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Let’s play the game where we answer the questions people typed into search engines to find this place. Punctuation added. Wording unchanged. 

1. “My bf won’t choose me over his brothers that are rude to me.

I don’t know what the nature of this choice is, like, probably your boyfriend won’t ever cut off or stop talking to his brothers on your behalf, but your boyfriend should definitely stick up for you when and if people in his family are rude to you. 

2. “When he says he doesn’t have time or focus for a relationship.”

Time and focus may in fact be factors, but also, “he” doesn’t want to be in a relationship with you. I’m sorry, that sucks to hear. Move on from this prospect, is my advice. 

3. “How to turn down a friend down politely convincing her you love but can’t engage in a relationship right now.”

This is the wrong way to go about it. If you don’t want to be in a relationship, just tell her “I don’t want to be in a romantic relationship with you, I’m so sorry, but I value you very much as a friend.” Let her heal for a bit and then you can most likely be friends again. If you use the “not right now” excuse you leave her hanging and hoping, and it’s going to be so much worse.

4. “What it means when a girl say she does not think it will work out.” /”What did she mean by saying we can’t cope with each other?”

Most likely translations: “I don’t want to be in a romantic relationship with you, but I’m using neutral language like ‘it won’t’ work’ to try to spare your feelings.”

5. “How to respond to a compliment on your looks.”

From an acquaintance, not delivered with a leer, like, “You look really nice today?” a good answer is “Thank you.” It’s what people expect to hear and will complete the conversational circuit with maximum efficiency. 

Yelled at you from a moving car? It’s not a compliment at that point. 

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Today is a weird, sad day in social medialand and also with various life stuff and brain chemistry stuff and street harassment. To be honest, I have been crying or on the verge of crying off and on for the last 20 hours with occasional breaks for sleep and a much needed breakfast and movie (a movie …that made me cry) with a friend this morning. I almost started crying in the Apple Store a little while ago when I thought I’d have to pay $80 for a new power cable, and then I really cried when it was under warranty and it was free and this big bear of a man was so nice to me and didn’t call attention to the crying and just gently handled my transaction. Crying is good, btw. It’s better than numbness, avoidance. But this question is well-timed.

Dear Captain Awkward,

This has been on my mind a while, but seems a good time to ask. What is the best way to express to someone who is depressed (or isn’t depressed at that moment in time but has depression) that you are there to talk to / for whatever they need? I’ve been trying to find words to express it to a couple of friends but failing – as whenever I feel I’ve drafted the words to make clear it’s not just the polite ‘if you need me, call’, it starts sounding like it’s about me, ‘my need’ to help them – the word ‘I’ crops up a little too often. So I say nothing instead of risking them going dark about their thoughts – the opposite of what I intend.

My wordage fails at two points:

1) Everyone seems to say they’ll be there if a friend needs help, not everyone means it. (And from what one of my depressed friends says, they don’t believe it either way.)

2) One of them says when down, they need to completely introvert and left alone as they recoup their energies. I’d be happy to do this (being an introvert myself and knowing the exhaustion of having to explain why you don’t want to see people to be ‘cheered up’), but I know they’ve had suicidal thoughts in the past. I worry that I can’t tell when they’re isolating themself for recovery, and when they’re isolating themself thinking there aren’t people who care/getting worse.

So, I guess – I’m looking for words on expressing empathy and my attempts at understanding – but also tips on how to know what’s helpful, if it goes against what a person actually says. Or should you never go against what a person says, even if you worry?

They aren’t the closest friends to me, in that I don’t know their families/local friends, which perhaps makes things harder – I can’t plug into the network of others who might support them. But they are friends, and I care and … I don’t know how to express it usefully.

Still too many ‘I’s, eh, Captain?

Self- (and other-) absorbed

This is a complicated thing, because isolating yourself to recover when you’re an introvert and isolating yourself because your brain is trying to kill you look identical, even to the person who is doing the isolating (Hello, Winter 2013-2014). Depression is a liar that tells you that it is normal to be sad and numb, and it makes you hide from other people because they might interfere with its narrative of your life.

I think one thing you can do to help your friends who are depressed is to reach out to them not in the spirit of helping, but in the spirit of liking them and wanting their company. “I’m here to help if you ever need me” is good to know, but hard to act on, especially when you’re in a dark place. Specific, ongoing, pleasure-based invitations are much easier to absorb. “I’m here. Let’s go to the movies. Or stay in and order takeout and watch some dumb TV.” “I’m having a party, it would be really great if you could come for a little while.” Ask them for help with things you know they are good at and like doing, so there is reciprocity and a way for them to contribute. “Will you come over Sunday and help me clear my closet of unfashionable and unflattering items? I trust your eye.” “Will you read this story I wrote and help me fix the dialogue?” “Want to make dinner together? You chop, I’ll assemble.” “I am going glasses shopping and I need another set of eyes.” Remind yourself why you like this person, and in the process, remind them that they are likable and worth your time and interest.

Talk to the parts of the person that aren’t being eaten by the depression. Make it as easy as possible to make and keep plans, if you have the emotional resources to be the initiator and to meet your friends a little more than halfway. If the person turns down a bunch of invitations in a row because (presumably) they don’t have the energy to be social, respect their autonomy by giving it a month or two and then try again. Keep the invitations simple; “Any chance we could have breakfast Saturday?” > “ARE YOU AVOIDING ME BECAUSE YOU’RE DEPRESSED OR BECAUSE YOU HATE ME I AM ONLY TRYING TO HELP YOU.” “I miss you and I want to see you” > “I’m worried about you.” A depressed person is going to have a shame spiral about how their shame is making them avoid you and how that’s giving them more shame, which is making them avoid you no matter what you do. No need for you to call attention to it. Just keep asking. “I want to see you” “Let’s do this thing.” “If you are feeling low, I understand, and I don’t want to impose on you, but I miss your face. Please come have coffee with me.” “Apology accepted. ApologIES accepted. So. Gelato and Outlander?”

If you can set up a weekly or monthly routine, some sacred time when you and your friend hang out (or Skype, if you’re long distance), that can be an anchor in itself, even if you don’t talk about anything particularly deep. I don’t recommend offering or initiating constant, daily contact or becoming someone’s sole source of support or sole outlet, and I don’t recommend making your relationship all about them telling you their problems. If you are a professionally trained counselor, you shouldn’t counsel your friends. If you’re not, it does no one any good if you are like “I am here to help!” and then African Violet them two months later because their exhausting and soulsucking disease has soulsucked you, too. It is okay to have limits on how much and when and how you can be in listening mode, and to redirect friends to professional help. It’s okay to say “I am glad to know what’s going on with you, but limited in my ability to process these thoughts with you, especially when I think they are transmissions directly from your illness. Are you seeing your therapist soon/Please call a therapist/let me call one for you?” “You are scaring me right now, That sounds very scary, and I really think you need to see someone.” Nobody likes being told they are dumping too much on their friends (and it plays into the messages that depression is telling them about how they are tedious and nobody likes them), but you get to set boundaries and then, hopefully, defeat the lies about how they are unworthy of love by still showing up in their lives.

Commander Logic is a sturdy, steady sort of person who does not really get depressed. When I am full in the middle of a spiral, her insistent cheerfulness and optimism and proposing of reasonable, achievable solutions can be downright irritating, and my Jerkbrain will try to logic her out of her pragmatic and healthy worldview and into my shitty perspective Where I Can’t Possibly Because: Reasons. She resists it, though, and when she’s had enough of listening to the Jerkbrain she dismisses it by agreeing with it. “Well, I guess everything is terrible and you just can’t. So, Doug‘s?” And then we go to lunch, as we have for 9 years or so, and we talk of other things, and I eat the sandwich of love and let it save my life. The thing is, we go to lunch when I am in a depression cycle, and we go to lunch when I am not, and we talk about my stuff AND her stuff AND mundane stuff during ALL of those times. I know that she would help me if I needed Capital H Help, and I know that she won’t leave me when my illness makes me hard to take, and I know that because she keeps showing up and she keeps inviting me in and because she talks to me like I’m Jennifer and not my illness or a project.

Time, attention, love, enjoyment > help.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Dear Captain, 

I need scripts, and I need them ASAP.

I have 24 years of reasons (emotional abuse and toxic family environment) to hide why I am on antidepressants from my parents, and I have been doing so successfully for a year, paying for them out of pocket, because I am on a medication where I can afford that, though I am not in a position where I can yet go off my parents’ (very good) health insurance for my other (costly) health problems. My SSRIs have been great for me-I respond well to them and I am getting through grad school very well with thousands of miles of distance from my abusive parents, plenty of therapy, and at long last, medication I probably needed years ago! (medicate those brain weasels, plus learning weasel-charming techniques!)

But. I just found out that some no-doubt well-meaning person at my pharmacy put my most recent refill on my insurance, which my medical-trained mother goes through line by line every month.

I am desperately hoping she does not tell my dad, because that would make things a thousand times worse. As it is, she is probably going to corner me with the “But why didn’t you tellllll ME” and “You didn’t say anything about how you feel to me BECAUSE I’M A BAD MOM” and “You obviously don’t think that I AM TRUSTWORTHY ENOUGH” and make it her, her, her and I am just….I don’t have any scripts for this. And I’m going to be visiting them for the next month, starting tomorrow. (Dad is a “Only the weak use medication” and “Try exercise” and “Drink St John’s Wort tea because they’re all placebos anyway” type.)

Please, Captain. I need your help. The last time something like this happened, Mom and I had a huge fight because I didn’t tell her about a panic attack I had-I didn’t want to tell her about it because she made it all about her feelings about it, but I wound up telling her that I was just too ashamed of it too tell her in order to get her to shut up, because she would not let me leave. I’ve already spent weeks psyching myself up to deal with how self-centered she is most of the time, and knowing that she’s going to be reviewing my insurance statement line by line and then making it all about her feelings about it has made that psych-up all but useless.

(I can’t cancel the trip, either. One of my best friends is getting married and I spent a month’s rent.)

~Forced Out Of The Antidepressant Closet

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Robin Marantz Henig’s piece on loneliness and the science of how loneliness affects the brain is sad and interesting and relevant to our interests, I think:

What is different about lonely people is how they interpret their interactions with friends and acquaintances. In the Ohio State study, lonely people tended to feel put upon and misunderstood. They were, the researchers wrote, “more likely to attribute problems in social relationships to others,” and to see themselves “as victims who are already giving as much as they can to their relationships.”

In other words, people grow lonely because of the gloomy stories they tell themselves. And, in a cruel twist, the loneliness itself can further distort their thinking, making them misread other people’s good intentions, which in turn causes them to withdraw to protect themselves from further rejection — and causes other people to keep them at arm’s length.

According to Guy Winch, a New York psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid, lonely people can become “overly defensive and come across to others as detached, aloof, or even hostile — which only pushes them further away.” Loneliness can create its own self-defeating behavior.

I see this pattern in letters and discussions we have here. “Try meeting more people!” we say. “I’ve TRIED that and it’s not WORKING” the struggling, lonely letter writer or commenter says. “Just, um, try harder!” we say.

I have also seen the self-fulfilling “negging” behavior in action, and I do have a strategy when I meet someone at an event and I say “Hi, nice to meet you” or “Are you enjoying the event?” and they say (true story) “You’re probably just saying that” or (true story) “I’m sure it’s nice but I can never meet people at these things. Not people who want to be my friend.” To be honest, responses like that make klaxons go off in my head, and I DON’T want to be around that person very much, and I DON’T want to be guilted into being friends with a stranger. A mean stranger. But recognizing that sometimes people blurt stuff out when they are feeling really awkward, and knowing that my own semi-public role as an awkward soul makes it more likely that they will blurt that stuff to me, I’ve begun a strategy of redirecting the conversation. “Wow, well, I can’t answer that, having just met you, but…” 

  • “…how did you find out about this event/know the hosts?”
  • “…what would you rather be doing with your Tuesday night?”
  • “…read/watch/eat anything good lately?”

Sometimes the answers are (true story) “I know the hosts because they are good people who take pity on people like me,” “Somewhere really quiet, like the morgue” and “No, but let me tell you about all the things that I’ve read that SUCK and all of the details of that suckiness” and then I do bail politely after three unsuccessful attempts, likely added to their list of “fake people who just can’t hang when things get too real,” or whatever. But sometimes I am able to draw the person out about something they are interested in that isn’t their own self-consciousness, and then they relax a bit, and then we have a pretty ok conversation. So if you hear the klaxons, but sense the person is really trying to connect, I humbly offer that as a way to get through the interaction.

I don’t know how to bypass the self-defeating patterns of a “lonely brain,” and it’s not exactly comforting to know that this is what could be happening. At least you’re not imagining it? Sadly, I also don’t know any possible solutions beyond “recognize the role that your own assumptions and fears might be playing in how you respond to interactions with other people, and see if you can’t find happier tapes to play for yourself and for others over time” (maybe with some professional help) and “just, um, keep trying to meet people, Buddy!” I can see why hearing that would be frustrating, especially when you are already making the effort and it feels like it’s going nowhere.

Do others have experience getting themselves out of this mindset? What changed/how did you change it? What other advice could we be offering lonely people who are frustrated with the usual channels for making friends?

 

 

Dear Captain,

In essence, I absolutely adore this girl, but there’s someone else, and she has problems being away from home. As a disclaimer: this isn’t some crush, or the case of a naïve adolescent. This is my fifth relationship (though I wouldn’t call myself experienced in relationships). I’ve dated this girl, and known her for over a year, during which we’ve been comfortable friends for long stretches of time. I want her in my life, at least as a very close friend.

Lets call her Emma. We met last August in college, and very quickly, naturally, spilled all our feelings and pasts to each other. Emma was emotional and had a troubled history of depression. I’m an open and helpful person, so I was more than happy to be there for her. She didn’t need me, but felt much happier with me around. She was single, but had lingering feelings for her ex, who she’d gone out with for two years, but had broken up with because she didn’t want to do long distance in college. His presence was visibly ruining her emotionally. At this point I had no intention of going out with her – I was more than happy to have her as a close friend. Eventually, I had a sit-down with Emma, explaining to her she wouldn’t truly be happy if she didn’t let him go.

About a week later, Emma stopped contact with him. She was noticeably happier, and I was proud to have helped her. I started to develop feelings. She had had feelings for a while, before she broke things off with her ex. The natural progression of our friendship led to us going out. This lasted over 3 months, until break. She went home to her closely knit friend group, which included her ex. My family had just moved to a remote location with a harsh winter, and was alone for break. It was hell.

This took an emotional toll on me. When we returned to campus, things weren’t the same. She broke up with me after a week with no clear reason. Emma got back with her ex shortly thereafter. It was because her ex was more accessible over break than I was, by default. It wasn’t my fault.

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Illustration of Godzilla and another lizard battle over the Golden Gate bridge.

Jerkbrain and Rageasaurus battle for control of the emotional landscape. Godzilla movie concept art by Frank Hong.

Dear Captain,

I have always been way too sensitive to criticism. In high school we had an assignment where we had to ask our loved ones what they thought our best and worst personality traits were, and EVERYONE told me that I take things too personally. I terrified of looking dumb in front of anyone, even strangers, so I hate anyone calling attention to the fact that I’m less than perfect.

This is true for criticism of a personal nature, an artistic nature, and a professional nature. Blunt or tactless questions are awful, of course, but even much-need criticism framed in a very constructive way can put me on the edge of tears.

This has been a problem lately at my work, because I’ve gone from part-time to full-time, which means (a) more time at work, so more time to mess up/get blamed for something, and (b) getting called upon to do tasks I’ve never done before or tasks that I’m TERRIBLE at (like covering phones, which is a nightmare to an introvert, especially one so bad with names she routinely forgets the caller’s name mid-transfer). I have a tendency to get defensive when I’m corrected on something, especially if it’s something I usually get right or that I wasn’t responsible for, even though absolutely no one is putting me on trial. They just want it fixed. Or I get so flustered that I just make more mistakes, get more criticisms, etc ad nauseam. Today at work I screwed up something I didn’t know I was supposed to do, and getting called out made me too upset to talk (one of my coworkers walked by and marveled at how red my face got), when a more rational response would probably have been “now I know I need to do that next time”.

How can I take criticism better? I NEVER want to become “the girl who cried in the office”, and when it comes to things that I really want to get better at, I know that hearing and responding to criticism is an important step. I’m just so bad at it. Help!

-Paper-Thin Skin

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It’s July, so time for the monthly “let’s answer the stuff people typed into search engines” post. It is, as always, a very mixed bag of topics.

1. “Is my partner’s family using my family for money? Help!”

I feel like there is a lot of backstory and context here that would be valuable to know, but one suggestion is to revisit and renegotiate current arrangements around money, and see what happens. It sounds like that you (or your family) are already uncomfortable with something about the financial arrangements that are taking place or requests that are being made, and that’s a good enough reason to pull on one of the threads and see where it goes. Do you feel like you are allowed to say “no, we can’t help with that, sorry?” Does it change how your partner’s family treats you?

2. “Should I be upset with a coworker who didn’t donate to a fundraiser in my name?”

Feel however you want, but I don’t think addressing it with the coworker, complaining to other people, or changing the way you interact with them at work is a good idea at all. Be grateful to the people who did donate, and assume the coworker who didn’t had completely understandable reasons that aren’t really your business. Let this one go.

I don’t feel shame about asking for donations here periodically, or for boosting charity stuff or crowd-funding campaigns for friends or causes I’m close to, and I don’t mind at all when people in my life ask me for help with their stuff, but that only works as long as everyone understands that a request is not an order and that gifts are voluntary. For real, the quickest way to make everyone you know go “fuck you and your cause” is to act like they are obligated to give. I also think, personally, that bosses should never ask their employees for charitable donations. Get some friends, boss. Get some friends.

3. “If someone with depression apologises for something they did, do u tell them its not their fault?”

Well, maybe it is their fault. Depression dulls and blunts a person’s ability to function within relationships sometimes, but it’s not an excuse for mean behavior, and we are still ultimately responsible for how we treat other people. If you want to say something comforting in response to the apology, howabout “Apology accepted, thank you.

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