Carolyn Hax Live: 'With difficult people, emotional minimalism is your friend'

Aug 02, 2019

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Hi everybody. 

In theory I appreciate your answer to Tuesday’s question about changing one’s outlook - BUT, some stands are, to me, non-negotiable. So restricting reproductive rights, for example - proudly have no conception (no pun intended, though it’s kind of great) of how other beliefs could be right for someone else. Or LGBTQ issues - there can be no middle ground when talking about my right to exist and live my life. Sorry, don’t mean to rant, to me even opening the door for the validity of some opinions is literally dangerous.

Of course there are going to be some nonnegotiables. That's different, though: The letter specified not imagining a change of mind on ANY topic. ANY. That's wow territory. And terrifying, frankly.

Sound opinions come from a sound grasp of the facts. There is no way one person can have all the facts on everything. That means everyone is subject to finding out, upon exposure to previously unknown facts, that even a long-held, passionately defended opinion was wrong. Healthy people admit this--both that it's theoretically possible and when it actually happens.

That's all I was saying. 

I received this text from my sister in-law "Nicole" the other day: "You've been added to a list of references to adopt a dog. So answer your phone when the opportunity arises. Thanks! Sorry I didn't ask first but it was {husbands's} idea." I have several issues with this text. No one asked me to be a reference or if they could provide my contact information. I don't feel comfortable giving them a reference AT ALL. They have a rambunctious four year old that put my three year old in a choke hold and swung him around in front of adults a couple of months ago so I am concerned that he would have ample unsupervised time with said puppy. There are several other concerns as well. I really wish they would have asked me. I am also bothered that I was told to answer my phone. I work during the day so answering the phone is not always an option and found this to be very inconsiderate. I felt told. Throwing the husband under the bus is also concerning. I didn't know how to respond so last night she sent another text that said never mind, forget it. She gets easily angered and will blast text hateful things to you for days so I feel really stuck. I want to address her demands and set a boundary (plus this is a lesson young people need to acquire - always ask for a reference before providing the person's info). I am not sure how to go about doing this without her exploding. I couldn't sleep last night trying to figure out how to best approach the situation. I am tempted to just let it go, but I don't think this is how you should treat people. Rock, meet hard place.

Wait--no. No rock here, nor a hard place.

I agree with every one of the things you flag as problematic. The text crossed so many lines.

But other remedies besides taking an open stand with your SIL happen to work just as well, arguably better, than active ones in this case.

Let's say the request hadn't been retracted. You would have been well within decency bounds to text back: "I can't always take calls but I'll do what I can." (You could also have asked her not to give out your info without asking first, but that's not a battle I'd bother with myself. Your call.)  Then if you had gotten a call, you could have either ignored it or picked up and said, "They have a 4-year-old who might be too rambunctious for a pet. He has been rough with my toddler."

Because that's what you were being asked to do: give a reference. No guilt, just facts, and it covers all of the related bases.

Now that the offer has been rescinded, you can just ignore the whole thing. She is not asking you to do anything (anymore); you don't have to answer your phone for anyone (and never did); you don't need to set a boundary now because you can still set the exact same boundary next time, if there even is one; and her throwing the husband under the bus is the husband's headache, not yours.

With difficult people, emotional minimalism is your friend.

I'm not big on social media, and engage very sparingly. (I can go a week without checking so sometimes I'm a bit behind on my friend's news.) I recently saw that a high school friend of mine's husband killed himself in the last week and left her with her four young kids. The news is so horrible and I immediately donated to the gofundme campaign set up by her closer friends, but is there something else I should do? I have not talked with her in more than 15 years and never met her husband. We were friends in high school, but were not super close. I HATE posting public comments on FB. Is it weird to just send a private condolence message? If I do send something, what do I say? "Sorry we haven't spoken in more than a decade, but I'm sad for you."? Would I be doing it more for me than for her? Is the acknowledgement of her pain from, let's face it, basically a stranger at this point in our lives, a kind thing or just something that might stir up annoyance and resentment--"Great that you're sad but where have you been the last 15 years?"

Send a condolence card, because it's not weird at all. Just, "I am so sorry for your loss." 

Your job is to show concern in as sensitive a manner as you can. The card allows you to say "I care" without putting your friend on the spot. When in doubt about wording, err on the side of basic statements. "My condolences" is another one that can keep you from upsetting someone inadvertently.

As for the whole where-have-you-been question, that's actually not unusual or even terribly important right now, arguably even if you parted on bad terms. Friendships end, friends take different paths, it's a routine part of life. If there's something to be resolved between you, that's for another time. Now's the time just to rally to say you care.

I have a friend who's married to a successful pro athlete, which means (1) lots of disposable income and (2) lots of free time for both of them during the off-season. She is ALWAYS either gearing up for their next planned vacation or posting on social media about the vacation they're currently on. Sometimes I think her posts are borderline offensive (touristy, "othering" comments about the native practices wherever they are). It's a culture to which I have zero access. I have traveled a bit, but for the most part it's just not in my budget to spend 10 days on a beach, if I could even get away from my job for that long. Would there be any value in telling her that some of her constant chatter about all the glamorous vacations they take can be alienating? I worry that I'm just going to sound like a jealous hag. I'm really not!

Zero value. Adjust your settings to see less of her stuff, if that helps, but otherwise put it in the "different people lead different lives" file.

And, broaden your view a little. Sure, money and travel and free time are hard to knock, but it doesn't take a lot of imagination to also note the hazards of this life--hangers on, too much free time/money, injury and other wear and tear, weeks on the road, short shelf life. 

Not to sour-grape their lives and lifestyle--good for them, sincerely--but instead to put things into enough perspective to drop a bystander's resentment levels into a healthier range.

I’ve been dating my girlfriend, “Emma” for about 6 months. It’s not serious yet but I can definitely see us heading that way. We’re very compatible in most ways except for the fact that Emma has way too much stuff. Her place isn’t messy and she’s not a hoarder but she has several bookshelves just loaded with books, it’s got to be close to hundreds and they’re nothing special just old paperbacks. She collects art glass, and it’s on her coffee table, hanging in her windows and on those already over-loaded bookshelves. She has dozens of wall hangings, too, and her sofa is piled with throws, her floor with floor pillows, everywhere you look there’s “stuff”. I was once like her but learned how freeing it is to get rid of the extraneous junk. Now I’m very much a minimalist and could never live in a jumble like that again. I suggested the Kon-Mari method and gave her the book but she hasn’t done anything about it. I know how hard it is to start but I also know how much happier and more carefree she would be if she’d only get rid of the junk. Also, we’ve talked about our relationship progressing and moving in together but this is close to a show-stopper for me. Should I make this clear to her? I’m wary of coming off as controlling but I also want to be honest.

"I also know how much happier and more carefree she would be if she’d only get rid of the junk. "

No, you don't.

You know YOU were much happier and more carefree. But she might take great comfort in her booky, glassy, pillowy nest. And you don't get to tell her (or anyone else) how she feels.

The way to avoid coming off as controlling is not to be controlling, and the way not to be controlling is to recognize that the way you feel about a certain experience represents you and only you. And so you can't project your feelings/experience onto anyone else, much less plan or decide things for others based on your projections.

Sometimes people do feel the same way about a similar experience, of course, but you know that for sure (or as close as you can get to sure) only when they explain or demonstrate that to you themselves--not when you conclude it is so.

It's your prerogative both to be a minimalist and to decide you can't live with someone who is not. 

You just need to stay on your side of the line in expressing this: Say to her that you used to collect things, feel much happier now that you've streamlined, and won't go back to clutter. She can do with that information what she will. You could also say it's a deal-breaker for you, but it sounds like your relationship hasn't reached that crossroads yet.

There's a reason a lot of happy life partners keep separate, even side-by-side homes.

I think that your response to today's letter writer was excellent. I lost my wife last year. When a friend lost his wife a few months later, after expressing condolences, I told him that he would be surprised at whom he would hear from. But also, he would be surprised at whom he wouldn't hear from and to not take it personally for many of the same reasons that you mentioned. I was fortunate to have a wise father who once told me, "It's not so important what you say, just say something." I figure that not everyone had this wisdom passed on to them. Giving others the benefit of the doubt helps immensely.

This is such a generous response, thank you, and I am sorry for your loss.

Up last year, I was a professional ballet dancer. Dancing is all I ever wanted to do and I trained and danced non-stop since I was 6. I was very fortunate to get into a great program and as soon as I graduated, I was one of the lucky few who got a job on stage. Last year, I fell (not dancing, just tripped walking down some steep stairs since I was exhausted after a performance) and badly fractured my leg. While it was healing there were complications from an infection and it was a long slow battle back to full health. I’m finally better and it looks like I’ll dance again but the doctors have said that I will not have the stamina to dance professionally, not now, probably not ever. I’m devastated. I’ve lost my identity. I don’t know who I am, if I’m not a dancer. People keep suggesting that maybe I can teach but I don’t have the temperament and I don’t really like children all that much and I don’t have the experience or reputation to pull in older students. I need to figure out what I’m going to do with my life but I just want to curl up in a ball and cry. My savings are gone due to the medical bills and my boyfriend and other friends are all dancers who don't have much time for me as they work constantly - like I used to. Everyone kept telling me things would get better but it hasn’t. In fact, it’s getting worse but I can’t tell my family since they all just want me to be okay with this so much that most of the time I pretend that I am. But I’m not. I’m lost. What do I do?

This sounds devastating, I'm sorry. 

It also doesn't sound hopeless. "Doctors have said" is not the same thing as a certainty, and in this case it even has a "probably" attached. So, if you want this, then your first plan needs to be to go get it.

You will only need a Plan B, then, if this Plan A turns out to be out of reach. 

And, when you reject so many Plan B's out of hand, that gives me pause. Can't teach, don't like kids, can't get adult students ... these are the "nopes" of a person who hasn't yet tried. Like I say to my kids: Don't cut yourself before you even try out.

There are also, as you know way better than I do, countless other people in the business of dance besides dancers. Every one of these people who has supported your work over the years is on a career path of his or her own, from choreography to arts-related philanthropy. Widen your scope. Again, when you know you need to, which you don't yet.

And, you see your people as not being available to you, which they may not be, but withdrawing from them (preemptively?) is not the answer. The answer is to do the extra work it requires now to engage.

All of these steps are separate in their own ways, but in one way they are all the same: Each is a way of addressing what I suspect may be underlying depression in the wake of this tough upheaval. I know you're probably all doctored up, but have you been evaluated specifically for depression? It can put a filter of hopelessness on everything.

Even if it isn't depression, if it is the end of your time in dance, even if the other careers don't suit you, even if it's all the worse-case ifs: It's just the end of Act 1.  You have life left, you have spirit, you have value. You just don't know yet where or how you're going to apply these things. And that's okay! It's scary and sucky but also pretty normal and possible to overcome--not just tolerably, but fulfillingly and well. 

What if, for example, you had an epiphany and got a counseling credential and built a practice working with artists whose careers get cut short by fate? Just one riff of an example, but there's no limit to ways to take *who you still are* and put this person--who is injured, not erased--on a rewarding new path.

Just, again, do what it takes to get yourself off the floor first. Deep breaths, self-love, patience, any necessary care intervention.

Hi Carolyn, We need to find a new legal guardian for our three children (14, 12, 8) as our current one can no longer do it. Any thoughts on what to consider? We don't have an obvious choice. We have one family member with young children, but we've gotten close with them only in the past couple of years, and they don't live locally. I guess the main reason they are in the running is because they are family. Aside from them, there is one couple among our friends who'd be our top choice, but we have some hesitations about them as well. How can we determine which "hesitations" should be considered and which overcome?

Check with a lawyer on this, because I'm so very not one, but: It might make sense to name someone as a short-term guardian and someone (else) as the person who makes the decision about where they reside permanently if you are unable to care for them. This at least would allow for a solution that adapts as their lives change.   

You suggested sending a condolence card, but how to you do that without an address in an Internet world?

Anecdotal and therefore borderline worthless, but I've never not found an address I was looking for.

Google or ask around in the peer group or both. Obituaries usually list the funeral home, so sending it there is a fine option of last resort. Call first to confirm.

I have a close friend. I'll call her "Rose." Rose has done three failed IVF attempts and is gearing up for her fourth one this summer. While the failures have of course been very painful, she didn't start trying until after 40 so they are also not a surprise to her or anyone else. Meanwhile, she seems to have claimed for herself a license to be completely nasty to everyone around her and to treat us all as punching bags while she goes through this tough time. This includes her husband (they are actually on the brink of divorce, I think), her family, and me, her best friend of 20 years. She solicits my opinion on various things just to tell me how naïve and misguided it is. She attacks my parenting and implies that if she had a kid, it would be in all ways superior to mine. She has become an extremely unpleasant person to interact with in even a small way (texting), and I barely recognize her. Yet when I try to pull away, she calls me back and tells me how lonely this time is and how grateful she is for her support. How much leniency do I afford this person while she's going through hell?

Short answer is "a lot," but, that's a bad answer too.

You can give her leeway in terms of not ending the friendship while still giving her zero leeway on the jackholery.

E.G. ...

She: solicits your opinion on various things.

You: Give opinion.

She: Tells you how naïve and misguided you are.

You: Ask her why she asked you then, if you're such a naif? ANd that "No thanks" next time she asks for your advice.

Or ...

She: attacks your parenting and implies that if she had a kid, it would be in all ways superior to yours.

You: "If I hear you correctly, you just said that I am a bad parent and, if you had a kid, it would be superior in all ways to mine. Yes?"

She: either backs off or doubles down, and, if the latter ...

You: "I think this friendship has run its course," as you pay the tab and leave or show her to the door.

See what I mean? You don't have to take these uppercuts to the chin, ever. Not from anyone for any reason. You calmly, kindly stand up for yourself. She can then either sweeten up or take the initiative to find herself some new friends. None of that is inconsistent with showing compassion for someone dealing with grief and highly whacked out hormones. Not that you have, but, please do not minimize either.


There is a great quote that I kept close when I realized I would never be able to have children (another story for another day). It's from when Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook lost her husband: Sandberg grieves to a friend that her husband could not attend their child's school function. The friend tells her, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.” Find your Option B. It is out there, I promise.

Please ignore the doctors and see if there is some way you can start dancing again. You owe that much to yourself now. You can figure out what to do with your post-dance life once it is clear that you need to.

Every ballet company is more than just the dancers. Figure out if there is something in the company you might like to do besides dance, that uses your expertise. Or how about writing reviews of performances? You have a lot more options than you think.

Not exactly the same, but a couple of months ago I sent a small gift (related to a shared hobby) to a Facebook friend going a very difficult experience. I hadn't spoken to her IRL since we graduated high school almost 30 years ago. I really agonized about it, for the same reasons as the poster, but I sent it. I was glad I did - her (private) response led me to believe that she appreciated the gesture and didn't find it strange or inappropriate.

I agree that keeping it short and simple is best here, but a mere card with only a signature: no. Write something original, even if it’s just one sentence: “very sorry for your loss.”

In today's world, it seems like an "I'm sorry for your loss" on FB counts as a response. It sounds cheesy, but when my mom passed away, having those FB friends express their sympathy that way was actually extremely comforting, especially since I was with her, away from my hubs/kids/closest friends. This isn't for everyone, obviously, but if the news is shared on social media and you aren't a close friend, just those few words can be surprisingly meaningful.

Last week I asked advice about my son and his lifelong friend and their ]falling out over wedding plans. Amazing. The two guys vanished together for an afternoon and worked things out. How is a mystery, but there was an apology from he bride to my son, an ingenious renaming of wedding attendants -- who knew there can be more than one "best man"--and all is well for now. Thank you for your help.

Thank you, too, for the good news. 


I have rich globe-trotting Facebook friends too, and I try to enjoy it as a window into a different world. Besides, there's no reason for them to find my constant kid pics inherently interesting either, and if I wanted to think negatively, I suppose they might even feel like I'm subtly trying to lord my stability and grounded lifestyle over theirs. Unless they're directly addressing me, it's just not worth the mental effort to take other people's postings too personally or read signals into them.

I love this, thank you.

And you reminded me that I mentally file some of my friends' cool destinations away for if/when I'm ever able to go--which I now see is a way of spinning it that I wasn't even aware of myself.

I need to bail. Thanks everybody, have a great weekend, type to you here next week.

BTW, for those who asked, archives are being worked on. I know they've been balky this week.

Just admit (to yourself) that you're jealous of this one aspect of her life. It's freeing, I swear! Because you're probably not jealous of her whole life, and being able to say "Wow, I wish I had that much free time and money, but I'm so grateful for my ___" feels a lot better than nitpicking everything she does.

I think this speaks to a broader question of when it's appropriate to tell other people what to post on their Facebooks. The answer is never. Nobody is required to curate their timeline so that you approve of, or feel good about it. I have plenty of people on my friends list that I've "unfollowed" so that what they feel compelled to share is not presented to me in an endless stream.

Friend, if "bookshelves loaded with books" are a dealbreaker for you, then you and Emma are in fact not all that compatible.

OP, you have missed the point. Marie Kondo did not provide you with a list of items to keep. She provided you with a method of identifying items that have value to you. If you want to live with very few belongings, go for it! If your girlfriend's belongings are a deal-breaker, then break that deal. You get to set your priorities, not hers.

This hit me like a punch in the gut. My books, even the most tattered paperbacks are very special to me. They aren't "junk", they are my memories. OP is projecting SO MUCH on "Emma", it's insulting.

Yessss. Love my books.

Wow, Emma's house sounds like a place I would love to hang out -- plenty of books to read, soft cushions to sit on, blankets to snuggle under -- and Emma's partner sounds like the kind of person I avoid (people who lecture me on how to improve myself and give me homework to help me change, rather than people who appreciate my good points and support me in being myself.)

Just because you know you will never change your mind about a certain issue doesn't mean you can't try to understand why someone holds a view different from yours. That is where we find our common humanity.

Yes. Last word. Thank you.

In This Chat
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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