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Reader Questions

Once a month I try to answer the things that people typed into search engines to find my blog as if they are questions. It’s an exercise in mixed results.

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Dear Captain,

I have only one sibling, an older brother. He is in his late thirties and still lives with my parents. He’s never lived on his own, whereas I moved out as soon as I could at 18. He has a BA in Accounting, he works full time, he pays rent to my parents and handles his own laundry, etc, but he still has never wanted to move out. My parents have threatened to make him leave in the past, but they’ve never followed through.

He’s always been socially awkward and a loner, and most of our family suspects he has some variety of mental illness/personality disorder/is somewhere on the autistic spectrum/etc, but after one failed try at family therapy when he was four, my parents have never gotten him professional help. My dad has his head in the sand about it, and mom doesn’t know what to do at this late point in Brother’s life. Brother is in complete denial that he could benefit from therapy or medication or even a diagnosis.

Within the past few years, he’s gotten fixated on politics and turned into a walking uber-conservative caricature. Worse than that, he’s become paranoid, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic … the list goes on. He’s not quiet about his beliefs, and he is constantly turning every conversation about the most innocuous subjects into a political rant. He spouts hate and vitriol against liberals and everyone who isn’t like him. He doesn’t listen to dissenting opinions, he talks over everyone all the time, and he gets very upset and ragey very quickly. I am a liberal, and I consider myself a feminist and fairly well-read about social justice issues. I am also bisexual, but not out to my family, and have lots of friends in the LGBT+ community. A lot of what he says is extremely hurtful to me, and it’s very difficult for me to listen to without responding. He often gets angry at me for arguing and then turns things personal and belittles my intelligence and life choices. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship for five years, and being called stupid is one of my buttons. Brother knows this.

Whenever I’m around him, I try very hard not to engage, to just ignore his ranting and remind myself that he has serious mental/emotional issues. But I have trouble even talking about neutral subjects, because he seems hellbent on twisting everything into a politically charged fight. He’ll even interrupt the conversations of others. I have walked away many times. I’ve (mostly) accepted that he doesn’t care about me or my feelings (or is incapable of doing so). He ignores conversational boundaries I’ve tried to set. He never asks about me and my life, nor did he show any concern when I was being abused, even though I tried to reach out to him. I’ve never felt like I had a real brother, just some mean asshole who lives with my parents. This makes me incredibly sad, and I feel guilty whenever I snap and say something back to him.

Do you have any advice on how to handle things better? I want to be a good sister, but I honestly don’t know where to start to help him at this point, especially since he has no respect for me. I would just like to be able to be at their house without feeling so constantly insulted and harassed.

Sincerely,
Stressed Sister

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Hi Cap’n,

A very close friend of mine is starting to drive a bunch of us crazy, and we’re not sure we’re being irrational and bitchy about it. Our friend, J____, is a single mom with a job and does not have a ton of money for babysitters. Nevertheless, for the past 8 years, (since she became a mom) she always seems to find a babysitter to go on dates (usually about once a week) — but never to hang out with us gals. Now, we know it’s normal for gals to blow of gal friends for romance. And we know it’s super important to her to find a beaux. And she’s operating under some constraints that none of us can imagine. Still, it’s always on us to come visit her in her home if we want to see her. Not a problem 8 years ago when we were all in the same neighborhood. But it grows more inconvenient as we grow up and move out the suburbs and away from each other. Meanwhile, she feels lonely and sad when we can’t find the time – and will tell us so.

So – when might it be reasonable, if ever, to call J out on this? When/how can we ask her to get a babysitter just for us? Note – all of us have, fairly regularly, served as (free) babysitters for her so that she can go on dates.

Or is this just too bitchy and insensitive to even bring up?

Thanks,

Worth a Babysitter?

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Captain and Crew,

I’ve been married to a wonderful man for almost 5 years now. He and I have worked hard to have a marriage based on openness and honesty.

We decided fairly early on we weren’t in a hurry to have kids, if ever. We wanted to have time to be just us. Then I had some medical issues which required a snip of the tubes, so it hasn’t even been an issue for many years.

The second question my MIL ever asked me was if I was going to give her grandchildren. To the point she stopped talking to us for a year after the marriage when we told her it wasn’t happening.

My husband has always, always handled her and stood up to her on our (and my) behalf. He’s never tried to make me do what she wants even superficially for “family harmony”.

Adding to the tension is the fact that for ten years her ex husband brutally abused my husband. When my husband finally talked to her about it and asked why she didn’t allow him to live elsewhere, her reply was “I didn’t want to admit I was wrong. I would rather you be abused and hurt than hear ‘I told you so’ from my mother”. She has also Whitewashed the abuse and makes it like they had a Rockwell childhood.

There has been therapy for all of this, don’t worry. And continues to be.

Husband and I are now talking about having kids in the next couple years, especially now that we have found out My body has reversed that surgery all on it’s own (super mutant Fallopian tubes for the win).

We will need to set boundaries, probably All over again. Going into it this is what We would want:

1. She would never be left alone with any of our kids. Ever. She has a history of poor decision making and drug use.

2. We would need to restrict how much time she is visiting for our own sanity, and to be honest, mainly mine.

3. That she will not argue every aspect of our parenting choices.

So when is the best time to establish these? What’s a good script that doesn’t involve my overprotective tendencies an easy out? Can I just hide being pregnant until the kid is like 13?

We are not telling anyone I am fertile again, but we are discussing all of this potential madness.

Thanks for your advice

Not yet a momma but already dreading grandmomma drama

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Hello Captain!

Here’s a few things about me to help you understand my story. I am 23, a virgin, and have never had a romantic relationship with a man besides a date.

A few weeks ago I recently went for a night out drinking with three guys that I work with. One of whom, Greg, I invited along because I’ve had a slowly developing crush on him for the past few months and wanted to hang out with him outside work. The night was fun, but took a different turn than I expected once Greg started getting really drunk. We’d flirted earlier in the night, but once he was drunk he started hitting on another girl, clearly hoping to go home with her. She ended up leaving and when I approached him to say he should get home he asked me if I would go with him and sleep with him. I told him no because he was really drunk, but said I would give him a ride home. On the way he started talking about how it’s better to remain closed off because he’s opened up in relationships and put in a ton of effort and only gotten hurt, but wasn’t sure why he was telling me this because nothing would come of it. When we got to his house he invited me in and we talked for a while before we kissed. We started making out eventually and he asked me to spend the night. I did, but we didn’t have sex. The next morning was awkward, neither one of us saying much, and we agreed to just see each other at work.

The following week we had a discussion about it at his place and he said he didn’t want a relationship. I told him I’d like to get to know him better and to try to be friends and he agreed. We spent the night talking and watching movies and I slept over again, though nothing physical happened. A few days later he sent me a flirty text and we spent the night flirting, agreeing to meet up again. I went over later in the week and we talked, watched movies, made out (I initiated it), and played chess until 5 in the morning and I spent the night again.

This last week we’ve had conversations via text about personal things, getting to know each other. A few days ago we had another work outing at a bar and each of us said how it was a possibility we would go home together again. As we left the bar he texted me to say I should come over if I wanted, so I did. At his place he shared personal things with me and eventually we went to his room. We almost had sex, but I stopped it. He respected my decision, but I think he was upset and we did other stuff (which I enjoyed) without actually having sex. I wanted to have sex with him, but wasn’t sure if I should because we’re not dating and he doesn’t want to date me. He said he hasn’t fooled around with anyone besides me in a year and half, but said that we’re not exclusive, which definitely bothers me.

When I asked him what he would call us he said that we’re friends and that he is someone I can talk to about anything I want if I need to. He did however say that he doesn’t form emotional connections, which is confusing because it seems like that’s what we’ve been doing. I am a major overthinker, something he knows and has been trying to help me with. I struggle with opening up to him because I’m afraid of what he’ll think and he has been really great with trying to let me know I can share things about myself with him. He’s been very open with me.

We’ve left things saying that we’d like to keep doing what we’re doing because it’s fun and he told me I “shouldn’t ruin a good thing with my overthinking.” I want to enjoy this without obsessing about it too much, but I’m not sure how. My questions are:

Should I just relax and enjoy this despite the fact I want it to be something more?
Does Greg seem like a good guy?

Thank you for reading!

Sincerely,
Confused Overthinker

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Hello awesome awkward people!

I’m in a poly relationship, my partner (of four years) has a wife of 20 years (her & I have been really close but have grown more distant the last nine months or so) who has really been struggling the last couple years with what she feels is depression (I’m phrasing it that way because there’s no official diagnosis it’s not to invalidate her). We thought it might have been menopause/hormonal but everything with the docs has checked out. She is seeking finding counseling now but more so because things really got to a crisis level. Her husband gave her an ultimatum to go. He ended up rescinding it but being explicit in things are bad and for his own well being if she doesn’t take getting herself better seriously he’ll have to eventually do what it takes to keep himself healthy.

We typically work very well together and in the 20 years of their open marriage they’ve never had issues like they’re experiencing now. About two years ago there were some serious life stressors (job, money, health etc) and she broke up with a very toxic boyfriend just prior/about this time.

We’re coming out of those things and everything is moving forward and looking so promising but she is struggling. We are working VERY hard to be supportive yet set healthy boundaries.

Through all the transitions and upheavals the last couple years I can’t help feel it has almost been a trigger for a midlife crisis type event for her. There’s no doubt she’s a people pleaser. She’s always happily gone in the direction her husband was going. He’s a strong personality but not manipulative or abusive. His friends have always been her friends, his interest and hobbies became her interest and hobbies. I’ve maintained and continue to cultivate life outside of our relationship and he’s always been 1000% supportive in that. He tries to do so with her but she lacks drive/motivation.

He and I were discussing this, the whys etc and he had a lightbulb moment of she’s such a people pleaser and he doesn’t think she even knows what she wants. Today I’ve done sooooo much reading about P-P and it’s so text book! I’m not going to tell her this is what’s happening but I’m wondering if there are healthy ways to help guide her in exploring this concept. I feel like it’s made doubly tricky because of the P-P attitude. More than anything we want to support her. We really want her to have opinions and to KNOW what SHE wants.

We want her to accept and believe we love her and value her because she’s awesome not because she does everything we’re interested in or that we want to do.

We know that ultimately that is on her to realize that but we would like to be supportive as best we can while maintaining healthy boundaries for everyone.

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The Goat Lady, who sorts my inbox, kindly created a tag called “low intensity” for questions such as these.

Dear Captain,

I am in a fairly recent relationship with a wonderful man I’ve been infatuated with for years (…on and off – we weren’t Firthing!). When we first started dating, I was nervous about a whole host of potential pitfalls (long distance, exes, contracting Oneitis) that delightfully turned out to be illusory, and at this point, we’re comfortable with each other, communicate regularly and openly, and have a lot of fun together.

So, my question is this:

While we’ve been friends for years, this isn’t a BEST Friends Fall in Love Story, and I’m sometimes surprised by how different it is to talk with him than with most of my close friends. Other than the boyfriend, the kinds of friends I stay up all night with are huge readers and unabashed lovers of pop culture, and we love nothing more than to conduct elaborate feminist critiques of Game of Thrones or debate the literary merits of fanfiction. I don’t expect (or want!) my boyfriend and I to like all the same things, and I know we’re still in the process of figuring out what we like to talk about when the “how was your day”s are done. And to be fair, he’s offered some pretty interesting feminist critique of Game of Thrones himself, but such discussions don’t seem to fascinate him in the way that I’m used to, with each of us tumbling out thoughts faster than we can speak and getting caught up in the joy of endless critical analysis. So even when we DO like the same things, I don’t know that we like to talk about them in the same way.

Since there’s the whole “I’ve been infatuated with him for years” thing going on, I can’t tell if this is something we’ll probably get past as we recognize not just the WHATs but the WAYs we like to talk about things, or if it’s a bigger problem of mismatched perspectives and ways of engaging that I’m choosing to ignore because LOVE.

How important is a similar conversational dynamic to happy, healthy relationships? I am currently very happy and in love, and I love that we have comfortable silences as well as witty repartee, but I’m constantly taken aback when conversations I expect to last ages seem over quite suddenly and would love to hear your thoughts on the role this plays in life/love/etc.

Thank you,
Not Awkward, Still Silence

Dear Not Awkward,

I don’t know what to tell you. Some possible explanations for what you are experiencing:

1) Your Jerkbrain, unused to contentment, is looking for something to worry about and has decided that this is it.

2) The years-long fantasy of this dude was better/more interesting than the reality of life with this dude, who is kind of boring when you get right down to it.

3) In long-distance relationships you can’t really coast on proximity, so the quality/quantity of conversation is looming larger as a factor as you try to find an equilibrium.

Since things are good, why not keep enjoying yourself and let time sort it out?

Hi, Captain!

Not a huge crisis, but I wonder about your perspective on an etiquette issue.

I have a lovely set of in-laws who are chronically, perpetually, and often extremely late. This is a huge pet peeve of mine, as I see arriving promptly to be a matter of respect, and I function exponentially better when my life is carefully scheduled. This is annoying enough when they are late on me. But my question is when we have a plan as a group and there is a danger of them making me late.

We have a family event coming up soon, where my husband and I will be staying with them for a period and attending a series of events in their company. I dread the idea of arriving continually ten minutes, thirty minutes, an hour late to the people who are expecting us, and to events I am looking forward to. I worry that being too insistent on timetables and getting after them too much to keep moving will make them think I’m a nag, or too controlling. Do you think it would be okay if, when the appointed time to leave has past, I cheerfully tell them that Husband and I are heading out and will meet them there when they arrive? Or do you have a better idea to keep to a respectable time table without coming off as rude or inflexible?

Thanks!

- Early bird

Dear Early Bird,

You nailed it when you suggested that you and your husband should make your own way to these events. Treat that like it’s Plan A, not a sacrifice you are making because of their lateness. Only mention your plans when you have your coats on, your keys in your hand, and are heading out the door – you’re informing them of the plan, not discussing or negotiating it. If you need some handy excuses, try: “We want to get there early/make a stop on the way/we might want to stay longer/leave sooner than you/we’d just rather take separate cars, thanks” and keep your tone friendly and light as you glide out the door.

Everyone in their extended family knows exactly how they are, you know how they are, your husband knows how they are, and I’m pretty sure they know how they are. They are of an age to have raised an adult child and are not suddenly going to change their habits. This is one of those times where you have the chance to just do what you need to do with the least amount of friction possible, so take the easy way!

Moderation Note: Thread closed. Turns out that my budget of fucks for reading contentious, self-righteous discussions about lateness and rudeness = zero fucks. 

Dear Captain,

I’m a recent college graduate and was interviewed yesterday on national TV about the field I’ve started working in. The other people on the panel were way more experienced than I, and some of them are are moderately famous. The program wanted a young voice/perspective, and I was so honored to be asked to do the kind of TV appearance a more senior colleague would normally do. I was also a little terrified and worked really hard to prepare.

The interview went great, and I left the studio walking on air. I felt I came across as confident and informed and that I had represented my employer, my field, and my generation (corny as it sounds) extremely well. I’ve never been so proud.

Then the interview aired and I stared horrified at my screen as my eyes narrowed in on the noticeable sweat marks under my arms. I can’t help but feel that what should have been such a professional joy is ruined by… armpit sweat. I feel so stupid for wearing a color that really showed it. Rookie wardrobe mistake. Rookie, sweat-inducing nerves.

The interview aired at a time most people I know were at work, but it can be streamed online starting today. Now I have a long list of proud friends, family, and former professors/mentors who are expecting a link to the online clip. My grad school program wants to share it on their social media account. I’m so embarrassed at the idea of all these people seeing it. I didn’t tell my parents I would be interviewed, because I wanted to surprise them with a link to the clip in clever email (note to self: not everything has to be clever). Now I’m just dreading my mother’s comments about what a shame it is I didn’t wear a darker color. Surely I’m not the first person this has happened to, but I also can’t recall having ever seen armpit sweat on TV, so part of me is also convinced that this was a uniquely stupid thing to let happen.

I’m also beating myself up for being so obsessed with my appearance and not able to get past it to be proud of my ideas and composure. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? How can I convince myself that my professional awesomeness trumps my sweatiness? How can I get past the feeling that the interview is ruined or somehow embarrassing and send it to friends and with pride?

Smart and Sweaty

Dear Smart & Sweaty,

The interview is done, and the clip is out on the internet now, and it can’t be undone or taken back. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t make reassuring “it’s not that bad!” noises your way, but I suggest that you show it to a trusted friend or mentor without mentioning the stains and see what they say. We all search our own appearances for flaws in a way that most other people do not.

I think you should share it and encourage others to share it without commenting on the stains at all and focus only on the content of the work. If anyone brings up the stains, a) that’s a pretty weird, rude thing for them to do, and b) I think you will feel much better if you find a way to play it off if it happens. “Wow, thanks for noticing! I was worried no one had.” “Would you call it a stain, or more of a river?” “Next time I’m going to wear that old bridesmaid’s dress, so that the stains really pop against the seafoam organza!’ “Yeah, thanks for pointing that out, Mom.” 

You have nothing to apologize for. You didn’t know it would happen. Your words were still your words. TV lights are hot. Sweat happens, you are a human being with glands. People who go on camera for a living have teams of paid professionals helping them look perfect. I feel gross for linking to this listicle on Celebrity Sweat Incidents especially since the tone is “they should take better care of this issue,” but I want you to have some visual aids that show that even people with tons of camera experience and teams of staff devoted to how they look are human and have glands. I also found this media training PDF for how to prepare yourself for a TV appearance from the University of New Haven that has, literally 100 separate tips for how to look and behave during a TV interview. I don’t want to panic you further by making you memorize 100 new things you should have done, but the takeaway is: Being comfortable on camera is complex and there is a learning curve to doing it.

Please stop beating yourself up! I suggest that you do some more TV appearances as soon as humanly possible. The more you appear on camera, the better you will get at it, the more variety of clips there will be, and the more you will become recognized as an authority who can handle themselves on camera. Please do not let this one quirk of biology shame you out of the excellent career you just beginning.

Dear Captain Awkward,

So yes, this is a happy problem. You’ve written well on work matters in the past, so I’m hoping you can help with this.

I have spent a few years in a frustrating job/environment, but started an excellent new job about three months ago. I am now a senior manager, with only two people above me in my specialism – the Exec Director, and the Deputy Director who is my line manager.

The job has been full on from the start, but I’m really enjoying the new opportunities and the trust, and as far as I can tell I’ve done well so far.

However, I just found something out which has thrown me slightly.

I thought I was one of four equal senior managers, with the others having more time in post. But this turns out not to be the case. Both of the Directors have told me that I am third in command, and that they appointed me with the intention of grooming me for the Deputy Director job in a few years. I can have (nearly) any training I want.

Woohoo, yes? And part of me really wants it, but part of me is petrified with the fear of failure. I am a nerdy/dorky/socially awkward woman – (still with substantial privilege, cis and white, and I read as upper middle class despite having grown up very poor). I have worked hard on the social awkwardness but it is still A Thing, and I have low confidence in my ability to be socially smooth. And the previous frustrating job has knocked my work confidence.

Social smoothness, and leadership skills, negotiation and influencing, and change management and all that stuff, are more and more important in the senior jobs. That’s what I need to learn in the next few years.

But how? I can do the technical part of my job, and standard line management, but….?

I am pleased they see potential in me, but I don’t see it myself. How do I avoid holding myself back?

How do I learn something so nebulous? How do I know if I’m getting better at them? How do I learn to get over my awkwardness and my assumptions that I am crap at these things? How do I develop a model of myself as a (nerdy, female) leader?

I don’t even have the tools to start to learn, or know what to look for in myself.

Please help!

Signed,
Not A Leader

Dear Not A Leader,

You’re familiar with Impostor Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Good.

Your mentors have offered you training, which is wonderful, because it demonstrates that:

1) They don’t expect you to already be an expert in leadership/communications/management, etc.

2) They recognize that these are important skills unto themselves in addition to the technical competencies you possess.

3) They are building in time and a budget for you to level up these skills so that you will be ready when the time comes.

In other good news, there is training out there to be had. Since I don’t know exactly where you are, I did a Google search on “professional communications management training” to give you an idea of what kinds of things might be available.

You could study online (though I think you might find this very basic).

Harvard University has a ton of continuing education-type courses and seminars in the very subjects you want to learn, with titles like “Advanced Executive Communication Skills,” “Communicating With Influence: The Art of Persuasion,” “Cultural Competence for the Global Workplace,” etc. What’s the fanciest pantsiest business school closest to you, and do they offer such things? There’s no reason not to make this both a learning and a professional networking experience and get something shiny for your resume. There are tons of non-university affiliated training organizations that do this sort of thing, too, at every intensity and budget level. In addition, you could ask your mentors if they’ve ever taken courses that they think were particularly helpful in developing their management skills.

Conclusion: You’ve got this and you’re going to do great. This also seems like a good idea to watch & read a lot of epic sci-fi and fantasy stories where humble people who are convinced that they are not leaders become leaders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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