Dear New Shrink,

Why do people ignore “red flags?” I know I have done it in the past with relationships. I now know better but never really understood why I did it. And now we are hearing about it again and again on the news. Why are we all so stupid?


Do Not Understand

Dear Do Not Understand,

You ask a really interesting question. Definitely with these shootings by the Army psychiatrist, the rape of a 15-year-old girl in Richmond, the paroled man who kidnapped, raped and fathered children with a young girl and may have killed a number of others, this is an important question. Even with our quieter suicides, unfortunate or unnecessary deaths, broken marriages, bad relationships, almost always someone or a number of people come forward to talk about what they noticed but yet said or did nothing about. Obviously in the end, it does seem stupid. But the real causes range from minding our own business, being politically correct, not wanting to cause a problem, being unsure of ourselves, not trusting our instincts to hoping that “it” will just take care of itself, work itself out or someone else will do something. Most of these sort of run together but in my opinion, we really need to rethink this. There are simply too many disastrous results when we look the other way and ignore, as you say, the red flags.

Usually if we take the time out to listen to our instincts, our gut, we will know what we need to know. But the mind can get in the way and tell us a hundred reasons why we are wrong or shouldn’t do anything about what we are intuiting. It’s best to tell the chatter to shut up, go away and listen to what that deeper part of yourself is saying and even ask it, what are you picking up on? Something is going on here, what is it?

Once you feel strongly about what you are feeling, the next step is deciding what to do about it. Depending on what it is, there are numerous alternatives. If it’s a personal matter, or something with a friend or relative, ask yourself what might happen if you don’t say anything. In a relationship, problems that are not addressed often lead to the end of it. If a friend is drinking too much or engaging in self destructive behavior or maybe just seems depressed, ask yourself whether you are really being a good and caring friend if you do not say anything. There are ways to say things. In these personal matters, coming from the heart and making sure there is no negative judgment, resentment or criticizing, can make a big difference. It can actually save someone’s life.

In larger matters where it’s a colleague, fellow student or neighbor, sometimes it’s best to be less direct and seek help or guidance. Ask others that you trust if they have noticed anything unusual or go to a higher up and explain that you are not trying to cause trouble but at the same time you don’t want to be part of a really bad outcome. Share your concerns.

Back to why do we ignore red flags? I have answered much of your question but there is another reason, and that is hope — hope that it will go away, work itself out or someone else will fix it. Hope is an interesting thing. We need it at times, for sure. It is similar to faith but not exactly the same. Hope always includes fear; the fear that something will not happen or that what is hoped for will. If you really think about it, it is like a drug. We use hope like a drug, to make an uncomfortable reality go away. It is very different from trust. Generally trust has a rational, more solid basis. This is not to say that we haven’t had situations where it turns out that what we trusted, we should not have. But hope is not based on rationale; it’s just hope. We use it when we need it and sometimes we get lucky but often we do not.

These words faith, trust and hope are used interchangeably but they are not the same. Hope has a dark side to it. If you are hoping that the chemotherapy of a relative is going to work, it’s understandable but you should also prepare yourself. When you are talking about red flags, it’s best to ask yourself “do I trust that my partner is faithful to me, or that the neighbor or professor is going to do something about what I am noticing? Or am I hoping?” If you are hoping, you should rethink it and maybe pay more attention. Red flags do mean something!

Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist with offices in Brentwood. Send your questions and responses to or visit us All questions are welcomed and kept anonymous. Please let us help you with your life matters.

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