This is the last day of the Summer Pledge Drive, where I post the links for making a (non-tax deductible) gift through PayPal or via Dwolla. Your generosity so far has been amazing and I am so humbled and pleased with the outpouring of support. A new computer will be within reach when this one goes. I will be able to pay down some debt and have a little bit of an emergency fund. And, I bought a ticket to see Janelle Monae at the Vic on October 21. Yes, YOU made it possible for me to see my dream show with my dream artist. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
These two letters are representative of many I have gotten in the inbox over the past few years, and I think a lot of you will recognize yourselves somewhere in here. I think I finally have a way to frame this discussion that is maximally reassuring and honest. Please allow me to suggest some background reading before you dive into this post: The Dirty Normal on Attachment Styles.
I have a male co-worker who I am friends with outside of work. A few months ago, his wife’s work schedule changed and since then my husband and I have been hanging out with my co-worker and his wife “Clara” frequently. I like them and they’re good people, but his wife is the kind of person I enjoy best in small doses; I am shy and reserved, she is very outgoing and can be overbearing.
Lately Clara has been inviting me to do stuff with her 2 or 3 times every week. Usually it’s a 6+ hour event with a group of 3 other girls. She frequently talks about how close we are and how great it is that we’re such good girlfriends. The thing is we’re not that close yet. We’ve only been hanging out for a few months and I actually am much better friends with their husbands & boyfriends, all of whom are my co-workers (I work a heavily male-dominated engineering field).
I do like these girls, I appreciate being included in these plans, but it’s just too much! So, I’ve started to decline every third invitation or so. The problem is, Clara bends over backwards to accommodate me. If I say I can’t make it, she’ll suggest 3 other days. When I decline those, she’ll try to squeeze the event in between my morning rock climbing club meetup and my date night, for example. I find this very stressful because she obviously is trying hard to include me and I end up having to refuse the same invitation 4 times! I can tell it hurts her feelings when this happens.
I’m not sure how to handle this. I definitely want to cultivate more female friendships in my life, but I feel like I’m being forced into some kind of weird Sex In The City fantasy of Clara’s instead of the more casual way I prefer friendships to form, where different people make the plans every time instead of one person being the Designated Event Coordinator.
How can I kindly get Clara to back off a bit without burning bridges?
I’m Not Carrie Bradshaw
Dear Not Carrie:
This is a “classic” advice question that perfectly fits the paradigm of many questions we have around here:
Dear Captain Awkward:A person is making me uncomfortable and doing stuff that violates my boundaries.How do I stop them without hurting their feelings or making them feel uncomfortable?
And you guys are all so nice, and kind, and considerate, and working so hard to be fair to the other person! But the fact remains, if the behavior is making you uncomfortable, things are already uncomfortable. Often to the point that you might have to scorch the earth of the relationship if whatever it is keeps continuing, but you’re still looking for a way to let the other person down easy. There is a perception that speaking up for boundaries is somehow introducing conflict into a situation, or at very least, escalating it in an unkind way, like, everything was fine until you spoke up for your needs and now you made it weird.
So I’d like to perform a bit of a mind flip.
- When your shoulders are going up around your ears…
- When you are spending a lot of time strategizing about how you deal with a person. “I will accept every third invitation…“
- When you are avoiding someone you are theoretically supposed to be friendly with…
…things are already uncomfortable enough to speak up about them.
- NOT speaking up is not making the situation better, it’s just giving the other person more license to operate and even to try harder or communicating that you are okay with the behavior. There is no prize for being the world’s most stoic and accommodating person.
- A friendship that cannot survive a the momentary discomfort of you standing up for your needs is not actually a friendship worth holding onto.
- Nobody loves being told that they are screwing up, obviously, but if you don’t have the ability to ever take any negative feedback along the lines of “Hey, could you not do that one thing anymore, thanks?” from a friend, YOU are the problem. When told that they are stepping on someone’s foot, good adult people will apologize and get off the foot and not perpetuate a FEELINGSDUMP about their need to really stand on feet sometimes.
- Communicating “Hey, that’s where my boundary is, thanks” IS KINDNESS. It is giving the other person the tools they need to be in a good relationship with you.
So, I really feel for Clara. She is trying hard to be your friend and make sure you are included, and I am sure that everything she is doing is meant with great affection for you, and this is what it means to her to be a good friend. But friendships can’t be achieved through diligent effort; there has to be a spark, and there has to be reciprocity. One place she is fucking up is not the desire to be your friend, or even the inviting you places, it’s that she’s not waiting for reciprocity. She’s not trusting herself or you or this friendship you might have to actually turn into a thing, so she’s trying to force it. And once she’s hung so much effort out there, she is NOT going to appreciate anything that looks like rejection. We’ve talked about “favor sharking,” or “kindness sharking” on the blog before, where a person does you a favor or a kindness you don’t really want and then feels “owed” a kindness in return. It’s a manipulative behavior, even when done unconsciously, which might be one of the reasons your back is up about this whole thing.
I am operating from the assumption that you would like to remain on friendly terms with Clara while decreasing the expectations that you’ll socialize so often. You are always free to distance yourself entirely! But if you want to try resetting the relationship to a more chill level, several tactics come to mind.
One, be less detailed when turning down an invitation. If when you decline a thing right now you are telling her the reason you can’t be there, stop doing that.
Before: Sorry, I’d love to, but I have rock climbing that day. Maybe next time.
- Sorry, can’t make it, but have a great time!
- No thanks, but have a great time!
- Won’t be there, but drink one for me!
She is seeing the reason/alternate commitment as an opening to negotiate a different time, like, you WOULD be there if only you didn’t have this other commitment. So the problem is one of scheduling, and if she can solve that, y’all can hang out!
The real reason is that you don’t want to go. Since you don’t have to give a reason, don’t give one. You may have to repeat “Can’t make it” several times, and add in a “Hey, I’ll let you know when my schedule opens up and we can plan something else!” but do not give an actual reason. Reasons, to Clara, are reasons to negotiate. She is not picking up on the “soft refusal,” so it’s time to try plain old refusal.
Two, take a break from all socializing with her for a few weeks, and tell her why. Well, tell her a truthful variation on why.
“I am feeling a little over-scheduled right now and need to take a break from making social plans. Can I call you in a couple of weeks when I am more in a hanging-out mood?“
This is not a lie, it is just a truth that puts your needs at the center. “Clara, you’re doing it wrong” is not going to be received well. But “Clara, I need x” is hard to refute.
Hopefully for those weeks she will back off and give you some space. It might take a little bit of time for her to readjust, so be prepared to say “Thank you so much, but I’m still flying solo” when the inevitable invite comes in. You’re teaching her to take no for an answer and you’re giving yourself some space from her expectations.
Three, if you actually want to be friendly, initiate some plans with her & the other women.
COUNTER-INTUITIVE, I KNOW.
Right now the dynamic is that Clara chases, you run. Reciprocity isn’t even really possible, because you don’t have a chance to invite her anywhere. Show her that you like her. Show her that she doesn’t have to chase you so hard. Show her what a fun event for you looks like (not six hours long, not on a weekday, maybe co-ed in some way, something you like doing). “I can’t make Tuesday, but next week I am taking kayaking lessons/want to try this new place for brunch/am going to see Stories We Tell, want to come along?“
Four, once you are hanging out again, if you feel like you can be friendly on some level, even if that’s a relatively small doses level, talk to her about your needs and how she is making you feel.
There is a way to frame this around your own needs in a friendship rather than as a critique of her. “Clara, your invitations are so kind, especially after a Day of the Dudes at work. But I am introverted and need a lot of alone time and solitude, and spending time together 2-3 times/week is just too much for my schedule and energy level. When I turn down an invitation, it’s not because I don’t like you guys, it’s because I really need some time to recharge and do my own thing. I hope you understand.”
If you want to bring up the way she is pressuring you, you can do that gently and honestly as well. “So when I say I can’t come to something, it would help if you wouldn’t try to reschedule it around me. Just hang out as you planned, have a good time, and I’ll catch up with you next time. Otherwise I feel pressured to say yes, but then am kicking myself the next day if I don’t get (my workout)(alone-time)(creative project) in.”
See also: “I love Girls’ Night, but that’s more of a 2x/month thing for me.“
And the best of all relationship negotiating techniques: “In a perfect world, where this works exactly how you want it to, what does that look like?”
She tells you.
You tell what your ideal picture is.
You meet in the middle, if you can.
As an introvert, you really are trying to budget your social units here, so this is not being mean to her, this is you taking care of yourself and giving her a tutorial in how to be a friend to you. I hope she listens and takes it in, so that you can have an authentic relationship.
My other advice, is:
a) Let the “but we are such close friends!” comments pass without comment for now. This is one of those “time will tell” situations. If you find some kind of pattern of socializing that works for you I think she will ease off and stop trying so hard about this. You can always disengage if you find out that you have really, really different expectations of a friendship or find that you really don’t like her- for now, we’re taking it easy and leaving all options open.
b) Do not make your coworker the middleman. If you pull back from Clara, she might enlist him as the Clara Ambassador, but keep dealing with her directly and don’t use him to carry your discomfort to her. As far as I’d go is: “I really like hanging out with you and your wife, and she’s been so welcoming to me. I just can’t hang out as often as she & the other women get together.” Treat it like not a big deal and hopefully it won’t be a big deal.
Once you’ve spoken up for your needs as directly, honestly, and kindly as you can, Clara’s feelings about the state of your friendship are hers to deal with. You cannot take away or manage whatever rejection she might be feeling or whatever hopes she had for what your friendship would be, so please let that go.
Now let’s visit the other side of the coin.
I’m struggling with communication issues. I have social anxiety, which I’m working on with a counselor, but she isn’t the best at giving me concrete scripts for communicating my needs to people. The problem is, I have a hard time distinguishing flakiness from actual busyness, and I tend to feel (probably?) disproportionately upset when someone cancels plans with me – then I don’t know what to say to them when they do.
I am not a busy person, and I arrange my life that way. I’m happiest with lots of free time, and I don’t have any major caretaking responsibilities. So I very rarely have to cancel plans for unavoidable life reasons; and additionally, in part because of my anxiety, I tend to prioritize the few friendships and relationships I do have very highly. When people cancel on me, I struggle because I can’t come up with reasons from my own experience that I would do the same. (I get it if their dog/baby is sick or they got called into work, of course.) I tend to panic and assume it’s either the start of a Slow Fade or an Abrupt End, and then I don’t want to say anything to express my disappointment for fear of coming off as needy or controlling of their time. Even though I’m not needy or controlling and I rarely ask anyone to spend more than 2 days a week with me.
The crux of all this is that I end up feeling powerless in most of my relationships. Everyone is busier than I am, and they all tend to keep me waiting around for confirmations of plans. I don’t know how to speak up unless I’m very close to the person in question, and so I worry this is poisoning new relationships because I’m feeling resentful and anxious and unable to communicate these feelings. How do I let someone know that I’m not 100% okay with them cancelling on me (or making me wait for ages for a concrete answer) without coming off like I’m trying to control their time? I don’t want to hold anyone hostage and force them to spend time with me. I just want to feel like I can be assertive and not turn into a doormat, or ask for reassurance if I need it. And how can I tell if someone is just plain unreliable and needs low expectations, or if they are actually trying to see me and life is getting in the way? I’m especially interested to know how to respond to cancellations through text – I feel like the passive-aggressive “Ok” is my go-to, and it’s not helping me at all. How do you respond to that if you don’t have your tone of voice or body language to help?
That is a rough situation to be in, especially with your anxiety telling you lies about worst case scenarios, when really it is just your friends being flaky or cavalier about something that is not cavalier for you.
My first suggestion is to stop saying “okay” when someone breaks plans with you.
- “That really sucks, I was excited to see you!”
- “Man, that’s disappointing news.”
- “Really sorry to hear that. I hope we can reschedule soon.”
- “Sad news. Let’s catch up soon, ok?”
- “Huh. I bought our tickets already, can you reimburse me when you get a sec?”
Or any variation where you actually express your actual feelings about the news that they are cancelling. You don’t have to be okay with it, and you don’t have to pretend you are. You won’t win any friends with sulking & browbeating them, but a short expression of “Wow, that sucks, I was really looking forward to it” is part of you speaking your truth and taking care of yourself.
Now, this is for the Plan Cancelers:
Life happens. I am not going to give you a rudeness lecture. But if you had plans with someone, and you have to cancel, it’s on you to reach out and reschedule something. You can cancel with a text, but if you care about the person, reach out the next day with an email or Social Media message that says “I am really sorry I didn’t get to see you yesterday, can we reschedule for X date?” You will truly be making the world a better place with this small act of kindness and good manners.
My second piece of advice for LW #509 is about resetting expectations about how often you’ll hang out and how you schedule time together. Your expectations and needs might be perfectly reasonable, and I don’t really want to dig into whether they are and what they are. What I do want to say:
Whatever expectations you have about how often you’ll hang out with your friends, they are not matching up with their expectations & availability.
If they were, there wouldn’t be so many cancelled plans. If this were going to work in its current form, it would already be working.
I think what is happening is that these people like you fine and want to spend time together and want to say yes when you set something up, so they do. Then the reality of their lives gets in the way and they can’t follow through, and now it’s become the pattern. This is because your needs & expectations are, for whatever reason, incongruous.
And then when they cancel, you say “okay” and try to set something else up, so the consequences for them cancelling are nonexistent. It becomes not a big deal to cancel, because there will always be another set of plans. This is not your fault, and I don’t want to victim-blame, like somehow you are making this happen, I just want to highlight that from a certain perspective, “Oh, I had to cancel on X, which is sad, but she’s always so cool about it and set something up for next weekend” doesn’t look like a deep incentive to change one’s over-committing/under-attending ways. The bad dynamic is there because they are overextending themselves and then cancelling. You might be inadvertently reinforcing it by being so compassionate and cool when it happens, so try being honest (“That sucks”) and see if it changes.
Here are a couple of different scripts/scenarios for talking about this that you might adapt depending on the friendship and the circumstances.
One tactic, that I do not think you want to hear, but I honestly think it will help, is to schedule things less often with frequent cancelers. If 1-2x a week is just not working out, try once every two weeks. Schedule way in advance, schedule something that is a finite amount of time, schedule something that is easy to fit into a schedule and needs to happen anyway (breakfast, lunch). You will see your friends probably less than you wanted to but might get more of a commitment and more of a chance of finding the sweet spot where expectations match up with reality.
For the parents of young children who may have trouble finding a sitter or achieving escape velocity from the house:
“I’d love to see you this week. Is there a day this week we can order food and watch TV once the kids are in bed?”
You just saved your friend at least $60 in babysitting costs and made it possible to hang out in a way that is easy for them to enjoy. Boyfriend and I are doing this thing where we babysit Chicagoland’s Cutest And Most Logical Baby for a couple hours on a weekend afternoon so the Commander & Husband can get some time out of the house, then we make dinner and all hang out when they get home. We see our busy new parent friends, we do our laundry in their nice washer & dryer, and we get to feel involved in each other’s lives and play Cards Against Humanity on the regular. There are no downsides.
Also, this is a counter-intuitive one, but it may help. I’ve had some friends that are really hard to nail down about plans because they treat all plans as tentative until they are coming right up. So we agree on a date and a time, but the day before I get a “Are we still on?” text which, accurately or not, 50% of the time I read as code for “Oops I may have accidentally forgotten and made other plans.” Or with others, it feels like you are still negotiating what the plans are right up until the day – “Want to get together?” “Sure” “When?” “Tuesdays and Fridays are good.” “Yeah, good for me, too.” + 47 more emails and texts. If your event planning resembles this hilarious piece from my new favorite website, The Toast, try a different way of making plans.
“I want to see X movie at X showtime this weekend. Want to join me, and have dinner beforehand?”
The person will either accept or not. If they have a counter proposal, they will make it. Once the plans are formed, say “Great, it’s in my calendar, see you then.” And don’t negotiate anything else about it. Don’t check and see if you are still on. Don’t constantly text and re-firm up the plans. If they forget, or cancel last minute for a not-emergency, it is okay to be pissed off. “Hey, do what you gotta do, but this information would have been really useful yesterday.”
You might still have some awkward conversations about expectations around time ahead of you. Here are some scripts that might come in handy for those.
- Call out the behavior that is bothering you. “Friend, I really want to see you, but the last three times we’ve made plans you’ve cancelled in the last minute. I know stuff comes up, but it makes me feel crappy to find out at the last minute. Can we find a better way to plan our time together?”
- Give them room & permission to say no. “I would much rather you just tell me ‘no, I can’t make it’ than make plans and cancel.”
- Take the pressure off even further. “It sounds like you are feeling over-committed and over-scheduled. I want to see you, but would it help if we eased off for a while and made plans to catch up in a couple of weeks?”
- Go ahead and ask for reassurance. “When people cancel on me, it really exacerbates my anxiety. If for some reason you do have to cancel, it would help me so much if you reached out the next day with a little reassurance that we’ll hang soon.”
The message that you want to send is “I love you and want to find a way that we don’t lose track of each other, even as our lives accrue more commitments and responsibilities.” You don’t have to hide your anxiety, or your hurt, or your desire to connect more often, or pretend to be cool when you are not cool.
The other thing I suggest is that you schedule some regular social commitments in your free time. Stuff like:
- Book clubs, movie-watching club
One night a week, do something that gets you a) out of the house b) in contact with new people c) trying something new/learning a skill d) where there is some structure to it that makes you interact with others in a low-stakes way. Your goal isn’t necessarily to make new friends, it’s to have some positive human interaction in your life where a victory is “Had a cool conversation about Octavia Butler and Connie Willis with a new person.”
This is a suggestion that gets made a lot here, and I’m not sure I’ve ever fully articulated why, exactly, beyond a strong intuition that it bring some balance & control for people who are feeling lonely. My friends run the Chicago Game Lovers Group, and their events are all about “Hey, new person, come have fun and meet folks and feel comfortable and welcome here.” Your friends love you, but as we get older and add things like grad school, intense jobs, and kids into the mix people start to have Other Shit Going On. Making sure you are having regular “This is me, doing my me-thing” time scheduled means that you also have Other Shit Going On, Too and makes it less of a zero-sum game.
So, to get back to the piece on attachment styles I linked at the beginning.
- Introverts & extroverts can be friends
- Anxious-insecure and avoidant-insecure attachers can be friends.
They can be friends because these labels describe tendencies and preferences, not destiny or identity. They are also, in my opinion, not fixed states and can describe relative dynamics within a particular relationship. For example, overall, I probably trend more toward the avoidant side of things. But in some relationships with avoidant-type folks, I have definitely been the anxious-insecure attacher because those people brought out that dynamic. Before I understood this more, and before I found friends where we balance each other, this was the basis for some real power struggles and hurt.
Here’s how it’s useful: If you recognize yourself in either of these letters, take a second and see if differing attachment styles and differing needs for social interaction might be at play between you and your friends. Hopefully reassuring: It’s not something you have to “diagnose” beyond a reasonable doubt or even discuss, it’s okay to be wrong or decide intuitively or try something out without knowing for sure.
Context note: For the rest of this post, if I use the word “anxious” or “anxiety” it is in the context of attachment styles and not anxiety disorder.
If you are a more avoidant person who is feeling chased and smothered by an anxious-insecure person, and their behavior is inadvertently activating your terror that you will end up like this cat:
…you might be able to diffuse the situation by offering reassurance. Reach out to them. Initiate plans. It may feel like sand in your mouth to actually say it, it may feel like you are giving up some inherent piece of yourself and your power and just submitting to SLOTH KIDNAPPING, but let them know verbally that they are important to you and that you care about them. This is why I advised Letter Writer #508 to initiate plans with Clara.
If you are the more anxious-insecure person and you feel like you are chasing a more avoidant person like this dachshund trying to be buddies to this dubious calico:
…offer them space. You want so badly to spend more time and to receive reassurance, and it is okay to need that, but you can diffuse the “OH SHIT, THE DACHSHUND SLOTH IS COMING FOR MY SOUL” feeling in the other person by making it okay for them to have some space. This is why half of the scripts for Letter Writer #509 were about recognition the other person might need some solitude.
I’ll admit some bias & unfairness here since I know myself to be more avoidant. In (my non-scholarly) opinion and experience, the more attached, anxious-insecure person needs affection, contact, and reassurance more and suffers more from an imbalance. The theory is that avoidant-insecure folks become that way because at one time their coping strategy was to teach themselves to be less invested in affection and attention within relationships. They do suffer when a relationship is “clingy” or “smothering,” and want very much to love and be with the person without that feeling, but when the shit hits the fan they have slightly more power in that their tendency will be to leave rather than be left; they won’t submit to being smothered, but they can take off running and force the other person to submit to being abandoned. “I can always leave you more than you can need me into staying.” If people have a different experience, I’d love to hear that perspective.
This is the terror, right? This is the terror, if you are the more anxious-insecure person. Adults can end relationships at any time for any reason, and it won’t be fair and there won’t always be closure. But also, people who like you will act like they like you, and you deserve reassurance and affection and attention and time and are not stupid or “clingy” for needing that. It’s a paradox that can really, really suck when you are the one being left or avoided, and it is very, very hard to learn how to comfort yourself and trust other people when this feels hard.
The way that acknowledging this unfairness is useful, I hope, is in a plea to my fellow Avoiders: You have slightly more power, even if leaving would be cutting of your nose to spite your face. So you can afford to be a little kinder. You can afford to say “Hey, I care about you and you are important to me. I will see you this weekend.”
I want to leave this on an optimistic note. I am optimistic about affection and the desire to connect winning the day. I think this is negotiable and solvable when people feel real affection for each other, are self-aware and compassionate, and use their words about what they need. We are communal animals. People who need people are the luckiest people in the world, regardless of attachment style. BOTH sides need to loosen their grip. BOTH sides need to offer the reassurance and space that each person needs to feel safe. Both sides need to give each other credit for trying. “You gave me space even though that is hard for you, let me reassure you that I care about you.” “You gave me reassurance and attention, even though that did not come naturally to you. Let me reassure you that I respect your boundaries and for solitude.” “I will always come back if you respect my space and give me room.” “I will always let you go if you promise to come back.” Someone has to let the walls down first, and be the vulnerable one. If you think these situations describe a dynamic you have with someone, try letting your guard down and see where you get. Only connect; it probably won’t make it worse.
Love and Awkwardness,