Hello, it’s on!
Patrons can submit questions here (advantage: 1st dibs, more words). Anyone/Everyone can submit on Twitter (@CAwkward, #awkwardfriday), questions close at noon Chicago time, I answer as many as I can and update as I go between noon and 1pm. Whatever I don’t have time for gets held over for next week. Comments open once everything is posted.
This is also the last day (for a while, at least) that I remind folks about supporting the site. You can become a patron or send a donation anytime, of course, but these biannual reminder drives really help me be able to plan out nice things! One of these nice things: I’m officially hiring a graphic designer and a proofreader/formatter to put the finishing touches on an e-book of previously-published columns called #ThisF-ing Guy (And How To Avoid Him), so I can make it available before the end of the year. Thank you so much for all the support so far. This site is a labor of love, but it is labor, and it feels so great to be able to say “I run a fan-supported advice website.”
Cue the jazz flute which, I confess I started out including as a humorous homage to the NPR and WGBH-Boston pledge drives of my youth and my middle-school bad flute playing, but then I ended up listening to a crapload of jazz flute on YouTube this week, and now I’m like “JAZZ FLUTE IS AWESOME, MOAR JAZZ FLUTE PLEASE.” Proving that irony will lose out to sincerity every damn time.
Let’s begin: Talking to the neighbors about misbehaving kids, KITTENS, ADHD and learning to take compliments, bickering family/feeling bad about interacting with family, crushes (it’s okay to just ignore them!), when do you know if couples’ counseling is working, how to therapy, when to say ‘I love you’, drop-in houseguests, parents who want you to be their therapist, compliments that aren’t compliments.
Q1: Hey, Captain. I have a low stakes problem that I´m nevertheless stumped over. I live in a house with 3 apartments. Ours is in the middle. All apartments have kids, pets, instruments and noise, so this is great for the most part BUT – there is a neighbour-child (13-14 yo boy) that engages in destructive behaviour in our communal garden. He has a homemade bow and arrows and a target that he practices unsafely, he has a baseball he throws at the house, he has knives he uses to carve wood – including our personal, noncommunal garden furniture. I used to think his parents knew about this and were allowing this behaviour, but I recently caught the boy lighting fires with lighter fluids and gas in the garden and he ran away terrified when I approached – so I don´t think his parents know about that, at least. My question is: We, the wimps that we are, have never said anything. We had truly horrible neighbours before we moved here, and we have just been so freaking happy to have nice people in our house we have been unwilling to rock the boat. But now I feel like we have to. Do you have scripts? And a way to do it (messages, ringing doorbell – we are not really coffee friends with the parents, just friendly)?
A1: As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child” and some of my village growing up was definitely neighbors noticing and stopping me from doing dangerous and annoying stuff.
The boy ran away “terrified” when you approached, ergo, he knows he’s not supposed to be playing with fire in the back yard. Thirteen is young enough that it’s worth approaching the parents – “Hi, we love that your son can play in the garden but we’ve noticed x, y, and z destructive behaviors, do you want to talk to him about it and should we say something to him the next time we see it?” – but it’s also old enough that you can talk directly to the child, like, “Hi, my name is ____, what’s your name? And your parents are _____ and _____, right? Great! We’re so glad you are our neighbors. Listen, I know the garden is communal, but that furniture actually is our personal stuff, so you can sit on it, but please don’t carve chunks out of it, thanks.” Kids are just people, they don’t detonate like bombs if you address them directly. Unless it’s an emergency, maybe try to just catch the neighbors when they are out and about and handle it in person? Esp. since you don’t have their phone number or email or an established form of communication?
And then also say hello and engage about positive things, trade contact information, ask what’s the best way to get in touch, etc. Your and your neighbors might also want to come up with some jointly-agreed on community rules (the building I live in has some posted right when you walk in the door and they also go in everyone’s lease), like, “Now that it’s summer and everyone’s using the garden more, let’s review what’s ok and not ok,” just, know that’s not a substitute for talking directly to the child or his parents. Just like when the mass email about reminding “everyone” to refill the coffee pot goes out in your office, it never occurs to the culprit that “Oops, I am the problem.”
P.S. and PSA: Don’t call the cops on kids doing kid stuff.
Q2: I just came here to say: KITTENS KITTENS KITTENS!!!
It’s all still in process, but yes, Mr. Awkward and I are starting to meet kittens we’d like to adopt, and in the interest of disclosure, a non-zero amount of recent pledge drive donations will be converted directly into supplies for said kittens which I will then convert back into kitten photos for the Internet (as is good and just).
Q3: Dear Captain, How do I learn how to take(/cope with) compliments or positive feedback? I’ve always been the “bright person but lazy” (now officially diagnosed with and being treated for ADHD/dyslexia) so I only really know how to deal with negative feedback. I’ve been trying to start with gratitude but it still always feels awkward and I still can’t convince myself that the affirmation is genuine. Is there anything I can do to work on accepting positive feedback more gracefully and letting myself internalize it? (I’ve talked about some of this with a therapist but my current one thinks this problem isn’t as important as other issues she wants me to tackle.) Thanks! (She/her)
Q4: Hail, my ADHD-diagnosed-as-an-adult sister with a loud inner critic!
- “You are so good at x hard and complex thing, why can’t you just do y easy thing?”
- “You should be able to do this with no problem, so if you can’t it’s probably just laziness.”
- “The things you are naturally good at and enjoy don’t really count, only the things you struggle with are important and worth doing, and you should struggle with them less, what’s wrong with you?”
- “The things you’re naturally good at are just good luck, it would be wrong/bragging/conceited to take pride in them, only the things you do with maximum effort should be rewarded.”
- “You have so much potential.” (said with maximum disappointment)
- “Accomplishments don’t matter as much as all the stuff you haven’t done yet (that you should have done by now).”
Should and just. My least favorite words. And even though I’ve done a lot of work on it, sometimes compliments just tap right into the bad brain loops, especially #3 and #4.
Many therapists have recommended that I try “mindfulness.” Like, being in the moment, just checking in with myself, concentrating on my breathing, taking pressure off myself to feel any kind of way or react. All probably good stuff, has great results for many people, but it turns out I suck at mindfulness. “Focusing on my breath” made it feel difficult to breathe. “When you brush your teeth, try not thinking about anything in particular, just focus on the sensation” = great, now an easy routine task that I don’t overthink becomes a minefield of worry about my teeth. “Just let your mind go blank” = So I can ruminate on my failures! “Take a sip of cool water, concentrate on the sensation of it entering your body” = Great, now I can’t swallow.
Here are two practices that have actually helped me start to undo this pattern:
- Being more proactive in praising other people. It feels good to give genuine compliments.
- Completing the social circuit – If someone says “Good job” or “You look great today!” all I have to say is “Thank you!” I don’t have to feel any kind of way about it, and my complex emotions are not the compliment-giver’s problem. If I can’t remove or avoid weird, I can at least Not Create More Weird, ergo saying “Thanks!” without immediately apologizing or elaborating is what will make the other people feel ok and Not Weird, so I will do that.
It gets easier. Not perfect (I had to be reminded in the comments section here last week), but easier.
Q5: “Hi Captain! Happy Friday! Family visit weekend is approaching. My parents and also my sister and brother-in-law have a nasty habit of commenting on each other either in a passive-aggressive way or are downright mean to each other. It’s a nearly constant bitchy couple fight in both instances. They especially use the rare time when I am there I guess, because they would probably never start a real fight in front of me. I don’t want to listen to my mom’s comments on my dad’s weight or my brother in law bitching about the “fact” that my sister “can’t keep a clean house”. I see all of them rarely but when I’m there I feel like I am in the middle of constant couple drama. Any scripts or thoughts? Thank you!”
A5: I’ve witnessed several versions of this kind of behavior. Let’s take a minute to (arbitrarily) categorize:
- Performers: Having an audience makes one or both partners feel safe dredging up conflicts that they don’t feel comfortable raising in private, or (worse) gives one or both an extra vector or extra energy to abuse the other person. This is your Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Taming Of The Shrew dynamic. You’ll know you’re dealing with performers if they keep dragging you into the argument in some way, even if you don’t actually ever say anything, like, “Look, even Sister thinks that was rude!” (when you’ve been totally silent).
- Bickerers: They’ve been insulting each other so long it’s just second nature, they don’t even know they’re doing it anymore. These are the folks who will argue that “manners” or “kindness” are things you dress up in when company comes over, but when people are truly close, why should they have to work at being nice? They’re just telling it like it is. One hallmark of bickerers: You’ll say “Why so mean? Do you even hear yourselves right now?” and they will turn on you for being Too Sensitive.
Actually, both/all kinds of couples who like to argue in front of family/friends/in public will often band together and turn on you if you say anything, which makes it all so extra fun! (not fun) to deal with.
In your shoes with a weekend visit looming, I’d be doing my best to plan some quiet things to do – “Let’s all see a movie!” – and I’d be going to bed early and rising late (even if I’m definitely secretly quietly reading in my room during that time) and doing other stuff to literally disengage. Hang out in small, structured doses, bail when it gets unfun. You’re not going to fix their relationship or communication dynamic, and you can’t wish people
into the cornfield couples’ counseling like that kid in the Twilight Zone, so, what are you willing to do to shut it down around you? Scripts that you might say to little kids, like: “Are we gonna have to put you in Time Out?” or “I can leave if you’d rather insult each other alone” or “Can we play a game where we only say nice things?” can sometimes call attention to the absurdity.
P.S. When dealing with difficult people you see regularly, you’ll never go wrong thinking up 3-5 safe conversational topics that you can steer those subject changes to.
Q6: Hi Captain! I’ve been having a difficult situation within my friend group. This past year I ended a friendship after the friend (A) decided to bond with her coworkers by making mean-spirited “jokes” about members of my profession in front of me. I tried a few times to explain that this was hurtful; she ignored me. I tried to slow-fade; she latched on like a burr. So I ended the friendship explicitly. She lashed out and accused me of threatening her (with the loss of my friendship if she didn’t change her behavior, I think). Her partner piled on then too. So, that was painful, but at least it was a clear end. The problem is a mutual friend who is trying to be supportive, but also keeps telling me that it’s a misunderstanding, that I’m oversensitive due to past related trauma, that they are aren’t really bad people, etc. This mutual friend is dear to me, but this is rubbing salt in wounds I’m trying to let heal. How do I make sense of this/ set boundaries/ not let this cascade into more broken friendship?
A6: If you haven’t already done this (I think you have already done this, but if you haven’t), stop using the mutual friend as a sounding board for anything about this situation. In that case (which might be now), mutual friend will be the one who is bringing this up 100% of the time, which gives you an opening to say:
- “Oh, let’s don’t talk about A. That whole thing is a mess, but I’m here to see you and talk about you.” (Subject Change 1)
- “I know you’d really like to make peace here, but it’s not your job to fix this. Let’s talk about something else.” (Subject Change 2)
- “Okay, look, I’ve tried to gently change the subject twice. What will it take to get you to drop it?” (Subject Change 3)
- “I thought my only problem was with A, but if you keep pushing for a fix here, my problem will be with you. Stop patronizing me, stop explaining it to me, stop defending A. to me – it’s not your job and frankly it sucks to keep hearing this from you.” (Definitely time to cut the visit short and try again another day)
Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed also are the people who mind their own business when it’s clear their input is not welcome.
Q7: Dear Captain. How do I stop the cloud of despair from coming around whenever I have the slightest contact with my family. Even a nice text message sends me into misery. I have been in therapy working on it but it just seems like I need a kick or a shove to get out of this mood. I don’t see them otherwise. I try to own my feelings and feel them but it’s just so hard to feel this every time.
A7: More therapy, more time. Maybe taking a long break from contact with them and seeing if they feelings lift.
Readjusting expectations. There is “happy!” there is “conflicts talked through & resolved!” – those outcomes might not be realistic for you and your family, so what could a new normal look like that doesn’t grind you down? “Not actively toxic!” “Eh, small doses.” “Welp, that could have gone worse.” “They seem to be trying.”
Basically, you can’t stop feeling stuff. You can get more control about what you do about those feelings (if anything) and how much of your attention and time they take up (sometimes).
Q8: I (they/them) am in a committed, monogamous relationship with my fiancé, and I have zero plans of changing that, but recently I have developed a crush on a mutual friend. Again, I have NO desire nor intention to act on it, so mostly I’m wondering if there is a constructive way to Deal With these feelings? Preferably without shooting the Golden Retriever of [My Heart]? Complicating factors: I have depression, and this crush, because it is new, is a bright spot that gives me energy–and I don’t really want to give that up. But it hurts to think that my fiancé is seeing me “perk up” when we’re in the company of Friend. Talking to Fiancé about it would only be hurtful, I think, and any benefit would be vastly outweighed by that hurt.
A8: Carolyn Hax always says that if you have a crush and you want it to go away, picture them pooping or doing something else either really gross or really mundane.
Not all feelings require action or expression. What if I told you you could feel this crush, enjoy the parts you’re enjoying, say nothing and do nothing overt about it, and be basically fine? What if the answer is “ok, you’ve got a crush, that’s fine and normal and you’re not doing anything bad or taking anything away from your fiancé?”
Sometimes we have crushes on people we’d like to be with, sometimes we have crushes on people we’d like to be like. If you tend to perk up around this friend, what aspect of yourself is being seen and nurtured, and are there additional ways you could feed that side of yourself? What if you leaned in not to the idea of this other person, but into the idea of yourself as the source of how good you feel right now?
Q9: Dear Captain,
What is an unreasonable amount of time to spend in couples counseling for a relationship?
Is there an amount of time, past which it is healthy/wise/whatever to start to consider the Sunk Cost Fallacy?
Thank you very much for all you do!
A9: Hi Verbose!
What if I told you that couple’s counseling wasn’t necessarily about saving or prolonging relationships, but could also be about identifying when something can’t be saved, and exploring the most gentle and ethical way to part ways?
What if I also told you that relationships exist to serve the people in them and not the other way around?
When all else fails, Hail Sheelzebub: If things stayed exactly as they are now between you and you knew they would not change, how much longer would you stay? One more year? 5? 10?
Q10: Hi Captain! I’ve heard you recommend therapy a lot to your readers/LWs. After years of dithering I’m finally going to therapy, hopefully to deal with my depression (and some lingering trauma). I’ve never done this before! I was wondering, do you have tips on how to make the most of therapy? I’m not in crisis, so I’m not expecting a lot of critical short-term work, I just want to shore up my overall mental health & resilience because hey, there’s a lot going on there. It’s been about a month so far. My friends say that as long as I spend most of my time talking I’m “doing it right”, but I’d love any other tips/advice/stories that you have. Thanks!
A10: Good steps! Good question! And good news! We have a really comprehensive post about that here, by one Sweet Machine, who I am even now trying to entice back to posting here on occasion. The topic is about choosing a therapist, but the discussion totally covers what the intake and initial process looks like.
Q11: How do you know it’s love? And how do you know when to say I love you?
A11: I don’t knowwwwwwwwwww!
What I do know: I have said “I love you” at totally ridiculous times, in totally inappropriate ways, to a rogue’s gallery of the wrong people, and the world did not end and the mistakes did not take anything away from the times that it was true and safe and welcome. Love is not a pie, there will be some left if you eat some pieces now.
Do you need a poem?
What Cowboys Know About Love, by Louis McKee
Last night on the sports channel
I watched the rodeo.
Those cowboys have it right;
the best and the beauty of it.
You cannot win, so you ride
for as long as you can and enjoy it.
When you dismount,
whether it be on your own or not,
it won’t look pretty. You’ll limp off.
But you’ll feel good; your heart
will be pounding like it never has,
and walking away, one crazy step
after another, your ears will ring
with the loud approval
of those who never felt so good.
Q12: Hi, Captain. I’d love any advice on how to deal with people (family members who live far away, mostly) who are terrible at making plans and then expect my family to be 100% available when they decide with 2 days of notice that THIS is the weekend they’re staying with us. Argh.
A12: Boundaries have at least two steps. 1) Communication 2) Enforcement.
You can explain that you’d like more notice next time, but if this is a recurring thing, until you make consequences *this time* it will keep happening.
What that means in practice is:
- “Oh, we’d love to see you, but we’re really booked this weekend, sorry, that won’t work for us! But these future dates would work great, can you reschedule?”
- “We’d love to take you out for dinner if you’re going to be in town, but we can’t manange houseguests this weekend. Let me know where you’re staying if you do decide to come!”
- “Oh man, we’ll hate to miss you, but we have other plans. We love it when you come to stay, but we need a lot more notice!”
Then…whatever the people say…Don’t. Host. Them. This. Time.
It may take two or three tries, argument(s) around “what do you mean you can’t?” or a “why didn’t you tell us before” or “but family is always supposed to be welcome!” or “Fine, see if we ever visit you if this is what we get!” etc. but they will either figure it out or they’ll stop visiting altogether.
It totally falls apart if you cave.
Q13: I (she/her) have come to realize over the past couple of years that my mother is an unhappy and emotionally manipulative person. I won’t bore you with the details; the stuff she does and says is pretty standard, as far as I can tell. My personal courses of action have so far included agreeing with her when she goes into martyr mode (though I won’t do this any more), disagreeing with or attempting to logic her (I’ve also abandoned this approach), staying silent, making it boring, changing the subject, limiting how much we talk in the first place, going to therapy, suggesting SHE go to therapy, meditation, journaling, and I’m finally at the top of my library’s hold list to get a copy of Will I Ever Be Good Enough? in my hot little hands. My mother has stated outright that she is uninterested and unwilling to do anything about her own unhappiness besides dumping her feels on me every 2-3 weeks. I have managed to find some solace and insight from similar posts on Captain Awkward dot com, but is there anything more or less or different that I can do to help myself not get sucked down my mother’s vortex of negativity? Is there a way I can let her wallow in her unhappiness without making myself miserable also?
A13: Ok, answering these is taking way longer than 1 hour but also: This is a good synthesis of many themes in the other questions today.
Your mom is just going to be like this and you can’t ever fix it. There is no “good” or “fixed” or “she finally gets it” or “she stops” or “I communicated my needs and she listened and now I feel good!” Unless she takes steps to make herself happier and soothe herself around her emotions, she will always be this level of unhappy, and she will always try to use you as her emotional dumpster. What you have now is “normal”…for her.
So the strategies you’ve used in the past – let’s take “being boring,” “limiting how much we talk in the first place” and “redirecting her to get a therapist” – are not fixing the problem strategies for her (Mom’s gonna Mom), they are ongoing maintenance strategies for you. They are for giving yourself permission to limit how much you subject yourself to it. They didn’t work (as in, they did not solve the underlying problem), but they are still useful (as ongoing tools).
If you choose to keep in touch with your mom every few weeks, call her at the chosen interval, catch her up on your life, catch up on the gist of hers, and when she starts the negativity dump,
I KNOW PEOPLE TOLD YOU NEVER TO DO IT BUT SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO SO YOU DON’T SCREAM “SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!!!!!!!!” AT THEM AND RUN SCREAMING INTO THE VOID NEVER TO BE SEEN AGAIN.
Say, in the most cheerful tone you can muster: “Oh mom, you know I don’t want to listen to this stuff!”
There’s about a 95% chance she’ll keep talking about herself like you didn’t even say anything. The other 5% is the chance she’ll change topics to how you have wronged her.
Interrupt her again. Say “Ok Mom, good catching up, that’s all the time I have today, sorry! Love you!” and then hang up the phone.
Hang. Up. The. Phone.
Turn it off if you have to, put it in a drawer.
Go do something nice with the rest of your day.
Your mom will be the exact amount of unhappy she always is, + some bonus unhappiness at her rude and ungrateful child, which is actually great – let her chew on that and feel justified for a change! If she actually picks a direct fight with you about this, here’s your script:
“Mom, you don’t have to get a therapist, but I also don’t have to BE your therapist. I don’t want to spend all our time together listening to your problems. So, when it gets to be too much for me, I’m going to stop the conversation.”
After that, you keep going. Call her when you want to. When you get sick of the spiel, interrupt and sign off. Try again another day. That’s probably as good as it gets unless she makes some decisions to adjust her behavior. She has choices about how she interacts with you, she’s choosing to make this unpleasant, so, choose right back and stop indulging it. If she tries the silent treatment, let her do it! She will break before you do, I promise you.
Alternately, stop calling her or talking on the phone at all for say, the next three months. Buy some nice greeting cards with pretty flowers on the front, write her a nice note catching her up on your life, tell her you love her and are thinking of her, and send them in the mail every few weeks. Connection maintained, two-way connection suspended for now. You deserve a break from unpaid nonconsensual therapy!
Q14: Captain, I’d be happy to hear scripts towards indelicate comments about my Potential Greatness. For example, “You would be so X if you did/had Y.” Most remarks are about my appearance and interestingly (unsurprisingly?), most are made by men. Some specific examples, “You’d be so attractive if you had long hair/wore heels/dressed up/wore makeup.” The one that upset me the most was made by my dad, “She would be so pretty if she didn’t have [chronic illness].”(!!!!) Some people say it with disappointment, some say it with enthusiasm. Both are annoying. I just want to rebuttal with something like… I’m happy with how I am now, why aren’t you? / Being pretty is NOT the Most Important Thing In The World / What makes you think your opinion about my appearance is important??? But I usually just give an awkward smile.
A14: Those. Aren’t. Compliments.
Men who say “You would be so pretty if you had long hair/wore heels/dressed up/wore makeup” ONE HUNDRED PERCENT deserve to hear back “And you would be so much more likable if you stayed quiet.”
Like, thanks for the note from your boner, do not want, return to sender.
Something I’ve found that disturbs and annoys the givers of “negs” and other backhanded compliments in a way that infuriates them is to turn their bad compliment into an actual compliment and give it to yourself. But DON’T say “thanks.”
Random Man: “You would be so pretty with long hair!”
You: “I know! I look great today!”
Random Man: “You would be so pretty if you wore makeup!”
You: “I know! My face is great!”
Random Man: “You would look so awesome if you dressed up more.” You: “I know! Clothes look great on me!”
Unlike in Question 4 upthread don’t complete the social circuit, disrupt the social circuit, and watch the flailing and the backtracking begin. They didn’t actually want to give you a compliment, they wanted to tell you what to do with your own face, and they wanted you to acknowledge them as some kind of authority on that question. By saying “I know, I’m great!” you aren’t saying anything observably rude or really giving them anything to argue with – if they argue, they are admitting that they didn’t mean the compliment and just wanted to get your attention. Give them no quarter and get ready to enjoy a lot of slow backing away. Buy yourself flowers if any of them call you “conceited.”
With your dad (ouch) can you just say “Dad, ouch! First, I’m pretty now, and second, did you realize you said that out loud?”
Q15: Hi Captain! I know versions of this have been asked before, but how do I deal with family members saying horrible things on Facebook, and then calling me “emotional” when I call them out (despite being the only one to provide any evidence of my points)? of course I’m younger and a woman. They live afar so I only have to see them 1-2 times a year.
I know I have to pick my battles better, and I know I can’t really convince them – mostly I just want someone to speak up against them and maybe plant a seed for any bystanders. It feels important to do, but also makes me stressed out and angry. Do I keep it up but dial it back? Sometimes I want to message them privately, tell them how crappy I think they are, block them and deal with the fallout from my family. I want to be a good ally, but I don’t know if I’m making any difference either way. What’s the best course of action?
A15: It would be cool if we could each personally convince our most racist and politically horrible relatives to stop thinking that stuff, or, even if they still think that way, to go back to shutting up about it in public.
But it’s not your job to convince them, and exhaust yourself in the process. And their hearts and minds aren’t the place where your energy is most needed right now. For now, don’t worry about convincing them, worry about out-VOTING them. Out-organize them. Out-live them. Your relatives will not change their minds no matter how much energy you spend debating them on Facebook, but someone somewhere in your community just needs a little push or a ride to the polls or some childcare or $25 to actually change stuff in the world.
Time is very short. If you live in the USA, the midterm elections are less than 100 days away. So, hide your shitty family’s shitty social media feeds and put that energy into locating like-minded people who are organizing and taking action. Vote. Help other people vote. Help people who don’t suck get elected. If the candidates near you all suck, pick the one who sucks the least. Knock on doors. Make calls. Stuff envelopes. Donate money. Do stuff beyond your comfort zone (listen to my friend Saskia, who canvassed and did not die!) Transform your disappointment and your helplessness and your fear into action, comrades. Your favorite advice blogger would like to still be allowed to purchase health insurance next year!
Thanks for the great questions.