How Do I Handle Difficult Conversations No One Else Finds Difficult?

Things were rough for me as a teenager. I was going through some abuse and don’t think I went through developmental stages in the typical way. I stopped getting my hair cut because I couldn’t stand sitting in front of my reflection for so long. I had panic attacks when I tried to buy clothes. I was socially awkward and never had the chance to do sports. My therapist thinks I was a few years developmentally delayed.

This comes up a lot as I’m parenting my teen-aged daughter, or even chatting with other adult women about teen years. We’re having a normal conversation about something that’s generally a shared experience, like doing sports or learning about style, and suddenly I feel like a dork who grew up on another planet. I end up working my butt off to hold up my end of the conversation normally.

I don’t want make things “all about me” when it comes up with my growing daughter (which is all the time). I don’t want to turn a light conversations with friends into needy laments about my childhood. But doing a competent job of these conversations takes so much energy and makes me feel lonely, and it bothers me for a long time.

How would you handle this?

– Dork From Another Planet

Dear Fellow Dork From Another Planet,

When I read that you stopped getting your hair cut because you could not look at your reflection for so long, my heart ached for teenage you. For a child to be that miserable and self-hating is a terrible, terrible thing. And your friends have no idea that they’re making you look hard at this girl and at what she was being forced to endure every time they bring up these conversations. They are dragging you back to a miserable time in your life, in front of your child, (or your child doesn’t realize she is dragging you back there), and you do not want to go back there.

So don’t.

The way I would handle it is this: however you can to take care of yourself and get through it.

I’m going to say this again because it is very important: I want you to do whatever you need to to get through it.

Yes, this conversation is light for them. And so many people assume that certain experiences are universal. In fact, there may be many reasons someone—from this planet—might not be able to easily engage in this conversation: childhood poverty springs to mind. Hopeless nerdery. Or just a plain disinterest in fashion or looks in general. Many topics of conversation come up that other people can’t relate to, find boring, or just have nothing to contribute to. So they make up a polite line and move on.

Even if this topic weren’t bringing up old trauma for you (and make no mistake about it: when they bring this up it reminds you of being abused, which is FUCKING TRAUMATIC) it is not your responsibility to hold up your end of a limping conversation you are not enjoying. It is not your responsibility to make people feel comfortable who have (inadvertently, of course) just made you uncomfortable. The longer you politely keep your end of the conversation going, the longer the torture will continue, and the longer you will be facing that poor girl who could not face herself.

The fact that these fellow parents are making you feel so lonely and alienated and weird and awful with this topic combined with your not wanting it to be about you tells me that you need something quick, and you need something that you can memorize and spit out. It needs to be something you can throw out there and then STOP TALKING ABOUT: vague and broad enough to fit many different conversations like this, but very definite in the ‘I’m not going to have anything to say about this’ category. I would suggest something like: “Oh, I was so out of it; I never noticed/did anything like that,” and then refusing to expand on it. And then: I suggest that instead of trying to contribute to the conversation, you listen.

I am so, so glad that it not a universal experience to hate looking at your own reflection for so long. But you know what is nearly universal? Feeling stupid about style. Learning about hair and feeling dumb that you didn’t know before that OF COURSE everyone feathers/wedges/mermaid colors their hair and uses hair spray/angled cuts/vegetable dyes. Trying to do these things on your own and failing miserably. Feeling like you’re the only kid in junior high who doesn’t have on the right t-shirt. Suddenly realizing that you never cared about any of these things but everyone else around you did.

I think if you could listen to these experiences as THEIR experiences, not comparing them to your own, you might find some commonalities, and this might help you to feel less alone.

I feel like I can’t emphasize this enough: they are bringing up old trauma for you. Hitting them quickly with a vague response and refusing to engage any further outside of listening might not work for you; you could also quickly excuse yourself to use the bathroom, tell them you’re not feeling well and walk away, drift off and dissociate, looking out of the window until they are through: anything you need to do to take care of yourself in that moment. Obviously getting therapy and working on your past is also important, but nothing happens overnight and until you can talk about these things without distress, re-traumatizing yourself after all those years of having someone else hurt you is not worth saving your friends face or your child a bit of embarrassment.

Take it seriously. It is important to you. Take care of yourself. Please.

I think with friends you know better than others, later on you can talk with them about it so you don’t feel you are hijacking the conversation. Tell them how you are feeling about reliving those teenage years. Reach out and tell your story. Telling your story to someone who is listening and cares, even if she feathered her hair perfectly in 1984, helps us to feel less alone and more connected.

Protect yourself in the moment. Reach out when you can. And please, please — if you are at all able — tell your teenage self that she is beautiful, and she is strong, and she is someone who deserves to be SEEN.

This letter originally ran in on November 3, 2016.

Should I Admit My Celebrity Crush?

I have a huge crush on a celebrity. He is simply the most beautiful man I’ve ever laid on eyes on. And I’d like to send him a fan e-mail/message, just saying I think he’s very attractive, nothing more, but there are two problems. First, he’s not a huge celebrity, so there’s a decent chance he’ll interact with my message and/or me online. Second, he’s straight and I’m gay. Let me be clear by saying there’s no chance we’d ever interact beyond a performer/fan context.

I wish I lived in a world where it was okay for a gay man to tell a straight man he’s good-looking without the straight man reading into it any further than that. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. And even though I suspect he wouldn’t take it the wrong way, or mock me for the observation, I also don’t want to make him uncomfortable.

Should I send my fanboy e-mail? Or am I breaching social protocol because of the orientation difference? Should I just swoon in silence when I see him online?

– Crushing on a Cutie

Dear Crushing,

I can see why you might be concerned. Certain straight men — especially more homophobic or more misogynistic men — cannot handle sexual admiration from gay guys.

Homophobic or misogynistic men (and homophobia is often the reverse of the same coin as misogyny) are unable to separate their own desires from fetishizing the objects of their desire or from dehumanizing the objects of their desire. To be desired, in this context, means to be less than human.

Which means if a gay man admires a homophobic/misogynist man’s butt? That somehow makes him an object. Makes him less than human. So men like this become enraged. They attack gay guys or trans women, whom they conflate. They freak out. They get “offended.” And you have maybe had reactions ranging from rage to quiet discomfort from men you appraised in the past.

That’s not the reason to hold off, though — if your celebrity crush is a homophobe or a misogynist, fuck it. Let him be uncomfortable or angry or offended.

But there is a reason to hold off, which I’d tell you no matter your orientation or gender: celebrities, especially minor ones, don’t need to know about your desires for them. They certainly don’t need a personal email that might make them feel pressured to respond when all you said was: “golly I think you’re hot.” How do you even respond to that, anyway? They don’t need someone to reach out to them in the position of interrupting their day to respond to mere ogling — or crushing, as you say, which can have some strange stalkerish undertones depending on the celebrity and what they have dealt with, rabid fan-wise.

If you adored his music/writing/juggling/macramé, you could write him a letter about that. Whatever it is that has made him famous, presumably he’d appreciate hearing about how much you admire his talent and hard work in that area. But a random drooling? I dunno. It seems beside the point and a little intrusive.

So, for completely different reasons from what you are worried about: beyond a tweet that says something like “@MarkRuffalo is soooooooo dreamy,” I’d leave it alone.

This letter originally appeared in on October 6, 2016.

How Do I Thank Someone For an Offensive Gift?

This all happened decades ago, and so has long been resolved. But I’m asking on behalf of my teenaged self, and those disabled teenagers and their parents living in the present.

I have cerebral palsy, which is a “from infancy” condition. I was also mainstreamed in school, and the only disabled kid in my local public school which had several hundred students.

Fast forward a dozen or more years. I’d since left that school and was attending high school in a different city.

My mother went back to my elementary school, once, to attend a town meeting, when one of the staff (a secretary from the principal’s office, I think, maybe?) goes up to her and presses a book into her hands and tells her it’s a present for me — because I made such an impression on her, and she thinks of me all the time (when I was actually a student there, she’d never said more than three words to me).

So Mother gives me the book, and, frankly, it grossed me out. It was a Christian/Inspirational autobiography by a woman with polio, all about how turning her life over to Jesus helped her overcome her depression and the tragedy of her affliction.

Not only had I never thought of my cerebral palsy as a tragic affliction, at the time, I was a budding Neo-Pagan witch. Mostly, though, it hurt — because it was obvious that this woman wasn’t remembering me, at all — she’d never taken the time to know me in the first place. For a dozen years, she’d been obsessing over her own fears of disability and soaking them in pity. And that book just proved it.

Still, my mother insisted I write this woman a “Thank you” letter, because it was a gift, and the woman meant well, and that’s the gracious thing to do.  I think I did write a boilerplate letter of less than 20 words.

So here’s my question: How do you (do you?) thank someone for good intentions when the result makes you feel like Hell?

– This Old Grudge Still Stinks

Dear Old Grudge,

As you know, this is often the way disablism rears its ugly head: in horrible, dehumanizing, demeaning Good Intentions. Rarely do we hear people saying outright hateful things (although sometimes they do of course); it’s often all about reducing us to our impairment. It’s all about how we — with our crippled bodies and our persistent insistence on existing — make other people FEEEEEEEEEEEEL. It’s nearly always about how they can HELP us — even when we don’t want to be helped. Or about how they think they would feel in our chairs.

So often I find myself complaining about disablism of this type and I hear: “Oh, she was trying to be nice,” or “when he opened the door you were trying to open yourself and hit you in the shins he was trying to help” or something similar. I think may other groups experience this well-meaning but awful dehumanization: when white people say how cute little black babies are or when someone whispers: “Asian women are SOoooOOO sexy and submissive.”

But I don’t think that, in these cases, the intention of the person matters. I mean, not as far as mitigating what they have said or done. And I think that your mother did you a disservice, even though I do understand she felt that You Write Thank You Notes.

The thing is, this woman gave you a flaming bag of poo.

So what do you do with a flaming bag of poo?

You give it back. You literally return the book with a thank-you note, of sorts.

Dear Ms. Lady I Don’t Even Remember,

Enclosed is the book you gave me. I am unable to accept books that reduce disabled people to objects of pity, so I am returning it. Thank you for thinking of me.

— That cripple girl you never said a word to

Now. This is proper. It is always proper to return completely inappropriate gifts. Would your mother have made you write a thank-you note to a teacher who gave you lingerie because you were his only female student? Would she have made you write a thank-you note to someone who sent you a list of Assisted Suicide places to go, should you ever wish to end the the endless torment that is clearly your life?

I hope not.

Those of us who stick up for ourselves and push back against the dehumanizing effects of racism, sexism, disablism, or ageism have to pay a price, of course. We are nearly always the one who is seen as causing the problem. And so we wind up having to deal with people’s feelings anyway.

But how are we to  change things if we always meekly write thank-you letters to our tormentors? So she would have huffed and whined about this to her friends. Perhaps some of them would have learned something. Perhaps even she would have.

I don’t think the matter is actually ‘resolved’ for you, by the way. You are writing me about something that happened decades ago, and you write with enormous passion about how you felt about it.

I think you have something to resolve with your mother, and perhaps showing her this letter might be a starting point for talking it through.

For what it’s worth, if your mother raised a girl decades ago who was mainstreamed into regular ed before the Americans with Disabilities Act and who also raised her to value her life and to not feel bad about having CP, I’m guessing she is a pretty damn good mom who not only fought for you but who understood who you were. She didn’t, for instance, argue with you about how the book wasn’t so bad or that you should be ‘grateful.’ I’m guessing she’d be willing and able to discuss this with you and to apologize to you — affirming how right you were to be angered by the book.

Because I am sure that if she stops and thinks, she will agree with me that when we ask our children to participate in their own oppression so as not to rock the boat, we are not doing them any favors. When we value teaching a girl how to be gracious over teaching her how to advocate for herself, we are making a mistake.

Every parent makes mistakes and this was one of your mom’s. I hope you two can finally resolve this in a way so that her part, at least, no longer rankles.

Good luck.

This letter originally ran in on September 15, 2016.

How Do I Let Him Down Gently Without Breaking His Heart?

I am newly single, and have just started playing the online dating game. So far, I’ve been having a blast. I love dating in my 40s, as I am older and wiser, and can weed out the drama so much better than when I was in my 20s.

I’ve been talking to several guys, and I’m actually making connections with some of them. Overall, it’s been a great experience. But I have one guy that I’m just not sure what to do with, and I’m looking for feedback.

Puppylove (my nickname for him) is completely infatuated with me. He’s 46, military, and from what I can tell, is the sweetest guy in the world. There is nothing that he says that I don’t think is genuine. But, he feels a chemistry that I don’t.He’s only had one sexual partner, who died from cancer a few years ago. I’m the only girl from the dating site he’s talked to. He flat out told me he’s never been hurt before, and asked me not to hurt his feelings. I know this isn’t my responsibility, but I really don’t want to be the first one to hurt him. On the second day of conversation (mostly me just answering his questions, which I answered honestly but in no way suggestively or affectionately), he asked me to let him give me his heart and delete my profile. I sent him a long, nice message saying that I was flattered, but I need to take things slowly, develop a friendship, that I’m enjoying dating and not ready for a commitment. I keep telling him that this is too much, too soon, but he just keeps asking what have I done to him, why does he feel this way.

The advice I’m looking for is how do I let him down gently without breaking his heart? Perhaps I should have tried shutting him down sooner, but I’m a) new enough to dating that I don’t have that experience behind me, b) a soft touch and don’t want to feel like I’m kicking a puppy (hence the nickname). I know it’s not my responsibility, and in looking through our conversations, I honestly can’t see anything that indicates there’s anything more than just back and forth conversation. I don’t want to lead him on, which may mean completely cutting him off, but I’m wondering if there are other ways before I have to resort to that?

– Hates Being a Puppy Kicker

Dear Hates Being a Puppy Kicker,

First of all: he is not a puppy. He’s a man.

A manipulative, manipulative, MANIPULATIVE man.

The line “what have you done to me; why do I feel this way?” Sounds like a romantic over-the-top bit of hyperbole, but it is blaming you (you, by your very nature, or by your words, or by your femaleness, have cast a SPELL on him. He is not responsible for his feelings. YOU have done something to HIM) for his totally inappropriate communication.

He’s blaming you for his deeply creepy infatuation. And make no mistake: this is creepy as FUCK. He hasn’t even met you in person, yet. He wants a person who has never met him to forgo all others for him. He has turned your non-sexual and non-romantic communication into luuuuuurve. He has no interest whatsoever in how you are feeling. All he cares about is how HE is feeling.

It is a very very short step from thinking someone else has controlled his feelings and actions to thinking that it’s YOUR fault he is driving across the country to your house. YOUR fault he’s pounding on the door in the middle of the night. YOUR fault he’s sobbing on your doorstep. YOUR fault he’s smashed through the window with a brick. What have you done to him?

Maybe, in addition to being a manipulative, manipulative, MANIPULATIVE man, he is also naive and honest and all that stuff. Maybe he truly doesn’t get how completely out-of-bounds his request is and how over-the-top his communication is and how DEEPLY non-consensual and disrespectful of your feelings and preferences this is.

But anyone who has reached 46 years old without learning these lessons is  NOT RELATIONSHIP MATERIAL. I don’t even mean romantic relationship material. I mean FRIEND material. I mean fleeting online flirting/chatting material. You need to back away from this person with such bad boundaries and who makes such bad decisions as fast as you can.

I think, to be honest, that YOU are a bit of a puppy. When you haven’t been on the dating scene in a while and you are so obviously open and kind and concerned about others, this makes you a huge target for guys like this who either think their intense feelings trump all of your words saying no (rape culture rape culture RED FLAG RED FLAG) or who are just lying assholes (again, RED FLAG RED FLAG).

I think whether this guy is honestly as naive and selfish as a 12-year-old or whether he’s a lying cheater who wants to manipulate and control you, the way to deal with him is the same: don’t worry about HIS feelings. Worry about YOUR safety. Do not give him your real name. Do not give him any information. Block that fucker and run run run.

This letter originally appeared in on August 25, 2016.

How Do I Deal With My Crazy Bitch Ex?

I spent eight terrible years in a relationship with a crazy person. I mean she is certifiably batshit crazy. (I was in a bad place, what can I say?) We’ve been apart for four years now. I have a wonderful new partner who is perfectly sane. I often get threatening texts from the crazy ex-girlfriend. She even texted my new gal a few times. It’s very upsetting for me. I have a child with this crazy person, so I can’t make a total break from her, no matter how much I want to. Do you have any advice on how to deal with my crazy bitch ex?

– Baffled Boi

Dear Baffled Boi,

You don’t sound baffled to me.

You sound really, really, really angry.

In a 110-word paragraph, you used the word ‘crazy’ five times, and the utterly, helplessly dismissive phrase ‘crazy bitch.’ I have to admit that as a woman who hates the ‘b’ word and as a mentally ill person, I took a step back from you upon first reading.

But then I read again. You are using these words, I think, because you feel helpless in dealing with someone who is threatening you and your partner (and possibly your child?), furious that you can’t just cut ties with her, and probably terrified by how her unpredictable behavior will affect your kid.

So let’s break down this language and see what we can do.

I think that we, colloquially, use the word ‘crazy’ when someone is acting in unpleasant ways that we simply cannot fathom– that seem utterly illogical. If someone cuts you off in traffic because he’s in a hurry, he’s an asshole. If someone goes careening across traffic to cut you off and then slows down in front of you antagonistically, he’s ‘crazy.’

There is a certain level of helplessness we reach when dealing with someone who has a measure of power over us behaves in what seem to be irrational, hateful ways that often leads to name-calling like this.

And you are clearly there.

What you need to do is take back some power so you can feel calmer, more in control, and less helpless in dealing with her. And to recognize that some of her power over you is illusory.

To get started, I have a few questions for you.

You said she sends threatening texts. Is she threatening to hurt you? Your child? Your ex? Herself? If so, you probably need to get the police involved. I know that is a huge horrible pain in the ass and can lead to drama. But credible threats are illegal, and if she’s truly as illogical and nasty as you say, she perhaps is not in a good place to raise a child right now. You might be able to get more custody of your kid until she gets help or stops being an asshole, which is best for everyone. If she’s just threatening to tell people bad things or something, delete her texts. And for goodness sakes have your partner block her number! There is no reason why she has to ever have any contact with her whatsoever.

You also said she is ‘certifiable.’ Does this mean she is diagnosed with a mental illness or personality disorder? Which one? Researching this illness or disorder might help you to understand how to deal with this person. Stop Walking on Eggshells is a wonderful book that can help you deal with someone who has Borderline Personality Disorder. If she is bipolar there are resources for that. If she has PTSD. Narcissism. If she has substance abuse problems, Al-Anon can bring you a measure of peace. Looking closely at her issues instead of using the generic, frantic word ‘crazy’ will help you to understand her better and know better which techniques are best for dealing with whatever is going on with her.

How about yourself? It sounds like you may benefit from talking this through with a therapist of some kind. Someone who might know about what is going on and might help you to deal with your rage. I always share the bitter joke that there are two kinds of people: those who get therapy, and those who cause others to NEED therapy. Talking through this issue with someone knowledgeable in mental illness, anger management, and family dynamics could really help you to deal with your anger, which might be controlling you a bit right now.

Anger is an important emotion. It tells us there is something terribly wrong and something must change. It tells us when we are in danger. It tells us when we need to fight. It tells us when there has been injustice or harm and motivates us to do something about it.

But when anger sinks into helpless bitterness, which I’m afraid your letter just REEKS of, it can cloud our judgment, cause us to make bad decisions, and lead us into venting rather than changing what needs to be changed.

And I think that you have some serious rage right now for what sound like really good reasons, and sorting out how to control that emotion can really help you to see your ex with clearer eyes.

If there was no kid in the mix, you wouldn’t have to do all of this work. But there is, and as a parent you know that you need to do what is best for your kid. That means figuring out how to get hold of yourself and figure some shit out.

Regardless of what approach you take, I would suggest you minimize contact. Discuss only information regarding your child, not feelings or any other topic. Use email or text if possible, and make those points of contacts as brief as possible. Drain all emotion from these contacts. Do not reply to threatening messages (unless you need to call the cops, and then that’s reply enough) at all.

Google the phrase ‘parallel parenting’ for advice on how to have as little contact as humanly possible with her while still being a parent.

When you begin being able to control or even remove your emotions regarding her terrible treatment of you, you will probably see that she has a lot less control over you than you initially thought.

Good luck.

This letter first appeared in on August 11, 2016.

What Can I Do About The Office Skeeve?

One of the senior executives at my workplace is a bit of a skeeze in that he showers women at our workplace with ambiguously inappropriate attention.From what I’ve seen, the attention ranges from overly friendly hugs, to hands at the small of the back when opening doors, to fairly frequent office visits with small presents like pieces of chocolate. You know the sort of attention I’m talking about, because, unfortunately, it is a fairly common occurrence.

My wife has a former boss who discriminated against her after we had kids, so I’m hyper-aware of how few good options my female coworkers have (which is why discrimination and harassment from a higher up is so awful). I suspect that some of my female coworkers feel like they should just tolerate these sorts of things because they don’t want to offend a guy who could makes their lives more difficult and, on the flip side, could be helpful to their careers if he is favorably inclined to them. Again, from what I’ve seen, the behavior is ambiguous enough that they might also feel weird complaining about it (which he likely knows and uses to his advantage); this is an example of why this sort of behavior is so pernicious.

So, with that background in mind, my question is as follows: What should I as a male colleague do about these sorts of things? I have several official reporting channels taht I could use from employee relations/HR to our ethics office, though we’re a small enough place that it is difficult to do that sort of thing anonymously.this may sound cowardly, but if I do report it, I don’t want it to come back to me, because this guy could hurt my career as well. What should I do?

– What to Do?

PS This guy is married and a social conservative, which isn’t relevant but makes him a hypocrite and ups the ick factor a bit as well.

Dear What to Do,

First: a married social conservative treating women like children or like they are on a perpetual date with him instead of in a work setting is not remotely hypocritical. I find this very consistent with a married socially conservative male outlook. I also think he is not doing this on purpose. I don’t think he realizes that he’s sexually harassing women nebulously. I don’t think he’s a cold and calculating predator. I think he’s a guy who truly thinks this is how you treat women, and acts accordingly. He probably thinks he’s a swell guy and pats himself on the back for how gallant he is with the ladies.

But as you said, that is neither here nor there. You need to know what to DO.

The short answer: nothing.

The long answer: everything.

Here’s what you do nothing about: you don’t file a complaint about him touching women on the small of their backs as they go through doorways. (And eeeew. I’ve put up with that in the past myself). You don’t report him for bringing women what amounts to dog treats and hugging them and generally treating them like pets.

While you outline very clearly what the problem with this behavior is — and it is definitely a problem — your female coworkers have dealt with worse. Trust me. It’s paternalistic to think that you should save them from this thoughtless creep, to be blunt. Women should not have to put up with crap like this simply to remain employed, but we do. Every day. That is the reality we live in. If there is a woman who has had enough of his shit, and she decides to tell him off or file a complaint, that’s up to her. That’s her job.Women are perfectly capable of deciding what is worth putting up with and what is worth fighting against, for themselves.

Here’s what you do everything about: all the rest. THAT, you can do something about.

All the rest is what you haven’t noticed. How all the men, including you, interrupt women in meetings whenever they try to speak or pick up what they started to say and take credit for it. (Multiple studies have shown that men dominate women in conversation endlessly, pretty much across the board, and feel women are dominating the conversation when they are speaking only 30 percent of the time.) Notice when men come to you for advice instead of to women who are more qualified to answer. Notice when women don’t get the chance to present their ideas, when men don’t even respond to their comments, when they are passed up for promotion or the chance to work on cool stuff.

And then change it. When a man interrupts a woman in a meeting, hold up your hand gently and say: “Sorry; I’m not sure Lori was finished,” and look at her expectantly. When a woman starts to present an idea and a man takes over and begins presenting it like it’s his, you can laugh and say: “Wait a minute. Isn’t that literally what Susan was just saying?” When people come to you for advice that you know would be better answered by a woman on your team, refer him. When a woman is looking for a raise or a promotion, be her cheerleader.

Use your privilege as a male. If a male colleague says: “That’s just what she was saying,” it sounds much different to our ears than the woman herself saying angrily: “That’s what I was just saying!” Ditto for the manterrupting.Women are socialized to patiently allow men to interrupt us constantly. It’s much harder for us to speak up for ourselves when men DO interrupt us.And, unfortunately, the unconsciously sexist men in your office will take what you say more seriously than what she was saying. It sucks, but it’s life.

And I’ll tell you this, too: if you start acting this way in the office? The women are going to see you as an ally, and when someone finally DOES get sick of this asshole’s bullshit and files something, she will know you have her back and can corroborate what she says.

And you will. Right? Even if you’re scared? You will.

This letter first appeared in on July 21, 2016.

Can I Correct Misused Idioms at Work?

I just got an email from my supervisor that says, in part, “We need to flush out the agenda area with this additional content.”

I need guidance. Is it appropriate to point out that the phrase is “flesh out,” not “flush out?” Or should I ask if she wants me to hunt for the agenda hidden in some shrubbery that she needs me to flush it out by startling it with additional content?

I like my job and my coworkers, including the person who sent me this. But I’m also frustrated by incorrect usages like this. I’ve heard people use “flush out” a number of times in the past year, and I’m just not sure if I should be correcting them or not, because I don’t want to be an asshole — but I also want them to use the term correctly.

– Word Nerd

Dear Word Nerd,

The answer to your question is very simple. But before I answer that, I need to answer the scores of people who just read this and rolled their eyes at you.

Those of us who are in love with idioms do not yearn to run around lips pursed, buttocks clenched, demanding Absolute Linguistic Correctness. We are the people who visualize and celebrate idioms, and you are killing us when you use one that just sort of sounds like the original.

This idiom is lovely: to flesh something out is to take a skeleton of something and add flesh to it. We are filling it in, bringing it to life, making it fuller and more useful and more alive. When you flush something out, you either beat bushes to startle out animals, as Word Nerd described (and yes; asking her this is making fun of her and thus being an asshole, no matter how funny the image is — and it’s funny), or it’s to wash out something. Flush out an eye with a bug in it. Flush out an ear with impacted earwax. Flushing something out rids you of something unpleasant, in this usage. It is not the same as giving form and life to the skeleton of an idea. And to ‘flesh something out’ is a really cool idiom.

This is not an instance of how language has migrated from people playing with it. Verbing nouns. Contracting previously uncontracted. Throwing in slang. Using the opposite meaning of words for irony that eventually become the meaning of that word (‘literally,’ for instance). All of that can be glorious, or awful, depending on your preferences — but it’s often how language evolves. It’s how language is designed to work.

This? This is just an idiom someone misheard and repeated thoughtlessly without understanding the origination.

I fear Word Nerd and I have lost this battle; in workplaces especially. But I want to fight for the flesh, as it were, and so I’m going to tell you, Word Nerd, the following:

Do not correct people who are not your students or your children. Don’t don’t don’t. (Except for me; I love to know when I’ve screwed up and have a chance to fix it. But nobody else!) This gets you a reputation as a pedant, it makes people dislike you, it’s seen as trying to put yourself above others, and it makes people a little afraid to speak around you and feel defensive.

But also: Do not cave in to the temptation to then use it incorrectly yourself.There’s not seeming like an asshole and then there’s bending over backward too damn far and contributing to the misunderstanding. You know it. Use it back at them correctly.

When you’re in a meeting or receive an email like this, you respond: “Sure!I’ll flesh it out.”

If the person hears or sees the difference and wants to know what’s up, s/he can ask you. If they continue to hear no difference between flush and flesh and/or they don’t care, they won’t ask and they won’t learn. And a teeny bit of your soul will die, but you can at least know that you did not go gentle into that good night.

This letter originally appeared in on June 23, 2016.

Should I Teach My First Grader to Swear?

My son will be entering 1st grade in the fall and the worst swear word he knows is “poop.” Should I give him a heads up of words that some of his colleagues might start using soon or is this just silly?

– Dad

Dear Dad,

I’m going to answer your question; I am.

But first I want to tell you that you are not being silly. You are sweet.

I still remember sending my innocent children to First Grade. They were SO cute and little and innocent and I was utterly petrified. The world awaited.And sometimes the world can be really poopy.

And when our kids go out into that big world all vulnerable and small and anxious and hopeful, it’s hard to see much more than the poop.

What if the other kids are mean to them? What if they don’t fit in? What if they fit in too well and fall in with a boring stupid crowd that only cares about popularity and starts drinking at age 7? What if he falls down and skins his knee and cries and is embarrassed and the teacher is sort of mean about it?

What if the world is cruel and makes my kid feel stupid?

Such a human fear. And I can’t reassure you. The world is sometimes going to be cruel. And sometimes, kids make each other feel stupid.

And the thought of that is just excruciating, isn’t it? So we worry about stuff like cussing.

As for the answer to your question: I am ill-equipped as I’m a terrible example with a mouth like a longshoreman. My kids knew every single word on the Naughty list before they went to First Grade. This was not a decision on my part — my lack of verbal self-control made that decision for me.

So I asked my nearest kid experts what they think you should do, and the resounding answer was: don’t.

See, the world can be cruel and awful and full of poop.

But it also contains hidden delights, and one of them — one I robbed my children of — was the firm belief that the word you just learned from your peers: that dark and powerful and forbidden word — is a word that even your parents don’t know. You have a secret from them. You are becoming your own person. A cooler person. A person more in-the-know.

And maybe some kid will mock your kid for not knowing the words. But mostly, they will whisper them among themselves, awed by their power. And it will make them feel tough and cool, which is what cussing is for.

And it will help them start those first steps away from you — which every parent dreads and embraces and fears and desires.

Don’t do it, Dad. My kids have spoken.

This letter first appeared in on May 26, 2016.

How Do I Love Myself With So Much To Work On?

How does one reconcile loving oneself exactly as one is right now and knowing that one needs to do some fairly serious self-work?

– One, not with everything

Dear One,

Oh oh oh oh oh you ARE a Dear One. My heart goes out to you — because there is so much pain and confusion packed into this one short question, but also because I’ve asked myself this so many times. How do I love myself and fix myself, too?

Ain’t that the question?

Or maybe it isn’t.

Let me tell you this: I know what it is like to wake up most mornings filled with self-loathing. And I know what it’s like to work very very hard on the many things I have to do in my self-work.

And I also know what it’s like to feel deeply ashamed of the fact that I don’t love myself.

The shame comes from everywhere I turn: online, in magazines, in self help books, and in the damn memes people share on Facebook. People are screaming at me YOU CAN’T LOVE ANYONE ELSE IF YOU DON’T LOVE YOURSELF FIRST or HOW CAN YOU EXPECT ANYONE TO LOVE YOU IF YOU DON’T LOVE YOURSELF LOVE YOURSELF NOW NOW NOW NOW OMFG WHY DON’T YOU LOVE YOURSELF YET?!?!?!?

There are so many reasons people don’t love themselves. Basic low self-esteem. Terrible damage from bullying or abuse. Racism. Depression.Poverty. Trauma. None of these things are the self-hater’s fault. And hating yourself (or just not loving yourself entirely) is already unpleasant enough as it is. We can’t get away from the inside of our heads. We can look at our bellies or our crankiness or our social awkwardness and think we will ALWAYS wince at them, and this is saddening and upsetting and just plain stifling and depressing. It’s bad enough to live with self-hate.

I think the worst thing about a lack of self-love is how isolating it is. It feels like we’re alone in the middle of an ocean of humanity that can’t see us for what we really are with nothing but the hateful words in our heads for company. We don’t need to feel guilty for it on top of everything else.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is this: if you can’t love yourself entirely right now, please forgive yourself for it. Don’t believe all this bullshit that says you somehow don’t deserve love if you don’t love yourself, or that you somehow are lacking in the love you offer to friends, lovers, and family if you don’t 100% think you are the cat’s pajamas.

Because you deserve love. You deserve love because you are a human being.And you deserve help for the issues you need to work on, and sure you also deserve self-acceptance and self-love but you’ll only get there AFTER you’ve spent the time working on the stuff you have to work on. Some of the most famously self-loathing people like the dearly departed Robin Williams had families who got oceans of love from them. We can be broken and wish we were better and stronger and kinder and smarter and all that stuff, but we can still show and give love with the best of ’em. We can; we do.

If you were all filled with self-love right now, you’d either have already done a lot of the work you need to do or you’d be a narcissist. You know who loves the shit out of himself? Donald Trump. You do not want to be that guy.

So I think what you need to do is not try to love yourself exactly as you are, but try to trust yourself that even if you don’t love yourself perfectly right now, you are worth the work. You are worth the therapy or the talking it out with friends or the self-reflection or the journaling or the yoga or the exercise or the meds or whatever it is that helps you do that self-work.

You can trust that there is a part of you that DOES love yourself, or at least wants to very badly, and that part is going to lead you to the help you need.And then you power through. You slog through. You churn through. And you feed yourself with tiny moments.

Even I, in my towering miserable Irish depressed self-loathing, have my moments. When I am biking in the sun. When I am learning something new. “Oh my god I love myself when I am doing this,” I will catch myself thinking.

Are you really good at organizing a desk drawer and feel a sense of accomplishment when you do it? Are you skilled at explaining something in a way they’ve never thought of it before so they finally GET it? Do you love to learn new dances? Are you really, really nice to your pets?

Take those moments of feeling good about yourself and enjoy them. Point them out to yourself. “I love myself when I write great thank-you notes,” you might say. It might last for five seconds. But feed yourself with those tiny moments.

Because as much as our popular culture annoys the living crap out of me with its unrealistic demands for how we’re supposed to feel about ourselves, Dear One, self-love is what I want for you, too. Maybe it can only be tiny bits of self-love in eentsy beentsy moments right now, and maybe you’ll never get there to the complete acceptance you hope for. But working on things, even if you don’t know why you’re doing it, can at least get you closer. You are worth it. You are worth all kindness and the work and the trying and the growth and the love love love.

And I wish I could give you a big hug and tell you so — from one person with a lot of work ahead of her to another.

This letter originally ran in on May 12, 2016.

What if My Husband is in Love with Another Woman?

How do I ask my spouse of 15 years if he has fallen in love with someone else?

Specifically I think he has fallen in love with a pretty, together, and much-younger woman at work. Let’s call her Hannah. I don’t think the feelings are reciprocated.In fact, I think my husband been trying to hide or even suppress his feelings for her–presumably in part because he is her direct supervisor, and expressing them could cause massive problems for both of them.

But then they went on an extended work trip together, and ever since then he’s been different: paying a lot more attention to his appearance, doing a lot more social drinking with work friends (including Hannah), and generally more impatient with me. Most weekends he stays out into the wee hours with these friends. This isn’t anything secret: I’m actually invited to all of these gathering, though I generally take off after a few hours. Heavy drinking and staying late at bars just isn’t my thing.

I am casual friends with Hannah through these hangouts. Lately she’s been expressing some irritation with my husband, along with a desire for there to be more separation between her work life and her social life. Having her direct supervisor constantly hanging around in her immediate social circles is causing her considerable discomfort, and Hannah is starting to very pointedly organize parties and get-togethers with their mutual friends that explicitly exclude my husband.

… which has resulted in my husband sulking and being quietly upset and complaining that he feels like he has no friends. He feels like he’s in high school all over again, and the cool kids are purposefully excluding him. He feels he’s expected to be “made out of marble” and is not allowed to even have hurt feelings, just because he’s a supervisor.

I’m not accusing him of being childish, for the record. I think he really is feeling lonely and isolated, and is missing his social life and old friends from before we moved to this city. But I also feel like his reactions to the current small drama are more extreme than the situation warrants. He looks to me like a guy who’s being pushed away by a woman he has feelings for, and is feeling sorry for himself.

And this suspicion doesn’t make me feel great. I am profoundly jealous.

There has been a gradual cooling in our marriage over the last several years, and I get a lot of the blame for that.

I created the distance between us myself, for reasons I couldn’t talk about at the time. I did suggest marriage counseling during that period. My husband was visibly hurt by the suggestion: it was as if even mentioning marriage counseling was somehow tantamount to requesting separation.

So now I don’t know how to broach my suspicions about his feelings for Hannah.I’m afraid he’ll be profoundly hurt and angry if I’m wrong; I’m afraid he’ll decide to cover it up if I’m right. Or he won’t try to cover it up, and he’ll just straight-up admit it.

Mostly I’m terrified that he’ll admit it, that he’s in love with someone else. And then everything will change.

This is not a great time in my life for major life upheaval. Yeah, I know: there’s never a good time. But really, it’s not a good time, and this conversation blowing up in my face could derail not just my marriage but also my own career, and basically my entire life.

So I don’t know what to do, or how to do it.

What do I do?

– Marital Limbo

Dear Marital Limbo,

First of all, I’m so sorry you’re going through all of this jealousy and suspicion and pain. Jealousy is such a hideous monster: it grabs us by the throat and won’t let us go. It makes us imagine all sorts of scenarios and it stabs us in the gut while we’re imagining them and it makes us say and do things we never would, otherwise. When I am jealous, I feel as if I’ve been taken over by a mind-controlling alien. It is such a hideous, out-of-control, terrifying feeling.

And reading your letter, it sounds to me that you and your husband are both already utterly terrified of feelings. He can’t seem to handle his feelings for this woman or talk to you about them; you can’t even broach the subject because you feel it has so much power.

Even if your worst suspicions and worse are true — it’s all about feelings.

So. If he is in love with this other woman: so what?

This is a genuine question.

She obviously doesn’t share those feelings, so he is not going to leave you for her. So what do you mean by ‘everything will change?’

Does the very admission of extramarital feelings truly destroy a marriage?Why? This is all just feelings.

But, from reading this letter, it seems to me that the word ‘just’ can never be paired with ‘feelings.’

It seems to me that the two of you are so terrified of feelings that you can never even admit they exist. Your husband is so terrified of talking about his feelings that he was hurt simply by your asking about counseling (and his hurt feelings were apparently so powerful that you  . . . dropped the topic? I’m not sure from your letter if you succeeded in going to marriage counseling).

If you are terrified to even bring this up, I can see why you might fear that talking about feelings would be a nuclear bomb in your relationship.

But I don’t know a single monogamous couple who has not, at one point or another, realized that one of them was getting a huge crush on someone else, or was falling in love.

Our society sells us this stupid idea that when you are married you will never ever feel anything sexual or romantic toward anyone else ever again, or that you at least have to act as if this is the case.

That is just utter and complete bullshit, and believing this can really throw someone for a loop when they DO get a crush, instead of just rolling with it.If we didn’t expect to have feelings for only one person for the rest of our lives, we would not feel so guilty and horrified when we did get crushes. We would just think: huh! I want to have sex with this person very much, but I made a commitment to only have sex with this one person, so I’m going to enjoy/hate these other feelings until they go away, and until they come back with someone else. They end. Just feelings. No self-hatred and recrimination and fear and hiding and shame.

Feelings happen. They do not have to destroy everything.

What, exactly, do you fear about this? Hurting more, yourself? You are really hurting right now, clearly. And I think you know that you are definitely right about his feelings — his confirming them might hurt more, but I’m guessing some measure of relief will come with his admission. Either way, refusing to address your feelings doesn’t seem to be saving you from feeling them right now, and quite painfully.

Is the fear about hurting his feelings? I noticed that when you said he was upset about people making plans without him, he said he felt he wasn’t ‘allowed to have feelings,’ which I found interesting. I think what he means is not that he’s not allowed to have feelings, but that his feelings about friendships should somehow supersede her feelings about having some social time away from her direct supervisor. That she should care more about his feelings than her autonomy, and due to considerations for his feelings she should just invite him everywhere.

And why shouldn’t he think this? Our society does not teach men how to deal with or express their feelings — so they outsource this to the women in their lives, which he is currently doing. Whether he’s conscious of it or not, you have been twisting yourself into all sorts of knots worried about hurting his feelings. You didn’t say what the reason was that your marriage began cooling years ago, but I’m guessing it has to do with feelings, and you were so anxious about them that you did not tell him something that you both probably needed to address years ago. You are so concerned about his feelings that he got out of counseling just by looking hurt.

You are treating his feelings as if they are simultaneously the most fragile and the most powerful force in the universe: they must be wrapped up in asbestos and carried gently in tongs while wearing radioactive-shielding gloves, and they must never ever ever ever EVER be jostled.

I say, jostle them. He needs to figure out how to handle even the hint that he might have to discuss his feelings if he’s going to become an adult and stop sulking when things don’t go his way (and seriously — I know you’re not accusing him of being childish, but that’s what sulking is: being childish). And you both need to address the gradual cooling off of your marriage.

All marriages cool in the ardor department. This is natural and doesn’t have to be the end of everything. Some cool in the companionship department, which is far more worrying. Staying silent and never addressing the cooling is a great way to continue that cooling until it becomes a freeze.

What I’m trying to say, here, is that desperately trying to avoid an explosion might actually result in ending your life together as you grow further and further apart.

I know silence seems safer than talking. But seriously — feelings will not kill either of you; they will just upset you. And you are both already upset right now as things are.

You asked me what to do: talk to him.

Ask him if he’s noticed the cooling in your relationship. Ask him what is so terrifying about counseling. Talk. Listen. Listen some more, and feel the fuck out of those feelings. You could ask him about Hannah, but if it comes out as an accusation you will discuss this side issue instead, and she is most definitely a side issue.

The other thing to do: stop treating him as if hurting his feelings will end his life, the world, or your marriage. It’s not his fault society encourages us all to coddle men and their feelings, but it’s not your fault, either — and right now it is tying your hands and endangering your relationship, this walking on eggshells. His feelings are not eggs. They are feelings. Your jealousy is a hideous, horrible feeling, but it has not destroyed you.

How you do it: you sit him down and you say: I am afraid of my feelings and of your feelings, and this conversation is terrifying. But I think we are drifting apart and I want to stay with you. I think counseling is a way for us to stop being afraid of our feelings, and that we should get counseling.

And when he starts sulking in an effort to control you, pick up the phone and call a marriage counselor anyway, because you are done letting his feelings or fear of his feelings rule your actions.

This letter originally ran in on April 28, 2016.