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Patricia Elam,'s new advice columnist

Heart to Heart:'s Funky, New Advice Column

By Patricia Elam

Agree with this advice? Or not? Talk about it here!

Dear Crew,
Who am I to offer you advice? If that's what you're wondering, I understand completely. I certainly don't profess to know everything or have all the answers. What I know is that very often friends and sometimes people I don't know so well seem to like telling me their business and listening to what I think about it. Other people's problems or "opportunities" (as I'd rather refer to them) are often easier to address than my own. In any case, here's some info about me: I've done some traveling, owned a variety of pets, worked as a secretary, a lawyer, a high school teacher, a novelist, a retail clerk, an adjunct professor, a radio and tv commentator, among many other lives. I've made a lot of mistakes, had some successes and am constantly trying to improve myself as I move steadily toward my dreams. I've sought and continue to seek advice from those I deem wiser and/or more experienced.

So let's get started. I invite you to join me in a heart-to-heart dialogue in which we share and learn from one another. Remember we need your letters to keep the column going. Since you can use a pseudonym, I hope you'll open up and feel free to ask whatever is on your mind. Please note that we reserve the right to edit letters for length and propriety.

Many thanks to the following writers for getting us started:

Dear Heart to Heart:
I have a disability, which makes me feel unsure of myself. I feel uncomfortable when, instead of looking at me, people look at my leg because I limp. Often, people will not make eye contact with me when I approach them. I am becoming afraid of being seen in public and have refused invitations from friends. What can I do to overcome this problem?
—Afraid in Maryland

Dear Afraid:
Sometimes when we have a disability or what we perceive as a flaw, we think people notice it more than they actually do. So the first thing is to check in honestly with yourself and make sure you are not calling attention to your leg through your own insecurity, or perceiving the situation to be more grim than it is. Walking with a limp is not that uncommon. Of course there are some ignorant people out there but chances are most aren't intentionally trying to make you feel uncomfortable so you may have to politely let them know that they are staring. A sentence like "Hi, I'm up here" when they are not making eye contact may do the trick. Other than that, the solution comes down to developing your inner self so that you feel confident about who you are and believe deeply that you are much more than your physical appearance. You may be able to do this through reading self-esteem books (such as Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnatch or In the Spirit by Susan Taylor), creating affirmations that remind you of your many gifts or through professional counseling. Please do whatever it takes so that you will be able to freely share your knowledge, courage and wisdom with those who are waiting for you to do so.

Dear Heart to Heart:
I recently married someone who is White. Although many people in my family accept this marriage, there are still casual acquaintances who make sweeping comments about Whites when I'm in their presence. Note: I am not suggesting that my marriage obliterates all of the historic bad blood between Blacks and Whites but I feel that these generalizations are sometimes just as hateful and bigoted as the ones they complain about from Whites. Whenever these comments arise, I feel conflicted. If I don't say anything, I feel like I'm betraying my husband, and if I do say something, I feel misunderstood and defensive. Any advice about how to deal would be appreciated.
—Pulled in Two Directions

Dear Pulled:
I sometimes wish, to paraphrase the words of Rodney King, that we could all just "get along." But, you're right, there's so much history between the races and a lot of hurt and pain, as you alluded to. Have you discussed this with your husband? I'm sure he gets the same situations in reverse. How does he handle them? Try to let go of this idea of betraying him, first by discussing those precise feelings with him. Would you want him to defend your race in every conversation with an ignorant soul? If he should choose not to, would you feel betrayed? Once you two come to an understanding about how each other feels and what your mutual expectations are in these situations, you'll have a clearer road map. Then you need to decide how much these acquaintances you referenced really matter so that you can "pick your battles". You don't have to respond to every comment. It takes energy to assert yourself and discuss emotionally raw topics like race relations so you may want to save your energy for the relationships that really matter. Which of these acquaintances do you see on a regular basis? Which ones have the potential to become friends? How often has the conversation come up? Then devise some standard responses. Try not to say things that sound accusatory orwill make you or them feel defensive. It's probably better to talk about yourself. Perhaps there were times in the past when you (or someone close to you) shared negative thoughts about other races or ethnic groups. If so, you can say, "I used to feel that way too but now I understand...." or talk about the fact that gross generalizations are usually not very helpful. Gently remind them that they wouldn't like people of other races to make such comments about them. It will not be easy but you may be instrumental in changing someone else's thinking or attitude. I wish you and your husband well in your journey through life together.

Dear Heart to Heart:
I have a 20-year-old daughter who has the sweetest 7 month old baby. My daughter is presently in a training program and working hard to be a responsible citizen as well as responsible parent. Recently she was bedridden for stress and lack of rest. The problem is that the baby's father is not carrying his side of the responsibility. Whenever she asks for help, which is not often, he blows up and claims he doesn't have any money or time and often becomes angry and disrespectful. A few days ago when my daughter asked him to purchase diapers for the baby, he blew up and, to make matters worse, had his mother accuse my daughter of spending up his money and not letting him see the baby even though he's the one who has made the decision to only see his child every now and then. My husband and I want to encourage my daughter to seek child support even though we know he half works and can be put in jail for non-support. Do you feel we should assist my daughter in seeking child support or should we allow nature to take its course, in essence allowing the baby's father to follow in his own father's footsteps?
— A Concerned Mom

Dear Concerned:
The key thing for your daughter and the baby's father to understand is that an innocent baby was brought into the world because of the actions of two people. Consequently two people are responsible for the baby's care and needs. We do fathers (young and old) a great disservice when we allow them to get away with not pulling their load and we do their children a disservice as well. Unfortunately the young man's mother doesn't seem to understand this. I would imagine you've tried discussing this situation with her, while it sounds like she is determined not to allow her son to become a man. So as parents and grandparents you must do what's right for your daughter and especially, your grandchild. Please encourage your daughter to file the necessary documents to obtain child support (that's why those laws exist!), even if it means traipsing down to courthouse with her. It doesn't matter how slight the young man's income; his first financial responsibility is to the child (somehow I bet he pays his car note every month) so perhaps he'll have to work more than one job. It wouldn't be a bad idea for you and your husband to sit down with him and talk to him about what kind of goals and dreams he has for his child's future. Let him know that there are many rewards in store for him if he steps up to the plate and that if he doesn't do it on his own, you will assist him in moving in that direction. Obviously and unfortunately he didn't think all this through beforehand. Let him know that it's too late for him to choose not to be involved. His child is here and the baby needs him to be a full-time father, not an occasional visitor. Good luck.

Dear Heart to Heart:
I am an administrative professional who makes an effort to do a good job in the work place. Recently I was assigned oversight responsibilities, much to the chagrin of some of my co-workers. Now it is not uncommon for snide remarks to float in my direction or to be treated with a cool, but polite greeting in office common areas. I find this disheartening and disappointing given the fact we are all adults. Prior to my additional duties, I had been on friendly terms with several of my co-workers, often going on lunch dates and attending outside activities of mutual interest.

My general response in life and in this situation, as well, is to pull back and not overshadow or consciously outshine those around me. I know that this approach is not the best one.. I do neither myself nor anyone else any good when I diminish my talent and abilities. But what else can I do? I'm starting to feel like I need to keep a low profile. I don't want to intentionally offend anyone.
—Office Outcast

Dear Outcast:
It's clear that you are not intentionally offending anyone and that your co-workers are acting like jealous children instead of supporting you. It also sounds like you are getting absolutely no enjoyment out of this new position—I hope you at least received a pay increase. In any case, rather than keeping "a low profile," whatever that means in this situation, I'd suggest talking frankly to each of the people involved. Tell them how you feel, the changes you've noticed in their behavior toward you and ask them to explain it. Yes, put them on the spot but do it individually rather than in a group setting. Catch someone in the ladies room or invite them into your office or maybe downstairs to the coffee shop but have them look you in the eye and tell you what's going on. Let them know you are only trying to fulfill your duties and they are making you feel like you're on punishment for doing so. Last but not least, take some time to appreciate and praise yourself for being good at your job and deserving the new responsibilities. Give it reasonable time but if nothing changes for the better, you may need to look for another place of employment. You're bound to get a great recommendation.

Need some advice? Patricia Elam is ready to respond in our new column. Send your questions to her at

-- October 20, 2003

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