Dear Captain Awkward or associate,
Firstly, thank you so much. I’ve devoured your page in the past two weeks. I’m currently scrolling down in the archives, way back in 2015 at the moment. I’ve seen, and benefited from, my main problem being answered on your forum several times. Maybe this is a twist on it, I hope it is so I’m not wasting your time. Whether you answer or not, thank you so much for reading!
I (she/her) have been suffering the past few years from friends who drain me. Not the exciting roller-coaster kind, but the ones I say “yeah we should hang out sometime!” only to find myself being messaged every few days or weeks with potential hangs. In the past it has taken me some time to realise this pattern, or I have realised they drain me but figure it’s best to just try to space it out as much as possible and who knows, maybe sometimes when I need a friend it’ll be good to coincide both of our needs. Well, I have learned that when the chips are down and I try to hang out with friends like this, I come out the other side feeling absolutely exhausted, trampled all over, and furious. I might sound a bit cocky about myself, but I can say that I’m sociable and fairly good with people. The problem is that people assume it’s no effort, and then they make it extremely hard for me to ask for what I want.
They overstay their welcome, they don’t listen to me, or they listen to me too much and require far too much engagement. They extend the hangs beyond what I originally wanted. They essentially push the boat out. I can’t stand rudeness or awkwardness, and I can’t stand when I know somebody is uncomfortable and I could make it better, so what I do with these friends is I spend the entire hang emotionally spackling over their awkwardness or rudeness. Then my friend leaves the hang feeling like “wow that was so much less awkward than usual” whereas I’m absolutely wrecked from doing all of the social heavy lifting. I’m a mostly extroverted, and these friends seem to take my sociability for granted and never seem to consider how their words and actions affect me. One of them recently asked to try on a shirt I own to check out the colour on her, then she marvelled at how big it was. She, the tiny friend, and me having always been very open about my weight insecurity. It offended me but because she’s very chatty and requires everyone to be super honest and open all the time, I decided I didn’t want the hassle of trying to explain this to her, especially when I can’t accuse her of deliberately trying to make me feel bad.
Well, I recently did an admirable thing. I began slow fading from these friends. The tiny friend who was rude about my shirt has tried multiple times to meet and every time I have been busy. I feel good because I think she’s finally gotten the message. I’ve started slow fading from a male friend who I do not believe will ever get the message, judging by how he still thinks other friends who have faded on him are best friends. I’d feel bad, but the last time we hung out he spent three hours telling me everything about a girl who’d recently turned him down, including some personal stuff I doubt she’d want shared, and INTERRUPTED ME every time I tried to change the subject, or tell him about the date I’d been on the night before. I initially had guilt about this new tactic, but I read a lot of your stuff and I think the executive decision I made will be a very healthy one in the long run.
I was feeling great. Enter Amy, an old college acquaintance. She recently moved to my city and messaged me asking if I would be around some day to hang out. I was cautious, because I remembered her sometimes being rather a lot, but I also hadn’t reminisced about our old college class in forever and I suppose with her being new to the city and me being so active on social media, it would be rude for me not to reply. We went for a walk one day after I got off work. She was okayyyyy. Very shrill and a little bit rude to the staff in the cafe where we got a hot drink before the walk (not mean-rude but didn’t say thanks, interrupted them, talked to me very loudly inside the shop). On the walk itself, she was okay but she doesn’t really let me away with anything. If she thinks I’ve said something odd she like SHRIEKS. I feel very exposed in public with her being so loud. She wants to catch each other up on our old college friends. I am interested in everyone she brings up, genuinely, and try to remember the ones I can’t remember etc. When she orders me to think of someone I have any updates on, and I bring someone up that she didn’t know much/doesn’t care about, she loudly interrupts, telling me that she doesn’t care about them. I survive the walk but decide to keep my distance.
Since then she’s asked me three times to hang out, and I’ve said I was busy each time. Until today, when she messaged me that she has reservations for a table for two at a restaurant two weeks from now and will I join her. I really felt like I had to say yes, because she told me she had nobody else at all to go with. She also booked me two weeks in advance! I wish I’d said I was busy. I asked if I could bring my other friend, who had privately agreed to be a buffer, but she said “well only if you’re absolutely sure that they’ll come because I’m not going to call and ask for another seat at the table if she’s going to cancel!” so I just dropped it. I get that she’s being practical, but I don’t feel that we’re close enough for the way that she is comfortable speaking to me. Now I’m dreading the hang, and really just annoyed at myself. I feel I took one step forward then two steps back. I was exhilarated and hopeful about my future and now I just feel bogged down again. I’ve done this to myself, but I have been told that I’m her only social connection in this city. I wish I could talk to my therapist but she’s on maternity leave, and I do feel healthy in every other aspect of my mental health, but I’m just angry with myself and feeling powerless.
I’d love some advice, if you have any to give. If not, I feel better having even written to you, so thank you very very much for that! And thanks for everything you’ve already written on your site, I have been linking articles to my good friends left, right and centre since I discovered your page.
Love and lots of respect,
People Assume I’m a Golden Retriever When Really I’m a Bit Like a Sensitive Cat
Hello, Sensitive Cat:
Thank you for the kind words and entertaining visual in subject line, now immortalized in the post title.
Now, down to business.
Text Amy right now, and cancel that fucking dinner. “Amy, I’m so sorry, but I’m going to cancel dinner. It was nice to catch up about old times the other day, but I’d rather not get together again. Good luck settling into the new place.”
There’s no perfect way to tell somebody a thing they don’t want to hear, so don’t procrastinate or get caught up in trying to convince her to feel okay about it. Amy will feel bad when you cancel, and you will also feel bad because it sucks to let someone down. This is not avoidable, but it will pass, and then you will be free, because “we hung out once and it didn’t go well, let’s not do it again” is an excellent reason to not be friends. Amy’s lack of other friends to go with is an Amy problem, but she’s new in a town full of beautiful strangers, some of whom might find her bluntness or whatever charming. Restaurants let you sit and eat while you read a book. She will be sad, mad, whatever, but she will figure it out. You are not her sole shot at fancy food or human companionship.
Cancel the dinner. Send the text. Do not reply. Unfollow/unfriend/block her everywhere the second you send the message. Don’t be friends. It can be that simple.
I’m serious. Stop reading, come back when you’ve cancelled that dinner with Amy. She needs to figure out another dinner date, and you need a practical reminder that the world won’t end if someone you don’t like ends up not liking you. It’s good that you are learning more about what you need from friendships, so use that knowledge before you write in two years from now: “Dear Captain Awkward, I have this one bridesmaid, Amy, from college, btw we’re also roommates who run a business together…”
Once you’ve cancelled, it’s time to radically redefine what makes a person “social and good with people” and “polite.”
Because “friend” is not a word for “everyone you vaguely know and don’t actively hate who isn’t family or a romantic prospect.”
Because saying “Yeah we should hang out sometime!” and then getting mad at people who take you at your word isn’t more polite than“Thanks for thinking of me, but no.”
Because it’s not a crime for people to like you more than you like them and not be able to tell the difference between feigned enthusiasm and the real thing. It’s not their fault that you have porous boundaries!
Because faking friendship with people while barely holding in a volcano of unexpressed fury can be a lot of things, none of them pleasant or particularly “polite.”
Because being an extrovert who recharges in the company of other people doesn’t compel you to seek out all other people, including crappy ones.
Because life is too short for this NiceGirl™ shit where seeming polite is more important than being honest, kind, or happy.
Sensitive Cat, you are simultaneously giving these people way too much power (“I really felt like I had to say yes”) and zero credit. Why would you assume that other people want to spend time with someone who dreads their company? You are trying so hard to prevent anyone from ever feeling even a little bit bad that you are fostering situations where you are guaranteed to feel bad, and setting up dynamics where people invest in a relationship with a pretend version of you. “I couldn’t stomach disappointing you for 5 minutes, so I’ve decided to disappoint me/you/everyone, forever!” How…???…is that better???? Consider that you owe people a version of courtesy that doesn’t come at the expense of integrity.
You’ve recognized the pattern and made some progress, and The Slow Fade isn’t mean. I generally think it’s fine to stop initiating or accepting plans with people you don’t gel with anymore and see what happens, sometimes the drift is mutual. However, when you’re trying to fade, and the other person keeps dutifully trying to do Good Friend stuff, then it’s a kindness to set them free from chasing you. Once you’ve canceled on Amy, you could respond to Tiny Friend’s last invitation. “Sorry, I know I keep declining plans, but I haven’t felt much like hanging out. Howabout I get in touch when I’m up for it?” “When I’m up for it” could be never, it could be in a few weeks when you decide you miss her or have the bandwidth to talk about what upset you, this doesn’t have to be ironclad.
Now, a person getting that message might reasonably wonder if they’ve done something to upset you and ask about it. Awkward, yes. Disastrous? No. A deliberate attempt by your friend to test your resolve and will to live? Also no. Asking is a way of showing care, as is telling the truth.“Well, to be honest, I didn’t have much fun the last time we hung out, and the way you kept making fun of ‘my enormous shirt’ really hurt my feelings.You know I’m sensitive about body stuff!”
Maybe Tiny Friend will sincerely apologize, maybe you’ll take a little break from each other, maybe you’ll figure out if there’s anything repairable. Maybe she’ll get super upset and mean, or be like “Fine, let’s not be friends then!” and stomp off, which…okay? When you are trying to leave a relationship, don’t chase after people when they do you the favor of leaving first.
Lately there has been a whole series of Letter Writers who are extremely anxious about disappointing others and getting overwhelmed socially. And lots of people who don’t actually like their friends. I suspect it’s partly free-floating anxiety looking for a new vessel, partly “wait, how do I people again?” adjustment, and partly because habits of people-pleasing are taught, through families, and through cultural, racial, and gender expectations. Just, generally we are just not good (collectively speaking) at teaching certain people to say a direct “Oh, no thanks!” and certain other people to accept this with “No worries, thanks for telling me,” with a healthy shared expectation that everyone will merrily continue on with their lives.
Letter Writer, there is a reason you learned to handle things this way, probably somebody ( or a lot of somebodies) in your life taught you lessons like “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything” in ways that rooted and metastized in your brain. You’re not the only adult who has had to learn how to say simple, obvious things (“Thanks but I don’t want to have dinner”) while suffused with the imaginary fear – or very real memory – of being punished for having needs. If persistent dread around “low stakes” stuff like declining dinner invitations from people you don’t like is fucking with the quality of your life and your ability to have authentic relationships, then take it seriously, and take advantage of any therapy resources you can access. (I can’t say whether *you* meet clinical criteria, but I can say that social anxiety is a common, treatable thing; maybe it doesn’t have to be this hard.)
In the meantime, I mentioned the other day that a former therapist gave me an assignment to help me break habits of over-scheduling myself. Letter Writer, if you’re willing, I think an adaptation of this might level up your skills in the area of not over-scheduling yourself…specifically with people you don’t actively enjoy hanging out with.
Step 1: For the rest of the summer, make your default answer to social invitations some version of “Thanks for asking, let me check my schedule and get back to you.” “I don’t know, I need to check my calendar. When do I need to get back to you?”
Automatically give yourself a 24-hour buffer before you say yes or no. You need to interrupt that people-pleasing impulse that prompts you to agree to everyone’s face and seethe later.
Step 1A: Overall, try replacing “We should definitely hang out sometime” with something that doesn’t get you into so much trouble. “It’s so nice to see you! You look great!” “Got any good travel coming up?” “Let’s hang out sometime” is not an invitation, but there are lots of other ways to say something pleasant. Find some.
Step 2: Actually check your calendar.
Step 3: Much more importantly, check your feelings. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being “Ecstatic, can’t wait” and one being “I’d rather do laundry, at least then I’d have clean laundry” how much do you want to go to this thing with this particular person?
Your feelings and enthusiasm levels, not theirs. Not “Oh, but they’ll be disappointed.” Not “Oh, but they don’t really have other friends.” Not “Oh, they’ll think I’m mad at them.” Not “I owe them because they made plans last time.”
If this is too hard, try flipping a coin, heads you MUST go, tails you absolutely CAN’T go, and check your feelings again. Do you feel relieved? Filled with dread? Excited? Can you translate that into a number between 1-10? Can you roll a d10? (You do not have to obey the coin toss or dice, it’s just a device to force you to make a decision about the feeling).
Step 4: Use your feelings-score and your calendar to make a decision.
9-10 and a good fit with the calendar? Accept with pleasure.
6 and below = decline, no matter what the calendar says. If the answer is not “Hell yes!” then default to no thanks! Don’t try to talk yourself into shit you don’t enthusiastically want to do. There’s plenty of “maybe” to work with in the 7-8 range.
Step 5: RSVP and practice not over-explaining or compulsively apologizing. I noticed a pattern in your letter of using “Sorry, I’m busy” to deflect, like you have to actually be busy or else you’re not allowed to decline any invitations, but you’re not a deli counter who has to serve the next number no matter what. Instead, replace telling people what you can and can’t do (which might prompt them to suggest solutions) with information about what you will do: “I wanted to let you know I won’t be there, sorry.” “Thanks, but that won’t work for me.”
Step 6: Is really Step 1, again. If you say no to an invite, and the person immediately suggests an alternate day or plan (which is reasonable, polite thing for them to do, especially if they do not know you have only been pretending to like them!) don’t panic! You’ve built in a buffer for yourself where you don’t commit to anything until you’ve checked both your calendar and your feelings, so do it again. “I’m not sure. Let me double-check and let you know.”
Step 7: If somebody you already feel sort of “meh” about asks you to do stuff several times in a row, and you make excuses every time, and you do not feel motivated to initiate plans of your own in the interim, then it’s probably past time to replace “Oh, sorry, I can’t, I’m busy, another time?” with “Thanks, but no.”
Step 7a: When you run into situations like this, unfollow/mute/snooze this person’s social media and deploy filters so they aren’t all up in yours.
Step 8: Can be done anytime, in any order. When you arrange hangouts, prioritize only people you adore who make you feel extremely great. If that means you see the same delightful, beloved faces again and again, and that a lot of your outer-acquaintanceships drift? Good! Let go of the idea that you need to be fair about where you spend your time and affections, and resist the notion that if someone invites you someplace you must automatically reciprocate, regardless of whether you actually want to see them.
Step 9: Re-adjust and re-calibrate, a lot, and give it time. Changing habits is really hard! You had a setback when Amy came along, but that doesn’t mean it’s all over. These steps are meant to help you practice changing patterns that are making you unhappy, you can come back to them again and again when you need and disregard them completely when you don’t.
I think that’s enough homework for one summer. We can save the part where you practice interrupting dudes who mistake you for their on-call therapist right back another time, but also, did you know that you could delete that one guy’s phone number and close off your social media connections right now, today, for the low, low price of absolutely free?
So, we’ve had a rash of these questions, and it’s been fun to sink my teeth in and try to get to the bottom of it, but this is the last “parties/awkward social hangs/friend vs. acquaintance anxiety” answer for a good while. There are tons of steps here and in the archives for practicing the art of no and cultivating the friendships you want to keep. It is okay to be friends with people you like a whole lot and to avoid people who make you feel bad. It is okay to outgrow friendships that don’t work for you, and nobody has to be evil for this to happen. It is not mean to set limits with friends you really like.
It is impossible to do these things without ever making anyone feel bad. There is no secret magic incantation where you both act on stuff thats’s bothering you and guarantee that nobody else is bothered. However, the solution is not for you to sign up to feel bad forever, as if your long-suffering, accommodating, avoidant, secretly-furious nature is some gift to other people. It isn’t a gift to them, it’s terrible for you, plus, other people will never, ever give you credit for all the times you stayed silent that they didn’t know about. Good people (however irritating or incompatible with you) do not want you to fake friendship with them or tie yourself in knots to withstand their company. The only people who want you to never disagree with them or have any needs are assholes, i.e. people who are guaranteed to never give you credit or appreciate you about this! It is a losing game.
If planning supposedly fun things is stressing you out beyond belief, you might need a therapist to unpack why. If your existing friendships are more about habit than they are about affection, you might need to seek new ones. If your existing friends punish you for having needs and make you feel like you have to swallow your tongue in order to be accepted, you should definitely seek new ones. None of that is easy, but it is profoundly worth doing, especially if the alternative is perpetually faking it… for fear of disappointing people… who make you feel bad. Life. Is. Too. Short. for this NiceGirl™ shit where seeming polite is more important than being honest, kind, or happy. It’s time to find a way to stop faking it, and I think I’ve spelled out pretty much everything *I* know about how for the time being.