Short(er) Answer Monday

Michael Scott saying "That's what she said!"
The wrong kind of confidence.

Here are two questions that are both kind of about confidence.

Question #125: How do I regain my confidence?

Dear Captain Awkward

I’m a 25 year old who is at university for the first time in her life after making not the best choices as a teenager.
I have been there for 2 and a half years now and for the most part I have been doing pretty well, but recently I had to do a prac for my degree, and it went terribly, which I’d blame 50% of on a huge personality clash with the Mentor Teacher.

I am redoing the prac soon, so thats terrifying enough, but I have lost all my previous confidence in my student skills, I drag my heels on assignments, find it increasingly difficult to go to class and in general just feel really down on myself. I worked really hard to get up my confidence in going to uni as I have a minor learning disability (developmental dyspraxia) that can affect my work. but all that self talk I did to get myself there in the first place just feels really useless now. I’d really like your help in becoming confident again.

Wants To Finish Uni before She’s Thirty

Dear Wants to Finish:

I’m sorry you are going through this. I think it is very common for university students to hit a wall at some point during their education.  Some have it early, as they struggle to adapt to the college workload and the freedom of being away from home and having to create their own structure.  Some have it the closer they get to graduation, as worries about jobs turn into panic about jobs.  You’re having it smack in the middle – you’ve done well and survived so far, so now you know enough to be dangerous and to realize how much you still don’t know. I know it feels horrible, and it is horrible, but I want to tell you:   This is normal.  You are right on schedule.  It will be genuinely horrible for a while, but then it will pass. I’m not telling you this to belittle what you are suffering, I’m telling you this because every single person who works at your university has seen this before (and most likely experienced it themselves), and there are a lot of resources in place to help you deal with it.

I teach first year film students, who have a pretty serious workload.  I went to fancy book-reading and paper-writing university for undergrad, and NOTHING I had to do in four years there is as hard as what my freshmen have to pull off, especially in their second semester.  Most of them have some kind of slump during that first year, and sometimes they completely tank a project as a result. However, most of them do not fail the course and go on to be just fine.

The ability to bounce back from failure is an extremely important one.  You can’t develop it if you never fail at anything. School is a controlled environment where you are given discrete, regular challenges. You will succeed wildly at some and do not so well at others.  This is a normal part of learning. It means you are stretching yourself by attempting things that are out of your comfort zone. It may take a couple of tries to get it right.

Here’s what I suggest you do right now:

  • Failing the practical exam and getting to take it over again is okay. You now know exactly what to expect, yes?  Sit down with a notebook and a pen and write down everything you were expected to do during the exam. Make yourself a plan to study for it.  Is it possible for you to practice all the things you need to do during the exam ahead of time?
  • Is there material on the exam that you just don’t know or understand?  Re-do any reading, talk to your fellow students (maybe find a study partner?), and ask your teacher to walk you through that material again.
  • Close your eyes and visualize yourself doing every step of the exam correctly.
  • Get yourself to your university’s counseling office post-haste.  Talk to them about your problems with your Mentor Teacher and ask for strategies for working things out.  Talk to them about stress, anxiety, managing your learning disability (do you need a tune-up of strategies you use to manage it?) and imposter syndrome.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, enough exercise, and good food.  Take frequent study breaks and walks to clear your head. Ease off of alcohol and caffeine (coffee is awesome, but when you’re on edge it can make you jittery, so save it for when you need it).
  • Communicate with your teachers about what’s going on. “I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately, can we talk through the assignments again?”  Try to stay on top of your deadlines, even if the work you’re handing in is not perfect.  You’ll feel better if you’re meeting your obligations and not falling further behind.  Keep going to class!

It may look like you are surrounded by gorgeous, perfect, happy, rich, A-students who are flying through their university careers while you drag, weighed down by your past and your struggles with learning. This is an incomplete picture.  Nearly all of your fellow students are just as anxious about something as you are. For two years, you have been doing pretty well!  You say so in your letter!  Whatever grit and skills and knowledge allowed you to do well for two years will get you through the next two. Dig in and take really good care of yourself.

Question #126:  Friendship, Jokes, and Boundaries

Hi Captain Awkward!

This is a question about my friends. Two of them are dating each other; let’s call them Fred and Jen. We are all university students, ages 19-21, and they have been dating for about a year and a half total, with a several month period in the middle where they broke up temporarily.

Anyway, Fred is a bit of a joker. He’s actually quite funny, and very outgoing. He makes a lot of friends with his jokes and light-hearted nature. However, sometimes he goes a bit too far. This wouldn’t be such a problem if he didn’t respond so negatively to anybody trying to say something about it. His jokes have sometimes offended me and Jen in the past, but if anybody ever tries to say anything about it, he gets really defensive. Quite a while ago, he made a joke about Jen being unnattractive compared to a certain celebrity and his electronics. He obviously meant it as a joke, but it was way over the line, and very offensive and demeaning to her. I wasn’t there the first time he made the joke, but apparently nobody laughed, until somebody awkwardly changed the subject. However, he was very proud of this joke, and repeated it to me later that same day. I didn’t laugh, and said “That’s not funny. If I were Jen, I would be mad. You need to apologize to her.” He got upset, acting like it was hurtful to him for me to say that, or like I didn’t have a sense of humour. He then continued to repeat the joke to other people as if he still thought it was funny, even though nobody responded to it positively. This was a long time ago, but I just wanted to give it as an example of the way he’s dealt with this kind of situation in the past.

Earlier this week, he posted a rather explicitly sexual joke about me publicly to Facebook. It made me rather uncomfortable, and I considered saying something to him, but then I couldn’t find it again on my newsfeed and thought he might have deleted it. I found out today that he did not actually delete it, and Jen had seen it and told him that it upset her. I didn’t hear their conversation, but she says that he was extremely defensive, and told her that he was sure I was okay with the joke, and that she was being too conservative and jealous about it. She didn’t know that I wasn’t okay with it until after speaking to him, so she backed off, and he never took down the joke. Now that I’ve discovered that it’s still on Facebook, and that Jen is uncomfortable with it as well, I’m wondering what I should do, and what she should do. She wants to talk to him about it, because it still upsets her, but she’s afraid that no matter how she brings it up, he will be defensive and angry. Even if she mentions that other people find it offensive too (I’ve also found out that both my boyfriend and another one of our friends were offended by it) she thinks he will feel as if the whole world is out to get him, and continue to think his joke is funny. Based on his previous reactions to this kind of thing, I find this completely plausible. So I’m not sure if I should say anything to him or not, or whether I should let them work it out between them. I think she’s leaning towards not saying anything about it right now, but I think this kind of situation is going to keep popping up, and I don’t know how either of us should deal with it in the future. 

Thanks for any advice!
Trying to be a Good Friend

Dear Good Friend:

It seems to me that when Fred makes an offensive joke, he’s trained you all (by his petulant and pouty responses) to talk to each other and try to find some consensus about whether the joke was “really” offensive before you say anything to him. My advice to you is to stop looking for a consensus from Jen, your boyfriend, your other friends, etc.  about whether something offends to them or how it will affect their relationship(s).  “We’ve all talked about this and everyone agrees with me!” is guaranteed to provoke a defensive response from anyone, because it becomes a conversation about who said what vs. That Offensive Joke You Told.

Find that joke on your Facebook newsfeed.  Either respond publicly to the thread with “Wow. Repulsive much?” or send him a note that says “Can you please delete that completely repulsive joke about me from your feed? Thanks.

If he lectures you about how it is really funny and you shouldn’t be so sensitive, just hold the line. “Yeah, I’d still like you to delete it, thanks.” “Ok, sure, please delete it now.” Don’t engage with the question of “Is it funny?” at all.  Who cares?  It made you feel gross and unhappy and he should delete it.  The correct response from him is to say “Ok, sorry,” and then delete it.

You may not convince him that he is unfunny. He may continue to act like a tool (He sounds like a tool). But the first step in having conflict is generally to tell the person who is bugging you to knock off whatever it is, swiftly and directly.  No need to convene the Friend Council. Have the confidence to know that if something is not okay for you, that’s enough of a reason to speak up.

It may indeed create friction in his relationship with Jen, because when your boyfriend acts like a tool and is told directly to stop doing that and then he keeps doing it and turns it into a tantrum about how he is funny and people who don’t get that are “too sensitive” and need to “lighten up” it’s hard to keep dating That Guy. Hopefully he is a good guy with some tool-ish tendencies that will be nipped in the bud before they grow into horrible, blooming Michael Scott Tool Flowers.

9 thoughts on “Short(er) Answer Monday

  1. Ugh. I hate it when people go over the line and then try to turn it around on you when you tell them they hurt you. I’m glad that your whole group of friends don’t laugh at his offensive jokes or excuse them. However, the next time he goes off in a snit about how humorless or uptight you are, tell him that a) your not finding his joke funny isn’t a reflection on your sense of humor and b) his insistence on attacking you when you point out that he’s hurt you is a reflection of his friendship.

    I’d limit contact with him–defriend him on FB, etc. Don’t forgo your relationships with your mutual friends, since they don’t give him a pass, but don’t be afraid to hold him accountable for acting like a tool in front of them. If they see you doing it, they may feel emboldened to do it as well, and then Fred will have to grow up or at least shut up.

  2. Good Friend: do everything Captain Awkward says, except don’t post a public comment in response to the joke. That just gives Fred an incentive not to lose face by backing down and an opportunity to look for audience support and to get more attention (which is what most jokesters really want). The last thing you want — and because it’s Facebook, it’s likely to happen — is to post a comment saying you think the joke was repulsive and then have a public referendum in which all of Fred’s friends chime in to either say they think the joke is hilarious and you should lighten up or that they thought the joke was over the line and that he should take it down.

    1. Yeah, the more I think about this, the more a direct “Please remove it” message is the way to go, rather than an Attention-fest.

    2. Yeah, I actually just saw something like this go down on a FB group yesterday– a public referendum (excellent phrasing) between one guy and his friends versus everybody else over whether the guy’s increasingly offtopic posts were spam or not. Better the private message.

  3. The second letter follows a trend of a lot of the letters you get, and I think the generalization to be drawn from your responses (and from my experiences with these sorts of situations) is that it’s important to train yourself not to care if certain people like you. Be willing to be seen as a bitch. As women, we’re socialized not to call people out on their shit, and it takes work to get to a place where we can do that, but it’s work that’s worth doing.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t care if *anyone* likes you, of course you should, but when someone has shown a repeated willingness to be hurtful, you have to be willing to risk losing their good opinion. Standing up to them might end well, in that you get through to them and you stay friends, but it might not. And you need to be willing to take that risk because, honestly, if they won’t stop being a dick to you, how much is their friendship really worth?

    I learned how unwilling some people are to take this risk when I watched the dynamics play out in an old group of friends I had in another city. For the most part the people in this (large) group were awesome, but there were three or four guys who just WOULD NOT TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER. They would push and push sexually. Claims of “I’m monogamous now,” or “I’m not really comfortable with this,” would fall on deaf ears, or be met with arguments about how sex with them was an exception to whatever the woman’s objection was. They would give pushy massages. They would cuddle invasively. I even saw a girl leave a party early and spend half an hour waiting for her boyfriend on the porch just to get away from one of these guys. No one in the group was willing to say anything to them about this behaviour, partly because of the Geek Social Fallacies, and partly because “we’re old friends and I don’t want him to stop liking me.” Fuck that.

    Once I realized how unwilling to respect boundaries these dudes were, I instituted an immediate rule that they didn’t get to touch me. At all. Not even a handshake. If they were going to cross the line, I was going to set that line as far out as possible. I also called them on their consent-confusion when I could do so without making some poor target’s situation worse. This led to a couple shouting matches. At least one of the guys decided I was a completely unreasonable feminazi and we’ve been giving off mutual-dislike vibes every time we see each other ever since. You know what? Totally worth it. I go out of my way not to include our mutual friends in our disagreements and it’s not like I need this tool to approve of me anyway. And if he thinks I’m a bitch, well, that means he’s not interested in hitting on me. Win-win!

    Be the bitch. Get called a bitch. Life goes on.

    1. You make great points. Part of learning to be a functional adult is learning how to set boundaries. One side-effect of setting boundaries is learning to live with conflict and the dislike of others, and realizing that it’s not your job to manage other people’s negative feelings about you or to live your life so that no one will ever have negative feelings about you.

      A lot of conflict gets dismissed as “drama,” like “I don’t want to speak up because I don’t want to create drama.” That’s a nice succinct description of what drama is (in the storytelling sense) – you can’t have drama without conflict. Conflict comes when two characters want different things and clash in going after those things. “I want you to stop making gross jokes about me when I ask you not to.” vs. “I want to make jokes without worrying that I’ll ever be called to defend anything about them, and if you ask me to stop I will get mad and make you sorry that you did” are two opposing desires.

      So, people who don’t want to “create drama” talk themselves out of their own feelings and wants, or they talk themselves (and each other) out of speaking up about those wants, and then they let crappy people steamroll them. Which becomes a recipe for a different kind of drama – lots of passive-aggressive side-bar conversations, backchannel emails, avoiding things you want to go to, hurt feelings, flouncing, wondering why people can’t take hints and keep acting so crappily, spreading the conflict throughout the friend group and making people take sides, until you either explode or completely flee the relationship/situation.

      So many movies are about reluctant protagonists who do everything they can to avoid a fight, while the script keeps pushing on them and forcing them into a corner so they will have to fight (address their central problem directly instead of avoiding it). Once they do, the problem is brought into the open and resolved (for good or ill), and the protagonist grows in the process.

      I’m not immune to the temptation to lie low and avoid stuff until it becomes a crisis, but one of the whole reasons I started this blog was because I think that learning how to speak up directly and advocate for yourself is an important skill that can be learned. What causes less “drama” – shutting your mouth and then stewing about something for the next 6 months or just saying “Yeah, that’s not funny” or “Please don’t touch me, I don’t like that” or “Stop asking me to have sex with you – I’ve told you no, and the fact that you keep asking tells me that you have trouble hearing ‘no’ is a signal that you are unsafe as a sex partner” and letting the fallout happen in the open where you can see it and deal with it? It’s not perfect, and sometimes people will react in a bad way, but if you can get in the habit of speaking up for yourself over time it results in better treatment and more respect from others.

      We get into a lot of discussions about gender here, because women are taught to swallow their feelings and privilege the feelings of other people, but I think this reluctance to speak up and risk “drama” is also a problem for men (especially young, Gen Y men, who make up a lot of my students so I hang out with them often and get to see a lot of the stuff they go through and think about). Conflict is healthy. Pissing someone off (or being pissed off) is not the end of a strong, healthy friendship or relationship.

  4. Wants to finish:

    I’m a returning college student, too! I went back in 2009 as a 25-year-old who dropped out, bad choices, etc, and now I am 28 and having my freakout time because I powered through and powered through and now it’s the end of my junior year and my second semester at Small And Serious College and juggling work and school and home life has been overwhelming and there have been some crises and I really hate my job and oh my god I almost dropped out this semester because I keep thinking how I’m too stupid and I’ll never get a job in my field anyway so why bother etc etc

    But then I remember why I went back to school, which is not just that I wanted a job, but that working in restaurants wasn’t stimulating enough and my mind was thirsty for knowledge! And if I am feeling stressed and tired and thinking a lot it is because I am learning a lot and being challenged, which is a good thing!

    So hey, don’t give up, and I won’t give up, and we do belong at college! And if you get discouraged by the polished, posh 20-year-olds surrounding you, just remind yourself you have more life experience than they do. 🙂

  5. Wants to Finish: I notice that you led with your age. Please don’t feel self-conscious because you started later than the average freshman. You’re allowed to start later. And 25 is so, so much younger than you think it is. Trust me on this.

    I’ve got nothing for Good Friend that Captain Awkward and the Awkward Chorus haven’t already said, but on a related note, I’ll take this opportunity to express a little gratitude. Recently I was in a situation where someone made me uncomfortable, but not on purpose, didn’t really do anything wrong, best of intentions, etc. I fretted about what to do, and how to act so this didn’t happen again. Then I thought of, like, almost every letter that gets posted here, and how just about every answer can be summed up, “Use your words.” So I did. It was awkward, but it didn’t kill either of us, and soon we moved on to happier topics. Thanks, Captain Awkward, for giving me the push I needed to be a grown-up.

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