Unpopular Opinion: We’re Getting Red Flags Wrong

Written by Michele Levin, LPC, LCADC, ACS

Co-Owner of Blueprint Mental Health

People are flawed – we all are.

Social media paints a picture perfect (literally) life; the perfect relationship: Traveling! Dates! Twin Flames! Matching Outfits! Social media has also done a pretty astounding job at spreading mental health tips and relationship advice, better known as “instatherapy:” “Boundaries! Narcissists! Gaslighting! As a result, people are quick to diagnose others and have absorbed a very “ourself” approach when thinking about relationships. This means that someone thinks primarily about themselves and not about the other person. Depending on the context, this can either be healthy… or not.

I’m Michele, co-owner of Blueprint Mental Health in Somerville, NJ. I specialize in relational counseling and spend my days having hour long conversations with couples, young adults, and not so young adults. One of the many things they all have in common is their vast knowledge of Instagram, TikTok, the best spots to get pasta directly from a cheese wheel, and the 2023 dating scene. Many of my clients come into therapy with a foundation of instatherapy where they have diagnosed their exes as narcissists and quickly jump to conclusions about potential partners.

Full disclosure- the below information is not derived from evidence-based research studies. It’s based on themes that I continually come across within my sessions with really amazing, cool and down to earth people out there living in the 2023 dating world.

Let’s Re-assess the term “Red Flags”

Singles in the dating world have become very quick to judge someone else immediately. Looking at their social media, one caption they don’t like = 🚩Red Flag, and that person is crossed off. Talking via text and “too quick to text back” or “not enough texting back” = 🚩Red Flag, and they are crossed off. They may have a GREAT time for two hours on a date, and then feel the person says something that they don’t like, or something they share about themselves or their history then and BOOM: 🚩 Red Flag. They, as a human begin, are labeled as a “red flag”, and quickly dismissed. (Or ghosted without any communication). Onto the next & repeat…

At the same time, the pressure on the other side and not wanting to come off “too strong”, or “too available”, and constant worry about whether someone is ghosting them has created a dating world of anxiety. Being your authentic self is vulnerable to constant judgement, before someone has even attempted to really get to know you. 

The concept of “red flags”, while likely started with good intentions, has now been way too normalized and doesn’t allow for people to be human. Thanks again, social media, for taking a serious thing and over generalizing it.

Newsflash: We all have some potential “red flags”…

I vote to start YELLOW flags. Notice a potential warning sign or problem area and be willing to talk about it and explore it. Are they working on themselves? Is there context of a situation that needs to be taken into consideration? Remember that you also have yellow flags.

For the devil’s advocates out there: I’m not saying there shouldn’t be boundaries and there are not some signs that are TRUE red flags. What I am saying is that people are way too quick to assign a red flag to someone for a flaw or as a quick judgement. Hence, my vote to introduce normalizing a yellow flag and stop normalizing red flags when they really are just… people being human.

Now that we get that quirks or annoying traits (you probably have them too) are not red flags and social media is not real therapy …. let’s get real and talk about what some real yellow or red flags ARE.

Yellow Flags

 Think of these as warning signs that require your attention to check in on them. They might be thoughts, feelings or behavior you notice about yourself that need your attention. Here are a few examples of potential yellow flags:

  • You have a gut feeling something isn’t right, but you’re not sure why.
  • You are not comfortable being your true, authentic self, but you’re not sure why.
  • You notice changing your behavior or avoiding things, but you’re not sure why.
  • You avoid bringing this person to meet your friends or family, but you’re not sure why.
  • They require constant reassurance, or you often feel obligated to be “there” for this person and you’re wondering if it’s too much. (Please note that this doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with someone requiring or desiring ongoing reassurance. It’s just not everyone is equipped or wants to be in a relationship that requires those needs being met.)
  • You have different lifestyles and future “wants”.
  • You don’t have shared interests or things in common.

When you notice yellow flags, explore where this feeling or behavior is coming from. Could this be a “you” thing instead of a “them” thing? Here are a few examples of questions you can ask yourself:

  • Why do you think this yellow flag is coming up for you?
  • Is this a pattern you notice about yourself?
  • Can you connect this trigger from a past relationship?
  • Can you connect this trigger from something within your family of origin?
  • Are you typically fearful of commitment or abandonment, or struggling with your own confidence or insecurities?
  • Have you been told by others that you are too quick to write someone off?
  • Is there a lot of pressure from your family on “who” would be the “right kind” of partner for you?
  • Is it something that can change, or be worked together on, or is there room for compromise?
  • Are you willing to tolerate this yellow flag or is it a deal breaker?

Yellow flags might be things that can be worked through with either some self-reflection, internal work and therapy, or can be worked through together as a couple. As long as there is safe and secure communication* and both people are willing to listen to understand the other’s perspective and work on themselves, yellow flags can be speedbumps that require you to pump the breaks and move slowly, but they do not have to be dead ends.

*Safe communication means that you can openly express how you feel without the fear of being met with being blamed, criticized, talked down upon, or fear of retaliation or danger. Open and safe communication means that both people feel they can talk about things that are uncomfortable without being met with anger, silent treatment, or punishment. When couples have safe and secure communication, they listen to understand each other’s feelings and work together to problem solve and improve together.

True Red Flags 🚩

 True red flags are not warning signs to explore, they are signs of dangerous or toxic characteristics and require you to listen to yourself when you feel them and discontinue relations with this person. Don’t stick around and try to “be the one to change them” or make excuses for them. Here are a few examples of true red flags:

  • They are physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive, you don’t feel safe, or your safety is threatened, or they don’t respect your basic healthy boundaries. (If you are feeling unsafe or that you might be in an abusive relationship, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233 or you can text START to 88788.)
  • You have a gut feeling something isn’t right and can connect it to specific things that have been said or behavior that has occurred that either made you feel icky, unsafe or uncomfortable.
  • You can’t openly and safely communicate. You might avoid expressing how you feel so they don’t get mad or retaliate. You often feel criticized, put down, talked down to, or made to feel guilty because of the way in which they talk to you. They don’t listen to you, they gaslight* you, or they have a defensive nature that they are unwilling to work on. (It’s important to step back and make sure that you are communicating in a healthy way that would allow someone to communicate effectively with you. You can’t yell and scream at someone and expect them to listen to you.)
  • You notice changing your behavior, not being your authentic self or avoiding things due to anxiety or fear of how the person might react.
  • The person has a controlling or jealous nature- tells you what you can and can’t do, who you can or can’t hang out with, does not allow for space or independence, or feels like this person is holding you emotionally hostage (if you don’t call me back right now, we’re done.) They might say jealous or controlling behavior is for “your protection” to justify why, or they make you feel guilty for wanting your own independence.
  • After some true self-reflection you determine that yellow flags are not “your stuff” and determine your thoughts, feelings and behavior is indeed a reaction to this specific person, and they are unwilling to work on themselves or their behavior.
  • You don’t share certain parts about this person or your relationship with friends or family because deep down, you know other people would be concerned.
  • They rely on you as their sole support for their mental health or they express verbal threats that they’ll hurt themself (or do hurt themself) if you do certain things, if you don’t reply to texts in a timely manner, if you leave them etc. They blame you for engaging in self harm or other dangerous/unhealthy behaviors and you feel scared or nervous because their behavior can be either scary, dangerous or unpredictable.
  • They are emotionally unavailable. Someone who is emotionally unavailable will likely make someone’s normal emotional needs seem “too much” or “too needy”. They don’t hold space to listen to you, can be defensive, or don’t commit. Simply stated- they are not emotionally present or there for you.

*Social media has also done a horrible job spreading misinformation about gaslighting. True gaslighting is a repetitive pattern where someone intentionally emotionally manipulates someone and can lead someone to even question their own sanity. It’s a form of emotional abuse.

Long-term Relationship Red Flags 🚩

These don’t represent danger or abusive behavior, but likely indicate that you’re not the right match for each other and this relationship just may not work if these signs don’t improve. Coming to terms that you’re not with the right person is hard. Break ups are difficult. Many people stay with the wrong person due to anxiety about breaking up, being alone, hurting that person, or “starting over”. These long-term red flags indicate unhappiness and predict that this relationship may not be successful:

  • You don’t feel like you are “yourself” with this person and have heard people that know you tell you this.
  • You don’t feel supported, whether it be emotionally or your (realistic) goals and aspirations for yourself.
  • Long-term, non-negotiable “wants” or lifestyles differ from each other’s without ability for compromise. Staying in a relationship that you know won’t work out logistically in the future is easier in the short term yet just avoids the fact that the relationship isn’t going to work.
  • You have non-negotiable fundamental differences in meaningful core values or character traits that are important to you. Don’t minimize the importance of this and find reasons to justify staying with the person – it won’t work, or you’ll be unhappy.
  • You just… don’t like them. This might trigger a laugh or confusion – “why would someone be with someone that they don’t like?” It happens all the time for various reasons. Often, who people are in the beginning of a relationship changes as time goes on.
  • You simply don’t see a happy future with this person. We live in a society where people long for those wedding pictures to post on social media. Don’t confuse wanting this so badly, that you are willing to sacrifice the time it takes finding the right person in those pictures.

In Conclusion:

Instatherapy has a ton of often good information. However, it lacks context and is not a replacement for an actual licensed psychotherapist. It doesn’t make you equipped to diagnose your dates, nor does it take into consideration your own insecurities, your own history and past triggers, your own cognitive distortions (i.e. jumping to conclusions, making assumptions), your own struggle maintaining healthy boundaries. Basically, it can’t help you reflect upon yourself.

As important as it is to be mindful of yellow flags and red flags from others, it is JUST as important to reflect upon yourself. Are you too quick to slap a red flag on someone and write them off? What are YOUR yellow or red flags that you need to work on? Are you staying in a relationship that’s unlikely to work out? Instatherapy won’t be able to tell you that.

Blueprint Mental Health is a private counseling practice located in Somerville, NJ. Michele co-owns the practice along with her husband John. Along with their team of 11 other therapists, Blueprint Mental Health treats young adults, not so young adults, couples, families, kids and teens. In person sessions and teletherapy sessions available across NJ.



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