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THICK OR THIN, YOUR SKIN IS YOURS

Q: I feel like a horrible person. My boyfriend's mother seems like a really nice person and only has good intentions, but she grates on my last nerve. Her only fault is that she talks about things that make me uncomfortable, things I only would want to talk about with people I am close with.

I don't know why it bothers me so much. I want to get to a point where it doesn't, because it prevents me from developing the closeness that she is trying to get. I know she isn't bad and that this is my issue, but I don't know how to loosen up and not be so offended by her. It upsets my boyfriend that I don't love her; he's never known anyone not to.

A: There is a measured answer in me, but it's trapped behind this:

WHONK WHONK WHONK - This is a Mama's Boy Emergency, please leave the building by the nearest exit stairway - WHONK WHONK WHONK.

All clear now. Repeat after me: His mother drives you nuts; you are perfectly capable of deciding for yourself who drives you nuts; disliking someone is not an affliction to be cured, it is a reaction to be managed.

A perfectly normal reaction. Feeling pressured to reveal private information is a sign of poor social skills - on the part of the person applying the pressure.

In fact, dislike is normal in general; it's part of social interaction. The person who believes there's such a thing as being adorable to every soul on earth needs to stop hanging out with the Tooth Fairy.

Do you see the lines where your skin ends, and where the air around you begins? Those are your limits. Outside those limits, you will find other people, many of whom will have ideas about ways you should live your life, including whom you should like and what you should feel comfortable discussing.

The duty of outsiders isn't to force those ideas upon you (or manipulate you into them by noting "everyone else" says you're wrong). It is, instead, to accept that you will form opinions different from theirs, respect your right to do so, and form their opinion of you based on the whole - of your judgment, of your actions, of the quality of your companionship. Your boyfriend is dating a private person. Either he likes that about you, or he finds someone else for his mother to love.

You, of course, may not even like it about yourself that you're so private. But you are inside the limits, and that entitles you to scrutinize, second-guess and generally mess with the mechanics of your judgment all you want, in a way that no one else has any business doing. You can figure out what makes you a certain way, and whether that's something you think you can change, and are willing to take on. In this case, if you think the problem is that you're too reticent, not that the mother is pushy, then, great, work on it.

In other words, you don't scrutinize/second-guess/self-flagellate just because your boyfriend is moping and his mother is closing in fast. As long as you employ it kindly, using your own judgment does not make you "a horrible person." It makes you you.

Write "Tell Me About It," c/o Washington Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail tellme@washpost.com.

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