How do I reject someone politely?

A student asked:

How do I reject someone politely?

Rejection is tough. I do admire your courage in wanting to reject politely instead of ghosting people (which seems to be the trend nowadays).

Personally, I think ghosting people is a really mean thing to do. It takes great courage to step out of one’s comfort zones and risk losing the friendship in order to confess his/her interest. Ghosting just increases the anxieties and worries in that person. I don’t think it’s fair to torture someone who went out of his/her way to tell you that he/she likes you. I think the least we should do, if we’re not interested in entering into a relationship with that person, is to give that person a reply and allow for that person to have some closure.

What I recommend doing is this: Thank the person for finding the courage to confess because it is not easy for that person to do that. Acknowledge the effort the person made. Then, tell the person that you have to turn him/her down and be honest with the reason. And make it clear that there’s no chance in winning you over in the future, because some people think that you may be undecided now, and all they have to do is to work harder at it.

I know some of you may be struggling to figure out what to say. So, here are some samples you can model your rejection after. Please don’t copy word for word – other students are reading this, and there’s a chance the person you reject might have seen this and knows that you plagiarised from me. So please word your rejection in your own special way. Don’t send this as a text. This should be something you say to the person either face-to-face or at the very least, over a call or something.

“Hey, thank you so much for finding the courage to confess to me. I know it’s not easy and I do admire what you have done. I want you to know that it is also not easy for me to give you my answer either. So here goes. While I do enjoy spending time with you, I am not attracted to you the way you are attracted to me. It’s not because of what you have done or haven’t do. It’s just the way things are. I’ve thought long and hard about it, and I just can’t see us in a relationship. You’re a great friend, and I prefer if we remain as friends. I do hope you will respect my decision in this regard. Ok, I know this will feel awkward, so if you like, I’ll give you some space to process this. Know that I value our friendship and so I won’t be avoiding you. I do hope we can continue our friendship the way it was.”

OR

“Hey, thank you so much for finding the courage to confess to me. I know it’s not easy and I do admire what you have done. I want you to know that it is also not easy for me to give you my answer either. I want you to know that being in a relationship is not my number one priority right now. I have no interest in being in one, and I don’t want to rush into one. I think you’re a great person, and I think the best we can be is to remain as friends. I do hope you will respect my decision in this regard. I know this may feel awkward because you have confessed your feelings to me, so I’ll give you some space to process this. Just know that I won’t be avoiding you because I do see you as a friend and would like to continue our friendship the way it was.”

Whatever it is, don’t send mixed signals like hugging the person, or texting the person more than usual just because you feel guilty for rejecting him/her.

Allow the person to have time and space to process the feelings and move on. You may occasionally have to deal with the person still wanting to try. Whatever it is, stand your ground and don’t ghost the person. It’s an important life skill you need to learn for the working world too (it comes in handy when you have to deal with superiors/colleagues/clients who pester you to do things you don’t like to do – you can’t ghost them, so you need to learn how to be tactful yet assertive).

Another student asked a follow-up question on the same topic:

I’ve recently been getting many texts from someone of the opposite gender who tries too hard at continuing the conversation. I’m really not interested in conversing with that person. However, I do feel bad for ignoring (or not replying to) that person, so I’ll always end up replying to those messages out of courtesy. Are there any ways to show signs of disinterest in order to prevent any possibilities of leading anyone on without ghosting him/her?

Since it’s pretty recent, it’ll take a while for that person to get the message. Don’t always reply immediately. You can wait a couple of hours before you reply. Keep the replies short, as long messages can be interpreted that he/she has found a topic you are interested in, and that person may try to sustain the conversation with that topic.

If you keep getting a lot of messages, you can say that you’re busy with something and can’t read/reply. I know a friend who just shuts conversations with people by saying she needs to sleep early and wishes the person good night. You don’t need to explain yourself to other people for these kinds of things. You don’t owe anyone an explanation either. The person will eventually get the idea.

I once met a lady who wears a fake engagement ring. She shared with me how she wears that as a signal to stop creepy guys from going after her (they see the ring, think she’s attached and they don’t bother).

Now, you’re probably a student, so engagement rings and stuff are out of the question. But the idea applies: If you are being chased by someone who doesn’t know you very well, you can just say that you are already interested in someone or something like that. Just drop it somewhere in your conversation. “Oh, speaking of McDonalds, my crush to posted on IG that he just bought a happy meal. So cute. I’m looking forward to having a happy meal with him soon!”

This is even easier when you do it online. Again, you don’t owe anyone an explanation. So you don’t need to say very much. This will be a very strong signal to the person that you aren’t interested and he/she will back off.

Hope that helps!

When do you think is a good time to get into relationships?

A student asked:

When do you think is a good time to get into relationships?

It’s your life. So go into it whenever you feel you’re ready to handle it.

If you think you concentrate better in your studies by not being in a relationship, that’s fine. That said, I don’t like how some parents force their children to refrain from relationships until after graduation. It’s not healthy or productive to control these kinds of things.

However, you must understand the risks involved when it comes to your choices on when to start relationships.

University is a great time because you have many opportunities to meet new people, and to hang out with them. You will not be able to interact with people the same way in the working world as you would in school. BUT, it can distract you from your studies, and you may not realise your full potential in your studies.

One possible road bump you may encounter is when you both transition from school to work. The lifestyle change will affect how both of you will be able to interact. Most can handle the change. Some can’t. So it’s very important to handle the transition carefully. Remember: open and honest communication is important.

So proceed with caution and try not to forget that you still are a student with readings and assignments to handle.

If you want to start a relationship after graduation, that’s fine too. Though, you should be aware that it can be really hard (not impossible, just harder) to find a potential partner after graduation. Work is the one place where you’ll spend most of your waking moments at. As it is, most of the people at work are already attached or married. And for some people, it’s weird to date people from the same organisation/office for a variety of reasons. And because you spend most of your time at work, you have fewer opportunities to meet new people. You will need to make great effort on your part to join interest groups and other activities to meet new people and make more friends. Like I said, it’s not impossible, just harder.

Dating apps aren’t that great. I’ve heard more horror stories than good ones. Though I do know of a handful of success cases that have led to marriage. Let me share a funny story. I have on several occasions witnessed people date strangers they met on dating apps. I don’t know why, but it tends to be the case that they’ll sit at the table right next to me when I’m having dinner (yes, I’m very nosey). The interactions are so cringeworthy. It always feels like an insurance agent and a potential client meeting for the first time. It has the same awkwardness (if not more), and they ask the same kinds of questions that insurance agents typically ask: How many people in your family? What do you do? What did you study? How is work? Do you want children? Have you bought any insurance lately? (I kid!)

If you’re going to meet someone on a first date (from a dating app), don’t do it over a meal. It just increases the anxiety levels, and all of that person’s attention is focused entirely on you and what you say and how you say it. So stressful! You’ll just end up talking like an insurance agent (as I have observed over many dinners I’ve had outside). Frankly, it won’t be a memorable experience.

Here’s my advice… Skip the meal. Meet up, and go do some activity where both of you are shit at it, like those art jamming studios, or pottery class, or cooking class, or something like that. Just make sure both of you are bad at it, so you both won’t feel stressed that you have to make something of the same standard as the other. This way, part of your attention is focused on the activity and you’ll both feel a lot more relaxed. Plus, it’ll be a more memorable experience. (And then go have your meal – you’ll have something fun to talk about over dinner. You’re welcome!)

Regardless of when you want to enter into a relationship, just remember one important rule: don’t be desperate. Desperation can make you do stupid things that repel people. And when you get super desperate, you end up doing things that you may regret, like marrying the first person who decided to date you. I know people who did that. They got engaged in less than a year (that’s pretty fast), and they never really appear happy about their marriage when we talk about it.

Moral of the story: Don’t rush. Don’t be desperate. Good things – good partners too – come to those who wait.

What are your thoughts on people who “steal” their friend’s boyfriend/girlfriend as their own?

A student wrote to me:

What are your thoughts on people who “steal” their friend’s boyfriend/girlfriend as their own?

I think you are ascribing too much moral responsibility to the person who “stole” the boyfriend/girlfriend. You forget that the ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend has the autonomy to make decisions as well.

If you need closure, it’s best to talk to your ex about it. But just to answer your question, there are two possible reasons:

(1) Either the relationship hasn’t been going well (or maybe it did at the start, but both sides got complacent about working at maintaining the relationship). This is the most common reason for this happening. This can happen when the basic emotional needs of a relationship are not fulfilled. So if someone is able to “steal” your ex away from you, it’s because that person has been fulfilling that need which you haven’t been able to; or you’ve been working hard, fulfilling the need in a way the partner doesn’t want (poor communication on the part of the partner); or sometimes, it could just be that you stopped fulfilling that need due to other priorities or complacency in being in a relationship for so long.

In such situations, both sides are responsible – it takes two hands to clap. What it points to really, is a breakdown in open and honest communication. It takes courage to tell your other half what your needs are, and it takes even greater courage to tell them that they are not fulfilling your needs in the way you require (people are scared they offend their partners).

Now, I don’t find it productive to blame anyone for this. We are all learning how to deal with ourselves and with other people. And relationships are very hard work – if it were so easy, we wouldn’t be having so many stories of breakups. It’s easy to grow complacent because you have to see that person every day, and so it becomes easier to tell ourselves that it’s ok to do this once or twice since we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together (except that tend to excuse ourselves way more than just once or twice). And when that happens, the other feels neglected.

If this was the reason, use it as a learning point and work on improving communication for the next relationship.

Or, (2) the ex may have been using you as a temporary placeholder until they found someone seemingly better. This is a very uncommon reason, but it does happen from time to time. Such people are under the assumption that they can be even happier if they have a much better love experience with someone else. Or in some cases, they be feeling incredibly lost with themselves, and it so happens that they found someone who inspires them with a sense of direction and purpose. And it is easy to confuse feelings of awe, hope, and wonder with love.

And again, this is a rare occurrence, but I have known this to happen to people from time to time. In most cases, people have the maturity and sensibility to stay with their current partner despite meeting someone “better.” If they do leave, it’s because of specific problems like that mentioned in point (1) above.

In the rare chance that you encounter someone who left you for someone better without any reasons in (1), then I’ll say, don’t blame yourself and well, don’t blame anyone. Sometimes people are just very lost and confused and they are trying to find their own way. Things like this happens. Humanity is filled with both happy and sad stories. These are the things that make us human and more humane when we understand them.

[By the way, since I’m talked about fulfilling each other’s needs, I want use this opportunity here to address a relevant issue. Some people pressure their partners into having sex with them using the reason that they have a “sexual need” (sometimes they threaten to leave the relationship to find someone who will satisfy that need). This is utter rubbish. People have survived their teenage years without having sex. No one has died from not having sex.

If your partner pressures you to have sex using reasons like this, this is a red flag because your partner is trying to emotionally manipulate you. This is a clear sign that he/she does not respect you as a person (to be manipulated is to be treated as an object, not a person) and you might want to reconsider the relationship if you are thinking about the long-term.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying don’t have sex (you’re adults, go do whatever you want – I don’t care what you do – just… don’t leave stains… lol). What I’m saying is: don’t give in to such pressure if you don’t want to or are not comfortable with it. Sexual intimacy due to manipulation is not love.]

Do you think a couple that broke up once can come back together to make things work again?

A student asked:

Do you think a couple that broke up once can come back together to make things work again?

I’m not an expert in this, so I won’t say much about it.

The funny thing about relationships is that we only consider the relationship a success when the relationship ends with at least one party passing away.

If a couple is together for very long, we say we are inspired by them but we know that shit can happen any time to rock the relationship. What I can tell you is that I know one or two old couples who have gone through a break up, and later reunited for years already. Is this successful? I leave you to decide.

While it is not impossible to make the relationship work again, there are many challenges due to past hurts. But I think one problem that can arise is if either party (or both) expect it to be a return to the good ol’ days. Those belong to the past and cannot be recovered. Like a piece of wood that had a nail jammed into it and later removed, the wood will have a hole. That is the indelible mark done to the relationship. You can mend it, but it won’t be the same once again. You both have to accept this as the new normal of the relationship. Expectations of returning 100% to the good ol’ days can potentially hurt the relationship.

What’s essential is open and honest communication, and the willing effort of both sides to want to make it work. Just be careful not to sacrifice so much of yourselves for each other that you end up becoming someone that you’re not – an empty shell of who you once were. Just as much as we want to spend time with each other, we need to give ourselves time and space to be ourselves.

Do you have any tips on what to do if I’m interested in someone?

Last night, a student wrote to me, asking:

Do you have any tips on what to do if I’m interested in someone? I’m very scared to come across as too clingy from the start.

Oh, I know how intimidating that can feel!

I think my best advice is to treat that person the same way you would treat your friends. Just because you feel something for that someone, doesn’t mean you go out of your way to do very special things. If both of you haven’t reached a point where the friendship/relationship has grown closer, doing very special couple-ish things at the start can come across as cringeworthy and awkward.

Now the reason why I say you should handle that person the same way you would treat your friends is because that is how you really are when you interact with others. If you change your manner of interaction just for that person, expectations will be set that you are that other person (which you are not). And it can and will be tiring pretending to be that someone that you’re not. So it’s better to be accepted and loved for who you are, rather than to have that someone accept and love a pretence of yourself.

At all times, get a grip on yourself and don’t cave in to desperation or impatience. That’s when we say or do stupid things that will make that person feel uncomfortable. You need to do your best to be calm and confident about it (even if deep down you don’t feel that way).

If you reach a point where both of you are interacting with each other daily with excitement, try to upgrade the friendship to that of a closer friend. Friendships deepen not because of the frequency or quantity of conversations, but from the quality of conversations. Having heart-to-heart talks are good in getting to know people on a closer level and to establish closer bonds. But be careful not to become overly whiny in your heart-to-heart talks about issues. I know some people who degrade heart-to-heart talks into whining sessions about every small problem in their lives, and it becomes a really bad habit (and bad friend) where all they can ever talk about are their problems. It’s more important to engage in active listening so that you can better understand that person (and maybe evaluate whether that person has potential to be a partner and future spouse).

At the end of the day, conversations can only go so far. What you want is to have shared experiences on a variety of matters (applies to friendships too). So don’t just be texting/calling the person only. I know it’s hard to meet up and do fun stuff during this COVID-19 pandemic, but you can always find interesting and creative things to do, so no excuses! Find common projects to work on. Stuff that both of you like to do, or even better, stuff that both of you want to do but have never done before. Do fun stuff, and have fun!

The key is you both want to feel comfortable hanging out with each other, comfortable doing things together, comfortable talking to each other.

Once you find that you are doing these things on a regular basis, it’s a really good sign that the person has strong interest in you too. You can drop your hints of interest (although if the person is perceptive, that person probably can tell from your body language anyway). I don’t want to tell you what to do, because what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. I guess the rule is: Don’t be creepy, and don’t be desperate.

(Personally, I don’t like the rubbish in magazines that tell people to play hard to get. That is just awful advice that advocates manipulation and mind games. I think the only time this may work is if you are interacting with someone who gives off a player vibe or has been going for lots of casual flings. So it might be a test of sincerity. But if that person is already giving off player vibes, it’s a red flag. And I would seriously reconsider. So… Be warned~)

If there’s no hesitation or aversion from the other party, or if that person is smiling like an idiot non-stop at you all the time, then you know all is going well, and you can start preparing to confess. Don’t rush or pressure yourself or the other person. And try not to do overly romantic stuff because it can be very overwhelming for that person (unless you know that person wants that sort of stuff).

You want to give that person the time and space to think and respond to. Some people can’t say yes immediately (not because they don’t like you, but because they are daunted by the idea of taking it to the next level). So if they feel very pressured, they may instantly say no (and regret it) because they can’t handle the pressure. So give them time and space (unless of course you are super sure, and maybe the other party has already been quite explicit in expressing interest in you).

So, all the best and have courage! Let me know when you are successfully attached. If we can meet, I want to congratulate the both of you in person (I really mean it!). :D

Do you think it’s possible to forgive someone completely?

A student wrote in to ask:

Do you think it’s possible to forgive someone completely? Especially when the person has hurt you a lot a lot. I tried to recall back the painful past and tell myself to let go and move forward but it’s so hard. But then a lot of resources on the Internet tell people to let go, move forward so you can have a better future and all. Do you agree? For me I feel like me having this pain and not letting go motivates me to do better and better so that I wouldn’t be looked down on again. However sometimes I feel like that just makes me a person stuck in the past, full of hatred.

This was a very heartfelt question, so I took quite a long time thinking about an answer:

Thank you for having the courage to ask this question. I know it’s not easy. And I want you to know that I too am going through a very similar situation as I’m writing this. So, I totally feel you on this matter!

Firstly, the advice to “forgive and forget” is complete bullshit. It is not forgiveness if you forgot the event. There is nothing to forgive if you cannot remember it. It is perfectly ok to remember the hurt and the pain. We are the sum of our experiences. All the good things that has happened to us, as well as all the hurts, betrayals, tragedies and dramas. The good and the bad: they shape us to be who we are.

What’s more important is to transform that pain, that hurtful memory into one of loving acceptance: this is me now, this is who I am, and I’m ok with it.

How do we do that? We need to give ourselves time and space to grieve, to cry, to emo, and also to process it. The reason why hurt and pain linger for so long (and maybe even fester in our hearts) is because we haven’t given ourselves the chance to let the emotions run their necessary course, by bottling it up, or simply avoid facing up to it.

So let me reiterate: It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to emo and cry. It’s ok to feel the hurt. Let it flow through you and out of you.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t know what you mean by “having this pain and not letting go motivates me to do better and better so that I wouldn’t be looked down on again.” It sounds like one of those gongfu movies. You know, the kind where some villain came and slaughtered your entire village when you were a child, but you were spared because you were hiding inside a cupboard or something. So you spend the next 2-3 decades of your life cultivating that hatred in you so that one day you can have the satisfaction of revenge.

My question for you would be: What is the emotion that’s driving you to do better? Is it anger? If it is, that’s not healthy. You can’t maintain anger throughout all your life. It will affect how you interact with other people, and it will affect your mental/physical health. You still can be just as motivated if you allow yourself the chance to grieve and process the hurt.

I’ll say one more thing. Time does heal all wounds – physical and emotional. I used to do a lot of shit in the past. And it never ceases to amaze me how, after 2-3 years later, many of these people don’t hold my past failings against them. I was incredibly relieved. The experience of being given a second chance by other people was such a moving experience. And it did inspire me to do likewise. If I like and desire to be forgiven and given a second chance, then I too should do the same to others. It is only right.

But you need to be clear what you mean by forgiveness. Minimally, forgiveness (and not forgetting) means you won’t hold their past faults against them. It is akin to saying: I know you have hurt me, and you might hurt me the same way again, but I am going to give you a second chance and I trust that you won’t let me down.

Sometimes, giving the person a second chance doesn’t mean a chance at the same thing. E.g. if it was a bad romantic relationship, then don’t go back to a romantic relationship – a second chance can just be the chance to be friends again. Or if you’re unsure, at least the second chance means a chance to reconnect and see where you go from there.

But give yourself plenty of time and space. There is no hurry to forgive. We all recover from our hurts at different rates.

Do you have any thoughts on love and relationships in general?

A student wrote to me:

Sometimes it seems like others are finding love so easily, whereby the person they like is also single and/or just so happens to like them back. For me, such incidences of fate have never materialised and I wonder how some just have it so easy. No real question, just wondering. Do you have any thoughts on these sentiments/love in general.

Here’s my reply:

I totally feel you! I was once in your shoes for a very long time. I had been friend-zoned a couple of times, and on one occasion, I confessed to a girl, and she rejected me on the grounds that I’m of a different socio-economic class (that was so WTH!).

Looking back, I realised now that I had missed the subtle advances of some girls back in my teenage/young adult life. I was just totally oblivious to it. I think a lot of us are oblivious to noticing the subtle advances of others.

Well, to be fair, confessing and taking the friendship to the next level is a high stakes game. Both guys and girls are incredibly afraid and anxious about it: What if I get rejected, what then becomes of this friendship? And because both parties are often so afraid, none dare to make any obvious moves for fear of rejection.

So let me share with you an advice I got when I was in NS, and it is advice that helped me a lot. If you are interested in a person, but unsure whether that person likes you, treat every non-negative response as a sign that he/she is interested in you. If you ask the person to hang out with you and the person didn’t say no, that’s a good sign. If you said you wanted to initiate a phone call and the person didn’t say no, that’s a good sign. If the person messages you or initiates outings, even better – that’s a really really good sign of interest! Over time, the more you think this way, the more confident you will become around that person. And confidence is an incredibly charming and attractive quality.

Nothing screams – “MARRY ME AND GENERATE SPAWNLINGS WITH ME!!!!!” – more than confidence. You can be fugly as hell but if you have confidence as great as Mount Everest, people will still be incredibly attracted to you. This statement is true for both males and females. If you don’t believe me, when COVID is over and we don’t need to wear masks anymore, go sit at a cafe and watch the world go by, i.e. people watching. There’s a lot of unattractive people who are very much in loving relationships. You might wonder how that’s possible, or disapprove of their coupling because it looks like a live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. But hey, they’re happy because all they need is that one person to be attracted to them: their partner.

Have you ever kissed your best friend?

A student asked me (because it’s an anonymous Q&A platform):

Have you ever kissed your best friend?

Here’s what I wrote in response to this question:

No. The fact that this question is even conceivable is revealing of two major problems with our culture today:

(1) Almost everything is hyper sexualised and romanticised. It’s very revealing in our culture, e.g. close friendships between men are now characterised as “bromance.” I really hate that nowadays, there’s even a term to refer to colleagues of the opposite sex who work closely together – “work spouse.”

And, (2) many people don’t know how to develop intimate non-sexualised friendships these days (regardless of the gender of the friend). So many of us don’t question what it means to be a friend, or how to be a friend. Maybe it’s shyness or social awkwardness; maybe it’s because of past hurts due to bad friendships; maybe social media is screwing up the way we relate to others. Nonetheless, what’s scary is that more and more people these days are reporting that they find it difficult to have a heart-to-heart talk with someone.

And because many people have not had the opportunity to experience close friendships, of the intimacy of deep heart-to-heart exchanges, that it becomes so easy to confuse that experience of an intimate bond as sexual attraction.

(1) really gets in the way of (2): This hyper-romanticisation and hyper-sexualisation of things around us really gets in the way of us forming intimate friendships, or even just friendships for that matter. I find it very worrying that in today’s world, you can be nice to someone out of the goodness of your heart, and that person can misinterpret your actions as flirting.

However, I wouldn’t attribute (1) as the cause of (2). I think that the inability to form intimate non-sexualised friendships is due to a lack of exemplary role models. I don’t know when it happened but many parents have stopped being role models and educators to their children. They outsourced it to teachers in schools. But few teachers actually bother enough to be role models to their students (because to them, it’s just a job, not a calling).

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. Thanks for asking! :)

Was your wife your first girlfriend?

A student asked me:

Was your wife your first girlfriend?

I’m happy to share this because I think there are some good life lessons from this:

No, she’s my second girlfriend actually. But we both agreed that we really dislike the first a lot. Lol…

I learnt many things about relationships from the first by way of negative example. Back then, I was driven by a very romanticised idea about the qualities that the ideal girlfriend would have. When I was still very young and naive, my criteria comprised wholly of very superficial qualities about what a person does, rather than about the person herself (of course, no matter what age we are, we’d like to believe that we are very critical and rational about our decisions).

So what was the major lesson? That a person who meets all our idealistic criteria may not necessarily be the person who can make you happy. It was very dissonant for me to discover that certain ideals that we hold may not actually make us happy once we encounter concrete particular instantiations of them. The things that we like in other people are simultaneously double-edge swords that can one day make us miserable, and compel feelings of indignation for the other. So… To put it in a more familiar slogan: Be careful what you wish for.

While I certainly didn’t like the experience at all, it did made me wiser about relationships. Since then, I’ve been extra cautious about ideals and romanticisations. Not just about relationships, but about the way I work with people. Ideals and romanticisations, while no doubt lofty and definitely feel-good, can blind us from perceiving people and situations as they are.

Do you trust someone easily?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Tell me, do you trust someone easily?

Here’s my answer:

Yes I do. I believe that it’s better to start off trusting someone (even a stranger), unless there are red flags that indicate that I shouldn’t trust the person. And only if the person violates that trust do I then reduce my trust in that person.

A lot of people confuse trust with revealing your most vulnerable self to another. The process of revealing your vulnerable self to another is a process for establishing intimate friendships (includes romantic relationships too).

Yes, trust is a necessary prerequisite for intimate relationships. If you cannot trust someone, you won’t want to open yourself up to reveal your most vulnerable true self, with all your worries, insecurities, etc. BUT, it’s very important to recognise that trust and revealing your vulnerable self to another person – these are two very distinct things.

So, you can trust people – and I do mean trust in a very deep sense – without necessarily having to make yourself vulnerable. Trust, after all, is the fabric of society, and it is the invisible connection that allows us to work with people and do all kinds of things. You don’t need to reveal your vulnerable self to others to establish good professional working relations with them.

Of course, this probably isn’t your primary concern with the question you’re asking (I’ll address it soon enough). But the reason why I made the distinction between trust and vulnerability is that people who have difficulties being vulnerable to others conflate that with the notion of trust, and they thus have difficulties trusting people even in a professional working relationship. And this becomes a huge problem for them. The inability to trust others fuels their insecurity, and this actually leads them to act in very toxic ways without being aware of it.

Let me illustrate with an example: In times past, I used to work with a team of students, and in that team were two students who had major trust issues. They were so awfully toxic, that they almost destroyed the cohesion of the team by spreading false rumours. They just couldn’t trust others. They found it hard to believe that people actually genuinely wanted to help them. So they perceived attempts at helping them as malicious personal attacks on their weaknesses. It baffled me how they couldn’t accept that people just wanted to help.

The point I wish to make here is this: Don’t conflate trust with revealing your vulnerable self. See the difference so that you can learn to trust others. Otherwise that mistrust will be destructive to yourself and to everyone around you. It isn’t pleasant working in an environment where everyone’s suspicious of everyone, and it sucks to be in a situation where you feel that you can’t trust anyone to be on your side. But they didn’t realise that they were responsible for creating that environment for themselves and everyone around.

Now that I’ve covered trust, I can talk about intimacy and revealing our vulnerable selves. I like to think of human relationships in terms of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma. This idea came from the German philosopher, Schopenhauer. In the winter, hedgehogs will come together to stay warm. The problem with hedgehogs is that they are very spiky, so the closer they get to each other, the warmer they felt. BUT, they also began hurting each other with their spikes, and so they keep apart. But the process repeats because they are cold and they need the warmth. So the hedgehogs are in a dilemma: how do I stay warm without getting hurt? The answer is: You just have to learn to get close to others so that you don’t hurt and be hurt.

Humans are like these hedgehogs. We want the warmth of love and friendships, but when we get too close (i.e. when we begin revealing our vulnerable selves to them), we hurt or be hurt. It’s part and parcel of this hedgehog-like existence. So we have to be ready to embrace the hurts along the way. It’s a risk in relationships. But at the same time, we have to learn how to avoid hurting others, and how to handle others so that we don’t get hurt. It’s going to be a very prickly affair, and one of much trial and error. And of course, we can learn a lot from the good practices of others.

Easy to say, difficult to do. For starters, I think we just need to learn to be kinder to ourselves and kinder to the people around us.

How did you know your wife was the one?

A student sent me this question:

How did you know your wife was the one?

Here’s my reply:

To be honest, I don’t. I don’t subscribe to the idea that there is the perfect one or a soul mate. These are very dangerous ideas because, every real concrete person will always fall short when compared to the perfection of the abstract ideal. The person you have might be beautiful, but there will always be someone more beautiful. The person you have might be inspiring, but there will always be someone more inspiring. (On a side note, this is the same problem whenever you ask yourself whether you are happy. You could be happy, but when you compare your concrete experience with the abstract and perfect ideal, your experience of happiness will appear to fall short.) So if we are unaware of this, we’d be forever chasing an impossible dream of the perfect partner.

I do have some minimum requirements: (1) Must have mutual affection and attraction; (2) Can click well and talk about anything like best friends; (3) Are actually the best of friends; (4) Can still love me when I am most unlovable; (5) Inspires/Encourages me to be a better version of myself; (6) Is willing to fight with you and for you.

If someone satisfies that criteria, I would resolve and commit my existence to that person, as I have done with my wife.

Now, I’m not saying you should follow this set of requirements. It’s your life and your relationship. But I want to talk a bit more about (3) and (5).

On (3): From time to time, I hear people say, “You shouldn’t form romantic relationships with friends, that you should only date strangers outside your social circle. Friends are friends, and love is love.” And I have come across some people who do that to their spouses (they’re rarely happy). They confide in their best friends more than their spouse. I find that to be one of the worst advice for long-term relationships. Your partner is supposed to be someone whom you share your most intimate self – who you really are in your state of vulnerability, in good times and in bad. And that requires a great deal of trust and friendship. You can’t even get there in a romantic relationship if you don’t even have that trust to begin with.

On (5): I want to be clear that what I mean here is that the other person makes you want to improve yourself. The other shouldn’t try to change you or boss you around to become a better person like you are some personal pet project. That robs you of your autonomy as you improve as a person. You change not because you actually want to, but because you are forced to. And that creates the conditions for great resentment that will manifest itself eventually. What you want is someone who gives you the reason to fight hard to be a better version of yourself every day BECAUSE you know that it would make your partner happy and benefit him/her in the relationship.

Lunch with Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan

Wow… This has got to be one of the most exciting events before the year ends! A few days ago, I received a comment on my blog by Dr. Balakrishnan, saying how he enjoyed reading my blog and would like to have lunch with me. (Dear Dr. Balakrishnan, if you’re reading this, hello!) For those who don’t know who he is, Dr. Balakrishnan is the current minister of Environment and Water Resources.

Wow… A minister enjoys reading my blog! What a surprise and an honour!

For the days leading up to our lunch, I’ve been wondering why he’d like to have lunch with me. In fact, I was very curious as to how he found my blog. Was it because of my blog entries about the rising cost of living, or about the cost of housing? The Girlfriend joked that he probably found my blog while searching how to use Whatsapp for Mac (it’s the most popular post I have – it generates at least 500 hits a day!)

Well, surprise surprise! He did discover my blog searching for instructions on how to use Whatsapp for Mac! WOW! So cool!

Anyway, he invited me to invite a few friends so that we could have a nice chit chat session, and so I did. We had lunch at a Penang eatery along Thomson Road. For someone who never had the opportunity to meet a minister before, it was quite an experience (and somewhat intimidating one too!) seeing body guards. There was an advance party of security men who came to scout and check the area, and later, there were body guards escorting the minister into the cafe.

My friends and I were excited and nervous at the same time. I mean, it’s a minister! What do you say to a minister? And how should one behave?

Well, surprisingly, Dr. Balakrishnan was very friendly and approachable! In fact, he was quite down to earth too!

Usually, the media portrays ministers as people who are so high-up, that we forget that they are ordinary human beings just like us. But during that lunch meeting, I was very impressed.

Sitting before me was someone as ordinary and as human as we are, sharing similar interests and likes. Here was someone who was as passionate about technology, food, and chinese culture as I am. Here was someone who was curious to learn how to make Whatsapp work on his computer just like the many technophiles around me. Here was someone who loved both Singapore and Malaysian food that he would talk just as passionately about food just like many Singaporeans here. Haha… I told him that I looooved Malaysian Char Kway Teow (it’s very different from the Singapore one), and immediately he replied, “I think it’s the lard that makes it so tasty!” A few minutes before he came, another friend said the exact same thing! He also shared with us his food trips to Malaysia. So cool!

What I loved the most was just how genuine and sincere he was with us. We were very amazed with his sharings about his own personal life and especially about his family.

The one story that left the deepest impression for myself and my friends was his sharing of the time when he first held his first-born child in his hands. Wow… You could sense just how emotional he was as he recounted the experience and the thoughts and feelings that went through his mind during that event. He shared how during that one moment, he suddenly understood the love that his parents had for him, he suddenly understood what parental love was – it was a love that would often be unreciprocated and yet, you’d still want to continue giving your love to your child no matter what. He shared with us how as a parent holding his baby child for the first time, he realised just how vulnerable and dependent the child was on him, and how he had to do whatever was possible to ensure that she would grow up well. He experienced parental love for the first time and that was a great learning experience for him.

Just hearing him share his experience made me feel like wanting to have a child as soon as possible. Wow… I’d like to experience what he experienced.

As it turns out, the lunch was really a lunch with no political agenda. My friends and I have been speculating if he had something in mind (after all, why would politicians ask people to have lunch out of the blue?), but it turned out to be nothing more than a friendly chat over a meal, just as how friends would sit around a table to eat. I did ask him why he wanted to have lunch with me, as I was very very curious. He replied that this was something he likes to do. He finds a Singaporean online who’s interesting, and he extends an invitation to have a meal with him because he just likes meeting interesting people. Pretty cool. I know most people reading this might be skeptical (afterall, these are words coming from a politician), but rest assured, all of my friends and I agreed that he was very genuine and sincere about this.

Anyway, we did chat about issues on life, relationships, and philosophy – especially since my friends and I are philosophy students. It was interesting as he did bring up some interesting philosophical issues for us to consider in the area of politics. (I’ll discuss them in another blog post)

I think it was really great of him to engage us philosophers intellectually on such issues. In fact, I like how he has such great respect for philosophy. It’s rare because we philosophers often encounter people who think lowly of philosophy only because they think it’s impractical (can’t make money) and/or pointless. It’s very interesting how he framed policy-making problems as philosophical problems. For example, one of the problems governments face is the issue of trying to balance justice with equality. E.g. an equal distribution may not necessarily be a just distribution because some need more than others, and on the other hand, a just distribution is often regarded as unfair since not everyone is treated equally (e.g. why should married couples get more subsidies than singles – why can’t everyone be treated the same way?).

It is a difficult balance and it does seem that both values are contrary to each other, and regardless of which way governments decide to emphasize, there will always be complaints of unfairness. I think that was eye-opening!

Anyway, I guess it’s inevitable that when having lunch with a politician, the issue of politics will be discussed.

I will say that after our lunch together, I have a profound respect for Dr. Balakrishnan because he’s the first PAP (Peoples’ Action Party) person who articulated why the government does what they do, in a very convincing and thorough manner.

It’s sad, but the media and many PAP politicians do a bad job in communicating the rationale for their policies. It’s either too simplified that it sounds ridiculous, or the person speaking assumes that we’re on the same channel (and see the world the same way as him/her) and makes too many assertions that many of us consider questionable.

I’ll be honest and say that while I don’t agree with some of the things said, I am nonetheless glad to at least have the opportunity to hear the justifications for many of the things the government does. When you read the gross over-simplifications in the news, you sometimes wonder if the country is run by rational people. But after our lunch discussion, I am glad to know that a lot of thought has indeed been put into their policy-making decisions. Of course, there is always room to debate the policies, but given the way they have framed the problems, the solutions they have conceived do indeed appear to be the necessary solutions.

The real question then is, has the PAP government framed the problems rightly? Should many of these national issues be framed in light of economics? Of course, I don’t know enough nor have I thought enough about these matters as of this moment. But I think these are indeed worth discussing.

Dr. Balakrishnan mentioned that one of the failings of the PAP was that they’ve been really bad at communicating policies. Seeing how the picture provided by him is more rational and worlds apart from the picture presented by the media, I wonder if the people who communicate these policies to the news ought to be shot for grossly oversimplifying things. (Personally, I think I can do a much better job than them if this was indeed the case) Of course, skeptics will question how is it possible that state-run media can do such a bad job. I don’t know.

Nonetheless, this is exactly what we need in our public discourse – a thorough discussion of why policies are what they are, with all the fine details included, making no assumptions that we necessarily see things from the same point of view. I do think that if ministers (and the media) make it a point to thoroughly discuss the fine details and all just like what Dr. Balakrishnan did at lunch, we can begin to have fruitful debates about our public policy. We may not necessarily agree, but at the very least, we can start to see why such a decision or proposal could even be rational at all. Too many issues are presented in a simplistic manner (in the news) that it seems more like badly-made decisions rather than well-thought decisions.

Once we begin to see that the other guy is rational (and not a moron), we begin to respect the other, and we can proceed with fruitful dialogue. I think this is what we urgently need in Singapore today, especially in the wake of increasing polarisation among PAP and opposition supporters.

When we begin to fight for our political parties like soccer teams, we cease to be rational, and democracy becomes no more than just a tyranny of the loudest – whoever shouts the loudest wins. This kind of democracy is not productive nor is it truly life-giving.

Anyway, I am glad that we had this lunch. We had good food and good food for thought. Thank you Dr. Balakrishnan! You’re amazing! My friends and I would love to have lunch with you again.

A Wounded Love is the Key to Healing a Wounded Soul

Sometimes, whenever it comes to romance, we can’t help but hold on to an ideal romantic picture where all is warm and fuzzy, where everyday is always a day of smiles and never will there ever be a day of sadness. Yet, the reality is that hurt is unavoidable.

What I’d like to do in this entry is to explain why hurt is, FORTUNATELY, a necessity for any relationship to blossom. Yes, that’s right, it is not a typo error. Hurt is indeed a blessing when it happens in a relationship. It is painful and should rightly be avoided where possible, but there is something beautiful about it when it does happen when we least want it to occur.

Whether we like to admit it or not, deep in the depths of our very heart and soul, we all hold on to some hurt. We have been wounded at some point of our life – either because of rejection, insult, or neglect. But whatever it is, it is unfortunate that these incidents have left us scarred such that we develop insecurities and self-hatred in varying degrees as a result.

In those moments where we have experienced unkindness, we pick up lessons that we shouldn’t have: we begin to “learn” that there’s something about us that makes people dislike us.

Ironically, two seemingly contradictory things take place. The first is that we begin to dislike/hate those parts of ourselves that we thought to have led to those insults, rejection, and neglect. As a result, we end up becoming ashamed of those aspects of ourselves, and we try our best to hide them thinking them to be ugly and hideous. The second is that having thus been wounded by unlove, we become all the more desperate for love.

Yet, such painful moments of hurt have made us to believe that nobody will ever love us for those ugly parts of ourselves. And so we try our best to hide them, and yearn all the more for people to love us for those parts which we beautify. This is why we invest a lot of time and resources just to give others a good impression. But try as we may, deep down, we all know that behind that smile or look of confidence which we show, is someone who is weak and lonely.

While we may have many friends around us, we will continue to remain lonely because we are not looking for someone to love our beautiful side. What we really want – from the depths of our soul – is for someone to love us entirely – to love both the good side, but more so with our most ugly and detestable side.

It’s always easy to love that which is lovable. We know this because we all practice this. But because most people simply love our lovable sides, we are unsure if they truly love us for who we really are. At times, our insecurity drives us to question the sincerity of the person’s love since it has never ever been tested before.

Only when that detestable side has been revealed will a person’s love be tested. Yet, the irony is that we are afraid to reveal it. We have been enslaved by the chains of the fear of rejection. It’s already painful enough to be hurt once. The last thing we really want to go through is a repeat of that same hurt.

Yet, what we are thirsting for is that our detestable side be loved. All we want is for someone to experience both the best and the worst of our selves, and yet, tightly embrace us, saying, “It’s ok, I still love you.”

Or so most people think. But is that really sufficient to heal a wounded soul?

Actually, that’s still not enough. A person has yet to experience the worst of ourselves to the point that that beloved person has been hurt by us. That is when we have removed the mask which we have put on all along, and revealed our darkest inner-most part of our most hated self.

When that friend experiences first-hand, the hurt from our darkest, inner-most self, that is when that friend experiences our true self. It is at that very moment, when that friend is able to forgive and say, “I forgive you, and I love you,” that our darkest side, which now exposed, begins to experience the loving warmth it ceased to experience a long time ago when it was locked away at the first encounter of hurt.

This is when a wounded love begins to heal a wounded soul. As strange as it seems, it is the wounds of a broken heart that holds the key in unlocking the chains which has, for a long time, left us enslaved to our own self-hatred and fear. This is the love which liberates us and brings us to true freedom – a freedom more sweeter and more liberating than all other kinds of freedom.

Because we have finally encountered someone who loves us fully for who we are – the good, the bad, and the damn bloody ugly. Moreover, we begin to hear the truth about ourselves which we have surpressed for so long: that every bit of ourselves is wonderfully lovable.

It is unavoidable that hurts will occur in relationships. Human beings are like porcupines (or hedgehogs depending on which animal you prefer). Eventually, when we’re not careful, we will end up hurting or being hurt by the other. With strangers, we are extra careful. But with the people we love, we begin to relax a little because we trust that the other will not flee at the first accidental prick.

That is why we should consider ourselves most fortunate and blessed when we are hurt by the other. It is a sign of a relationship that is growing closer and closer, and a sign that the other has started to trust us more that he/she is more confident in trying to unveil a little more about himself/herself without the fear of rejection.

While we still try our best not to accidentally hurt each other, we will slip, and reveal that most dreadful side of our selves, thereby providing such opportunities for a wounded love to heal that wounded soul. (Of course, if the person constantly hurts you and has little or no respect for you, it’s different. That person is a jerk, and it’ll probably do both of you more harm than good.)

Of course, healing a wounded soul doesn’t mean that hurt will forever be completely terminated. We will still accidentally hurt one another time and time again, but with each moment comes the opportunity to renew and remind each other of the liberating and healing love that we can give to each other, that no matter what, no matter how crappy we are, we will be there for each other, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, and we will love and honour each other, every single day of our lives till death do us part.