Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr. Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the founder of Harley Therapy London Psychologists, for advice on the things we worry about in private.
My last serious relationship ended three years ago and I’m not interested in starting another relationship for the sake of it. I feel happy about that decision but it seems I’m the only one, especially during the holiday season. I feel pressured to justify myself to my family, especially my grandparents, who always ask me when I’m going to bring someone home. Even worse, I get it from my home friends too, who all seem to have paired off already, bought homes and are now talking about babies. I’m going to be in my hometown for a week this December and I’m already dreading these kinds of conversations. What is your advice for getting through it without wanting to scream?
You're right — people do judge, and we [often] correctly feel that we're being judged. Part of life is becoming used to and accepting that there are appraisals constantly happening all around us.
Often when people are asking a question about dating, relationships or children, it's because it's important to them and therefore they project that onto you. They want you to find joy and satisfaction in the things that they deem important.
Empathy is key here: stepping into another person's shoes is often helpful because most people's motivations are benign. Very few people deliberately make a comment to hurt. Sometimes that happens but, generally speaking, they're doing it because they're coming from a certain worldview and perspective and if you can see things a little bit more from that perspective, it might soften the impact it has on you.
However, sometimes the most impactful judgments are the ones that we apply to ourselves. If we judge ourselves in a positive light, that can have really reverberating consequences on the way that we act in a positive manner. Whereas if we're judgmental and self-critical, that can often trigger a negative spiral of thoughts and behavior.
One of the easiest routes to tackling this is self-compassion, being kind to ourselves and being tolerant of other people, because people will say and do things and not appreciate the significance it's going to have on us.
You can also set boundaries, though I would say that boundary setting is very, very difficult for most people. It often doesn't come naturally and needs experimentation and practice. Sometimes it can be very straightforward and clear cut: "I feel uncomfortable talking about that, or I'd rather not approach that subject. This doesn't feel right for me. Hope you understand." Short and clear is usually one of the most helpful methods of boundary setting. That said, the closer a person is to you, the more helpful it is to connect while setting a boundary.
I would also suggest potentially exploring if this is a case of perception more than reality that you are being judged. We all have what we call a negativity bias. We zoom in on the things that are troublesome to us and often amplify them. In many cases, when people ask a question they don't mean it to be as pointed or critical as we take it to be. Sometimes there's some reframing that needs to take place.
During the holidays there is plenty of opportunity for conflict and difficult feelings. Often some preparation can be helpful. If we can anticipate who's going to be there, what are the likely pitfalls or comments that might make us feel judged? Can we craft some responses in advance? Even writing them down will often commit them to our memory so that it's a lot easier at the time when our emotions are piqued and we have less access to our rational cognitive functions. For example: "This is a difficult subject for me to talk about so I'd rather not go there, hope you understand." You can also use distraction or avoidance, or a jocular (not sarcastic) sense of humor as a way to diffuse difficult scenarios. The more direct ways are harder to do but they're often the most effective. Good luck.
This article was originally published on Refinery29 UK in December 2022 and has since been updated.