How do you deal with an uptight group project mate who’s difficult to work with?

A student asked:

How would you deal with this scenario? A group mate is super uptight about a submission and keeps breathing down everybody’s necks. S/he keeps requesting for meet ups when it is obvious to the group that it is unnecessary to keep doing so.

Group mates will tell her they’ll get the work done in a while cos they have other matters, but s/he’ll vent his/her frustration at us (but they still get it done). After which, it is likely that s/he gave a bad peer review to the group mates just because they’re not as uptight as her about the project.

If I were in your shoes, I would find the time to talk to that person and explain that we have different work values, and try to come to a compromise between our differences.

It doesn’t help to say that you find the meetings unnecessary, as it would come across to that group mate that you’re not interested in contributing to the project.

It’s never reassuring to say you’ll work on it without giving anything concrete. So the person will have difficulties forging that trust with you. What the person needs is assurance that you’ll work on it and not free-ride on his/her hard work. The easiest way to give the person some assurance would be to discuss and identify specific deliverables that will be completed by specific people by a specific deadline. Or if that is not possible, assure the group mate that you will work on the matter together on a particular date that everyone can agree with.

Trust is very essential for any team to work effectively. This is why in my module, I strongly emphasise on the need to break the ice at the start to get to know each other well, maybe over ice cream or coffee or something. Social gatherings may seem like a useless waste of time, but you have no idea how essential it is to the success of the project group. It’s a way in which you get to know the other, have shared experiences, and so be able to trust your group mates well. You have less unknown variables to worry about once you know them better, and it’ll make it easier for you to trust them and for them to trust you all especially when you encounter differences in work values.

In my module, I don’t rely solely on peer evaluation to decide who to penalise. And usually, for groups that have differences in work values, the unhappy group member will not hesitate to reach out to me or the TA. And we’ll conduct investigations on our part to find out what’s going on with the group.

I can’t say the same for other modules though. So check with your prof about how they do use the peer evaluations to decide.

How far do you think a person can try to accommodate or tweak their habits for their partner before it becomes inorganic or that they are forced to become someone they don’t wanna be?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How far do you think a person can try to accommodate or tweak their habits for their partner before it becomes inorganic or that they are forced to become someone they don’t wanna be?

I get that sometimes we got to change our ways and allow for a significant other to come into our lives, but is there an extent to which one could radically change because of that, and lose themselves in the meantime?

I totally understand your question because I’ve had a past experience of changing too much for the other that I became much less of who I am, and it was affecting me a lot emotionally, and ultimately how I responded in the relationship.

In my view, there are three categories of change to ourselves or habits that we might have to deal with in a relationship:

(1) Change that’s inconsequential to yourself as a person. Especially when we have to spend a lot of time together, either working/studying or living together, it’s the little things that we do that can drive the other person crazy. Many of these things are inconsequential to our being as a person. For example, you might be the kind of person who likes to leave dishes in the sink and not wash them until night, but your partner is the kind that demands dishes be washed immediately. It doesn’t change you as a person to make a sacrifice like that to accommodate living with your partner. There are many things that fall under this category, and they usually have to do with hygiene and issues of cleanliness. I’d say, do what you can. Doesn’t cost much other than a little effort to make the other happy.

(2) Then there’s change that makes you a better version of yourself. I’m very careful to word it as a “better version” rather than a “better person,” because here the change is not about being someone else, but being someone better. Things like correcting bad habits, challenging yourself to be more enterprising, etc. A good partner is one who reminds you, maybe even nags you to be better, to do better. But if your partner begins to treat you like a personal pet project for a personality makeover in this category of change, that’s dangerous. It won’t end well. Such change must come from within yourself. If it’s forced from outside of you, you will only resent what you’re being put through even though your partner has the best of intentions. I used to spend a lot of money on things whenever I got very stressed with work, and my partner helped me to break that habit by nagging me about how bad such purchases are, and how I must not give in to filling the void in this way. Eventually I broke out of it, and I am a better person because now I am more conscious about saving money. So these kinds of changes are good for you, and you should embrace it.

(3) The third category is change that makes you less of who you are. And this is the kind of change that you must resist at all cost because it will make you very miserable (maybe even very regretful), and it’ll also affect your attitudes/feelings towards the relationship. I was once in a relationship where my partner was very clingy. She wanted to spend as much time as possible with me, and she’d make me feel guilty whenever I spend time with friends, or go out to do things I like (hobby interest groups, etc.). She hated doing all those things and so I couldn’t bring her to share in my interests. And because I felt so guilty, I gave up many friendships and many interests that I used to have. In fact, one thing that pained me so much was to give up my hobby and passion in writing. I used to write a thousand words every single day. But I gave all that up for her. My thought at that time was that I should give up these things because her happiness is important to the happiness of the relationship. But over time, it made me feel very miserable and quite dead inside. I had to occasionally use the excuse that I’m busy with work just to find time to pursue my own interests. That’s not healthy. A large part of me felt so empty not being able to do the things I enjoy doing, of not doing the things I want to do because of who I am as a person. That lingering unhappiness affected the relationship a lot.

I talked to someone about this problem, and she said, “If she’s not happy that you are busy doing what you need to do to be yourself, then that’s her problem. It’s her happiness, and she’s responsible for it, not you.” There’s a lot of truth to this. Changing who you are, becoming less of who you are just to make your partner happy is a no-deal. Because if you yourself are unhappy, then you won’t be responding to your partner in a happy way. And the whole relationship won’t be very happy. So you’re not doing your partner a favour by sacrificing and changing yourself in this way. You must retain your interests, your passions, and your friendships. If your partner is unhappy that you’re not spending enough time, then your partner has to learn to deal with it, or at least come to a compromise where you’re giving your partner enough time, care, and attention.

Is it true that a relationship can only work if two people have opposite personalities?

A student asked:

Is it true that a relationship can only work if two people have opposite personalities, e.g. introvert and extrovert?

This is not true at all. But I want to highlight a problem with this belief. No matter how similar a couple may be, it’s always the differences (no matter how minute) that will catch the couple’s attention. Similarities don’t draw attention because they look quite ordinary to us. They don’t have the potential to cause conflict. And so we can go by for weeks, months, and even years not realising just how crazy similar we may be.

But differences catch our attention like a thorn in our side. So it’ll always look like a pairing of opposite personalities, regardless of how similar a couple may be.

What makes a relationship work is open and honest communication. Don’t keep secrets, don’t hide your feelings about things, try to make it easier for your partner to want to discuss difficult topics. You need to be able to do this if you want the relationship to work.

Why am I saying this? Because our differences will tend to be the point of contention in many aspects of the relationship. If we don’t learn to manage our differences amicably, then there will be problems with the relationship.

Avoiding these problems due to differences won’t help any of you at all. The relationship will stagnate on the appearance of it seeming to work when there are deeper problems waiting to be addressed. It’s a ticking time bomb if difficulty or conflictive issues are left undiscussed for a long time. Eventually, some event will trigger a huge argument, and often times, one side will say something that s/he can never take back. And that would fatally wound the relationship, perhaps in ways that you both won’t be able to recover.

Do looks matter in a relationship?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Do looks matter in a relationship?

The answer is no. I’ve seen unattractive and even fugly people in happy long-term relationships.

There is a lot of truth in the story, “Beauty and the Beast”: if you spend a very long amount of time with someone, even if that person is ugly as hell (like a beast), you will eventually see the beauty in that person, and grow attracted to him/her.

Unless one is a narcissist who only wants to parade his/her trophy girlfriend/boyfriend, people are more likely to want a long-term relationship with a less attractive person with a good personality, than an attractive person with a bad personality.

Realistically, as the years go by, everyone will age and look unattractive anyway. So what will keep the relationship going is the personality.

Also, in a relationship, your partner will pervade many aspects of your life. Looks don’t matter here. What matters is the partner’s personality and character. Someone with an awful personality will negatively affect you 24/7. So don’t be superficial and be attracted to only good looks. Think of the long-term.

A marriage is supposed to be a friendship taken to a whole new level. A good personality helps with that. Lastly, don’t just focus on your potential partner. You should also work to improve yourself so that you also have a good personality. Otherwise, you’ll benefit from the relationship while your partner suffers. That wouldn’t be fair.

If looks don’t matter. What does? What really matters in developing a good and healthy relationship is the quality of communication and the shared memories and experiences. If you have the soft skills to do this, you will definitely be more attractive to other people. So learn to be patient and kind, learn to be a good listener and a good communicator.

How essential is it to graduate with an Honours degree?

A student wrote to me, asking:

I am torn about doing Honours, as personally, I don’t really have a passionate thesis to work on, and I am the kind of person who values work experience more than academic learning. However, I hear that there are repercussions if one does not do Honours, that it would affect one’s employability, salary and progression issues which I personally thought were secondary to my life goals. But I would like to hear your opinion as well before making a decision. How essential is it to graduate with an Honours degree?

A Bachelors with Honours is essential if you are thinking of joining the public sector because they do care about it very much, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have Honours. I have a friend who’s very assertive, and she got a very good civil service job without Honours. She only has a B.A. (Philosophy), no Honours.

No one in the private sector actually cares about your degree or whether you had honours. If the job requires a degree, it’s only because having that piece of paper says that you can endure the hard work of university life and will be able to endure the hard work of working life. I know this because I have another friend who’s the head of HR in a huge MNC. All this comes from her, not from me. She also had no Honours, just a B.A. (Philosophy).

The degree only matters for your first job, and maybe the second one if you didn’t achieve much for the first. After that, no one cares what you studied or whether you had Honours. They’ll be looking at what you’ve achieved in your previous jobs. Once again, in terms of progression, it doesn’t matter.

Salary is based on how well you are able to negotiate salary with the hiring manager. It’s more people skills than it is paper qualification. Of course, in the public sector, there are salary ceilings based on a combination of paper qualification and work experience. But if you a degree holder, these things won’t affect you very much. It’s really more about the people skills, like the skill of negotiation, rather than paper qualification that matters. Just so you know the same assertive friend who used to work in the civil service without Honours is able to negotiate a $6-8k/month salary in all her jobs in the private sector. So it’s really the people skills that determines your salary.

Now suppose you want to graduate with Honours. The question now is whether to do Honours by research (thesis) or by coursework (modules). I will say that thesis is very essential if you want to do graduate school in the future, or any job that involves research. Because doing the Honours thesis is a process where you pick up a lot of research methodologies and where you learn how to critically evaluate the things you research. The reality is that if you want to do any job really well, this is a very good skill to have regardless of where you intend to go. There are many jobs – including admin support jobs – where tasks given to you require some degree of research. Having the experience of doing research will help you greatly because you would have the experience and know-how to begin. I know some people who struggle to do their work in the working world because they lack such research experience. They don’t know how to begin Googling for relevant information, or how to sift through the information for what’s relevant. Some don’t even know how to deal with website analytics reports or survey data. If you did thesis, you would have learnt how to execute such tasks with great academic rigour, and be able to provide solid analysis that will impress your bosses.

If you didn’t do thesis or don’t want to do thesis, it’s not the end of the world. You can learn it on your own. That said, you won’t learn it as well outside of a thesis programme because you won’t be challenged as hard when learning such things on your own.

At the end of the day, the final product of a thesis is not the dissertation that you submit. No, you are the final product. You come out a more matured person from the process. I wrote a lot more about this matter, and you can read more about it here: https://i.am.jyhsim.com/2020/06/11/whats-the-difference-between-choosing-to-do-a-thesis-and-choosing-to-do-modules-for-honours-which-one-is-better/

As for a thesis topic that you’re passionate in, you have to read widely and talk to your profs to find a topic that will be of interest to you. You won’t know what to write or what to be passionate about until you do this preliminary groundwork. If you like, I wrote a response to a similar Q&A here: https://i.am.jyhsim.com/2020/06/11/im-thinking-of-doing-thesis-but-im-not-sure-how-to-get-started/

What do you think of girls who confess? Since it is more normal for guys to be the ones doing it.

A student asked:

What do you think of girls who confess? Since it is more normal for guys to be the ones doing it.

I think it’s ok for girls to confess. We are living in a modern society after all. I know some guys might be a bit more old-fashion minded, so an approach like that might freak them out a little. So you can hint your interest a bit to test water and see how it goes.

Now… Regardless of gender, I do think it’s very important to critically evaluate the person’s moral character before you decide whether or not to confess. I say this because some people are very opportunistic and manipulative. They’re not interested in a long-term relationship, and they’ll use your confession as an opportunity to enter into a relationship for the purpose of milking benefits from you like sex, free food, free expensive items, free holidays, etc. And they’ll break up once they get bored or found someone more exciting/providing. This has happened to some of my friends, both males and females.

I don’t think this happens very often. Nonetheless you should always be on your guard. Don’t rush to get into a relationship. That’s how we get hurt very badly.

Take it slow and easy, and use the time to get to know the person better to see if the person has a decent moral character and is potential boyfriend/girlfriend material first before you decide to confess.

Do you think doing Honours is necessary?

A student wrote to me with the following question:

I am currently a social work major who went through the diploma education in engineering before university. I am torn about doing Honours. Personally, I don’t really have a passionate thesis to work on and I am a person who values working experience more than academic learning. However, the common concerns I hear from people on the repercussions of not doing Honours typically relate to employability, salary and progression issues which I personally thought were secondary to my life goals. But I would like to hear your opinion as well before making a decision. Do you think doing Honours is necessary?

A Bachelors with Honours is essential if you are thinking of joining the public sector because they do care about it very much, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have Honours. I have a friend who’s very assertive, and she got a very good civil service job without Honours. She only has a B.A. (Philosophy).

No one in the private sector actually cares about your degree or whether you had honours. If the job requires a degree, it’s only because having that piece of paper says that you can endure the hard work of university life and will be able to endure the hard work of working life. I know this because I have another friend who’s the head of HR in a huge MNC. All this comes from her, not from me. She also had no Honours, just a B.A. (Philosophy).

The degree only matters for your first job, and maybe the second one if you didn’t achieve much for the first. After that, no one cares what you studied or whether you had Honours. They’ll be looking at what you’ve achieved in your previous jobs. Once again, in terms of progression, it doesn’t matter.

Salary is based on how well you are able to negotiate salary with the hiring manager. It’s more people skills than it is paper qualification. Of course, in the public sector, there are salary ceilings based on a combination of paper qualification and work experience. But if you a degree holder, these things won’t affect you very much. It’s really more about the people skills, like the skill of negotiation, rather than paper qualification that matters. Just so you know the same assertive friend who used to work in the civil service without Honours is able to negotiate a $6-8k/month salary in all her jobs in the private sector. So it’s really the people skills that determines your salary.

Now suppose you want to graduate with Honours. The question now is whether to do Honours by research (thesis) or by coursework (modules). I will say that thesis is very essential if you want to do graduate school in the future, or any job that involves research. Because doing the Honours thesis is a process where you pick up a lot of research methodologies and where you learn how to critically evaluate the things you research. The reality is that if you want to do any job really well, this is a very good skill to have regardless of where you intend to go. There are many jobs – including admin support jobs – where tasks given to you require some degree of research. Having the experience of doing research will help you greatly because you would have the experience and know-how to begin. I know some people who struggle to do their work in the working world because they lack such research experience. They don’t know how to begin Googling for relevant information, or how to sift through the information for what’s relevant. Some don’t even know how to deal with website analytics reports or survey data. If you did thesis, you would have learnt how to execute such tasks with great academic rigour, and be able to provide solid analysis that will impress your bosses.

If you didn’t do thesis or don’t want to do thesis, it’s not the end of the world. You can learn it on your own. That said, you won’t learn it as well outside of a thesis programme because you won’t be challenged as hard when learning such things on your own.

What are your thoughts on students trying to find internships with their friends?

A student asked:

What are your thoughts on students trying to find internships with their friends? In other words, they only apply for internships where they might be able to work with the friends in the same office.

I don’t recommend doing this. You should learn to enter into the unknown all alone by yourself. Working world’s going to be like that, so it’s better to get used to it. Learn to make new friends with your colleagues. It’s a very important life skill.

If you do an internship with a friend (or friends), there is a greater tendency to want to stick with your friend(s), and not learn to break into pre-existing cliques among your colleagues. This can be detrimental to your professional development as you’re not only losing out on developing relations with your colleagues, but the lack of interaction with them may mean that you don’t get properly socialised into the office culture, or you lose the opportunity to build trust with your colleagues enough for them to want to give you more important projects to take on for your own growth and development.

Also, there is a tendency among more immature interns to joke and play a fool at work, especially when they’re with their friends. This leaves a really bad impression on your supervisors. Be aware that when you apply for jobs in the future, the hiring manager may call your previous company to ask about you. And if you were playing around in the office with your friend(s), they won’t hesitate to be honest about their negative assessment about you.

I’m struggling to find an internship. What should I do?

A very worried student wrote to me, asking:

I’m struggling to find an internship. What should I do?

The first step is: Don’t panic!

It’s not the end of the world if you don’t do an internship. Internships are very over-rated. Sure, internships may give you work experience but what matters more are your people skills. I’ll take someone without an internship but with better people skills and a good attitude any time over a person with poor people skills but an impressive CV full of internships. Why? Because the one with better people skills will give me far less of a headache as my subordinate compared to the one with poor people skills. Many bosses, supervisors and HR people will tell you they’ll choose the same too.

Now, let me systematically diagnose possible problems as to why you didn’t get an internship. If you have not been called up for an interview, it means there is something wrong with your CV. CV is Latin for Curriculum Vitae, or the course of (your) life. It’s supposed to document all the awesome things you’ve accomplished in your life, as a testament of your development through the years.

I’ve seen many CVs and one typical mistake is that people – including very awesome and capable people – merely list out super short summaries of the things they did. The problem with this strategy is that it reduces your greatness into mediocrity. Imagine if you are the hiring manager and you have to go through 1000 CVs in order to identify 3 people for an interview: who would you pick? The ones whose CVs stand out from the rest, of course.

If you merely list the tasks you did, you’re not going to stand out as impressive. It helps to add a short sentence of the outcome: how your work made an impact on someone or some group. Better if you have solid numbers to include (they must be true: don’t lie in your CV). It also helps to add an adverb to paint a richer image of what you’ve done. Here’s a comparison:

Typical Way of Writing CV (not impressive): Organised an outreach programme

Better Way of Writing CV (based on the advice I gave): Competently organised an outreach programme for the organisation. Under my supervision, the event was a success with logistics and programmes running on time. 90% of attendees gave feedback that they benefitted greatly from the careful planning and execution.

Read the two samples above. Which one inspires greater confidence in you that s/he is a very competent hire? The latter, because of the concrete evidence of the results. So do that and it will increase the appeal of your CV.

Now, if you’ve been going for interviews but haven’t been getting any offers, it means that you lack the people skills to make a strong positive impression. Usually, one of the interviewers is someone whom you’ll work under. The aim is to show that you are someone that they want to work with, and someone they can trust to do the work competently well. Ideally, you should show that you are an independent and fast learner. But if that’s not what you are, at least show that you are someone who’s lovely to work with.

You can also make a strong positive impression in other ways. You should do a lot of homework to find out more about the company and especially your interviewers. It shows in the conversation that you’re hardworking enough to have done background research. The fact that you can find common topics of interest to talk about also shows that you will be a great person to work with.

I’ve heard that some students think the interview question, “Tell me more about yourself,” is an invitation to bitch about life and bitch about one’s past work experiences. Please don’t do that. To the hiring manager, that’s a red flag. The question is an invitation to impress the interviewers, to make a case for why they should hire you.

The best way to get an internship or job is through personal connections. For example, a number of former students have since gotten internships because I put in a good word for them (I only do that for good students when the hiring manager knows me – people know that I teach a compulsory FASS module, SG is small). The testimony of a friend’s recommendation to a hiring manager makes a world of a difference, and it can even convince hiring managers to favour you even before they’ve seen your CV or hear you in an interview. So they’ll be more forgiving to mistakes and all that.

Another student asked a follow-up question:

But what if the student has no work experience and or any achievement to show off from one’s CCA? Does this mean that no one will give the student a chance at an internship at all?

I want to re-emphasise that internships are way too over-rated. You won’t lose out if you don’t do an internship. Not all internships are equal, and not all give a rich work experience. Some internships are saikang (shit job) internships that just waste your time and energy. The experience you gain doesn’t really help you at all in making an impressive case on our CV.

If you realise that as of now, you don’t have an impressive CV, as a student, you still have time to change that. Use your time in University to develop an impressive CV. Perhaps take on leadership roles or projects in your CCAs, or find some way to get involved in something. Even volunteer/charitable projects will be helpful. Anything that involves people: managing people, leading people, teaching people, guiding people, etc., will be useful. At least that will give you experience in one way or another.

If that’s not possible, use the time to upskill yourself with online courses like Coursera or EdX, or learn to develop good people skills. And learn to reach out to people in industries. It doesn’t hurt to say hello to people. Some may turn you down, but so what? They won’t remember you (unless you wrote something really nasty). In most cases, if people remember you, it’s for good things. And it can open doors of opportunities for you, whether in the form of internships or work after graduation. Learn to use this to develop good relations with others. It’s a good investment that will come in very handy for you in the future.

As a real example: Some former students got jobs/internships after staying in touch with me and building good friendships with me. Not only do I know them well, but I trust them not to let me down if I were to recommend them to other people. So I have fought hard to recommend them for positions that internship/job positions that open up.

I was very fortunate, when I was a student/fresh graduate, to have good JC teachers and profs who opened up many opportunities for me by tapping on their own networks. This is just my way of paying it forward to help other students the way my teachers helped me.

Do you have any advice for people with low self-esteem and who always think that they are not good enough?

One student asked me this question:

Do you have any advice for people with low self-esteem and who always think that they are not good enough?

Let me share with you a fun Zen story riddle (would have been more fun if I could do this in person). Let’s imagine that we have a large glass bottle. The opening of the bottle is big enough to fit a baby duckling inside the glass bottle. Imagine that we raise the duckling in the bottle for many years until it has grown very large. By now, it’s too big to get out of the glass bottle. So here’s the question:

How do you get the duck out without breaking the glass bottle? (Answer below, don’t peek!)

The answer is: AAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!! (Would have been more thrilling and fun if I could shout and bang the table right before your eyes)

You probably went, “WHAT THE HELL!?” But in that moment where you went WTH, you stopped thinking of the duck as trapped in the glass bottle. The duck is free.

A lot of life problems are like that. We are prisoners of our minds. And our minds are very powerful in generating self-made problems and suffering for ourselves. I need to be clear here: I’m not saying your problems are imaginary. How you feel about yourself is very real and very valid. And I acknowledge that, and in many ways, I feel you, because I used to suffer from low self-esteem too.

Over the years, I’ve come to realise that how we think and feel about ourselves are often inaccurate reflections of who we are. Why? Because we are the worst judge of ourselves. Everything we do is always pathetic in our eyes. And no matter how great and wonderful we may be, we will always find something to fault ourselves over.

Of course, it’s very easy to say, “ Don’t think about it.” That doesn’t work at all. Our minds are strange things. We are our minds, yet sometimes our minds have a life of its own, generating thoughts that we sometimes cannot control. That’s why it’s difficult to stop thinking about it.

If you noticed, from the start I’ve been saying that this is a problem of how we perceive ourselves in our minds. Because once we recognise the problem as such, we will then recognise that nothing outside of us can make us improve our self-esteem: relationships won’t solve the problem; good grades won’t solve the problem; money or even power won’t solve the problem. You can possess all these things but still suffer from a low self-esteem. So we must stop kidding ourselves that using these external things as measures or indicators of how good we are. Once you attain one of those things, e.g. high CAP or even a loving partner, you’ll soon discover some other thing to make you feel shit about yourself.

Having said all these, I won’t tell you how to get over one’s self-esteem issues. I’ll just share some of the realisations I had growing up, and how it helped me, and I hope it gives you new insights as well.

The first insight I acquired was when I discovered that abstract ideals are dangerous to one’s esteem. When we compare ourselves to the abstract ideals of good, clever, hardworking, smart, etc., they will always be perfect in our minds and anything in this concrete real world – ourselves especially – will always fall short from the perfection. The question, “Am I happy?”, is enough to make you miserable, because when you think about happiness in the abstract, your current state of happiness will always be not-happy-enough. Likewise for any other abstract ideal. So I have since stopped using such abstract notions to evaluate how good I am.

The second insight is that every single individual is sui generis. It’s a term used in Law and Philosophy to mean, “a class of its own.” Everyone’s unique in their own special way, with their own different strengths. I used to be miserable comparing myself with my peers. Now I stopped comparing, because I’ve since resigned myself to the fact that I don’t have to be perfect or excellent in everything. I just want to be excellent in the things I want to be excellent in. That’s all that matters. People can do better than me in so many ways, but I don’t care. I’m not them, and they’re not me. I’m a class of its own, and I’ll just do my own thing. It makes me more gracious too. I’m very happy for other people when I see them doing better than me. And I love it especially when I see my students or TAs surpass me in their own ways (always a proud moment).

My third insight is realising that it doesn’t matter whether I think or feel that I’m not good enough. What good does the knowledge do other than make you miserable? It’s more productive to think about the tasks at hand and how to solve it. People tend to conflate “not knowing how to solve a problem” with “being not good enough.” That’s not true. You can’t solve it because you don’t know enough. It’s not that you are not good enough. And so what if you have the awareness that you’re not good enough? It’s not going to solve the problem. If anything, it just makes it worse for you as you lose confidence in it. So my point here really is that my realisation is to not frame any situation as being “not good enough,” since it’s not productive to go down that path. It’s so much better to just focus on how to solve the problem.

Have you ever been so engrossed with an activity, so focused, that you forget yourself? It’s called being in the flow. And I like being in that state. It’s very meditative, almost like you’re in a trance. The more you think about yourself, the more you think about how you’re not good enough for it, the less you work. So if we just throw ourselves into the work and get into the mood and flow of things, then we’ll forget about ourselves and how we perceive ourselves. There is only the task at hand. And when you stop thinking about yourself and focus more on the work, you tend to have less performance anxieties, and generally do a better job. And at the end of the day, you get better at doing things and you’ll grow more confident and sure of yourself.

If you think about the insights that I’ve shared, they’re all very similar to the Zen solution of getting the duck out of the glass bottle – distract yourself and the duck is out. Turn the attention of your mind away from comparing against perfect abstract ideals or other people. Turn the attention of your mind to your work or hobbies. And just like that you’ll be out of your own glass bottle of low self-esteem. As you stop thinking in terms of being good/not-good enough, you’ll start to do work well, or even better than before. And that will eventually win you praises and recognition, that will eventually make you appreciate your own abilities. And hopefully as time passes, you yourself will grow more confident of the perception of who you are. And over time, your self-esteem will improve.

How can I communicate better with my parents or at least let them understand my point of view when they don’t want to listen to me?

A student wrote to me, asking:

How can I communicate better with my parents or at least let them understand my point of view? They are pretty stubborn. I always try telling them about my feelings about the matter, but they won’t bother listening to me, or in some cases, they think that I’m just being “emotional and whiny.”

I respect and love them a lot, and that is why I stop pursuing the matter, and I always end up being the one to apologise even thought it was not my fault. It’s really annoying and sad that it always ends like that. Do you have any advice on what I can do about this?

Yes, parents are awfully tough to deal with especially if they’re stubborn. But there is one additional problem you must deal with now that you are a young adult in university. This is the age where you are discovering yourself, you are discovering what independence really means (e.g. living on your own in campus, working part-time jobs or internships, having relationships, coming home late or bunking in peoples’ houses, paying your own bills, etc.). And this is also the age where parents are starting to realise that their “little” child is not little anymore, and many parents are afraid to lose their grasp of that “little” child that they have cared for so long. It’s rare for them to admit it. Maybe it’s an Asian parent thing, maybe they just don’t have the concept to make sense of what is going on. Whatever it is, there is a fear of losing you, and some will try to increase their control in an irrational attempt to grasp on to the past.

At your age, I don’t think it’s healthy to keep apologising especially when you are not the one at fault. Because you do need to discover your own independence and individuality. If you ever have to live on your own in the future, you need to know – now, at this formative age – how to stand on your own two feet. I know someone who only discovered real independence in her 30s when she had to go overseas to work. But because she never knew how to be independent on her own in her formative young adult years, she’s been pretty self-destructive as she doesn’t know how to cope with such independence and freedom.

Or if you find a partner whom you wish to settle down with, you don’t want your parents to be too involved in your relationship that they begin to dictate the terms of your relationship/marriage. I know someone whose girlfriend’s mother did not like him and she dictated the terms of their relationship, e.g. how the girl can interact with him, and all that. It’s very unhealthy for both of them (the girl especially) and for the relationship.

For many people, overbearing future in-laws are a deal-breaker because they don’t want to marry into a family whose parents are control freaks. Regardless, such parents do introduce a new vector of stress into your relationship.

It’s good that you love and respect them. It’s also time to learn to be your own self and to stand on your own two feet. Most people lack patience in dealing with stubborn parents, and so it leads to a lot of arguments and fights. But here’s the thing… The problem with verbal face-to-face communication is that most people are not very calm and patient. They tend to react upon hearing something they cannot accept, and especially so if your parents feel that they are losing their precious little child who’s growing up too fast. And so what often happens is that they react and they end up disrupting the communicative process. So you don’t ever get to finish presenting your line of reasoning to them. The conversation would have ended just as you got started.

There are two ways around this that will be a lot more peaceful. It doesn’t mean there won’t be fights, but at least you can be sure that you can get your point across and hopefully elicit a calm(er) response from them:

(1) Write a letter to them stating your point of view. Be sensitive to their feelings (their fears and anxieties) are you write the letter. It can be as long as you want. Writing a letter is also good for you because you don’t get agitated by their reactions, so you can write calmly throughout. Handing your parents a letter will be a very unusual move. Who gives letters to parents these days, right? So the very act of handing them a letter will be incredibly dissonant to their heads, and best of all, they have no past experience to look to as a guide on how to react.

This will force them to read the letter in its entirety (because they care for you). Even if they get upset reading it, they can still continue reading, and this allows you to get your point across. The fact that they have no past experience in dealing with something like this means that you are forcing them to think harder about how they should respond to what they have just read and experienced. Now, I don’t know about your generation of parents. But mine are not very educated, so they won’t be able to articulate clearly their own thoughts into a letter. If your parents are like this, then ask them to find a time where they are not busy to respond to the letter in person (give them time and space). Otherwise, if you have parents who are quite educated, then ask them to reply in writing. The act of writing forces people to think and rethink their own thoughts, beliefs, and even actions. And so that can be very beneficial to draw them out of their stubbornness. So this is something you can consider doing.

I highly recommend the above method, i.e. letter writing. But if for whatever reason letter writing may not work for you, you might want to consider the second method:

(2) Invite an outsider whom your parents respect and regard as a neutral party between you and them. This would be the mediation approach. The mediator will set the rules for engagement: only one person gets to speak at a time without interruption, accusatory language should be avoided at all cost, and we must acknowledge that each other’s feeling are valid and real. The mediator should give both parties equal air time, and if possible help to rephrase the points and help to highlight the main message that each party is trying to convey. With an outsider present (one whom your parents respect), you can be sure that your parents will not lose their shit when you share your thoughts and views. They will do their best to not lose their face in front of this outsider (usually), and they will play by the rules of engagement. The mediator also helps to protect both sides from attacks, so both can be vulnerable and open without fear. In this way, you have a space to open your heart out to them, and they’ll be made to respond to what you say in a calm and rational way, so that both parties can have a calm discussion.

I hope this gives you some ideas on how to engage them in a more productive and calm way. I wish you all the best in this matter. Have patience, and courage!

How much would peer review affect one’s own final grade?

A student asked me:

How much would peer review affect one’s own final grade?

I can’t say this for all modules because different lecturers have different policies. Some might drop a grade or two, some might choose to give a zero for the whole project.

In the case of GET1050, the worst case scenario is that you’ll get zero marks for the group project component, which is 35% of the total grade. That can drop a student from a B to a D, or a C to an F.

Many students think that they can hide and get away with not doing work, but they don’t realise just how transparent they are. My TAs and I are constantly monitoring our students so we already know who’s slacking before peer evaluation results come out. Also, it’s very obvious who didn’t contribute in the group because the social dynamics will be different compared to people/groups who contribute their utmost.

So what I’m saying is, we don’t just rely on peer evaluation reports to penalise slackers, because some people are very petty in how they evaluate their peers. So to ensure that we are fair, we make the effort to gather and corroborate evidence from a variety of sources.

I’ll just add one more point. You’ve probably heard of the phrase “6 degrees of separation.” Because of my social/professional network, I am 2 degrees away from Lee Hsien Loong, Obama, Clinton, and Putin. It scares me to think just how far away (or rather, how near) I am from these people.

If you know me personally, that puts you at 3 degrees away from them. Why am I saying this? The world is small. Singapore is even smaller. If I can notice slackers in a class of 800 students, what more the professors in other modules? What you do with your assignments and your projects don’t escape our attention. It goes beyond just grades. We know people who hire people, and those people do come to us asking us what we think of you. As a compulsory module, HR people do come to me to ask about my former students when they apply for internships/jobs. I have been fighting strongly to give my highest recommendations to students who have been great team players in their groups; and I have been very honest in telling these HR people about students who demonstrated horrible personal/work attitudes in the group project and in this course overall.

So the repercussions of how good/bad you are in your group go way beyond your grades. So do remember this well. Be good to your group mates and work hard. We are training you to learn how to work in teams and manage people of different personalities and working styles. It’s something you’ll have to do in the working world, so use this opportunity of group work to develop these important people skills. It’ll go a very long way in helping you after you graduate.

What are your thoughts on suicide and its implications?

A student wrote to me, asking:

What are your thoughts on suicide and its implications?

This question reminds me of a student who passed away in recent memory. It totally devastated me…

Days before her passing, I reached out to her as the trajectory of her social media posts suggested that suicide was imminent. I messaged her to check on how she was doing, and we conversed over the next couple of days. One day, she asked to see me as she wanted to hear advice from an older adult. She didn’t say what the matter was. We fixed an appointment, and I came to my office that fateful day waiting to meet her.

Half an hour passed, but she didn’t show up. I messaged and asked her if she was coming. She said that she wasn’t feeling too well. So she cancelled our meeting, and asked that we reschedule to another day. I didn’t think too much about this, so I agreed to a rescheduling.

Two days later, I learnt from some of her friends that she had passed away a few hours after she cancelled our meeting.

I was devastated, and even now, I am still haunted by this lingering thought in my mind: What did she want to talk to me about? What advice was she looking for? Would she still be alive today had I been insistent on meeting her? Given how it happened soon after we were scheduled to meet, I felt really awful. Couldn’t I have done something? Anything? Would it have been better if I wrote my messages some other way? What could I have done?

I beat myself up for days over this incident.

I eventually met up with some of her friends to find out what had happened. I learnt that even though this student felt so unloved, she meant so much to so many people. And so many of her friends were heartbroken by her passing.

The point in sharing this story with you is to let you be aware that no matter what you feel, or how you feel, you will always matter to a lot of people, even the seemingly unimportant or insignificant people in your life. At the very least, I want you to know that as my student, you will always matter to me.

Our minds can play tricks on us, make us feel unloved and unlovable, or make us feel that we have reached the point of no return. But how we feel is often an inaccurate reflection of what’s going on in our lives and to the people around us. Yes, the feelings are real because you feel them; the thoughts are real because they go through your mind. But we can always be mistaken.

Suicide basically leaves a trail of brokenness. Brokenness begets more brokenness. Pain begets more pain. What seems to be a solution for one’s self turns out to affect so many people. Suicide may feel like the answer to your problems. You cease to exist, but the people who love you will have to carry the burden of continuing their existence without you. And it is a sorrowful burden to shoulder for the rest of our lives. Some are haunted regularly by the lack of closure from your sudden departure. Some are haunted by the void that fills your absence for the rest of their lives. And many will have to live with the guilt that they could have done something, anything, to prevent it from happening because they are your friends/family. And not all are emotionally strong to get back up on their feet after your passing.

So, don’t forget the people around you. They do care for you even if you don’t feel that they do.

I just want you to know that no problem is ever too big. You will always have your friends and family, and you have me too. Come talk to me if you like. Don’t be afraid. :)

And if you want a trained professional to assist you in your time of need, please call the Samaritans of Singapore at 1800 221 4444 (24 hours).

Why do people who are 17 or 18 years old get into relationships if the chances they can last is unlikely?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Why do people who are 17 or 18 years old get into relationships if the chances they can last is unlikely?

If you think about it, there are many relationships that don’t actually last regardless of age. So why zoom in to those years? The same can be said about any other age.

The real question is why do something if you know it’s likely to fail? Some people use this line of thought to justify not getting married because of the likelihood of failure. We might as well be asking: Why bother living if we know we’re going to die?

The point is that it’s about the experience. Not all experiences are good, and not all experiences are bad. But all these experiences teach us many things about life: what we really want, who we really are, etc.

Of course, being in a relationship at too young an age can lead to more hurts due to a lack of maturity and experience in knowing how to handle difficulties, conflicts, and hurts. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop people from trying, and from learning from their experiences, whether good or bad.

At the start of the relationship, my wife (then girlfriend) had many worries, and she said, “What if we break up? What’s the point in being together?”

My answer was that at least we would have had the experience – the joys, the sorrows, the happy memories, and even the sad memories – that would define us, that would mark a chapter in our lives. These are never wasted time together.

And if we have to go our separate ways, we’ll then say, “Thank you for the time together. Thank you for the happy memories, and the sad memories. Thank you for the laughter and the tears. Thank you the experience. And more importantly, thank you for sharing this chapter of your life with me.” And then we’ll move on to a new chapter, with a new adventure and a new story to tell.

How do you overcome fear of uncertainties, and the shame and guilt of past failures?

A student asked:

How do you overcome (1) fear of uncertainties, and (2) the shame and guilt of past failures?

The first step to overcome fear of uncertainties is to recognise that a lot of things in life are not linear. If you didn’t get X now, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do Y in the future. The doors of opportunity for Y may present itself later on.

The second step to overcome fear of uncertainties is to carry out this thing called Risk Mitigation. We know that uncertainties exist. We know that we don’t like some of the consequences. And we know that some things are beyond our control. So what can we do so that we don’t end up in the worst case scenario? For starters, have a backup plan. Heck, come up with multiple backup plans. E.g. What do I do if my thesis topic turns out false? Then write about why it didn’t turn out the way you intended! There we go, a backup plan! All is not lost.

Psychologically, when you have backup plans, the pressure to get X right reduces because you know you can fall back on the backup. This is helpful because we often crumble under high stakes pressure. So the backup plan also helps in making you feel less stressed about the situation, thereby allowing you to perform better.

Now, there’s a whole literature about risk mitigation strategies that go beyond backup plans. They cover things like how to accept risk, avoid risk, control risk, monitor risk, and more. It’s too lengthy to cover it here, which was why I started with a simple concept of the backup plan. Go Google and read up more about risk mitigation, and master that as a skill. Once you know how to manage and mitigate risks, your fear of uncertainties will reduce greatly.

As for overcoming the shame and guilt of past failures, we have to recognise that a lot of it is in our heads. We are prisoners of our minds. And it’s important to remember that how we feel and perceive our failures is not how other people feel and perceive them. In fact, most people don’t remember the stupid things we do, or the incredible failures we’ve committed. I’ve said many embarrassing things and done a lot of stupid things to other people. I used to live in fear that these things will come back and haunt me. But 10 years later, nobody remembers them. This also includes the people whom I hurt or upset in the past. It never ceases to amaze me how forgiving (or forgetful) people are. You must do something of evil villain proportions to be remembered for those misdeeds. Most of us aren’t even close to that. So people will be forgiving, and we just have to be a bit thick skinned about it and just pretend it didn’t happen. You’ll be amazed at the degree of magnanimity and graciousness that most people are capable of. So… Don’t be afraid!

Do you think more with your heart or with your mind?

A student asked:

Do you think more with your heart or with your mind? Are you more an emotional person or a logical person?

It depends on the situation. I like to think that I am more rational than emotional. Though there are times where I am more emotional than rational.

That said, this way of thinking about it is a bit problematic. It’s known as a “false dichotomy,” where the situation is presented in an either/or manner. There is value in using one’s mind, and there is also value in using one’s heart. And the morally exemplary person is one who’s able to make decisions with both heart and mind in tandem with each other.

Growing up, I’ve always been too much on the rational side. But the problem with that is reason can tell you a thousand over things that you should be doing with your life. And while I can agree with all these things, I find myself at odds with some of them, precisely because I don’t actually want to do so many of these things. Not because I’m a selfish person, but it’s just not who I am. Reason is great, but it can be disconnected from many of the concrete particularities like who we are, what we like to do, what we want to do. These are regarded more as matters of the heart, which are in fact, just as important.

Without the heart, we can reason ourselves into doing a lot of things we hate. There is simply no joy to such an existence. And I know this because I used to do that a lot.

And of course, making decisions purely out of the heart, purely out of emotion, can be a recipe for disaster. Good intentions must be checked by reason, otherwise we can end up doing more harm than good to the people around us. And I’ve seen so many horrible incidents occur by volunteers of charity. Much heart, but no head. And so precious resources are wasted due to gross inefficiencies, many people are hurt in the process, and so on. These could have been easily avoided with systematic planning with reason, or even just using reason to analyse whether the actions are even worth taking in the first place.

I’ll admit that I am still far from the moral exemplar who is able to decide with both heart and mind aligned as one. I think we should strive towards that if we want to cause less headaches and heartaches for ourselves and others. I’m still trying my best in this regard.

Is it better to be dependent or independent in a relationship?

A student asked me a question about relationships, but I’m reframing the question a bit here:

Is it better to be dependent or independent in a relationship?

Dependency is never a good thing.

Here is something marriage counsellors will often tell you: “A healthy relationship is one where two whole individuals come together to enrich each other. An unhealthy relationship is one where two non-whole individuals come together expecting the other (or the relationship) to make them whole.”

What I mean by a whole/wholesome individual is minimally, one who is able to love himself or herself.

I think it is part of the struggle of the human experience to go through phases of disliking or hating who we are. I suppose it’s an important process of discovering more about we who are and what we want out of life. There can be no end to the amount of imperfections we can find within ourselves. We are saturated with imperfections at every nook and cranny of our being. And it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of self-disgust at every imperfection.

The Japanese have a concept in their aesthetic philosophy known as “wabi-sabi,” which is a cultivated ability of appreciating beauty in the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. And I do think that that is a very powerful idea to embrace, to be able to look at our imperfections in their full glory and learn to see beauty in that.

Allow me to digress a bit into this. One of the most fascinating things I’ve learnt about visual art is that you need to add imperfections either as noise in digital art, or “imperfect” brush strokes or seemingly “unmatching” colours to the canvas to increase the level of realism and beauty in a picture. If you didn’t do that, the image looks too clean, almost like a cartoon. In a similar way, I do like to think of my own imperfections as contributing to the aesthetic quality of who I am.

Why is this important in a relationship? Because if we don’t know how to love ourselves, we outsource the love of ourselves to an external party, and become entirely dependent on the other person to make us feel whole, and with it comes the insecurity of losing that wholeness. It often gets confused with the insecurity of losing the person who can make us feel loved and wholesome, and depending on the individual that insecurity may manifest itself in different ways: either sacrificing far too much of yourself or who you are just to please the partner in the hopes that the partner will stay; and/or, attempting to manipulate and control the partner in the hopes that the partner never leaves your grasp.

These are things I am sharing from personal experience. Because I was once in a relationship with someone who could not love herself. She was very dependent in the relationship, and thus was very clingy and fearful of losing me to the extent that I was emotionally manipulated into giving up a lot of my friendships and personal hobbies and interests much to my own personal detriment. And in many ways, I too am to blame for this, because I should have stood my ground. But I think at some point, I also forgot how to love myself and prioritised the relationship as if it would make me whole and wholesome, that I was willing to give up all these things that mattered so dearly to me. In the end, we gave up so much, we sacrificed so much of who we once were for the sake of preserving the relationship, that we both became empty shells of who we used to be.

The moral of the story is this: Don’t be dependent on your partner to feel loved and whole. And don’t be dependent on the relationship either. It is our lives and it is really up to us to make ourselves feel loved and whole. Relationships are meant to enrich us. Relationships are not meant to save us from ourselves. So don’t ever prioritise your partner or the relationship at the expense of giving up who you are.

But even if we make such mistakes, that’s ok. It’s normal to make such mistakes. Even I made such a mistake. I guess it’s an important learning experience, perhaps it’s an important experience for our own growth and development. Humanity seems to repeat this mistake again and again, and we know this because stories like these are recorded even in the earliest of writings. The history of humanity is filled with many stories of heartbreaks, miseries, and regretful sacrifices people made for the sake of one’s partners or the relationship.

We just have to learn to love ourselves so that we can be better and kinder to ourselves, our friends, and our partners.

What are your thoughts on couples that have a big “gap” between them? E.g. one is more highly educated than the other, or one is earning more than the other.

A student asked:

What are your thoughts on couples that have a big “gap” between them? E.g. one is more highly educated than the other, or one is earning more than the other. In other words, where the other party struggles to keep up with his/her partner.

I’m going to be very realist about this matter. I know some people like to say that as long as you have good chemistry or love each other, these kinds of differences don’t matter. This is not true. Some things matter a hell lot to certain individuals. And no matter how much we’d like to believe that we are secure and magnanimous individuals, we do have our own personal needs, and we do have some insecurities that cannot be easily ignored.

So it really depends on what the gap is, and whether it is something that either party values greatly or either party is very insecure about. Yes, a lot of these problems can be mitigated with communication. But depending on what the gap is, and who you and your partner are, it can affect the relationship. So it’s best that we don’t pretend it’s not a problem or hope that it’ll magically go away.

Let me share with you a story (well, two stories) to illustrate the point: I happen to personally know the first person in the world to receive a PhD in Computer Science (I met him a couple of times over the course of my work). He passed away at the age of 86 in 2015, and I was sent on a work trip with another professor to Michigan where we would comb through his archives and digitise his unpublished works for publication. Let’s call him H (just to keep him semi-anonymous so this won’t show up on search engines).

The professor who went with me was a close personal friend of H. And she made it a point to visit H’s family, and I tagged along. During the conversations we had with his family, I learnt that he had an amicable divorce with his first wife. They loved each other a lot. H valued intellectual discussions greatly, and it was something that he enjoyed doing with people a lot. But there was a huge intellectual gap between him and his first wife, and he was unable to talk to her about his work (which also happened to be his passion). That was a huge strain to the relationship because he could not share his passion, his love, with the person he loved. They broke up in the end, but they remained as friends until they passed away.

I’ll be very honest and tell you that I have a similar problem with my wife. I’m not as passionate as H was to talk about his research. But when I did my Masters, my wife could not understand a single thing I was doing. She wanted to be the supportive wife to be able to talk to me about my work. She was able to do that when I worked on my Honours thesis, but she struggled to comprehend everything I was doing for my Masters. This made her feel very insecure and worried that she’d be left behind as I continue to advance intellectually.

Personally, I don’t value talking about my research the same way as H, but it does continue to bother my wife a lot, and that is one major source of her insecurity (it doesn’t bother me since it’s not a priority for me), especially with the fact that I’ll be doing a PhD soon. And there is really nothing I can do to help with her insecurity on this matter. It’s her personal battle, and one that she has to sort out on her own. (I’ve already done all I can on my part. This is a problem that she has to overcome on her own, but it is a personal struggle and not one that can go away easily.)

What’s the moral of the story: It’s NOT that you need someone to be equal to you in every way. No. There are many professors who are happily married to people who do not possess a Masters or PhD. Similarly, there are many happily married couples where one spouse is earning far more/less money than the other, or holds an appointment more prestigious than the other. It’s not an issue for these marriages because they don’t value those things enough to be a point of contention, or it just happens to be an issue that none of them are insecure about.

The big “gap” – whether education, or money, or status – will be a problem EITHER (1) if one party values one thing which the other isn’t able to adequately satisfy (e.g. in the case of H wanting to share his intellectual passion with his first wife) OR (2) one party feels extremely insecure because of the gap (e.g. my wife freaking out that she cannot catch up with me as I continue to advance in my education).

So, please be sure to communicate regularly with your partner about these things so that you both have an understanding of what you value or what will make the other insecure. This is not a one-time conversation. Sometimes we just don’t know what we value or worry about until the actual situation presents itself.

Do you think it’s wrong to cut off people, even if they were your closest friends, just to protect your mental health?

A student wrote a very heartfelt message, with the following question:

Do you think it’s wrong to cut off people (by ghosting), even if they were your closest friends, just to protect your mental health?

I cut them off because I no longer felt happy in those friendships.And I chose to ghost them because I knew that they wouldn’t understand my point of view, and I really wasn’t sure whether or not I should continue holding on to these friendships.

I feel like the reasons why I was unhappy had to do with my mental state and their personality. They aren’t as patient and as willing to try to understand me. and it went on for years.

Having read until here, you would think that since I have conceded that it’s a mismatch of friendships, why would I even bother anymore right? But the thing is I continue feeling sad about losing them and I even feel scared of what they may say behind my back. I tried talking to the most recent person I cut off and damn she was so paggro. She blamed me for cutting her off, instead of understanding my point of view.

What do you think?

Thank you for trusting me and pouring out your soul on this issue.

I think it’s ok to cut off people from your life, especially bad friends or toxic people. I had to cut off two friends who became too emotionally dependent that they were using me as an emotional support clutch and weren’t doing anything about their lives. It went on for more than a year, and I was very drained mentally and emotionally. One of them became so obsessively clingy he insisted on meeting me, and when I said I was busy or didn’t respond to his messages, he’d contact all my mutual friends to find out where I was. It was creepy as hell.

However, all that said, I don’t agree that one should ghost them. I find ghosting to be a really disrespectful action. We think that it hurts someone less, but it ends up causing the person so much more hurt. No one deserves to be ghosted. And this is especially so if they were good friends or at least had some degree of closeness. The least we should do is to explain why we want to cut them off so that they have some closure. The lack of an explanation, the lack of closure, can be very hurtful to them.

Silence says too much, perhaps much more than it should. And some people allow their imagination to run wild as they try to piece the pieces together in an attempt to make sense of why you might have ghosted them. This causes them to feel more hurt and pain as a consequence.

In the example you gave about your friend, she sounds like she’s been deeply hurt by what had happened. I think it’s still possible to rebuild the friendship. It will take time to rebuild the trust, so you will need to be patient about it.

Personally, I have tried to reconnect with the two people I cut off for being emotionally dependent. It started out awkward at first, but we started hanging out again after a while. Sadly, the friendships with those two (they used to be good friends, by the way), didn’t last despite reconnecting. It turned out that they could not get back up on their feet. They were still overly needy and clingy in ways that continued to exact a huge toll on me. I had to make the difficult decision of cutting them off again.

I do hope that you’ll find better success than I did with reconnecting with your friends. From what you write, they don’t sound like toxic people, or emotionally dependent people. I am quite optimistic that you will do well with reconnecting with them. Let me share with you two things that may help you to rebuild your friendships:

Firstly, you said that you cut off people “to protect your mental health” because you “no longer felt happy in those friendships.” I think it’s ok to cut people off from your life especially if those friendships make you very miserable. But there is a distinction between happiness and mental health. One can be very unhappy but still be in a good psychological state. Unless you are hanging out with toxic people, unhappy friendships do not necessarily lead to an impact on one’s mental health. So conflating unhappiness with one’s mental health as if the two things are one and the same can get in the way of developing close and healthy friendships. My worry is that when we conflate the two as one, we may end up being way too over-protective about preserving our psychological state, that we end up – ironically – losing our minds over it.

Secondly, you said that your friends “wouldn’t understand [your] point of view,” that they “aren’t as patient and as willing to try to understand [you].” I think it’s important to reflect on whether you were just as patient and willing to understand them, or patient and willing to let them understand you. It’s important for us to recognise that how we feel about a situation may not accurately reflect what is actually going on, and that can also stand in the way of developing close friendships.

I say this because you wrote that you “knew they wouldn’t understand [your] point of view.” In reality, it is very difficult to arrive at such a conclusion with high certainty (or to even know it as a fact). And so when we make conclusions like this, it might be a conclusion that we arrived too prematurely without sufficient empirical support.

Our feelings may make us feel justified about the matter, but that’s the only support we have: feelings. I want you to know that it is very valid to feel this way. Your feelings about the matter are very valid. That said, in most cases, however, it is not enough to arrive at such a conclusion because you actually need to have access to their innermost thoughts to know for sure that they didn’t understand you. What you feel is a response to their outward words or actions, it is not the same as their innermost thoughts. A heart-to-heart talk may help you gain some insights to their innermost thoughts, but sometimes people struggle to clearly articulate what’s really in their minds and hearts, and what they say may not match what they actually intended to say. It doesn’t help that our interpretation of what people say may be incorrect as well.

Going forward, what will be useful is to make it a point to perceive that every time your friends talk to you, or try to have heart-to-heart talks, they are trying their best to understand you and your point of view. Friends who care will always try their best. It may not be perfect, and so we have to be patient about it.

This brings me to the next point that we can’t expect friends to be perfect, like a perfect breakfast that comes about by grabbing a box of banana nut crunch cornflakes off the shelf from Sheng Siong (that’s not my breakfast, but I wished it was). I do think that we should try to be more patient with our friends. Sometimes our closest friends don’t understand us because we aren’t giving them the chance to understand us.

Sometimes, it’s because of a lack of communication. Friends – and even close friends – won’t know what we need until we say it. And it’s not realistic to expect them to know what we need because we’re all different. People differ in their love languages and they will express love and care in ways that may not match your expectation. So communication is very important.

I do wish you all the best in this matter. And I hope that you’ll also find many new and wonderful friends along the way. :)

How do you deal with people who are passive aggressive (paggro)?

A student wrote to me, asking:

How do you deal with people who are passive aggressive (paggro)?

Usually passive aggressive people do what they do because they want do avoid confrontation. The reasons for avoiding confrontation varies. Sometimes it’s because the matter seems too trivial to warrant a direct confrontation and so feels like s/he has no outlet to vent his/her frustration about the matter; or the person is afraid of the repercussions of confrontation; or the person is aware that s/he’s so bad at handling direct confrontation that s/he will make the situation worse (it may also be because the person has a very bad temper and is avoiding have to reveal this awful side to you).

It would be incorrect to assume that the passive aggressive person is the incarnate of evil in the form of a paggro individual.

Often times, it’s because we ourselves are doing something to upset them, but not enough to trigger direct confrontation. So it would help to pause and reflect on what it is that we might be doing to upset them, and try to do less of that.

It may surprise you, but it’s usually the little things that drive people mad. This is especially true when you live with other people, or work with them regularly. Someone might be typing way too loudly, or handle things in a way that upsets them. It’s ok when it’s once or twice. But it does make people get crazy upset to have to endure it repeatedly for days or weeks.

Notice how such things seem so trivial that it feels so petty to bring up the matter? But it’s not petty at all. It’s human nature to get upset over the disruptions or small annoyances that make up our everyday routines. But many people think it’s so petty that they can’t bring themselves to talk about it, and so passive aggressive action is, the only outlet to vent their frustration for those who don’t know how best to deal with such issues.

If you can’t figure out what it is, or if it’s not possible to stop it entirely, then dialogue is important. You yourself must be prepared for what they will tell you, and you must assure that person you will not get mad. All you want to do is to solve a problem and make things better for both parties. You can try saying something like, “Hey, I noticed you seemed rather upset yesterday. And I want to better understand what is upsetting you, and what I can do about it to make it better for you.” Make sure you are mentally prepared to respond in a calm way whatever the answer may be.

I once went on a 3-week work trip with someone who made passive aggressive snide remarks at me almost every day. It upset me a lot and I finally told the person how I felt and that I could not understand why he would behave like this. His response was that we hated how I conducted myself, as he interpreted that it meant I was a certain sort of person which he despised. That was an answer I did not expect, and it did catch be off-guard. But I talked it out with him and tried to explain that I’m not such a person. In the end, the resolution was a sort of compromise: I can’t change myself completely, but at the very least, I would not do certain things that would trigger him. The conversation helped as he stopped making the snide remarks thereafter.

This incident happened 16 years ago, but it stays with me as a vivid memory, as a successful model on how I handle difficult situations with people, especially passive aggressive people. Now, as with all things with life, use your own discretion on how you might use the ideas I share here, and assess for yourselw how you might want to adapt to your own unique situation.