the hook exactly as they have always been.

Arm, brain, ____--they're injured body parts in need of medical intervention. Now go get that treatment. The sooner you start the healing process, the more of your life you will enjoy as a healed person. Take care. 



Yeah, what the e


More weird hiccups today.

We share very thin walls with our neighbors and, this week, I found out the husband lost his job. This was apparently out of nowhere and has caused all kinds of additional stress (on top of an already scary, difficult situation). In addition to that, they’ve been fighting - loudly - over marriage and other relationship issues since he’s been home more. We barely know them and I have no idea what to do. I’ve literally never spoken to the wife but my impression is that she doesn’t work outside the home (I work from my home office, so I’m hearing a lot). Do I acknowledge we’ve heard the news? Leave a bottle of wine for them? I would send them a week of Blue Apron but I don’t even have their email. I feel so awful and know how stressful this is, especially with a child under 1, and especially at the holidays.

I suggest you treat them as neighbors about whom you don't know way too much. Cook something and, whoopsie, realize a double batch was too big after all: "I made sauce and ended up with way more than we could use. Would you like some?" That will also crack the door figuratively to more regular neighborly exchanges with them, if they're receptive. (If not, you back off unless and until you hear an emergency through the walls.)

You of course can't solve their problems, but you can be, if you're both open to it, a small source of comfort at a time when life cut many of those off for them. 

Hi Carolyn! I'm recently engaged and my fiance and I have begun planning our wedding. From the start, we knew that a traditional wedding ceremony was not for us. Neither of us are religious and we both struggle with some of the old fashioned ceremony traditions. After doing some research on ceremony alternatives, we settled on a venue and ceremony format: We are getting married in a historic parlor room and instead of having a priest, various family members will be marrying us. My parents are extremely religious and attend mass every Sunday, but know that I wouldn't be happy doing it their way, so have accepted our plan. My fiance's parents are having a harder time with it. In general, they tend to be more traditional and just don't see what we're doing as a real wedding ceremony. My fiance and I have explained to them that a wedding (and marriage) mean different things to us than it does to them. They just can't seem to get on board. What can we do to help show them that this is right for us? - Nontraditional Bride

Nothing. Have your wedding and stop explaining yourselves and remain warm and welcoming to your fiance's parents. You have made your choice and made your case for it; it's their job now to decide how to deal with this information.


Our 9-yr old daughter feels that we favor her 6-yr old brother. She feels that he gets more attention and love from us when this is assuredly not the case. She's really had this concern since he was born and it's ebbed and flowed over the years. It's ironic because any objective observer would say that except for the first year or so when he was a baby, she consistently gets more attention because she's older, involved in more activities, has more social connections and needs more academic and emotional support. We've been very careful not to feed into her "bean counting" by pointing out all the times when she gets more attention than her brother but last week after a tearful hour of her expressing how she feels, we felt it was important for her to look at this objectively and illustrated all the "special attention" she got over the course of the last couple of days. It seemed to settle her for the moment but we're really adverse to this as a support strategy as it causes her self-esteem to be driven by external factors rather than internal ones and we just do not want to encourage "bean counting." Last night it came up again and all I could say is that it's just not true. I'm sorry that she feels that way but there's nothing there and she needs to train herself to shoe away these negative thoughts that keep popping in her head when there's no truth to them. That's assuredly not the right answer, either. She does believe that we love her but just feels she's not loved as much as him and it makes her sad/made/frustrated. I feel like we're failing her because we don't know how to help her see that we don't love her brother more.

I don't doubt that you're right about the balance of attention. However, in (reasonably) responding to your daughter the way you have, you've unwittingly made the problem worse: She believes you love her brother more, that's Bummer 1 for her. Now you've added Bummer 2 by consistently and repeatedly calling her wrong every time she tries to be heard.

This might seem like a brick wall, since what are you going to do, assure her she's right when she's not? But it's doable if you break it down to smaller parts. There is something she's seeing that is true to her. The conclusions she's drawing might be incorrect, but at some level her senses are going to be right. You did X, brother did Y, someone else did Z. So, you can honestly and appropriately validate her X, Y and Z without also buying into the conclusion she's drawn from them. That would provide an important confidence boost for your daughter, telling her that she's not seeing things and you do believe her. Again, you don't necessarily agree that X + Y + Z = favoritism for her brother, but you see what she's seeing.

I urge you to read "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk." It's an excellent guide for understanding what your kids need from you when they're upset about something, and how getting at that will improve their emotional health and your relationship with them.

I mean this in the nicest way possible, but it's been my experience (as an introvert) that many extroverts simply cannot get their heads around the fact that introverts need that much alone time, and they keep hammering on about it until it ends up making the introvert feel very very self-conscious about their nature. Even our culture in the US is very focused on the value of being outgoing and gregarious and it has definitely made me feel in the past like there was something wrong with me. There isn't. I hope that the OP is able to come to an understanding that her nature is definitely OKAY the way it is and this is not a failing on her part. I think that would make it easier for her to just kindly, warmly even, but firmly say, "this is just how I am - I like you but I need my personal space, and I'll see you on Friday."

YMMV, but the threshold I had to cross was no longer caring if people saw me as weird or rude.* After that, when I maxed out on people, I would warmly say goodbye and thank you and just leave. I've left parties in my own house while the extros whooped it up. I can end a phone call in seconds. I wish I could present witnesses to these things: "I've known Carolyn since 1993, and yes, some of the briefest phone calls in recorded history have been with her."

So, we can only be ourselves, and how others wrap their heads is ultimately not something I can afford to worry about.



*Obviously you don't want to offend people, so being fully present while your tank is full is an important assurance that you do care about the people in your life. And a warm demeanor with absolute consistency is essential for a successful but inoffensive departure. "It's not you, it's me! I have to crawl into my hole to recharge." Love and kisses. 

My situation was just like yours, so I have some words of wisdom: You are still very angry, and that's understandable. I'm much older than you, and it took a while for that anger to dissipate. Rest assured, it does mostly dissipate eventually. Give yourself a lot of credit for being strong enough to let go of all the people who hurt you, and for seeking help. Besides therapy, the best thing you can do for yourself is to accept your feelings and condition, instead of being ashamed or resentful. I am much better now, but every once-in-a-while, some depression or anxiety infiltrates - usually triggered by an event that stirs a memory. I tell myself, "Okay, you're feeling crappy. This will pass." Remind yourself that you have been able to escape that situation. Make an effort to lower the demands in your life for a few days, if possible. Be kind to yourself. Also, realize that your experience has made you wiser and more compassionate than most.

Thank you.

Hubby's sister invited us to a 2-year-old's birthday party at a baby gym type of place, and we accepted for all four of us, he and I and our 3 and 6 year old daughters. However, about a week later, my older daughter's newly acquired bestie invited her to a birthday party at the same day and time. Because we JUST moved to a new city, and because my daughter is anxious, shy and much older than 2, we called sis ahead of her official RSVP date to explain that Hubby and young daughter would still come, but older daughter and I would not be. I do not think it is ok to "pick a better party" but I want to do what will help my daughter be comfortable in her new school and she struggles to make friends. Hubby's sister said I need to "prioritize family first." I think I AM doing this by helping my daughter. Am I wrong? This is causing tension, mainly because Hubby's family has this fixation on large, grandiose parties with every dingle person in attendance.

What you did is rude by the book but understandable by the gut--for what it's worth at this point. And I don't think I have to spell out that people who are forgiving on gut issues are a lot easier to be around. Especially when what's at stake is another couple of participants in toddler mayhem that the toddler won't remember at all.

So, now you and your husband need to decide whether to stick with the boost-your-6-y-o socially plan, or appease-his-sister plan. Normally I'd say just to stick to what's best for your daughter without a big parental navel-gaze, but if you stick to your plan, your husband's unflagging support for it is the fulcrum. Make sure you have it.

Day after day, we have new news of a famous man who has done unspeakably stupid and offensive things to women...for decades. Society is, somewhat belatedly, starting to take these accusations seriously. But change is needed at the opposite end of the fame spectrum. In particular, how we raise our kids. Coaches still call boys "ladies" when they want to inflict an emotional barb, Moms tells their boys to "man up" (no one ever says "woman up"). Adult men feel free to tell a teenaged girl "Why aren't you a cheerleader? You're too pretty to be an athlete." (I heard about that one yesterday.) Here's the kicker: I'm a guy. I live in a state that is considered the anti-Alabama by the rest of the country. And yet all this stuff persists. My spouse and I talk about all this with our boys (who are similarly outraged), but I hear such ignorant stuff from their friends (who are growing up in supposedly "progressive" households) that I kinda despair for any real change. I'm not looking for advice so much as a spoonful of hope. Do you have any to spare?

Sure. People are talking about this like never before, which means a level of awareness like never before, which means two things: backlash, yes, and eventual progress. You're talking about this with your sons! In a way I doubt you would have even 10 years ago. I;m doing it too. Now take those individual conversations and imagine the impact on a national scale.

There will be people who scoff in response and, worse, act as if it's a patriotic exercise to denigrate women--but so many others will flinch a little inside when they use a phrase they've always used and suddenly realize its use exposes them as complicit in an injustice of long standing. I see women in particular doing this flinching now--you rightly mention the current reckoning with men who've abused their power, but women have been some of our own worst enemies. It's hard to see clearly when we're standing so close that we ourselves can adopt the language of our own oppression. There's waking up and there's woke.

I think I see what you meant by your reference to "the anti-Alabama," but it's not enough for people to stop lumping others under gender stereotypes. Anyone in the culture who is calling for a cessation of stereotypes has to renounce them in full.

The How to Talk book is excellent, and I recommend it to anyone who is close or wants to be close to any kids. The authors also have a book specifically for siblings- "Siblings Without Rivalry" which is a great read for anyone who interacts with 2 or more kids at a time. In more general advice, if you kid is telling you over and over something that you don't think is true, the best response is, "Why do you feel that way?" followed up with "Tell me more about that" and lots and lots of listening.

I tried to explain to my parents and my brother when I was around that age that I felt neglected. Like, not physically or abusively. I just felt that there was something lacking in how they were treating me. I wasn't able to articulate it - I was a KID - and it's now been over 30 years, so I'm not sure that even now I know exactly what was wrong or what I needed. (Their response was to tease me about how I was "so unloved" and call me whiny. So, yeah, I didn't get the response I was looking for and I'm pretty sure you can guess what the problem was.) Something about how you respond to your daughter's emotions is lacking. She's trying to tell you that, but she doesn't have the right language or emotional skills, so she's blaming it on favoritism to her little brother. Stop correcting her, like Carolyn said, and start trying to figure out what it is that she needs that she's not getting from you. Once you start providing that, she will probably stop feeling like you play favorites.

We have been a group of 5 neighbors that for the last 25 years have a Christmas gathering, rotating within the groups homes-- expect our home, as several years someone complained that we didn't have enough space. For the las 12 years all of them have moved to bigger homes 5 to 45 miles away. Over the years we share less, and less in common-- everything from general attitudes, financially and politically. I wish them all well; but its just not fun and I resent the expense of exchanging serious and white elephant gifts with people I see once a year. HELP!

Just rip the Band-Aid. "We won't make it this year, sorry to break the streak."

Listening to Fox News blasting loud enough to wake the dead almost ruined my Thanksgiving a the home of some family members. It's their house, obviously, so they can watch whatever they want, but what is appropriate behavior when guests are visiting? Is it fair to expect hosts to avoid programming that they know their guests will find offensive, or at least turn it down?

"May I turn off the TV? I'm getting a headache/having a hard time hearing people/[whatever]." I've done it with everything from football to the Hallmark Channel, because blaring TV is anathema to happy guests, so don't get hung up on the content thing.

For some reason, I spent all day today thinking that TODAY was the hoot, despite the fact that it's been publicized that that's happening on the 8th. For the last hour, I've been like, WHY HASN'T C MENTIONED OR STARTED THE HOOT YET. So, PSA to everyone out there like me: Today is December FIRST. Not EIGHTH.

To tide over anyone in need of fiddle music as Rome burns, I think the 2015 transcript is the one to try. Make sure you play the goat carols to get its full effect.

Alrighty then, time to go. Thanks for stopping by, have a great weekend and the goats and I hope to see you here next week.

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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 New England with her husband and their three boys.
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