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#255: Breaking up with a client (and surviving the resulting guilt-trip).

In linkmania and internet fame news, Proffitt from Good Girls Gone Geek interviews me about this here site today.

And now, a question.

Hey Cap’,

I’ve wound up in a rather unpleasant business arrangement, and I was hoping for some advice on disentangling myself from it.

To summarize: For the past 2 years my sister and I have been the regular babysitters for a single mom (we’ll call her Jen). She only has one kid, and the pay isn’t bad (though definitely less than we make at other sits), but over time things started to get weird. There were some major warning signs, but I was naïve enough to brush them off.

Warning sign 1) Jen started getting us tangled up in the custody dispute with her ex. Turns out he’d been under investigation from child protective services for neglect, and she wanted me to report anything her son had told me while I was sitting. Things got even worse when she dropped her son off for a babysit one day, and warned me her ex might come looking for him. She told me I should “lock my doors and hide in the basement if he shows up.” Naturally, I was pretty freaking appalled that she dumped that on me and expected me to roll with it!

Warning sign 2) Jen has started promising her son we’ll take him on outings, without checking with us beforehand. Today she told him we were taking him to an indoor play structure, and announced it to us when she dropped him off. Turns out the trip was out of the question, because a bit after she left I was forced to make an emergency trip to the doctor. When Jen found out I’d have the car for the afternoon, and wouldn’t be able to get her son to the play structure, she pitched a fit. After we explained that I’m experiencing serious complications from my meds, she told us I should just drop off her son and my sister at the play structure. When we explained that wasn’t an option, she flipped out. Even after we told her in no uncertain terms that my health is important, she was horribly upset.

So in short: I’ve decided to end our working relationship, but I’m a bit nervous about how Jen will react. She’s extremely good at pulling the “I’m very disappointed” shtick, and even better at guilt tripping; and I’m not very good at standing my ground in the face of that. Do you have any advice for how I can guide the conversation, while making sure the ball stays in my court? I really want to come out of the inevitable conversation without giving in/being apologetic when I shouldn’t be.

Is your sister going to keep sitting for “Jen”? You can still absolutely stop sitting for her even if your sister continues, but if they remain in contact, this becomes much more of a team effort where you will need your sister to have your back and help you enforce boundaries. We’ll come back to that later.

We haven’t talked about “forced teaming” in a while on this site, but this is a good letter for it. Forced teaming is a manipulation tactic where one person acts like his or her problems are shared problems, meant to make you feel like you are both in the same boat and should be allies. While I first encountered the term in The Gift of Fear as one of the ways that predators bring down a person’s defenses, we’ve probably all been guilty of this at some point in our lives when we are stressed and our backs are against the wall and we just wish someone would help us solve things but we don’t know how to ask directly. It’s the source of many a guilt trip. By making you a party to her custody battle, Jen was making her problem into your problem (and potentially making you unsafe, jeez!). She may have felt like she had no other choice! But it’s forced teaming and guilt trips that you’re going to have to watch out for when you break things off.

Because while losing a reliable childcare provider is really stressful and, and it may bring up some rejection and anxiety feelings for her (and her child) that are not so fun, the question of “Who will babysit now?” is her problem. You can certainly have empathy for her situation without making it your problem.  So this is training for you in how to make your “no” stick and stand up for yourself in the face of “I’m So Disappointed In You”, and other guilt trips.

First, let’s break down “I’m very disappointed in you.” While it never feels good to hear that from someone, who cares? A lady who doesn’t treat you very well is disappointed in you? No, I think YOU are disappointed in HER. So disappointed that you’ll be quitting that job forever!

Not everyone will like you or shower you with approval all the time. You have to learn how to be able to deal with other people’s negative emotions and not take them on as your own (even when the other person is specifically trying to get you to do that). There is this internal process where you learn to recognize what’s happening and say (even if just silently to yourself) “I’m sorry that you feel that way, but that doesn’t mean I have to do what you want me to do.”

So let’s get to the nitty-gritty of how to get this done.

While you may feel like you owe her an in-person discussion (and she will certainly feel like you owe her this), an email or a phone call gives you some power to avoid that in person hard-sell. If you do actually talk to her, rehearse with your sister.

What you need to communicate is “Jen, I won’t be free to babysit (child) after (date). I wanted to let you know as soon as possible so that you can make arrangements for an alternative. He’s a great kid, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him, and I wish you both well.”

Now, you could give her reasons for the change, and the reasons could be the true ones – you feel like she overstepped her bounds on several occasions and it’s made you realize you don’t want to work with her anymore. If you did still want to have a working relationship with her, it would be extremely beneficial to bring up the custody issue and the “promised excursions” issue and lay out your boundaries clearly about that. But since your mind is made up to sever the relationship, what would be the goal in hashing through all of that? You’re trying to disengage from her, and you don’t have to get her to accept your logic as to why or make an unimpeachable case. A long discussion keeps you engaged with her longer than you want to be. You may in fact want to help her avoid this problem the next time, but you’re her child’s babysitter, not her life coach.

Because you do not have to give her reasons. Even if she asks. You can just repeat “I’m sorry, I won’t be available anymore” in a monotone until she goes away. The reason is: You don’t want to. That is enough of a reason. And in the hands of a guilt-tripping person who doesn’t want to hear “no”, every reason you give is a reason that she will poke and prod trying to find a weak spot. So if you feel like you are likely to cave in, remove this ammunition from her.

The “correct” response from her to your initial message is some variation of “I’m very sorry to hear that, obviously, we both like you so much.” She gets to ask (once) “Any chance of changing your mind?” or “Is there some reason you want to tell me that might help me keep someone like you around longer?” but if she pushes you beyond that or makes you uncomfortable, she is the one breaking the social contract.

Once you get through this part, have little or no contact with her. Which means, it’s time to talk about your sister. Does she plan to keep sitting for Jen?

Because if so, Jen’s next step is going to be to ask her what’s up, and your sister is going to need to be armed with a neutral “I don’t know what’s up, she just said she didn’t want to anymore” response with a “My sister and I are separate people, but if you keep bugging me about this I will quit, too” round in the chamber. Can your sister have your back? Can you talk to her about this stuff and help her to avoid getting sucked in? Jen might make it *very* uncomfortable for her, uncomfortable enough that she might use your sister to try to get you to convince her to come back so that Jen will stop bugging her. Work it out between you together.

I certainly feel for Jen and don’t think she’s evil, but you get to prioritize your own needs and decide who you want to work with, and getting a little practice shutting down a potentially manipulative situation will stand you in good stead. Good luck.

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About JenniferP

Chicago filmmaker, teacher, and blogger.

7 comments on “#255: Breaking up with a client (and surviving the resulting guilt-trip).

  1. We haven’t talked about “forced teaming” in a while on this site, but this is a good letter for it. Forced teaming is a manipulation tactic where one person acts like his or her problems are shared problems, meant to make you feel like you are both in the same boat and should be allies.

    Wow. I had no idea there was a term for that, but yeah, I’ve experienced that. It is 1000 times worse to deal with forced teaming in a family context.

    And this is absolutely awesome advice:

    Because you do not have to give her reasons. Even if she asks. You can just repeat “I’m sorry, I won’t be available anymore” in a monotone until she goes away. The reason is: You don’t want to. That is enough of a reason. And in the hands of a guilt-tripping person who doesn’t want to hear “no”, every reason you give is a reason that she will poke and prod trying to find a weak spot.

    This works well with someone you are planning to sever all contact with. When it is someone with whom you need to (or choose to) maintain a relationship, it can become necessary to also say something like “I understand that you want to know my reasons for X, but I am not going to discuss them with you”.

    BTW, loved the interview! I, too, tend to err on the side of “expunge thatte fucker right the fucke out”, as opposed to “carefully renegotiate boundaries to achieve a mutually acceptable relationship”.

  2. LW: If you say “I’m not going to sit your kids anymore, because Thing” and she promises to stop doing Thing — even if this is a credible promise, which it seems to me it would not be — would you change your mind? If (as I assume) you would not, mentioning it when she can no longer fix it is just hostile. Conversely, if you give her a specific reason it comes across less as a breakup than as a renegotiation.

  3. While I absolutely agree that finding a new babysitter for her is NOT your problem, it might be worth doing a little research on this so that you can be prepared. If (when) she comes at you with “But how do you expect me to find a new sitter” you can respond with “Here is the contact info for a sitter matching agency in our area.” It’s a lot more graceful then being cornered into saying “There’s no way in hell I’d recommend any of my friends to you!”

    • This one I can actually help you with: SitterCity is a great site for researching babysitters. If she starts to try to suck you in with the forced teaming as the Captain describes, that’s a direction you can point her in. Again, not that you have to, but it may help to have that talking point ready.

    • …I strongly disagree with that.

      How to find a new sitter is not LW’s problem.

      If LW recommends any new sitter or agency to Jen, she runs the risk that Jen may blame her when new sitter/agency “lets her down”. Which, by Jen’s standards, they likely will.

      I think Captain Awkward’s script is perfect. “I’m sorry, I won’t be available anymore” with as little variation as possible I think should be the only response if Jen keeps asking.

  4. First, let’s break down “I’m very disappointed in you.” While it never feels good to hear that from someone, who cares? A lady who doesn’t treat you very well is disappointed in you?

    One useful thing I’ve learned in life: anyone who uses that line on you and is not your mom or dad is probably an asshole. Your boss is also permitted to deploy it in special circumstances, like after you get caught running heroin through the mailroom, but that’s it.

    Usually it comes from people who have been shitty and irresponsible, and know it, and want to judo it back on you when you call them on it.

  5. Dear LW, I have been in your shoes. I worked as a nanny for an extremely difficult mother on whom I was also dependent for professional help (long story) in my non-nannying career. Getting away from her was hard because she was so good with the guilting re: the kids and the veiled threats about being my reference for future jobs.

    With that in mind, I want to give you permission to lie to this woman. I hope that’s not controversial here, but I think it may be necessary. The problem with a script like “Jen, I won’t be free to babysit (child) after (date)” is that it is non-specific and also leaves open the idea that you might be free some day in the far off future. When I left my nannying job, I continued to get frantic emails begging for childcare help over a year after I had last worked for the family.

    Repeating the captain’s script ad nauseum may work, but if your boss is anything like mine, she’ll want to know what it is you’re doing that is so much better than taking care of her kids. She may offer a raise, she may beg, etc. And if that happens, if she’s confronting you, and asking you for details, it’s absolutely best for you to shut her down and deny her any information. That’s ideal, but the ideal isn’t always what happens and I know I personally would have a hard time with the confrontation that would come from her demanding more information or from saying why you don’t want/can’t work for her, specifically, anymore. So, to avoid the vagueness that will only provoke more and more questions, and to avoid the confrontation likely to come from honesty, I suggest a lie.

    For my boss the semi-magical words (I did still got the emails, but no more phone calls) were, “I have a new job.” But it could also be: “I am taking classes,” or “I am starting a new internship,” etc.

    I suggest this because the specificity is useful when you’re repeating that you can no longer work for her, and also because it makes it much much harder for her to guilt trip you. Surely even the most unreasonable person would not expect you to continue being her babysitter forever. If she sees your departure as part of your life changing, rather than a choice specific to her (and thus a rejection), the “disappointed” argument doesn’t work. I’m not saying she won’t make it, but “I’m disappointed that you’re taking a job with benefits/working toward a degree/whatever” is a lot harder to say with a straight face than “I’m disappointed you’re abandoning us and won’t even tell me why.”

    Obviously, if you ended all contact or simply repeated “I won’t be available anymore,” your boss would eventually get the idea. But, particularly if your sister continues to work for her, it will be easier for her and for you if boss lady’s requests for more information are met with “LW is very happy with her new job,” rather than “LW continues to be unavailable (for unnamed reasons).”

    I want to be clear that you don’t owe this woman any kind of explanation–your desire to move on is all that is necessary. You want to leave, so you are. The end. But my own experience is that people like her don’t always make leaving easy, so if you can make it easier on yourself by feeding her a line that will make your departure more bearable for her, I don’t think there’s any reason not to. Admittedly, if you do this, you can’t ever use this woman as a reference. But you weren’t planning to do that anyway, were you?

    Finally–kudos to you. I stayed in a bad situation much longer than I should have and I wish I’d had your strength and sense to realize it at the time. I know lying is untenable for some people, and perhaps other commenters will disagree with me here, but I really do think you should do what will make this as painless for you as possible. If that’s telling her your issues with how she’s treated you, awesome. If that’s telling her you’re moving to Tuscany to become a nun, that’s awesome too.

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