The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: Seeking to undo long-held emotional knots that create doubts


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

All my life, my mom ridiculed or belittled my feelings, especially anything negative. She told me I wasn’t feeling what I said, told me I was overreacting, too sensitive or just ridiculous.

I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that what I’m feeling is wrong. Now when I disagree with someone, my first instinct is to tell myself I’m being ridiculous. This has led to many confrontations that should have happened but never did, not standing up for myself or just not voicing my opinion when I should have. All I ever do is second-guess myself, and end up losing the opportune moment to communicate.

Last night, I told my neighbor at 3 a.m. that he needed to quiet his dog, which had been barking for an hour. I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night, my heart was pounding, I was panicking over the fact that I had told someone I was displeased, even though I know I was totally in the right. How do I stop feeling this way about my own feelings?

(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Not Knowing When to React

That’s what therapy is for, really — the long process of teasing apart emotional knots. Cognitive behavioral therapy in particular, I think, could help you rewire your responses; something so ingrained just isn’t going to go away with one tweak or one, all-clarifying “Aha!”

If you don’t have a regular doctor, you can ask for a referral, or you can check to see if your employer offers an employee assistance program. If you’re uninsured and/or unemployed, call the Helpline at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 800-950-NAMI, to ask about local support groups and clinics.

Also, you don’t always have to stand up for yourself in the “opportune moment.” Often, it’s possible, and quite effective, to revisit a situation later after you’ve had time to think. One way to break into it is to explain: “I wish I had spoken up in the moment, but it took me awhile to figure out what I wanted to say.” Doing this can also help train your mind out of its self-defeating rut.

Re: Not knowing:

That was me. I had been led to believe my whole life that whenever I got angry, I was just being difficult. I thought for years that any negative reaction I had to anything (other than say, world hunger) was an overreaction. Therapy has been HUGE for me in terms of accepting my emotions as legitimate and in trying not to beat myself up when I spoke up or set an emotional boundary and stuck to it.

It also helped me find healthy people who accept my emotions all over the spectrum as real and acceptable. Remind yourself that this is something you’ve learned over YEARS and cannot unlearn in a day.

Also? I’m proud of you for standing up for yourself to the noisy dog owner. I’m sure you haven’t been told that enough, so go-you for expressing yourself in a way that I’m sure scared the crap out of you.


Excellent points all, thanks — especially about finding healthy people. Most changes need to be internal, yes, but one sign of progress is recognizing those around you who hurt more than they help.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at



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