Love hurts: Agony aunt 'Dear Thelma' has been healing hearts for 33 years


  • Living
  • Sunday, 17 Feb 2019

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Dear Thelma,

She irritates me, but maybe I should marry her?

Dear Thelma,

My parents don’t want me dating an obese older man.

Dear Thelma,

We’ve been intimate, but now he ignores me.

Way back in 1986, Sunday Star began an advice column in its lifestyle pullout Sunday Plus and called it “Tell It To Thelma” – offering tips for all your relationship problems! Thelma promised to pull no punches as she began each of her missives with “Thelma Says ...”.

Since then, the role of Thelma has passed hands a few times as you would have imagined, it has been 33 years after all.

Ever wonder when and how agony aunt columns (not just ours) started out? As famous as it is, Dear Abby was only founded in 1956. Advice columns date back a lot further.

Thanks to Google, looking up this sort of thing is a cinch these days – unless of course you go down that rabbit hole and emerge six hours later wondering where all that missing time went (well, I can accord my missing time to mostly reading letters to Captain Awkward, Carolyn Hax, Dear Prudence, Dear Sugar ... but that’s a story for another day).

According to online publishing platform medium.com, the roots of the advice column lay “in the rambunctious, masculine world of London’s early publishing industry”. As Jessica Weisberg detailed in her history of advice givers and gurus, Asking for a Friend, it all began in 1691 (yes! that long ago!) when John Dunton got a group of his friends together to answer readers’ questions in his new magazine, the Athenian Mercury.

It was however, arguably, Abby and Anne Landers and their witty but sympathetic style of answering queries from housewives to teenagers, that made advice columns a hit everywhere.

But what exactly makes advice columns so popular? Unlike self-help books or therapy, these columns become a public conversation. They invite readers to relate, compare, empathise, often judge and hopefully learn too.

As for our very own Thelma, our column has remained popular through the decades, and with the advent of the Internet, it’s following has grown from strength to strength.

According to June HL Wong, Chief Special Projects Officer at the Star Media Group, the column name “Tell It To Thelma” was coined by Swithin Monteiro who was in charge of the Sunday Plus features pullout in the late 1980s. But after the initial columnist (who shall remain anonymous) migrated to Australia, the column was dropped until Wong rebooted it in 1990 and found a “new” Thelma, when she joined the Sunday Star team.

“We used to get lots of letters back then, and we would run at least five or six each week,” reminisces Wong.

The letters have always been the stuff of life: Should I leave my partner? Why is he flirting with my best friend? How can I please my mother in law? My parents don’t understand me ... . To each of these dilemmas, Thelma is allowed, these days, to dispense a lengthier piece of advice.

And while the Thelmas have come and gone, the problems have remained pretty much the same over the decades.

Teacher Sally Joseph, 43, an avid reader of The Star, says she reads Dear Thelma to see what other people’s problems are like.

“Maybe I can relate and that will give me a solution to my own problems,” she said. “I have been reading this column for many years now and often the advice makes sense to me – not always – and I find one can learn from it.”

Joseph says that she believes the issues are not made up; occasionally however she does wonder why people bother writing in when the solution to their problems seem obvious.

“I don’t understand why they don’t see it. Maybe they just want to vent,” she said, adding that the illustrations and headlines often lure her into reading the column.

“I am also very curious – is Thelma just one of you reporters masquerading as a therapist?”

No, Thelma is not one of us. In fact, StarLifestyle recently had a roti canai breakfast with the real Thelma and got the lowdown on what makes the column tick, and why other people’s problems will always find an audience. (See sidebar)

Thelma

Challenging Environment

Agony aunt services are very different from therapy services, says Thelma. With the Dear Thelma column, people are looking for advice. She says: This means I’m making a judgement on a case and making suggestions for tackling the issues that I see. Often, Thelma offers ‘fixes’,” says our columnist, who in real life is bright-eyed, bushy tailed, and loves her roti with a spicy sambal!

Thelma shares that in regular therapy, the client and the psychologist work together to tease out the issues, to understand the underlying causes, attitudes and beliefs, and they set goals for the client to reach.

“The sessions then focus on creating and implementing a road map of steps that must be taken for the client to reach their goals. It’s a cooperative venture with a constant feedback loop,” she explains.

Our Thelma, by the way, is a counselling psychologist, and a published author.

“I have a degree in psychology and a masters in counselling and am a member of various societies including the Malaysian Psychological Association and Malaysia Mental Health Organisation,” she shares.

One of the things that readers should note, Thelma says, is that letters seldom tell the whole story, and this can make it very tricky to offer suitable advice. For example, a client may say they are depressed and hopeless because they don’t like their job. They may write about their difficult boss and gossipy coworkers. Thelma will then base her answer on the psychology of motivation and work happiness.

“However, it may be that the writer has just had a baby and that her low mood comes from postnatal depression,” she says. “Or perhaps her husband is bullying her all the time and this is sapping her confidence. If Thelma had that information, her advice would be substantially different.”

There’s often another spanner in the works.

Quite often, people write in very long letters to Thelma, detailing their lives and their issues. However, these letters have to be edited for privacy, and there is also a limited amount of space, so word counts have to be adhered.

Because of this, Thelma’s answer can be based on the whole letter (eight pages sometimes!) but readers only see a tiny part of it.

“We try to be very careful about preserving the pertinent facts but it’s not always possible to squeeze it all in. So sometimes readers say, ‘Hey, wait a minute! Why is Thelma talking about X here when it could be Y or Z?’,” shares the 52-year-old, who feels that this is challenging in a good way because it helps her hone her skills.

ThelmaNo Magic Bullets

Twenty years ago, editorials and columns could be 1,500 words long. Nowadays they are 800 to 900 words. This is because readers like quick and easy reads. They are looking for “life hacks”, with formulaic answers that come in bullet points. But that’s not always possible.

Thelma says: “Life is incredibly complex and there is seldom one approach to a question. For example, you might treat depression with different kinds of therapy.”

The three approaches Thelma uses most often, she shares, are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy where you examine, challenge and modify thinking and behaviour; Interpersonal Psychotherapy where you focus on personal and relationship communication and issues; and Affirmative Counselling where you simply offer a safe space and empathetic support.

Thelma offers that there are also techniques that support these approaches.

“These include happiness scheduling, journaling, gratitude diarying and more,” she shares, and appears to be the sort of person who practises what she preaches. “They’re all useful, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses.”

Thelma tries to balance audience appetite for quick and easy reads with information about the more in-depth approaches that readers may find useful.

At the end of the day, readers keep coming back for more, always wanting to comment on Thelma’s advice, offer their own two sen, or write in so they can find a solution to their own problems. After 33 years, and through all the bouquets and brickbats she’s continually received, Thelma continues to pull no punches, dishing out advice that’s solid and refreshing, and with a loyal readership.


“In The Mood For Love” Contest 

StarLifestyle brings you love stories every day from Valentine’s Day to Chap Goh Meh (the other Valentine’s Day) on Feb 19. The 15th day of the first lunar month is all about finding love, so it’s only fitting that we celebrate love all week!

Read our stories, then go to our Facebook (facebook.com/starlifestyle) or Instagram (instagram.com/starlifestylemy) page to join our special “In The Mood For Love” contest, by winning a pair of Longines Hydroconquest watches worth RM10,000 for you and someone you love.

How To Win At Love!

1. Collect a question daily from Feb 14-19 based on the love stories. You must answer all six (6) questions.

2. Complete this slogan: Love is ..... (in not more than 50 words).

3. Email all six answers and slogan to star2@thestar.com.my by Feb 20. Include your full name, MyKad number and contact number, and don’t forget to add “In The Mood For Love Contest” in the subject field.

Terms & Conditions

1. The contest is open to all residents in Malaysia except for employees of the Star Media Group Berhad and members of their immediate families.

2. The prize cannot be exchanged for cash.

3. By participating in this contest, participants are deemed to have agreed to all rules and regulations of this contest. The Star reserves the right to alter/change/add/cancel any terms & conditions of contest without prior notice.

4. Judges’ decision is final and no correspondence will be entertained.

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