Hi, Captain Awkward:
I used to have a really hard time using my words, but therapy is awesome and now I will totally tell people, in words, when what they are doing really needs to stop. I’m stuck, though, on how to respond to people who repeatedly ignore my words when I use them.
Example, “I love you very much, Boyfriend, but I really need you to stop calling me six times in a row when you know I am sleeping, because it wakes me up and then I am tired for the rest of the day and also very grouchy all morning.” His response “But I want to talk to you and I know you’re grumpy, but now you’re awake and I’d rather have you awake and grumpy than asleep. You’re cute when you’re grumpy.” I know I’m a late sleeper and maybe I should just put up with it, but I’m just really tired. I can’t turn my phone off because it also functions as my alarm clock.
Similar example: “Dad, you are awesome and smart, but please stop trying to tell me how to launch my publishing career. I know I am a whole 20 years old now and missed the chance to be published in high school like you thought I would, but that is not the end of the world. No, my manuscript is not ready for me to start querying agents right now. No, really. I know I’ve been working on it a long time. Thank you for this (not particularly) helpful article about e-publishing, now please let me do my own thing.” His response: “What do you think, I’m a dumbass? I read the newspaper. I know what I’m talking about. Why shouldn’t I act like an expert? You just need to want it more.” (These are both actual quotes from my people). I know he means well and I should just ignore it, but it makes me really anxious and aggravated and I want him to stop. I also want him to stop making ableist jokes and pretending my disabilities don’t exist, but this is enough examples for one letter.
How do I set boundaries? My father treats boundaries like a personal attack and my boyfriend is good with some of them but cheerfully ignores the others. I would really like some boundaries, but talking hasn’t worked. What do I do now?
Good job with therapy. Keep doing that. And as for these conversations that you need to have with the men in your life, what if you took a step beyond clearly and calmly asking for what you want? What if you let yourself get angry? What if you honestly displayed that anger by being way less polite the second time they make you speak up about something and/or by avoiding their company when they ignore your stated needs?
For example, let me translate your boyfriend’s words into his native tongue, Clingy Entitled Dude:
“I know you said clearly what you needed, but my random whims are more important than your needs so I’m just going to ignore them and keep doing what I want. When you get mad I’ll totally dismiss your anger by telling you it’s cute.“
This weekend on the eL I saw some loud drunk guy verbally abusing his wife, so I mentally gave him a vasectomy – I mean, I visualized this thing fully and in detail, snipping tiny tubes deep inside his junk and tying tiny knots in the ends. I know that I don’t actually have the power to do that, so it also won’t work when I mentally dump this guy’s ass for you. But let me say that “Please don’t do that anymore” is a complete sentence. It’s not the opening salvo in a negotiation. Time to get in touch with your inner Hulk. Next time he does that say “Remember when I asked you not to do that anymore? Turns out I really meant what I said, and I’m not “grumpy,” I’m FUCKING PISSED OFF AT YOU. Apologize now, and then hang up, and don’t call me for any reason until I call you. I need a few days to think about things, as do you, clearly.” Then give him a few days to think about what he’s done and call him when and if you feel like it.
The “cute” thing infuriates me on your behalf. It’s not a compliment. It’s sexist belittling bullshit. Maybe try “If you think I’m cute now, I’m going to be fucking gorgeous in a minute if you don’t knock it off. And you’re going to be single.”
As for your dad, the way you expressed yourself was pretty clear and unambiguous, so I don’t know that you need to say anything again. Repeating your “quit it” or “no” over and over again robs it of power because it signals to the other person that this is in fact a negotiation. But I’ll give you a One More Try script just in case.
“Dad, I know you love me, and that you’re very supportive and invested in my career. But I need you to stop with the unsolicited advice about my work. It’s not about whether the specific advice is good or bad – often it’s quite good, and it’s something I am already doing or would do anyway. But right now the best way you can help me and show me that you believe in me is to give me the time and space to handle this in my own way, even if it means that I make some mistakes or move more slowly or differently than you would in my shoes. I’m feeling overwhelmed and defensive about all the advice, and it’s getting in the way of our relationship and in the way of my ability to just focus on the work. Show me your support by backing off.”
There is a 99% chance that he will respond to this with some defensive screed about how he just loves you and if you would just do what he told you everything would be great and how can you be so ungrateful and mean? Let him get it out, and then say: “Okay, Dad, you’ve made it really clear how you feel. Now I’m telling you how I feel: I still want you to stop it. No advice unless I specifically ask you. Can you agree to that?“
You might want to put a time-frame on it to make the pill go down easier. You really want him to knock it off forever, obviously, but try framing it as a short-term request that is so reasonable that he looks like a total asshole for not agreeing to it. So end the above response with “Can you agree to that for 6 months? I really, really need a break.”
If he stomps off in a huff or gets very negative and shitty, like “SEE IF I TRY TO HELP YOU EVER AGAIN, UNGRATEFUL DAUGHTER” it means you’ve won. “Really, Dad? You can’t even give me a break from constantly advising me for 6 months? Did you raise me to be able to handle my own life or not?” Hold your ground. He’s retreating in the hopes you’ll follow. Don’t follow. Just sit with his negative emotions (and let him sit with them) and don’t try to soothe or fix it. Let it be weird and uncomfortable. You didn’t make it that way. HE made it that way when he deliberately ignored your stated boundaries. Don’t be the first to apologize. Let him come to you.
Once you get the courage to speak up like you have, these are the important next steps in boundary setting:
1) Learning to be okay with other people’s negative emotions and not take them on yourself and try to “fix” them.
2) Realizing that the people in your life are choosing how they interact with you and react to you. If your dad would rather give you advice you don’t want than believe you when you ask him not to, and if he takes your (very legitimate, normal) request as a criticism and an excuse to get really angry at you and treat you badly, that is HIS choice, not your fault for having needs.
3) Being willing and able to live with some distance in the relationship as a buffer to protect yourself from this kind of stuff. They can’t bug you if you won’t talk to them.
Now to the nitty gritty of daily life:
Do you live with your dad or not? If you don’t live with him and communicate primarily by phone and/or email, that’s a bit easier because you have physical distance and can choose more about how you interact.
First, create an email filter where all his messages go into a special folder that you don’t see unless you go and click on it. Read those emails only when you feel like it. Maybe once a week while you sip your favorite beverage and when you have arranged something fun and awesome to do right afterwards as a reward. Then pick one and give a very stock response. “Thanks, Dad. I’ll definitely think about your suggestion.”
You will think about it. Then you’ll ignore/reject it and do your own thing. You can’t really win this fight with him by logic, and you can’t really win it by asking him to stop (because he needs to be right/smart at you more than he needs to respect and be nice to you), so you can sort of win it by not engaging in it. By thanking him and being nice you’re ending the conversation on your terms and not giving him a toehold to keep pushing you about it. You don’t get him to admit that he was wrong and knock it off forever, so you don’t win all the way, but you win by ending the conversation. Over time it will get less productive for him to act like this, because he’s not going to get the attention from you and rise out of you he’s looking for, so he may taper it off. You can also mix it up a little from time to time – respond to everything in the email that ISN’T advice as you usually would, and totally ignore the advice as if it never existed. I had to do that with my Grampa when I asked him to stop sending me anti-Obama screeds from the Cranky Old Man Internet. I filtered those out and only responded to the emails he wrote directly to me and only to the parts I wanted to. I rewarded him for doing what I wanted him to and gave him zero attention for the rest.
This works on the phone and in person, too. On the phone, talk pleasantly about whatever you normally talk about, and whenever he launches into a “helpful” suggestion say “Thanks, Dad, I’ll think about it” and then end the call. “I should really get back to work. Love you, talk soon!“
In person, it’s harder, so you may want to rehearse with a friend a few times. You don’t want to tear up or yell, he’ll seize on that as proof that you’re “emotional” as if that somehow means “wrong.” Keep it breezy and quick. “Sure, Dad, thanks, I’ll totally think about it.” Then change the subject and get out of the conversation as soon as you can. If he gets pushy or violates a previous agreement, go with “Dad, we talked about this. Let’s change the subject.” If he won’t change the subject, end the conversation. You can use everything from “You’ll have to excuse me” and going into the bathroom (whether you have to pee or not) to “We should stop talking about this now. I’m going to step out for a bit and try to get some work done. See you later!”
The method is: Your dad gets your attention as long as he doesn’t do the stuff you’ve asked him not to do. He breaks the rules? Remove your precious attention nuggets. He won’t change, really, but he may figure out more productive ways of engaging with you if preserving the relationship is more important to him than being right.
As for the ableism, check out Jay Smooth’s advice on how to tell people they sound racist. “Dad, that thing you said is really ableist. Please don’t say stuff like that around me anymore.” “Are you saying I’m prejudiced or something?” “I’m saying that thing you said made you sound that way. If you don’t want to sound that way (and hurt my feelings), don’t stay stuff like that anymore.” Extra credit reading: Derailing for Dummies. Maybe you can make some kind of Bingo sheet.
I don’t know how to get him to stop pretending that your disability doesn’t exist. Going back several paragraphs – do you live with your dad? If so, is there a way to stop living with him as soon as possible?
And let’s be clear: Both of the interactions you describe here are VERY, very gendered. When women stand up for themselves, it’s cute, or you’re being a bitch, or you’re the one being mean and hurting everyone’s feelings (by not being 100% accommodating and taking care of their emotions, accepting a buttload of obvious advice gratefully and without complaint, or being available 100% of the time even if you need sleep which is a BIOLOGICAL HUMAN NECESSITY AND NOT ACTUALLY NEGOTIABLE). HULK SMASH.
Speaking up to dudes without sugar-coating it is going to feel weird and hard at first because it goes against the way you’ve been socialized. I don’t know if it’s comforting, but you’re far from alone in having to learn this from scratch, and the truth is that being sweet and accommodating all the time doesn’t actually get you respect or a friction-free existence. There’s no amount of nice you could be that would make any of this go away or be ok, so you might as well fight for what you need.
Enforcing boundaries isn’t easy. It takes time and constant vigilance. People don’t get how exhausting it is to have to be on your guard all the time, so be really gentle with yourself around this stuff. It doesn’t always work to change people’s minds or behavior, but over time it can change the tenor of your interactions with people and make them less fraught for you. Speaking up for yourself will start to become a habit. An awesome habit.