Tag Archive | advice

Just Ask Me Advice: Help! I Can’t Stand my Family at the Holidays

Reposted by  — from The Daily Muse, November 23, 2011 — 1 Comment
Help! I Can't Stand my Family at the Holidays

Dear Fran,

As Thanksgiving approaches, I find myself once again stressed and sick at the thought of traveling home. I’m kind of the black sheep of my family, and don’t feel like I fit in anymore, if I ever did. The biggest issue is my brother, who’s ten years older than I, and his wife, who hs a knee jerk opinion about everything, from politics to how children should be raised.  Plus, their 13-year-old daughter is a total brat.

Truthfully, my brother is a brat too, but in my father’s eyes he can do no wrong.  Both of them played college football, and we have always had a kind of male-oriented household.  While my younger brother is thinking about going to law school after college, my older brother has joined my father’s business, and the two of them live in their own world in which only their opinions and needs count.  Even though I went to a good college and now have a great husband and career, they all act like that was just expected and truly don’t seem to care.

With barely a break for dinner, they will spend Thanksgiving ay immersed in whtever football game is on, drinking beer and hollering at the TV.  Last year my neice sat in a corner, texting on her phone, ignoring the constant nagging of her mother.

Worst of all, my father and older brother kind of pick on my husband because he’s not a sports guy.  My husband tries to fit in, and always feels oblgated to join the rest of them in the football thing.  Inevitably, my mother and I end up alone in the kitchen doing the dishes, and my mother quietly complains about how unhappy she is with my father.

As I grow older, I find it harder to find common ground and even have a decent conversation, let alone avoid any judgment or squabbling because of the crude way they talk, sometimes even calling people racist or sexist names.  I envy my friends and even the holiday movies full of families gathered around dinner tables happily feasting, and enjoying being together after moths apart, when all I feel is embarrassed, disgusted, and stressed.

Alone

****************************************

Dear Alone,

Let me begin by saying that I sympathize. I too grew up in a family in which my father favored my older brother, and I felt dead last in a field of two. It took a very long time to understand how this has impacted my life, my choices, and my emotional stability. In the long term, I suggest you go to therapy or undertake an honest self-analysis to try to understand how this has potentially impacted you.

But here’s my advice for the short term: First of all, stop being embarrassed and envious of all those “happy” families. Truth is, every family out there has its own unique imperfections. Things can look pretty good from the outside, but the ideal family dynamic is not something I have seen in reality very often. And I’d say that most families have at least one member who isn’t all that happy to be home, or thinks she doesn’t fit in, or feels like some kind of black sheep.

I also want to dissuade you of the notion that there is anything wrong with being the proverbial black sheep; it sounds to me as if you’re lucky you got out of there! Now I admit I’m not a football fan, but given the evidence showing as much as a 22% rise in domestic violence calls to the police on Thanksgiving Day, I can’t help mentioning here the disgust I have with the whole “drunk and hollering” milieu.

Try this: Meditate to calm down. Look at Thanksgiving as a kind of yearly sociological experiment. Talk to your husband about your feelings and frustrations, listen as he explains his, and support him in doing what makes him feel comfortable. During the weekend, observe carefully, learn from everyone’s behavior (including your own), and become stronger in your convictions.

Be grateful for all the wonderful things in your life, and maybe even suggest that everyone in the family take a turn before the meal saying what they’re grateful for. Also try to focus on the family members with whom you do, or could, have positive relationships. Continue to be there for your mother, and be kind to her—it sounds to me as if she has a lot of regrets. Foster your relationship with your younger brother, who sounds thoughtful and approachable, and reach out to your niece, who, despite her aloofness, may be a struggling young girl who could benefit from your influence in her life. Perhaps bring her a little gift, maybe a puzzle or a game you could play together. Plus, your husband might be grateful for the escape from the rest of the family and join in.

While keeping in mind that you aren’t going to change anyone, steer clear of any political debates. I would, however, draw the line at sexist and racist name-calling. Say you don’t appreciate that kind of negativity and ask them to stop.

And finally, if being with your family at the holidays really pains you, it might be time to consider avoiding it altogether. Consider spending next Thanksgiving with your husband’s family or on a vacation with just the two of you. You can’t choose your family, but you can choose how you react to them—and how much time you spend with them.

Best of luck,

Fran

Have a question for Fran? Email advice@thedailymuse.com

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Wesolowski.

“Just Ask Me” Advice #4: How to Help a Friend with cancer

Help! How Do I Help a Friend with Cancer?

Help! How Do I Help a Friend With Cancer?

Dear Fran,

A close friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer a few weeks ago. She’s had surgery and will be undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. The doctors say her prognosis looks good, but she has had to drop out of her grad school program for the semester.

We were all absolutely devastated when we heard the news, and it’s been the most difficult thing I could imagine for her and her family. She has been inconsolably depressed, crying all the time, and so angry that her life as she knows it is over. It is so not fair that this happened to such a wonderful person—and all I want to do is make her feel even a tiny bit better.

Our friends have tried everything we can think of—spending days at the hospital, crying with her, talking, bringing games, watching movies, and more. But nothing has helped—even the good news from the doctors that we got last week. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain she’s going through, so I am at a loss as to what else I could say or do that might help even a tiny bit.

How can I help her?

A Friend

Dear Friend:

I am moved by your question. It sounds as if you are a caring, concerned friend who’s doing everything possible to alleviate your friend’s suffering.

Unfortunately, there is nothing you can say or do to magically make things better or to wish her disease away. Your friend is mourning a very grave loss. Calling cancer a loss may surprise you, but a young woman being treated for breast cancer, even breast cancer she’s probably going to survive, is dealing with significant life losses, including loss of health, loss of innocence, loss of safety, (perceived) loss of sexuality, and (at least temporarily) loss of cherished dreams and ambitions.

Your friend is on a journey and needs time to process this profound life experience. All you can offer is your companionship and deepest compassion. The Buddhist definition of compassion is the nearest I’ve come to truly understanding how to handle situations like yours:

“Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering.”

Being close to her suffering means being patient with her feelings, not trying to change them. Continue to visit and when you do, encourage her to express her emotions, and always validate their legitimacy, even if they’re scary or make you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. Don’t pretend to understand her pain; it is hers and hers alone. And when she’s opening up to you, don’t try to distract her unless she’s begging for news from the outside world or a change in topic.

Also refrain from optimistic assurances—they may come across as empty or invalidating and may further anger or depress her. Don’t, for example, try to reassure her that she can go back to school next year, or even that all will eventually go back to “normal.” Her process might take her somewhere else entirely, and her “normal” may be altered permanently, too.

All that being said, there are some ways you can help her move forward:

  1. Bring her a beautiful journal in which to record her experiences and feelings. She can keep this private, of course, but the writing process itself is wonderfully beneficial. Or direct her to a website like www.caringbridge.org, where cancer patients can write an ongoing journal, share their experiences with a community of concerned friends, and receive support.
  2. Encourage her to participate in a support group with other young women facing breast cancer or other health crises. Individual therapy with a social worker or psychologist might also help. Check out the resources in her area or community, or ask her hospital for helpful and therapeutic resources.
  3. Put together a care package of meditation tapes, green or white teas, a heating pad, aromatherapy candles, books (the young and amazing Kris Carr has a few), tissues, stationery—anything that may be comforting and relaxing to her.
  4. Bring her a book about the breast cancer experience, either a memoir or an instructional book on how to get through it. Hearing from someone else who has been through what she’s dealing with might be incredibly comforting, and help her feel that she’s not so alone.

Finally, keep doing what you’re doing. Be present and humble. Observe and reflect. Allow silence, and don’t judge. No matter how she’s dealing with this, accept her, listen to her, and love her.

Let me end with a life survival tip, which I offer in the most sincere and open way. After I lost my son, I spent years raging at the whole universe, to no avail—except to learn that the universe is 100% indifferent to what seems fair. Knowing this tidbit helped me later, when I received my own breast cancer diagnosis.

I offer this tip to help you prepare yourself for the vicissitudes of life, and to encourage you to be grateful for each moment and every day. To help you help your friend as she begins this journey. And to state a bottom-line truth that is nonnegotiable and endlessly unforgiving:

Survival Tip #1: Life is not fair.

Your friend is learning this truth, and I encourage you to learn it, too. And I wish you both good luck and good health.

Fran

Have a question for Fran? Email advice@thedailymuse.com

“Just Ask Me” Column #1: The Pushy, Creepy Boss

Hello Bruised Musers,
While working on my next advice column for http://www.thedailymuse.com, a piece on the proverbial mother-in- law-from-hell, which will appear this Wednesday, I realized I forgot to post the last one, on the creepy boss. So here it it:

Help! My Boss Won’t Leave Me Alone

by  — September 14, 2011 — 3 Comments

Help! My Boss Won't Leave Me Alone

Welcome to our first advice column Q&A! Have a question for Fran? Email advice@thedailymuse.com

Dear Fran,

I was recently on an international trip with my boss, and, quite frankly, traveling with him makes me uncomfortable. After we finish up our client meetings each day, he wants to spend the evening together—eating dinner together and then working together in the hotel lobby. This isn’t really that uncommon at my company (though usually there’s a bigger team traveling together), but I just want to go back to my room and be alone.

Then, the other night, the hotel’s Internet was slow and I couldn’t attach any large files to the emails I was sending him. He insisted on coming by my hotel room to pick up my files on a flash drive—and then sat down on my bed and wanted to chat and hang out. I was furious and told him to leave—which he eventually did—but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to travel with him anymore, but the project we’re working on lasts another six weeks. What should I do?

-Uncomfortable

Dear Uncomfortable,

There’s an old Chinese proverb: The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name.

Your first task is to name the situation. Is this “sexual harassment,” defined by law as “unwelcome and severe or pervasive conduct of a sexual nature that affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment?” If so, start keeping a paper trail.

My guess is we should call this ambiguous, like most things in life. Which is not to say that your boss isn’t a big fat jerk! Unfortunately, some situations are simply not in our control, and some people are jerks. And some of them get to adulthood, even into positions of power, without learning to recognize social cues. The psychotherapist in me could diagnose this, but I’ll refrain.

There could be reasons for your guy’s boorish behavior, such as he’s having a hard time in his life (not your problem, of course). On the other hand, he may just feel entitled to nightly (non-sexual) companionship as part of the organizational culture, and also be a jerk. Can you discreetly find out whether you are alone in disliking him?

In any case, you need to set boundaries about what you will and won’t put up with, but you also need to be smart in dealing with people, men and women.

Don’t, for example, do what I did. My first job was at a two-person start-up in the entertainment field. The only other person in the office was my manic, married boss. I really liked the work, and the guy was brilliant, but he was constantly inviting me to dinner, looking at me longingly, telling me how beautiful I was. I told him I had a boyfriend (now my husband of 35 years), but nothing dissuaded him. After about six months I felt so uncomfortable I just quit.

But acting impulsively is almost never the right choice.

So I would ask you to determine whether you can tolerate six uncomfortable weeks in service of fulfilling your larger goals. In the grand scheme, six weeks is a short time, especially if you generally like the job, your other co-workers, and the advancement possibilities. Especially if you don’t have another job option.

You say you he “insisted,” and you were “furious.” Ask yourself honestly if you’ve actually set and expressed your boundaries clearly and firmly. One of the reasons you may feel uncomfortable is because on some level you recognize that allowing him into your room was a kind of triple foul: you permitted him to violate reasonable boundaries, sent him a mixed message, and needlessly lost control. Next time, you “insist”—on delivering your flash drive to the lobby.

On the plane next time, politely but firmly tell your boss you’re happy to review the day’s work for, say, two hours, in the lobby, but you need time to decompress alone after that. Perhaps even say you need to call your boyfriend, even if he’s mythical. And don’t go down the path of telling him about your feelings of discomfort, which could set the stage (in his mind) for moresharing of feelings—his!

You need to set your boundaries and be firm. But after that, your only real option here may be to learn to deal with your discomfort. Try meditation or progressive muscle relaxation. Exercise. Distract yourself. Keep a journal. Writing can help you integrate the emotionally reactive, impulsive part of your brain with the logical, narrative part. Try writing down negative feelings toward this guy and the situation, and be sure to focus on some positive things (and people) in your life too.

Way back when, maybe I should have stuck out my discomfort with my own boss; it’s not as if he threatened or insisted. But I was too naïve to understand sacrifice for a larger goal, too timid and confused to set boundaries clearly and firmly, and too mired in the socio-cultural idea that women should make as few waves as possible. And the fact is, that guy eventually turned that two-person start-up into one of the most innovative, successful entertainment marketing companies in the world.

Focus now on getting through the next six weeks and getting assigned next time to someone in the organization whose work (and personality) you do admire, but not by saying bad things about this guy.

Good luck!

Fran

Want advice? Write to Fran at advice@thedailymuse.com

The Answer to the Question: Introducing my advice column: JUST ASK ME

Here’s the answer to the question posed by the Bruised Muse’s last post: Am I an advice columnist?  Apparently I am.  I’m the new advice columnist at http://www.dailymu.se (also, http://www.daily-muse.com), and I’m thrilled to be a part of such an exciting new venture.

The Daily Mu.se

Need Advice? Just Ask Us!

by  — August 31, 2011 — 1 Comment

110831 Just Ask Us 2C

Welcome to the Daily Muse’s advice column. I’m open for business, ready to provide thoughtful answers to your most pressing questions.

But first, let me introduce myself, so you know the editors didn’t just drag someone off the street to give advice on complicated life problems.

Although I’ve been a writer all my life, I never aspired to write an advice column—but I probably have the perfect background for the gig. I’m not just a writer, after all, I’m a psychotherapist and clinical social worker, too.

And I have quite a bit of life experience. Back before many of you Gen Yers were born, I got an undergrad degree in communications, then held a bunch of jobs—from car salesperson to corporate promotion manager—before finally accepting that I was more interested in understanding people than selling widgets. I went back to school for a PhD in Psychology, but never finished (although along the way I gathered some other letters, MA and MSW) because I began my writing career, which has included three nicely received novels, as well as published essays, poetry, and articles.

I’ve experienced all the usual things in life—career, marriage, and family, including now a grandchild—and I’ve also faced an extraordinary number of life challenges, probably more than my share. I’ve learned that, while styles and customs evolve and technology is changing our world at lightning speed, human nature and relationships—what we want and need in life, how best to get it, and how to cope when we don’t—remain constant.

The truth is, experience is only useful when we learn from it. And that’s what I’m here to share. I’ve learned so much that I write a blog, The Bruised Muse, celebrating surviving and developing resilience in the face of adversity. I’ve been working on a new genre of memoir, too. It includes self-help in the form of “survival tips” for reader takeaway (you’ll probably see a few sprinkled in my column)!

But enough about me. Let’s move on to you, and your relationships with parents, friends, spouses, co-workers, mentors, bosses. In this column, I’ll tackle questions about your career, love, sex, male/female roles, taking criticism, expectations, ambition, addiction, jealousy, loss. I’ll take on your pet peeves, life’s little annoyances, your worries about navigating this culture and the changing role of women, your existential despair, fear, boredom, bias, envy, anxiety, anger, sadness.

And I’ll do so for the same reason I sit with people in therapy: I want to help. To offer you perspective. To encourage your self-analysis, creativity, confidence, and compassion. To help you think clearly, consider all the options, set boundaries, and be realistic. To help you make good choices.

As I answer your questions, I have three promises to make:

  1. If I have a useful example from my own life, I’ll offer it, and I’ll always tell the truth as I see it, not necessarily as I (or you) wish it would be.
  2. If I’m unsure about something, I’ll consult an expert.
  3. I’ll probably make a joke or three in my answer, usually at my own expense, but I don’t do snark. I’ve been through so much in my life, believe me, I have empathy for whatever you’re facing.

You, Daily Muse reader, and I are beginning this adventure together. You’ll be anonymous, so don’t hold back, but do try to provide some context or background when you ask your question. And remember: The more interesting and honest the question, the more interesting and useful the answer.

So go ahead and Just Ask Me.

Need life advice? Write to:  advice@dailymu.se.

Or frandorf@aol.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Fran Dorf writes the “Just Ask Me” column at the Daily Muse. Fran is a psychotherapist-clinical social worker and author of three acclaimed novels. Fran’s essays, poetry, and articles have appeared in anthologies, national periodicals, and literary journals, and she’s working on a memoir about the ridiculous amount of tsuris—or heartaches— she’s survived in her life. Fran also writes a blog, The Bruised Muse, which celebrates surviving life and achieving resilience in adversity. In her spare time, she reads everything, rants about politics, Zumba dances, skis, plays tennis, travels, and plays with her grandchild, Maya.

Surviving a difficult daughter-in-law: Am I an advice columnist? Sure.

A BRUISED MUSE reader wants an answer to her dilemma.  “Doris” writes:

Dear Fran,
I read your article on how to help the bereaved in Bottomline Secrets email and found it really helpful.

My situation is a little different, but I’m sure someone else has been through it and you may know how to help me.

About 2 1/2 yrs ago I met a wonderful widower. We fell in love and married 11 mos ago. We are both in our 60’s and each have 2 grown children. All the adult children seemed very happy for us except his daughter. She is still very much grieving her mother’s death of nearly 6 yrs ago. She would not come to our home at all. She finally agreed to let her husband bring the kids over a few times last fall.  After the wedding last summer she was still pretty “cool” but has gradually “warmed” to me over the winter. What really hurt me was a long letter she wrote to me just before the wedding last summer, where she went on and on about how she felt that I was taking over her mother’s house and taking her father away from her. (We have since sold the house and moved to another state). Anyway, it has gotten a little better over the last 6 mos, but I notice there is still a tension between us. I tried not to take her words and feelings personally, realizing that she is still grieving. Her father felt protective of her (even though she is 36, married and has 6 kids of her own) but I have to tell you it nearly caused me to call off the wedding and definitely took some of the joy from it.

She still visits the gravesite regularly, which seems strange to me as that is not my custom. I have never visited the grave of a relative.

So if you have any advice for the 2nd wife I would love to have it.

Thanks,

“Doris”

* * * * *

BRUISED MUSE replies:

Dear “Doris:”

Thanks so much for writing.  I’m very happy you’ve found true love at this point in your life. How wonderful, adorable, stimulating, reassuring, life-affirming, and even (I hope) sensual.

After my mother died, my father, believe it or not, took up with the woman who had been my mother’s hospice nurse.  My father was 78, Mary wasn’t even 60. It was a little weird to see my father affectionate with a woman who was not my mother, especially since he’d never been affectionate with my mother, but, well…all I could say was “Good for Dad.”  Mary was just a lovely person; she was, after all, a hospice nurse.

It sounds to me as if your new daughter-in-law may be suffering from complicated grief. CG is “an intense and long-lasting form of grief that can take over a person’s life. It’s natural to experience acute grief after someone close dies, but grief usually recedes into the background, and over time, healing diminishes the pain of loss.  People suffering complicated grief often say that they feel “stuck.”  “Complicated” refers to factors that interfere with the natural healing process, often related to characteristics of the bereaved person, to the nature of the relationship with the deceased person, the circumstances of the death, or to things that occurred after the death.” (I took this definition from www.complicatedgrief.org, the website of Dr. Katherine Shear’s program for CG at Columbia University in New York City.) CG can include intrusive thoughts about death; uncontrollable bouts of sadness, guilt and other negative emotions; and a preoccupation with, or avoidance of, anything associated with the loss. Complicated grief has been linked to higher incidences of drinking, cancer and suicide attempts, and it can be quite distressing not only for those who are experiencing it, but for those who are witness to it.  The fact is, complicated grief can destroy two lives at once, and it can get really, really ugly, especially when there’s anger and guilt.

I have the sense you don’t live near New York, where Dr. Shear’s program is located, but if you want to help your daughter-in-law and possibly change the situation, I highly recommend that you take the following two steps:

1) Research psychotherapists, bereavement counselors, thanatologists, psychologists, and/or social workers in her area, and find one who is trained or knowledgeable in the treatment of complicated grief. Many people, sometimes even therapists, are very uncomfortable with grief, and regular talk therapy isn’t always helpful. Research has shown that the most helpful treatment involves, among other things: role playing; narrative therapy; tape recording the bereaved person as she recounts the details of the death and the loss and then replaying it; and journaling.

2) Ask your husband to suggest that she see that therapist. Or perhaps the other sibling, if he or she has been more accepting, could be enlisted in suggesting this.

Beyond taking those two steps, there simply isn’t much you can do, except to understand your husband’s ambivalence, and try to approach your difficult daughter-in-law with as much warmth, empathy, and kindness as you can. I realize that this could be very difficult.  Perhaps you could write her a letter, in which you honor her mother and reassure her that you aren’t trying to “take over.”

Your instinct not to take what she says personally is probably right, but at the risk of offending you, I would also ask you to consider your own role here.  You may be completely innocent, but here’s Survival Tip #1, from February, 2011.  It’s one of my favorite quotes from the brilliant psychiatrist (and novelist) Irvin Yalom, from one of his shorter works, The Gift of Therapy.  He says:

“Once an individual recognizes their role in creating their own life predicament, they realize that they, and only they, have the power to change the situation.”

The Bruised Muse has found, in her life and in her psychotherapy office, that life gets a whole lot easier when an individual finally recognizes that she (or he) ONLY has the power to change how she behaves in the world, and how she responds to others’ behavior toward her.  She does NOT have the power to change the others’ behavior.  And so, with that in mind, I’d suggest you ask yourself seriously if you have offended this woman in some way. (I mean other than by your existence.)

On the other hand, I’d ask: How far does she go in offending you?  Does she call you names?  Just ignore you?  Accuse you of things you haven’t done?

Try to separate what you wish for the relationship with her and her children, from what’s happening, from what’s possible.  And do set boundaries.  If her behavior is truly abusive–ie, for example, if she calls you names–explain (using “I feel” statements) that this hurts your feelings and you simply won’t tolerate it.

On the other hand, this could have NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with you.  Remember what I said above about the factors related to complicated grief.  One factor is the nature of the relationship with the deceased.  Was her relationship with her mother particularly difficult, strained, or ambivalent?  I certainly don’t suggest you take this up with her, but just knowing the truth of things (the actual truth, not the idealized truth) can help.  Knowledge is not only power, it can be comfort too.

As for visiting grave sites, some people find comfort in this. Regular visiting of a mother’s grave after six years MAY be a sign of complicated grief. After 17 years, I’m still OCCASIONALLY drawn to my son’s grave, but I usually stand there for a few minutes, place some small stones on the brass marker, wince at the hollow sound of stone on brass, and leave. I simply do not find my baby there.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes.
Fran Dorf (THE BRUISED MUSE)