Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Angry cry: I don’t like being around people when I’m really sick or in pain, including emotionally. I tend to get really angry for no real reason. Sometimes I will burst out crying and leave the room, unwilling to talk to anybody until I’ve calmed down. Sometimes I will yell at people to leave me alone if they are not giving me what I need, especially when those people aren’t supportive. This is something that has been true for me most of my life.
I now have a health condition that I’m having a hard time getting under control with a standard protocol, and it can cause irritability. These outbursts don’t happen often, but it’s happening more during the pandemic. I understand talking to a therapist might help, but this has been something that has happened ever since I can remember. I don’t even know where to begin working on this because I’m usually so relaxed and now these emotions come on very suddenly and overwhelmingly. I never say anything mean, but people in my life have treated me like I’ve been absolutely ridiculous when it’s happened. I basically lost two close friends because this happened when we were out and they got angry at me for crying in the bathroom.
I guess what I’m asking is, is this normal or am I being ridiculous? Is it unrealistic to ask my family and friends not to be upset with me when this happens, or are these behaviors not socially acceptable? Is it something I should work on? I think my family and friends think that I’m an emotional rock because 99 percent of the time that’s absolutely true; most stuff that bothers other people just doesn’t bother me. I keep wondering if they think it’s out of character and I’m being “hysterical,” so their reaction is maybe shock or something. Am I being ridiculous?
A: I don’t think you’re being ridiculous, but it does seem like you’re suffering, often in solitude, in ways I don’t think you have to. Being like a rock—completely unbothered and unaffected by the world around you “99 percent” of the time—and then getting incredibly angry “for no real reason,” bursting into spontaneous tears, or abruptly yelling at a friend is an extraordinarily painful and distressing way to go through life. It’s not a sign that things are mostly fine and that you just need to let off steam, but an indicator that you feel significantly blocked off from telling anyone how you’re feeling until you reach a boiling point where conversation and connection become intolerable. I don’t think you are usually relaxed; what you describe sounds like a distressing ricochet between flatness/repression and profound distress. I think greater relaxation is possible for you, and I think you deserve help in finding a different way to relate to your own emotions. I agree that speaking to a therapist about this may prove helpful, and the fact that this is a lifelong pattern is an additional reason to schedule that first session now—not proof that it’s impossible to change.
That doesn’t mean you have to accept that everyone else’s interpretation of your behavior is entirely correct and your own is fundamentally flawed. If the close friends you lost dropped you without explanation because you wept in a bathroom, and you feel hurt and misunderstood as a result, that strikes me as an entirely reasonable reaction. But you also mention you’re sometimes irritable, that you get really angry “for no real reason” you can comprehend, and even if you don’t say intentionally mean things in those moments, it’s possible that you could cause your loved ones real distress.
This is not a referendum on whether you’ve been exclusively mean and deserve reproach or exclusively suffering and deserve sympathy. This pattern seems to have caused you a great deal of harm, and has also sometimes led you to upset the people you care about. You feel ill-equipped to analyze or change this pattern on your own. I believe that’s an indicator it’s time to ask for outside help. Finding the right therapist can be a really laborious and time-intensive process. Feel free to take your time researching different options, ask questions about their approach/insurance policy/training (most therapists will offer a free phone consultation before setting up a session so you can get a sense of whether you’d be a good match), and be prepared to disagree with them from time to time. But “I want help understanding a lifelong pattern that sometimes seems completely natural and reasonable to me, while baffling and upsetting to others, and I’m not sure how strongly to weigh their perceptions against mine” is the sort of question talk therapy is pretty well equipped to tackle, and I think there’s reason to hope it’ll be useful for you. Good luck!
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Q. I’ve got a front-row seat to my brother’s divorce: I moved in with my brother and sister-in-law during quarantine. We all work from home, so we spend a lot of time under one roof. This is surprisingly tolerable as they’ve got a large home with private space for everyone.
Unfortunately, it’s not large enough for me to escape their rapidly deteriorating marriage. I’m a witness to their arguments and bickering daily. Worse, my brother often seems to be the instigator. I’ve watched him belittle and speak rudely to his wife. I can see that they’re both suffering from depression, but neither of them seem to acknowledge it or to seek help.
I’m struggling with my own discomfort with this living situation, my concern for their marriage and their mental health, and unease about my brother’s behavior in his marriage. What’s my responsibility here?
A: Your two biggest priorities, I think, should be 1) finding yourself a saner, healthier living situation and 2) being honest with your brother about the difference between “ordinary” domestic squabbling (even during a pandemic) and cruelty. I don’t think you can (or should try to) address whatever they’re fighting about, or attempt to help them fix their marriage or make sure they seek counseling. The line should be “I’m really concerned about the way you speak to your wife [giving one or two clear examples] and I want you to stop, because no one deserves to be spoken to that way” and not “You two need to go to counseling” or “You two need to stop fighting.” But you can’t either force him to get help or convince her to leave by sticking around and watching them fight—you should definitely start asking around for any alternatives. You only have to say this once, but I think you should also prepare yourself for it to take a while for him to be able to consider it nondefensively. I’m so sorry.
Q. Help or hurt? My sibling “Jess” is 14, in high school, and living at home with my parents. They recently came out to me as queer, but aren’t telling my folks yet. We know my parents won’t be supportive from past behavior, but are unsure how far that nonsupport will go. (Conversion therapy/being kicked out versus my mom crying a lot, and the folks being weird about Jess socializing with “bad influences.”) Jess has a few close friends who know and are supportive. Jess is also having mental health issues, anxiety, depression, etc. They asked me to help them get a therapist. My parents are open to Jess going to counseling as the depression is affecting their schoolwork. Jess doesn’t want to see a counselor who isn’t LGBTQ+ affirming, but is worried that if they pick out an affirming counselor, my parents will see the counselor’s website and guess that Jess is queer, so they feel too stuck to see anyone right now.
I don’t know if Jess is right about my parents guessing. I haven’t lived with them in a few years, but they weren’t that observant when I was there. However, they do take medical stuff seriously and would definitely read over any provider’s website before letting their child see them. But the important part is that Jess feels like our folks will guess, and I don’t see it being productive to argue with them. Do you know of any counselors who are secretly affirming? Or who have a fake website for homophobic parents? Or how one might find a counselor like this?
A: I’m inclined to share your instinct that an LGBT-affirming therapist won’t necessarily set off your parents’ suspicions about Jess’ queerness, although I can also understand Jess’ anxiety, given the tense situation they’re living in. You don’t mention whether your parents are religious, but if they’re looking for secular counselors, odds are good that most candidates will be affirming. The American Counseling Association (over 50,000 members strong), for example, opposes conversion therapy in its code of ethics. Many therapists include LGBT competency as part of a list of priorities/interests as variable as “workplace stress” and “family dynamics,” so you can certainly help Jess look for affirming therapists who don’t put it front and center on their website. You can also set up a pre-appointment phone call in advance of any formal sessions (you might offer to join Jess on that call, if they’re interested) to stress the importance of confidentiality in light of your parents’ homophobia; hopefully Jess will find such a call reassuring. Even if they don’t, they’ll at least be able to make a more informed decision about whether to set up that first session as a result of that call. I agree that you should let Jess make their own decision about whether to proceed after that phone call, but any therapist treating teenagers will have clear, solid answers about confidentiality, safety, and privacy. Make it clear that the screening phone calls are not a commitment to start sessions, and that you’ll do everything you can to make sure such phone calls take place securely and without fear of your parents’ interference. Hopefully that will do enough to put Jess’ mind at ease that they’ll feel comfortable taking the next step.
Q. Would it be rude to not invite my stepmother-in-law? I’m about to have a baby with my partner, “Bart,” and we’re very excited! One thing that has come up a lot during my pregnancy is how much Bart wishes that his mom, who passed away four years ago, was around for this. Soon after Bart’s mom passed, his dad met and married “Cindy.” The quick remarriage was difficult for Bart, but Cindy is nice and he likes her for the most part. The one big issue that still clouds their relationship is that anytime Bart’s mom is even mentioned, Cindy gets very upset. Her reactions have ranged from tearing up to barging out of the room. Cindy has privately told me that she is quite jealous of Bart’s mom and all of the years she had with Bart’s dad. Because Cindy’s reactions are so intense, Bart never gets to talk about his mom at family gatherings.
People have started to make plans to come visit the baby (once it’s safe). Bart wishes that his father would come alone so that they can safely talk about Bart’s mom together. It’s a very bittersweet time for Bart and it’s important to him to raise the baby with stories of Grandma. I proposed that we invite Bart’s dad and Cindy to make a joint trip and then ask Bart’s dad to make a solo trip a month or two later. Bart’s brother agrees that Cindy’s refusal to acknowledge their mom’s existence is a problem; however, he thinks that it’s bad etiquette to only invite one part of a married couple to visit. What do you think?
A: I’m inclined to agree that you’re not going to get very far in asking Bart’s father to leave his wife at home. But what you and Bart can do is tell his father that you plan on discussing his mother some of the time, and that you’d like him and Cindy to plan ahead for that so she doesn’t have a meltdown. That is, frankly, a much simpler and more straightforward request than asking him to travel without his partner. “Dad, I’m going to talk about Mom sometimes, especially once the baby is here and the conversation naturally turns to family dynamics. If Cindy’s not going to be able to handle that, I’d like the two of you to have a strategy in place for her to take a walk or otherwise look after herself without asking the rest of us to stop using Mom’s name.” If, in the future, Cindy attempts to get you alone to disclose more of her feelings about your partner’s late mother, feel free to politely tell her you think this conversation is inappropriate and that you can’t accommodate her demand, then get back to the rest of the group.
Q. Weight police: My parents are constantly policing my weight and diet habits. They have been obsessed with image and weight loss for as long as I can remember. I have always struggled to maintain a weight that is acceptable to them. Since I was young, my father has kept a running commentary of everything I put in my mouth in his presence. He would feed me less than my brother at family meals. Five years ago, I emigrated—in all honesty, to get away from them—but it hasn’t stopped. Every video call is “Are you exercising?” or “Oh, I see you’re eating bread.” The last time I traveled home, my father said that if I didn’t get my weight sorted, I was going to die young—an attempt to shock me into action.
I am overweight, but I have no other health concerns. I have an eating disorder and a very dysfunctional relationship to food in general, and I am desperately trying to correct it and be able to relax around food. Every time I speak to my parents, I feel like I get set back to the beginning. Recently, they sent me running shoes for my birthday and I just burst out crying at the sight of them. It feels relentless. How do I talk to them about this? Or do I simply stop speaking to them all together?
A: This sounds absolutely exhausting, and I’m really of two minds about what to do. This kind of brutal, obsessive, relentless focus on demeaning your body under the guise of “concern” (surely if this relentless criticism were actually good for your health in any way, they’d have accomplished something by now) is so demoralizing, and it’s hard to imagine they’d be receptive in the least to hearing you say, “This needs to stop.” So the question is really whether you think saying something, either over the phone or in writing, would feel good, empowering, or worthwhile, or whether you’d prefer to spare yourself an ugly series of likely recriminations.
There are some conversations I think it’s worth having with loved ones, even if the prospect seems incredibly daunting, but I don’t think it’s incumbent on you to explain why being inundated with death threats or relentless criticism causes you pain. That’s not love, nor concern, nor a real relationship that exists in trust and safety, and trying to explain why being constantly demeaned hurts your feelings to an incredulous audience might feel more damaging than simple radio silence. I hope you feel a lot of freedom to pursue whatever path seems most satisfying and peaceful to you.
Q. Between a family and a hard place: My husband lost both of his parents this year, one to cancer and the other to Alzheimer’s disease. The only family that he has left is his sister, but it has been increasingly difficult to have a relationship with her. She has been getting more extreme in her political views for years, but this year has been extremely hard with politics and the pandemic. She has been repeating all kinds of crazy conspiracy theories that she hears, and she still believes that COVID is a hoax even though our state is in the middle of a crisis. She brags about never wearing a mask. My husband and I both work in health care and have seen the direct effects of not following guidelines, so we take social distancing and wearing a mask very seriously, not just for ourselves but also for others around us. We’re exhausted from the emotional and physical strain that our work has required this year, but she thinks we’re being dramatic and overly cautious.
My husband wants to have a relationship with her, but I feel like I have to choose between her and the safety of my family, co-workers, and those we come into contact with. We could probably make excuses to avoid seeing her for several months until this pandemic starts to wane, but that won’t resolve the extreme views that she continues to embrace. My husband has tried to set boundaries and ask that we don’t discuss politics, but she continues to ignore his requests and tries to engage in arguments about politics whenever we see her. I know my husband is trying hard not to lose his entire family this year, but this situation with his sister isn’t healthy for either of us. Do we continue to try to make this relationship work or do we just cut ties for our own sanity?
A: I realize whatever decision you two make will have to be made jointly, or at least with shared awareness of disagreement—you may decide to stop speaking to his sister, but if he still wants to try for a relationship with her, there’s a limited amount of control you can exercise over him. I agree that as long as the pandemic continues, you should be straightforward and unapologetic about not being able to see her in person because of the health risk. She’s free to think you’re “dramatic” for doing so, but you don’t have to entertain her arguments on the subject.
In the longer run, if you recognize that you’re reaching the end of your patience with her, I think the best approach is to tell your husband your limits while asking him about his. Does he want to try for regular phone calls with her? Cards on holidays and the occasional get-together? Can he think of another approach to her relentless attempts to argue about politics that feels viable and sustainable? Can he respect your decision to sit future visits out? For your part, are you determined never to speak to her again, or can you envision a mostly civil interaction with her once a year or so? All of these options are on the table; it’s really just a question of what you’re both prepared and willing to do.
Q. I want to be where the other planners are: I’m a 23-year-old woman with a lifelong social issue. Every friend I have ever had is incredibly passive. I always initiate hangouts and plan get-togethers, and I resent it. It makes me feel my friends aren’t interested in my company because they either aren’t willing or able to do any social planning. I feel sometimes that the only reason some of my friends are my friends is because I organize stuff, and if I didn’t organize stuff, I would never see them again.
I’ve talked about it to some of them and expressed how I would appreciate it if they would take on just a little planning once in a while so the work doesn’t always fall on me, but here I am, still planning everything. I understand I can’t make people change, so I’m not looking for methods to somehow force my friends to become better at taking charge and organizing our mutual social life. I just want to know how to accept this because it deeply frustrates and aggravates me when I am the sole social planner. I’m trying to make new friends, but I’m having difficulty due to COVID-19 and I don’t want to invest time and energy into making a new friend only to discover that they are exactly like my current friends, unwilling or unable to invest one iota of energy into initiating social hangouts. How do I combat my feelings of resentment and anger toward my friends and how do I go about finding new friends?
A: I wish I could put you in touch with the “Leading the followers” letter writer! You two would either get along like a house on fire or find yourself in immediate need of a follower to balance yourselves out. I realize that COVID has put a real damper on making new friends, but I’d encourage you to reflect on what’s historically been true for you in this area. What happens to you when you meet nonpassive people? Do you find yourself wishing you could befriend them, or do you find them off-putting? It does seem like one obvious solution to your problem is to broaden your social circles and to consciously seek out confident, outspoken, assertive friends to add to the mix. Surely there are ways to screen for such traits relatively early in an acquaintance. I can’t pretend you’ll always guess correctly, and some seemingly confident people can end up being indecisive about where to get dinner or what movie to watch, but it is possible to make fairly educated guesses on that front!
When it comes to your current friends, it’s possible that the problem is that some of them know part of the truth, but almost no one but you knows all of it. You’ve told “some of them” that you’d “appreciate it” if they did “just a little planning once in a while,” but in fact you’re deeply frustrated and aggravated and want to do a lot less planning a lot of the time. I can really relate to this habit of offering up a 35 percent version of a frustration because you believe you won’t get what you want if you’re completely honest—I do it myself all the time, and it never works, and you’d think I’d have learned better by now. But if your friends think it’s only a little problem, they’re going to treat it like a little problem, and you’re going to feel additionally disrespected and taken advantage of. So let them know it’s important to you!
Q. Re: Angry cry: I am pretty sure that you could possibly be one or two people from my past writing this letter. I can tell you what it is like being on the flip side of this type of behavior and maybe you can attempt to empathize. Constantly walking on eggshells, waiting for the next public meltdown, or feeling like you can’t have any honest dialogue with a supposed “close friend” without a disproportionately angry response is not fun. You may not be able to control your emotions, but you can certainly use therapy to find better ways of understanding your triggers and managing your emotions before you alienate more of your loved ones. Self-awareness is the first step so I wish you the best of luck as you try to sort through some of these issues.
A: I’m reluctant to make a sweeping ruling about how every one of these outbursts might affect others, but it seemed like there was something missing between “I get angry for no reason sometimes”/“I’m newly irritable” and “two of my friends abandoned me for crying in public,” and I think there’s reason to suggest the letter writer needs to do some more soul-searching here, preferably with a therapist.
Danny M. Lavery: Thank you so much for your help, everyone. I’m going to try to stay upright until next Monday—see you then.
From Care and Feeding
Q. Overdosing on in-laws: I am the mother of twin 5-month-old boys. Both of my parents died recently, while my husband’s parents are both still alive. Now that his parents are the only grandparents, he and they have decided that it’s a given they’ll be present at every holiday. This is beginning to slowly shatter me. Not only do I enjoy myself a lot less when they’re around (really, isn’t that the truth for all of us with our in-laws?), but I also feel (perhaps unreasonably) like it’s a betrayal to my own dead parents to be giving my in-laws every holiday when my own parents never got any. My mother was a huge Christmas person, and she never got a Christmas with grandchildren. It’s going to be damn hard for me to be joyous and carefree with my in-laws as I also mourn my own mother at Christmastime. Add this to Thanksgiving, birthdays, Easter, Halloween, etc., and you can see how I’ve come to dread holidays. I’d love to have some of the holidays be just our own little family, without the grandparents, but my husband thinks this is cruel and illogical. Is it wrong to request the grandparents sit a few holidays out? Read what Michelle Herman had to say.