Good morning! Submit your questions on Patreon or on Twitter (@CAwkward, #AwkwardFriday) before noon Chicago time today.
From 12-1 I’ll answer as many as I can and update as I go. Comments open once everything is posted.
These have been fun so far. I’m looking forward to questions.
Ok, it’s on!
Q1: I recently enforced a hard boundary and gave an old friend an African violet. But I’m left with their voice in my head from the manipulation/gas-lighting at the end of the friendship. Any tips for shutting up my jerkbrain from agreeing with them?
A1: Maybe use the strategy you would use around any intrusive thought. From the link:
“Here are steps for changing your attitude and overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts
- Label these thoughts as “intrusive thoughts.”
- Remind yourself that these thoughts are automatic and not up to you.
- Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind. Do not try to push them away.
- Float, and practice allowing time to pass.
- Remember that less is more. Pause. Give yourself time. There is no urgency.
- Expect the thoughts to come back again
- Continue whatever you were doing prior to the intrusive thought while allowing the anxiety to be present.
Try Not To:
- Engage with the thoughts in any way.
- Push the thoughts out of your mind.
- Try to figure out what your thoughts “mean.”
- Check to see if this is “working” to get rid of the thoughts
This approach can be difficult to apply. But for anyone who keeps applying it for just a few weeks, there is an excellent chance that they will see a decrease in the frequency and intensity of the unwanted intrusive thoughts.” – Martin Seif, PhD and Sally Winston, PsyD, authors of Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts: A CBT Workbook
Also, give it time. If walking away from this person was the right decision, hopefully with time the relief of not having to deal with them anymore will start to outweigh the stuff that happened in the past.
Q2: My Mom recently found out she needs her gallbladder removed and she is refusing to schedule the surgery. When this happened she began fighting with me way, way more often then our normal every few months fights when I refuse to wear make up/diet/buy a second home and she gets angry. When these things set her off she also launches into tirades about the boundaries I have, such as not inviting her over to my house because she criticizes everything and then gets mad if I get upset. A small argument over “I think you’d look prettier with makeup” turns into “IT IS ABUSIVE THAT YOU INVITE YOUR FRIENDS OVER AND NOT ME” in three sentences. This is draining for me and can’t be fun for her. I’m assuming she’s scared about her health and acting out. I want to be there for her but I also don’t like being called a monster every time I call to check on her. Any advice?
A2: Even if your mom is scared about her health and acting out right now, you don’t have to just take it, especially since it sounds like she’s routinely pretty mean to you.
In your shoes, I’d stick to only practical/logistical things, like, “Mom, let me know when you’ve got your surgery on the calendar.” Anything that is not discussion of the date or logistics, cut the conversation short and remove your attention. “Well, that’s all the time I have to be told that I’m a terrible daughter, so I’m going to have to cut this short. Let me know when you have a date for surgery and we’ll plan from there.”
Then hang up/stop texting back for the day. Make it very boring for her to berate you about who you invite over. “Ok Mom, this is getting pretty draining, so I’ll have to cut it short. Got a date for the surgery yet? Let me know.” If she won’t stay on topic, hang up and try again another day. Once there’s a date on the calendar, then talk about further logistics, like, rides to and from surgery, meals, & other after-care kinda stuff.
As for being her emotional support about the surgery and health stuff, why would you do that? She’s not your friend, she’s not even a basic amount of nice to you, she makes it incredibly hard on you, so maybe it’s not your job to absorb all of her feelings. If there’s nobody else in her life who can listen to her or help out, maybe it’s because she’s kind of an asshole?
And if there are other people, including hired caregivers, who can take point on logistical stuff after the surgery, call them in without guilt! You don’t have to do this all by yourself.
Also, if you usually call her on the phone about this stuff, try a different medium like email or text for a while.
Finally, when/if things calm down post surgery, keep right on not inviting her over to criticize your housekeeping. “Mom, it’s not enjoyable to invite you over because all you do is criticize me. I actually don’t care what you think about my makeup or my house, if you want us to spend more time together you’re going to have to think of new topics. Maybe try pretending that I’m a fellow adult who you like, and then don’t say anything to me you wouldn’t say to that person.”
Her: But I love you, I’m your mother, etc.
You: “I know you love me. Now try acting like you like me. Can you go one whole conversation or visit without saying something critical or mean? I hope so, because I’d love us to spend more time together, but if all you’re gonna do is harp on me, I don’t see it happening.”
Q3: What should you do when your therapist tries to pressure you to do something that you don’t feel is right? I recently had a situation where I knew about news from a sibling (not harmful but not something I thought was a great life choice, and I knew it would upset my parents) a bit in advance of when my parents did. I had some conflicting feelings about it, so I was processing it all with my therapist. (Family of origin stuff is why I sought therapy in the first place, which is a long story, but suffice it to say that I got a lot out of reading Will I Ever Be Good Enough.) My therapist decided that the news needed to be told to my parents, and by me! And spent the remainder of that session plus the entire next session trying to get me to disclose my sibling’s news using whatever possible means and dismissing all of my objections. She proposed some truly weird stuff, very specific plans, like that I should triangulate with one parent and get them to deliver the news if I wasn’t comfortable approaching the other parent directly. I normally would trust her on this stuff, and even drafted a message, because she was so definitive and I didn’t want to let her down. But then I took a step back and realized that I didn’t actually want to tell the news! It didn’t feel right to me. My usual rule is to involve myself less in family drama, and I have a history of being way too enmeshed so I try to maintain awareness of that and not dive back in. And it wasn’t my news to tell, and that started to really concern me. So I ran it by a few other people whom I trust (BFF who knows my family well, spouse, online friends of 15+ years) and my therapist was literally the only person who thought this was a good idea. I ended up stopping seeing her over this (and the recent post on how to break up with a therapist came in SUPER handy, so thank you very very much for that!), but I’m wondering now if there was some way to address it in the moment that I missed. Do you have any advice or suggestions? Thank you! (For this and for all of the amazing advice – your archives have been so so helpful as I work through different kinds of family stuff.)
A3: It sounds like you did the right thing by finding a different therapist, and it also sounds like the process of going to therapy is working in that you talked about a problem, got some recommendations, and then trusted your own judgment about what to do.
I think one rule that therapists and bossy internet advice columnists share is: You (the client/the questioner) are the boss of your own life. For example, I can write “oh god please break up with him” for seven years straight and if the person doesn’t want to, they won’t, nor should they if they decide it’s not the right choice for them. I can have strong opinions, but I’m not the one who has to live with the consequences. And if I got it all wrong and it really is a happy relationship, great! Therapists are people and people can be wrong.
If you ever run across a therapist who oversteps in this way again and/or one who is just wrong about whatever is going on, try saying “Ok, thank you for your input, but that’s all the advice I can or want to absorb about this topic. Can we redirect to ____.” Or, “I usually appreciate your perspective, but I don’t think that’s the right move for me, and I won’t be doing that. Can we change topics to ___.”
A good therapist is going to hear that and think “whoa, I probably crossed a line in there somewhere” and be grateful for the feedback. Assuming we’re not talking about your plans to do actual crime, someone who keeps pushing you to change course after you’ve made it clear you don’t want to is not being helpful.
Q4: Can a relationship with periodic ugly fights ever be healthy? My current relationship is so different from past experience that I’m not sure what to think. Almost all the guys I’ve been with to this point, including my ex-husband, have had or gone on to get PhD’s (I am similarly educated, New Yorker reader, etc.). I hadn’t dated a blue-collar guy since high school until I met Stanley, who didn’t finish college and whose work involves a mix of brains and brawn. He’s handsome, fun, committed, and responsible around the house, and he doesn’t reject my affection, a refreshing change from the nonchalant manchildren I’ve dealt with before. But once in a while he blows up. I never feel physically unsafe and he never calls me names, but he harangues me about past fights (he saves up every tiny perceived insult like a diamond chip) and things that are minor/none of his business, like getting to work late or leaving car lights on. My reactions are mystifying to me. I grew up with a screamy dad, with whom I have a close relationship, so screaming doesn’t faze me. I stay cold when Stanley starts to yell, but eventually I cry (something I rarely do otherwise) to signal that he’s getting too offensive and I’m done, and that tends to shut him up. The rest of the time he’s sweet and funny. I oscillate between thinking this is getting ridiculous and I need to cut bait, and feeling weirdly ok with these periodic blowups. It’s almost refreshing that he expresses his emotions (without using cringy “I Feel” statements) instead of not caring or playing it off. It may be that I feel superior because I’m more intelligent than he is. I feel I would/will draw the line if he ever gets physically violent, but I don’t want this to slip away from me and be unable to shut it down if the time comes. Thank you, Cap’n. (Call me) Ms. Stella
Q4: Hi Ms. Stella, leaving aside the fact that plenty of educated people who read (and write for!) fancy publications can be abusive turds, and “better than the ex” doesn’t always mean “good!,” something doesn’t have to be physically threatening to be unacceptable. Besides recommending that you at least skim Why Does He Do That to see if it rings more bells than you’ve noticed ringing before now, I wonder what would happen if the next time “Stanley” yelled at you, you raised your voice and said “Stop. Yelling at me.”
Would he stop?
Or would he yell louder?
(same deal with your dad, tbh)
And, like, where is the feeling of…obligation?…that you have to sit and listen to the yelling until you cry coming from?
You asked if this can ever be healthy, and I don’t have an answer (my dad’s a yeller, too, but an otherwise gentle soul), but you having to ask “Is this cool or is it gonna escalate to the hitting place?” is generally not a great sign.
Q5: My child is genderfluid and uses they/them pronouns. Their grandparents don’t have a problem with the genderfluidity (I’m not sure they really believe in it, but they behave respectfully, which is all I can ask), but they *hate* having to use what they perceive as a plural term in a singular grammatical context… it feels all wrong to them. I’ve tried showing them articles about how they/them has been used as a singular for centuries; I’ve tried pointing out that they don’t have trouble using ‘you’ as both singular and plural; I have, in short, logicked them into a corner, and all they’ve said is, “I’m not convinced.” Well, they don’t have to be convinced, but how do I stand up for my child’s right to be called by the pronouns of their choice, whether their grandparents “like” those particular pronouns or not? I normally get along well with my parents, and would rather not create a serious rift, but I do want to communicate that I do not consider it optional for them to use my kid’s preferred terminology when addressing or referring to that kid. Also, clarifying in case I was confusing: their objection isn’t to using a gender-neutral pronoun, nor to having a gender-neutral grandchild. It’s specifically to being asked to use a pronoun which they perceive as plural for a singular child. But that’s the pronoun my kid wants to use; they’re not interested in using pronouns like zie/zir or other gender-neutral options, and I don’t want to make them for the sake of their grandparents’ grammar issues.)
A5: Lots of people who have a problem using people’s pronouns claim they don’t have a problem with trans or nonbinary or genderfluid people or their identities, so, let’s unpack that for a second.
If your parents are a man and a woman who married each other, there is a very high chance that when they got married your mom changed her last name. Suddenly people who knew her as “Miss Maidenname” had to call her “Mrs. Marriedname.” She had to do a bunch of expensive and annoying administrative stuff, she had to introduce herself with a new name, and she probably signed a few checks with the wrong name before she got it right. Her parents, who knew her whole life with the name they gave her had to learn to write a different name on the holiday card. And she (and everyone around those people) adjusted just fucking fine. In their lifetimes, your parents have also learned countless new expressions that became second nature. “Google it.” “Emoji.” “Blog.” “Bromance.” “Sexting.” It’s not that hard. Unless, of course, you don’t think certain people deserve the effort. And in a world where powerful governing bodies host bigoted arguments as to who is human enough to pee in a bathroom, it’s time for people to fix their hearts or die.
So you’ve had the logical argument about grammar, now it’s time for the emotional one. Next time “I’m not convinced” comes up, try this:
“You don’t have to be convinced, you just have to do the right thing. And this isn’t about us auditioning for or convincing you anymore. This is about you convincing me that you can be trusted to do the right thing by my child.
Ultimately, you get to choose the kind of relationship you want to have with me and my kid. What we’re talking about here is ‘discomfort about breaking a grammar rule you learned as a kid (that it turns out wasn’t actually a rule)’ vs. ‘making my kid feel safe and welcome and loved.’
If I can’t trust you to do the right thing about this, then I can’t knowingly put my kid into a situation where they won’t be welcome, safe, and loved, and we’ll all have to see each other a lot less. I love you both deeply, and I very much do not want that to happen, so, please think about it. I have faith that you can get this right, but I’m done having this argument.”
And then you give them space to figure it out and hopefully do better. Since they are behaving respectfully, it sounds like the hard part’s done, and they can die mad about it on the inside.
Q6: Hey Captain! So, I recently came out as queer, ended a marriage (with a man), and told myself I was going to go on some dates with women (or any non-male-identifying folks). Basically, I wanted to explore my queerness, especially since I’ve been in relationships constantly since I was 16 years old (I’m now almost 30). Here’s the problem. I went on two dates with an amazing woman and things already feel pretty serious. We have a lot in common, she’s super smart and cool, and I’m going back to visit her soon for our third “date” (which is actually going to be about 5 days long.) My therapist is telling me that I should apply arbitrary rules about needing to remain single or go on X number of dates before getting into a relationship, while some of my (more cynical friends) say that I’m limiting myself by potentially getting into a relationship (or something relationship-like), especially when just a few weeks ago I was touting the benefits of needing to be on my own. It’s not that I don’t like being single or being on my own. I like it a lot! I just also really like this lady. What gives? What should I do? How do I feel out these new waters while being authentic to myself, exploring my new identity, and enjoying my time with this awesome new lady-friend? Thank you!
A6: I get where your therapist is coming from, especially since you’ve been in relationships since you were 16. Your therapist is saying: “ALONE IS GREAT. TRY ALONE FOR A SECOND.”
Not “no dating” or even “no sex” or even “no love feelings!” alone, but like, what do you like for breakfast when you don’t have to take anyone else into account? What do you like on your TV how do you like your living space to look and feel. If you had five days to spend all by yourself how would you spend them?
You can still date this lady if you want to! Just, where is the pressure to lock everything down into some committed long-term relationship coming from? Is there even any pressure in that direction?
Maybe the timing is just too awesome for words and this lady is going to be the next big love of your life. Ok! Great! But also: for the summer, could you practice keeping at least some of your daydreams for yourself, and not starting all your sentences (even mental sentences) with the word “We…”?
Great questions this week, comments are open.