Carolyn Hax is away. The following originally appeared Sept. 11 and 16, 2005.
Dear Carolyn: This may seem like an odd question, but if someone doesn’t like an aspect of your personality, how would you know when you’re in the wrong as opposed to someone just not liking that aspect for their own reasons?
New York, N.Y.
New York, N.Y.: Great question. Odd answer:
You’d think it would be a matter of right and wrong. Should you change this aspect of your personality, because it’s somehow bad, or is it good and fine and merely annoying to one person?
But “should” takes a distant third place, to “want to” and “can.” Is this a part of your personality you want to change? If not, then your critic gets to love it or leave it.
And even if you do want to change it, can you? If you’re, say, a worrywart, and your friend/mate/sibling/colleague hates that you’re a worrywart, and you also wish you could stop worrying, then you could probably learn a few techniques to lessen your stress.
But you will never become anything approaching laid-back, and so it would be wrong to keep fighting this aspect of your personality and wrong for critics to pressure you to.
Your best chance of finding peace with others is to make some peace with yourself, by accepting a less-than-perfect aspect of your personality, making the best use of it, being careful not to take it out on others, using all this as a way to like your less-than-perfect self — and then letting your critics love it or leave it from there.
Dear Carolyn: I’m not sure how to set effective boundaries with my in-laws. My husband and I are newlyweds. When last we visited them, they showed a family digital slide show. Mixed in were pictures of a woman my husband had been in a relationship with (over 10 years ago). I left the room after several “Oops, we should have sorted these before we showed them to you” and more pictures.
The mother’s defense was, “Well, it is his history.” I talked to my husband, who later that evening explained to them that neither of us wants to see these pictures.
Well, there were apologies, and we felt we made real progress in our relationship with them — respect established.
Until the next night, when again several pictures happened to pop up of another ex. At this point I said calmly, “I am not going to watch this” and removed myself from the room.
I feel unaccepted by them and am not sure if this is just poor insight, judgment and taste on their part or if this is blatant disrespect.
M.: “Respect established?” Nothing like sharing a bucket of grins with the in-laws.
It’s not your boundaries that need toughening, it’s your skin.
You’ve given me two choices, between declaring your in-laws thoughtless or declaring them outright hostile to you.
I strongly recommend you give yourself a third choice: that they’re regular people with a lot of life behind them and a commensurate photographic record that they, oops, didn’t get around to updating.
Or a fourth choice, that they’re people with a view of former loves that differs vastly from yours. Maybe to them it’s their son’s life story, no more, no less, no harm intended.
Both mean it’s possible that showing these pictures was no reflection on, or statement about, you.
And if that was the case, then your protest didn’t establish respect, it established that you feel threatened, insecure, so afraid you won’t be accepted that you’re afraid to laugh at yourself.
Or: Their apologies make this unlikely, but maybe you’re right that they left those photos in on purpose.
If that was the case, then your protest didn’t establish respect. It established that they’d won. They’d gotten to you.
Regardless of their intent, their son married you, not these other women. Stop trying to prove what plainly already is. Let them worry about what they accept and why. What your in-laws think and do have no bearing on who you are.
Know that, and then use it, either to make light of the old girlfriend thing — “Hey, you said there was no one until you met me!!!” — or, if it’s the best you can do, to get through it with something resembling perspective. A few raindrops don’t bother a rock.
Dear Carolyn: Why is it so hard just to end a crappy relationship? Seriously.
I Feel Like I Should Be Smarter Than This
I Feel Like I Should Be Smarter Than This: Because you sought out this crappy relationship for a reason — you got something out of it and are still getting something out of it. Something maybe you don’t even know you need.
Find the need, find the source and fix it. Then the only obstacle to getting out is getting through the unabridged edition of hell that all breakups turn out to be.