Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week's chat is below. (Get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week; click here to sign up. Read Prudie's Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. Paying for Dead Woman's Clothes?: My aunt recently died in a car accident. She leaves her husband and 16-year-old daughter. They decided they wanted to hand out her clothes to the women of the family, in a (in my opinion) very peculiar way. At my mother's birthday party, two months after my aunt's death, all the clothes were laid out on tables so everyone could choose what they liked. My niece said that distributing her dead mother's clothes in this way was what she wanted. However, she was crying throughout, making me very uncomfortable. I wanted to respect her wishes and pick some clothes, but on the other hand it felt like I was causing that poor girl a lot of pain. Everyone kept telling me to take something, so I picked a very nice leather jacket. When I had a closer look at it afterwards, it turned out to have a very posh brand name on it. I feel uncomfortable having received such an expensive item for free from these bereaved people, with whom I am not very close (but my mother is). I called them, but they refuse to take any money for it. Should I send some anyway?
A: Please forget about the money, but do write a note to your cousin and uncle telling them how much you miss your aunt and that you are thinking of them in this time of loss. Tell them how much it means to have a lovely jacket that she picked out, how you treasure it, and how it makes you feel embraced by this wonderful woman you all miss so much.
Also, please don't judge the "peculiar" way they distributed her clothes. I think it sounds like a wonderful way to give mementos of her to people who cared about her. Of course her daughter was going to be crying, how painful to feel the finality of seeing her beloved mother's wardrobe disassembled. Her tears, however, do not mean that this wasn't her wish for her mother's final effects.
Q. Performance Anxiety: I'm a 24-year-old graduate student in the social sciences. I am very intellectually inclined and love to learn, but I also have a history of performance anxiety which negates my natural abilities. Not to reinforce a stereotype, but as a child of hard-driving Asian parents I developed a sense of inadequacy that years of therapy have not been able to erase. I recently came close to being fired from work and ejected from my program, both of which I love, because of my difficulty with task completion. Lately things have improved enough that I am safe for now, but I am haunted by my past failures and my poor reputation, which will undoubtedly affect my future chances of employment. I've always dreamt big about the contributions I'd like to make in my field, but now those ambitions seem to verge on silliness. I am tempted to drop out of school and cut my losses. Am I being realistic or being an idiot?
A: You raise an interesting point about the long-term consequences of "tiger parenting." Of course, what you are experiencing doesn't affect everyone whose parents have very high expectations, but several tiger cubs have written that once out in the world, they suffer from anxiety such as you describe about the need to always be perfect. They are afraid to take on new challenges at work or school that aren't clearly defined because they have been drilled that anything less than an "A" is failure—but adult life doesn't usually come with grades.
But what is the way to overcome this except accept that most "failures" aren't catastrophic. That trying and learning from mistakes is the only way to do better. Instead of concentrating on how you've failed, turn around your recent experiences and realize, "Yes, I've screwed up, but my life isn't over, I'm still in the program, and much worse than not acing everything is not trying." Since you've already had years of therapy and it hasn't helped, change therapists. Look into the "mindfulness" therapies now out there, which teach you how to accept, quiet, and overcome the disabling thoughts in your head.
Q. For Workplace Harassment Victim: Check the laws in your state. If it is not illegal to record conversations that you are participating in, keep your cell phone with you at all times and record every single time the harasser speaks to you. This way, you will have something that the HR department cannot ignore. I used this tactic with a boss who was an absolute bully, and while she was not fired, she did back off due to the extreme reprimand she received from her boss.
A: Love this! Thanks.
Q. Suing Over Mayonnaise?: "Although many readers recommend bringing lawsuits for infractions like the company cafeteria using too much mayonnaise, in this case, if you can't get relief from a boss who is simultaneously trying to ruin your reputation and get you into bed, a discussion with an employment law specialist might be worth having."
What's with the unnecessary slam against your readers? If that was meant as a joke, it didn't come off that way.
Emily Yoffe: No slam intended, so I apologize if that's how it came off. Every week in the comments section I get an education from readers. But I do take issue with a recurring theme that almost every unhappiness at work can be settled via the legal system. Getting into a lawsuit is best avoided unless there is no other solution.