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Hi Captain,

Low-stakes question here.

I (she/her) have an old, dear friend (she/her) who has recently taken up a new art form. From my limited experience, it seems like she’s really good at it! But the subject matter hits on a relatively common phobia I have – let’s say she paints enormous, detailed portraits of spiders. Not offensive in any way, super cool for some people, but totally makes my skin crawl.

For now, I’ve muted her on social media and make some time every week when I’m feeling cozy and safe to scroll through and look for non-spider content. She’s an active poster about her art and her life and I like to catch up with the latter, plus she takes it pretty personally when her close friends don’t comment on heartfelt posts.

We live in different places so I haven’t had to see her art in person, but I’ll be visiting her city soon. How can I bow out of the personal exposition she’s offered while still making it clear that I love her and support her work? Likewise, should I say anything about my social media approach?

Sincerely,

Arachnophobic Friend

Hello and thanks for the question.

You sound like a wonderful, considerate friend who does a lot to cheer for and support your friend’s artwork, bravo!

I think it’s absolutely okay to disengage from art that scares you.

I think it’s okay to disengage from art you plain old don’t like, even if a friend made it.

Also, I think that you generally do not have to explain unfollows/filters that you use to make social media more pleasant and safe for you. It’s unlikely that your friend has even noticed your personal lack of response to SPIDER SPECTACULAR 2019, but if she has that’s the perfect opening for the conversation you need to have, not a reason to remove the safety net. Edited To Add: A Twitter friend suggests possibly asking artist to carefully tag all spider-related social posts so that you can easily filter the tag.

What if you told your friend something like, “Friend, you are so talented and I love your work, but [topic] freaks me out. I really want to see some of your pieces in person when I visit, but if you don’t want to have to peel me off the ceiling or split the difference between ‘aversion’ and ‘phobia’ in real time, I’d appreciate a) detailed warnings and b) being able to skip [topic]-related stuff. Can you work with me and curate all the non-[topic] pieces? I’d love to see those.”

This person likely knows what a great friend you are, how good you are at supporting and showing up for them, and that you wouldn’t bring this up if it weren’t serious, so it should be well-received. If you get a “Whoa, are you saying I shouldn’t make art about ____?” reaction, try “Oh no! You should make art about anything and everything you want to. It’s not you, it’s definitely the spiders, and how vividly you’ve rendered them is a testament both to your talent and my extremely specific terror, which you had no way of knowing about.” 

I hope it’s a good visit and you don’t have to put any spiders (etc.) in your eyes.

 

It’s time for the monthly feature where I answer the things people typed into their search engine before they wound up here as if they are questions. These come in completely anonymously and context-free.

A few links before we get started:

  1. Dear Mantis on Twitter: Great advice column or GREATEST ADVICE COLUMN?
  2. Our beloved Goat Lady has made some big changes and is chronicling them here.
  3. Podcast Listener People: I was a guest on the Fat Like Me Podcast, answering questions about how the holidays bring out everyone’s food & body weirdness. Come for the question from the woman whose boyfriend was suggesting she cook a holiday feast for his fatphobic parents (NOPE) and stay for questions like “Is it okay to show off arms/legs at company holiday party by wearing a cute minidress” (YES).  I don’t know if the story of The Last Time I Ever Wore Spanx made it into the final edit, but talking to Cass is always a great time.

Now, as traditional, a song to take us into the search terms:

Lyrics here.

Also bonus song sent by a reader, I’ve been listening to it basically nonstop because it is so pretty:

And now for the main event!

1) “When to leave an ex alone.”

If your ex has asked you to leave them alone, that’s easy: You leave them alone 100% of the time, forever, to the very best of your ability.

If an ex has asked you to leave them alone, but you share parenting of minor children, you can still respect their wishes. Good ways to do this: Follow the custody agreement to the letter, be pro-active about anything to do with time, paperwork, and money so it only has to be done once and nobody has to chase anybody down, and stick to the least-intrusive possible way of communicating about non-emergency child-topics as they come up. The rest of the time, you leave them alone.

If an ex has asked you to leave them alone, but you work at the same place and must interact sometimes, you direct all non-essential communications to fellow team members if at all possible, you give them space, and when you absolutely have to interact you keep it polite, brief, and 100% about work topics. Be professional, don’t make things harder than they have to be. Outside of work? Leave them alone!

If an ex has never specifically asked you to leave them alone but also, they never initiate contact with you, are slow to respond to communications from you (and respond tersely when they do), they do not invite you places, include you in social events, or seek your company, then it’s probably time to stop trying to forge a friendship (or whatever you’re after) here. “But they said they wanted to stay friends!” A lot of people say that, many of them mean it sincerely, and yet: Are they acting like they want to be friends? No? Then leave them alone.

If they’ve never asked you to leave them alone and seem quite happy to stay in touch, but being around them makes you feel bad because you’re not over the relationship and/or because things that happened during the relationship are still upsetting you, and you feel like you’re having to force yourself to stay in touch, maybe give yourself the gift of not hanging out with people who routinely make you feel bad, and leave your ex alone!

When in doubt, leave your ex alone! Unfollow their social media, disengage from keeping tabs on them, and spend that energy on people who actively want to enjoy your company in the present and the future. Your ex knows how to reach you if they’d like to reconsider.

Related Content: 

2) “Is it weird to want to reach out to an ex after years” and 3) “I want to get coffee with an ex.”

“Weird” is very subjective. It’s certainly not unusual to want to reconnect with an ex if how often this comes up in the search terms, the awkward mailbox, and the odd “hey I was just thinking about you” popping up in my dms a couple times a decade are indicators.

“Not weird”/”Not unusual” aren’t the same as “A Very Good Idea That I Endorse!,” so how’s this for a few guidelines for making it less weird?

  • Assume the other person has not been thinking about you as much as you have been thinking about them (as in, they might not think about you at all).
  • Be honest with yourself about your hopes and intentions.
  • If things ended relatively amicably and you think this person might be open to having coffee or catching up briefly online, then ask, once. 
  • Ask in a way that’s straightforward and easy to say “yes” or “no” about. “Hey, I’m going to be in town over the holidays, if you’ll be around can we meet for coffee?” “Hey, I found a bunch of old photos and recordings from that band we were in together, can I mail you copies?” 
  • If they say yes, then enjoy the coffee or the catch-up. If the person says “no thanks,” leave it there. You broke up for a reason, you made the one attempt, now you know!
  • Back to those intentions: Don’t be sketchy with yourself or others in your life, especially current romantic partners. Does “just catching up with an old friend” mean lying  to somebody about something? That’s a good sign to Just Not!
  • Speaking from experience both personal and forged in the fire of 1,000 Awkward Mailbox letters: If you’ve recently become single and you think your long-ago ex would be the best sympathetic, comforting sounding board for you as you process your feelings about life, love and loss, it’s possible The Highwomen wrote a song for you.
  • If any of this seems harsh please note: The search string wasn’t “how do I reconnect with a friend who is also an ex” –  if these people were friends, they’d already be friends.

:brief musical interlude:

(Lyrics)

4) “Fourth date and he hasn’t kissed me.”

There is exactly one person on earth who knows if “he” is not particularly attracted to you vs. he is into you but nervous about kissing you for the first time vs. he is not comfortable with taking the expected role where “he” = “common initiator of kissing stuff”  vs. he’s  asexual/demisexual and not particularly into kissing or needs a lot of time to know if he is into kissing you, specifically vs. he’s at home wondering why you haven’t made the first kissing-sort-of-move in his direction.

If you’ve been enjoying the dates so far and would like to see if Kissing Each Other is a thing that “he” is into, it’s probably time for you to ask him about it. “Would it be okay if I kissed you?” or “I’ve enjoyed going on these dates with you, would you be interested in some kissing?” are possible ways to do that, I hope you get a clear and mutually satisfying answer.

5) “He realized he cant handle a relationship right now.”

That’s a breakup. You are broken up. Grieve the possibility and move on,  he knows how to find you if he changes his mind. I’m so sorry.

6) “My friend told me I was obsessing over a guy.”

Are you obsessing over a guy?

If yes, is your friend trying to tell you:

a) The fixation is noticeable to others and your friend wants you to be aware so it doesn’t get embarrassingly out of hand (for instance, you all work together) or unhealthy for you (i.e. your friend is saying, ‘being this intense about someone is worrying them or unlike you, are you sure you’re ok?’).

b) Your friend wishes to hear much, much less about said guy.

c) Both a and b, i.e. a) “reign it in” and b) “find another sounding board, please. “

If no, why does your friend think that you are? (Plus, see (b) above). These are very good questions to ask yourself and your friend!

6) “Talking and treating your adult kids with baby voices.”

My entire body recoiled from this, but I’m back.

If you were to say, “[Parent], I’m [age]. I have a mortgage. I have a will. I have at least three distinct types of insurance. Can you please stop with the baby voice?” 

What would happen? Would they stop? Or would you get: “But I’m your [parent] and you’ll always be my liddle-widdle babykins!” 

Because to that you could try saying, “I understand that you remember when I was a baby very fondly, but I don’t remember that (’cause I was… a baby), and it’s very distracting to try to have an adult conversation when you use that [voice][nickname] with me. Can you just talk to Adult Me, A Grownup That You Successfully Raised, from now on?” 

They either will or they won’t. If that affects how you perceive your relationship and how much you want to spend time being baby-talked at, so be it, that’s a choice they are making and you have choices, too.

There are tactics that can help over time, like ignoring requests that are made in the baby voice and responding to ones that are made in a normal speaking voice (giving attention for good behavior and removing it for bad), reminders (“[Parent], we talked about this, you know I really hate the baby voice, so why are you still doing it?”). It will probably get worse before it gets better, and for that, I am sorry. Stay firm, this is worth fighting about.

7) “I am so tired of hearing my husband complain about his job.”

Periodic venting about work and asking for emotional support and advice about work and career stuff are pretty routine, reasonable partner-things to do with a spouse, but there are limits.

Signs it’s gone too far:

  • The partner spends their workday at Horrible Job and then your entire evening together is spent Reliving Horrible Job and the whole weekend is about Dreading Horrible Job.
  • You find yourself thinking, “But I don’t have to work there, so why do I feel like I do?”
  • Sharing the problem doesn’t seem to release tension or make the person feel better, the venting feeds on itself and the person gets more and more irritable as they go.
  • Bonus: Their irritability about work becomes irritability with you.
  • The venting is repetitive and unchangeable. Today’s bad work thing reminds them of every bad work thing that’s ever happened, and once a rant has started the person resists subject changes to the point it starts feeling (to you) like a ritual that cannot be interrupted once it’s begun. What is this for?
  • You’ve of course done the “Do you want advice or do you just want me to listen?” check-in before giving any advice, they choose “advice” sometimes, and now the nightly venting ritual includes arguing with you about why your advice is bad/impossible.
  • Nothing at work gets better, and you start to feel as stuck in the relationship dynamic as they do in the job.

I want to make it super-clear that both Mr. Awkward and I have been the “And ANOTHER THING about [adjuncting][customer service]!!!!!!” person and the “Babe, quit or don’t, but we can’t have this conversation even one more time” person in the last seven years and this is because capitalism sucks.

Some things that readers have suggested/Some things that have helped me, personally, ruin fewer evenings with endless workfeelingsdump are:

  • Create a structure for work-talk. Some people literally set a timer – you get 5 minutes, I get 5 minutes, we go back and forth for 10, then we try to stop talking about work for the day. Adapt that or find something else that works for you (I, personally, do not use the timer) with the caveats that setting limits or designing a structure doesn’t mean that work is never discussed at any other time, or that you have to make formal appointments, etc., with each other for support or venting, or that there’s never a reason to dig in for a good long discussion. When it works, it hopefully interrupts a daily, unsustainable cycle where one person auto-dumps and the other person dreads it/avoids it/tunes out of it/endures it, and replaces it with a predictable routine where everybody gets to vent some, everybody gets the expectation of being listened to with full attention some, and there is an agreement in place to fight, together on the same team, the notion that The Problem Of The No-Good Terrible Job always has to be the focus of the time you spend together.
  • Reclaim the time. If you try setting limits about how often work talk can be happening, reframe it away from “SHOULDn’t I be more supportive?”/”But isn’t it a partner’s JOB to listen?” and toward “Look, if we spend the whole day working and the whole evening talking about work, it’s like the job stole both your day and our night, too. We have to set limits on how much of our time and energy that place gets to have during unpaid hours!” You’re not a terrible spouse if you need to vent about your job, you’re not a bad, unsupportive, mean, selfish spouse if you do not want to mentally work four+ additional hours at your spouse’s job for every eight hateful hours they spend there. This dynamic is worth re-designing.
  • Practice opening the floodgates and closing them again, even if there is more to say. In film and theater we talk about “putting a button” on the end of a scene, which means finding an action or line (or lighting cue, cut, transition) that signifies that this beat is done for now, but still leaves the story open to continue. Maybe this concept can help with refiguring how you end difficult discussions, which is not a thing that comes naturally? As in, once discussion time is over, can you decide to physically move into a different room and purposely start a different, pleasurable activity together (put your feet up, watch a TV show, play with the pets) or separate for a little while and do solo self-care stuff (take a shower, practice piano, take a bike ride or walk, take some quiet time to read or play computer games)? There may be more to say, but honestly, you don’t have to rehash every work problem from the beginning or solve it all in one go every single time you talk about it, this is a hard but extremely worthwhile lesson to learn, plus I generally suck at task-switching and find that moving into a different room to end one thing and start something new makes it easier.
  • Give credit and acknowledgement and love often. Sometimes the least worst option (assuming everyone would like to keep eating and living indoors) is to keep going to a bad job with the knowledge that you’re not going to be able to change it or fix it or suddenly stumble on or invent a new one any time soon. In that case, validating oneself (“Everything sucks but I am doing my best I can in an unfixable situation”) and each other (“I know it sucks, and I can see how hard you work to keep your integrity in a difficult situation, I’m proud of you”) can go a long way.

Set some limits, redirect some conversations, offer what support you can, be gentle with yourselves and each other.

If you’re the serial venter with the bad job, here are some resources for getting out of it/enduring it until you can: 

And here’s my two-cents from having been that person:

Practice converting complaints into action, even silly action. Sometimes complaining is healthy and necessary to define problems, process emotions, and let my Team Me into what’s going on in my life. Other times, I get in anxiety loops where the more attention and words I give the problem without doing anything about it, the worse I feel. When I catch myself in an unhappy cycle where nothing is improving, I’m sick of the problem and myself, and I can feel the people who love me are maxing out on soothing noises, I write down my complaints, and then for each one I write down something I could do about it, including both realistic action steps and total absurdities.

Maybe today isn’t the day I can [take rational, reasonable, positive steps to further my career] but it’s also the day I successfully did NOT [quit without notice by yelling “Good luck, fuckers!” and rappelling dramatically down the building][Smuggle in a live goose as an offering to HONK, the God of Mayhem], go me! Sometimes having that snapshot of actionable vs. absurd helps me begin sorting out whether anything can be done and in what order. On the occasions it doesn’t, at least I amused myself momentarily and didn’t ruin another evening dumping it all in Mr. Awkward’s lap without preamble. Some days that’s the best we can do.

Create rituals around ending the workday and re-entering “home” or “relationship” space. Example: When I was teaching full-time, I’d sometimes have 12 hours in a row of teaching and meeting with students, with 20 minutes here and there to check emails, wolf down a food, and use the restroom before the next class. On good days, nobody followed me into the bathroom to try to pitch me their projects or ask about their grades through the stall door!

When I came home after a day like that, I needed to take the bra off, put on pajamas, wash my face, and be unavailable to every living being for 15-30 minutes of quiet. I couldn’t be a listener in that mode, and if I started talking, I might not ever stop. Once I figured that out, on days I gave myself permission to take that time and space, I would be a much better [human cat bed and servant][wife][dining companion][self-regulator of emotional workspew] then when I did not. If you and your spouse don’t have your own versions of coming inside and donning your snappy indoor cardigan and tennis shoes, think about making some. I think it helps with the whole “we are not on Work Time right now” project.

8) “My boyfriend keeps accusing me of still being married to my ex.” 

I am assuming a) you are NOT still married to your ex and b) you have told your boyfriend this with words? If so, what we have here is a boyfriend problem.

Feeling jealousy sometimes is human.

Making wild, untrue accusations, repeating these accusations even when they’ve been corrected, and using jealousy as a reason to question a partner’s integrity and control their behavior is what’s known as a red flag.

I don’t even know how to fashion a script for this, but I’ll try:

“I’m not still married to my ex, the fact that you still bring it up is incredibly weird and upsetting. 

If worrying about this is occupying your thoughts to the point that it’s affecting how you feel about our relationship, please seek counseling, but I’m not discussing it with you again. Stop.” 

If he brings it up after that? Someone who questions reality in a way designed to upset and blame you is unlikely to result in a safe or healthy long-term partnership. Abort!

9) “Should I tell my parents I’m gay before I get married.”

Methinks you were searching for this prior post on how to share news that 1) I’m gay 2) I’m married!.

tl;dr: Wedding announcements: So useful!

If that’s the case, it seems like a good time to talk to your fiancé(e) about coming out to family before the wedding, who (if anyone from the family) should get this information and be invited to the wedding, and who would be better off with a nice wedding announcement after the fact. Decide together with your future spouse how you want to handle everything for maximum safety and comfort, and then work from there.

If you are gay but you are about to marry a straight person who thinks you are also a straight person, BEFORE THE WEDDING is the time to have that conversation (even if that conversation is “I’m sorry, we need to cancel the wedding, this is a mistake“), whether or not you can safely come out or loop in your parents right away. I don’t know anyone who has done this specific thing before the wedding personally, but I have seen more than one marriage where the people in it learned the hard way that nothing painful gets LESS painful after “I do,” a breakup that needs expensive government paperwork, and a party with lots of photos to remind you how sad and scary and lonely it felt to go through with it even when you knew it was doomed. ❤ and courage.

10) “My professor is so hard to reach through email.”

Professors vary wildly in their preferences around email and what constitutes a reasonable timeframe for expecting a response. Some people will get right back to you, some people will write back within the week, some will wonder why you don’t just come to office hours, already, some really wanted to write back to you but they are adjuncts on a semester contract and their access to the system auto-locked them out the second the grades posted.

In ye olden days of the mid-1990s, I went through undergraduate study without ever emailing a professor that I can remember (I think my senior year is when they started issuing faculty email addresses that students could know about) and I’ve studied with and taught alongside some folks who act as if those days are still happening.

Here are my suggestions if you have a professor who is routinely non-responsive to email:

  1. Email them anyway. This spells out the question or request and documents that it was made in the first place.
  2. This seems like a good time to re-link the basic guide to emailing professors
  3. If your question is about the course subject matter, revisit: The syllabus, your notes & readings, talk to classmates and see if it’s in their notes. Give it your best shot. Best case you answer it yourself, the worst that happens here is you end up with a way more specific question when the prof does respond.
  4. If your question is about course logistics (due dates, something is unclear on syllabus, what’s going to be exams, etc.) double-check syllabus and course materials and check in with the [teaching assistants][the most diligent note-takers in the class, at least one of whom you should befriend if at all possible]. Maybe they can help you.
  5. #3 & #4, translated: Assume that due dates on the syllabus are still real, assignments as described are still the assignments, even if your professor doesn’t respond. A lot of students email their professors and then stop working on anything until they get an answer, which, I get why they do this, but professors working on the old “I talk to students in class and then during office hours, that should cover it!” model do not think this way, so I advise asking your question and then proceeding as best you can with the work based on the information you have. Revisions of imperfect work that was handed in as spelled out in the syllabus > opening negotiations around late work with someone who is bad at responding to questions.
  6. Go class and to office hours if you possibly can. If you can’t, make an appointment to meet face-to-face. If the problem is that you can’t physically be in class or attend office hours, and/or your question is time-sensitive try: calling the number on the syllabus and/or calling the department phone to leave a message for them, or asking a classmate who can attend to carry a note/question for you.
  7. Ask politely if they prefer another way of being contacted. “I sent an email about _____ and haven’t heard back yet, is it okay to send another email if I have more questions about ______, or do you prefer the phone for things like that?” “Making it to office hours is hard for me, it conflicts with another class, can I make an appointment to meet before our lecture to go through [my paper draft][review difficult material], or could we set up brief phone conference?”
  8. Sometimes department admins have the cheat codes, and speaking with them in person (do not put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want forwarded to the person you’re writing about) can unlock the secrets of the Eldritch Ways. Script: “I’ve been trying to email Professor ______, and I’m not hearing back, is there another good way to get in touch about [thing you need]?” Sometimes the admin will gently put a metaphoric boot in the person’s ass on your behalf, sometimes they’ll direct you to that person’s teaching assistant/minder and sometimes they’ll tell you stuff like “Oh, ____ is terrible at email, anything I want them to see I write on a piece of paper and shove under their office door. If you’re a student, include your name, what class and section it is, your phone number and a good time to call you back, it usually takes a day or two, but they will respond.” 
  9. Probably get someone else to write time-sensitive recommendation letters?
  10. There might be contact info for a “department coordinator” or “course coordinator” listed on the syllabus. If the above tactics aren’t getting it done, try a note to that person, as in: “Dear _____, I am a student in [course][section] with [professor]. I had a family emergency and will need to miss class on ____. I’ve emailed Professor ___ to arrange makeup work/handing in late work and have not heard back yet. Are you someone who can let him know that I won’t be there this week, and do you have suggestions for getting in touch by phone or some other way to sort out due dates?” 
  11. Be polite and professional, even if you’re frustrated, especially with anything that’s in writing. If this becomes a grade dispute or something where the department needs to be looped in, the more the emails you’ve sent read like “Hello, this is a polite, reasonable person who asks good questions in a timely manner,” the more it will go your way. If these people work with your bad-at-email professor all the time, trust me, they know how bad it sucks.

11) “Family member always canceling plans.”

In the absence of history, context, or reasons (disability/illness? small kids? money?transportation issues? family disputes/history? other logistics) here are some things I suggest for handling someone who routinely cancels plans:

  • Talk to ’em directly about it and ask questions. “I want to keep including you and trying to see you, but you keep cancelling. Is there some reason that’s happening that I don’t know about? Is there something we could do to make attending easier for you?” 
  • Change up the plans. Maybe you go to them instead of inviting them to you, maybe you try something last minute if advance-planning is hard to commit to, maybe a quick drink or coffee or running an errand together > a big family gathering.
  • Take a break from making plans for a while, at least, stop taking the lead on making plans, and put the ball in their court. “I’d love to see you, and I’m happy to work around your schedule, why don’t you let me know when you can definitely get together and we’ll work something out then.” “You’re always invited, if you know can’t make it for some reason, it helps a lot if you give me as much lead time as possible.”
  • Don’t plan things with this person that require advance tickets or deposits if you have a history of having to eat the cost of those things when they can’t come.
  • Plan things that don’t depend 100% on their attendance. One way to do this is to lock in reliable people and then include the frequent canceller in those plans once they’re set, i.e. “X, Y, and Z are going to see Knives Out at 3pm Sunday at [theater], with an early dinner at [place] right after. Feel free to join us, everyone’s just gonna snag their own ticket and meet up at the theater, so just grab yourself a ticket and text me on the day if you want us to save you a seat.” This gives the person the chance to opt in and you the chance to enjoy yourself without banking on them.
  • If it’s not okay with you when someone cancels, stop pretending that it is. Stop saying “no problem” when it is a problem. People can have very good reasons for needing to cancel, we can be accommodating and understanding of those reasons, and it can still hurt like hell when it happens routinely. If you find yourself saying “no problem” around this a lot (and then quietly seething), try replacing it with “Oh no! I was really looking forward to seeing you, so I hope you’ll reschedule when you’re able.” 

This question and its mirror (“I am the person who has to keep cancelling plans, for Reasons, and I’m afraid of losing all my relationships, but I just can’t guarantee that it will be different next time”) carry a lot of fear: fear of rejection, of losing connections, of looking bad, of being considered “too flaky” or “too rigid,” of imbalance/lack of reciprocity, of being the person who has to do all the work of maintaining relationships (“Would anyone even like me if I didn’t host/plan all the things?” is a variant I see a lot, as well as “Everyone stopped inviting me places and I’m pretty sure it’s my fault for saying no 100 times in a row, but how do fix it?” ), of shame around money (“I want to go but I can’t afford it”), of ableist messages (“They would be here if they really wanted to come”).

It sucks, and sometimes the best we can do is to speak honestly about what we want and need, find ways to convey affection and stay connected even when face-to-face hangouts aren’t working, set each other up to succeed as much as possible, enjoy relationships even if they aren’t perfectly balanced, take breaks from working on unworkable problems when we need to and leave the door open a little (even when it would be fair to shut it for a while) when we can.

No comments today. May upcoming holidays be restful and celebratory.

Hi!

I am 28, she/her. My sister in law (“A”) is also 28 and my brother (“D”) is 31.

I have a question about gift etiquette.

Last year on my birthday, A and D gave me a bunch of used DVDs. They got me slightly damaged copies of a couple movies and every season of a TV show my parents liked in the 90’s that I have never expressed any interest in. They wrapped each one individually so they could watch me unwrap them and giggle. I got the joke – this is a terrible gift! Hahaha – but I wasn’t included in the joke. With each one I opened, I got more confused, which seemed to make it even more funny for them.

That Christmas, they did it again, and this time they did it to my parents as well. They got me individual seasons of a TV show that is available in its entirety on Netflix and that I have had conversations about with them in the past where I said I did not like the show. They got my parents copies of DVDs they already owned. All of these were slightly beat up from being previously owned. They giggled and said things like “That’s an important one” and “Better get on watching that soon” the whole time.

My parents pretended to like them the whole time, but as A and D had already done this on my birthday, I finally got frustrated and refused to open more presents from them, because they just kept coming. We all take turns opening gifts and every time it was my turn, it was another used DVD.

Meanwhile, I work very hard on gifts. Last year I got A, a notorious anglophile, a certificate to a years subscription to a service that gets a ton of different British TV shows she had been wanting to watch but hadn’t been able to get access to. I nestled the certificate in a box of fortune cookie fortunes I had collected throughout the year (she collects these and plans to cover a table with them someday). For D I spent months searching for a sweater that had the Coca Cola logo on it. (He loves Coke. He once wrote an essay on its history for a college history class.) These were in addition to other things – games they didn’t have (they love board games) and nice teas (they enjoy tea). I spent ages trying to find thoughtful gifts and then I wrapped each one in nice paper that’s in their favorite colors.

The Christmas before last they didn’t get me a joke gift. They got me a “gummy candy maker.” It was essentially brightly colored silicone molds and unbranded Jello to put in them. It was obviously a children’s toy, and when I opened it, it was sticky from being previously owned. I pretended to be interested and thanked them, which made them smirk at each other. They also gave me a wine-scented candle. It was branded as being from a winery A’s parents had gone to a month or two prior. (Meaning I think they regifted it.)

So they have always given gifts like this, last year was just kind of a new level.

After they left last Christmas, my mom pulled me aside and was like, “Do you know what was going on with all the used DVDs?”

I said, “I think they just thought it was funny.” She seemed a bit crestfallen. She gives gifts similar to mine. She had gotten A a rare kind of tea set.

Furthermore, I don’t think A used the gift certificate and I know D got rid of the sweater because this year Mom said we should take a family photo wearing goofy sweaters and D said he didn’t have one. I said, “What about the one I gave you last Christmas?” He said “Oh, right. I might still have that.”

This is not a money thing – they both make more money than I do and buy nice, new things for themselves regularly. They’re just giving me joke gifts and doubling down when my feelings are hurt. I guess they just don’t like the gifts I give them.

I don’t mean to seem like I’m bragging about being super great at giving gifts or I’m entitled to lots of cool presents. I only meant that I try to put a lot of thought into their gifts and save up for them for a long time. They take a long time to think of and pull off. And A and D get cheap gifts at the last second. I would rather they didn’t get me anything at all.

My question is, what is the etiquette for receiving gifts that hurt my feelings? Do I have to keep pretending they don’t? What should I feel about trying really hard to get them things they like and having them openly dislike them? I want to just get them Amazon gift cards this year, but if they decide to get me non-joke presents this year I’ll just look like an asshole. I don’t know what to do or say.

Sorry this is so long. Thank you in advance.

Hello, thank you for the extremely timely seasonal question that is also an example of when rules that we’re taught about good manners as a child stop working around certain adults.

A Rule Most Of Us Were Taught: “It’s rude to interrupt.”

Sometimes it is, but when you’re dealing with someone who never lets you talk, or who says upsetting things (shame spirals on an unceasing loop, un-constructive criticisms, various bigotries, answering questions you didn’t ask by explaining shit you already know, and yes – even well-meaning, enthusiastic conversational overflow from ADHD kids like me!), it really, really pays to interrupt them, and you’ll be much happier if you do. People who tend to dominate conversations won’t shrivel and die of interruption. (Truthfully, we might not even notice.)

A Rule Most Of Us Were Taught: “It’s ruder to criticize someone’s etiquette mistake than it is to make the etiquette mistake in the first place.” This is a rule about culture and fitting in.

Emily Post, one of the best-known proponents of this approach, saw her advice as a way to a) help both new immigrants to the United States and the suddenly proliferating middle and new-money classes understand social mores so they could better assimilate (with assumed advantages to them for employment and upward mobility) and b) remind her own snobby, crusty, filthy-rich peers to value kindness and making an effort over polish. She was hardly a revolutionary, but for every “don’t swing your arms please it’s unladylike” tip she ever wrote there is definitely a delicious aspect of “If a guest doesn’t know what a finger-bowl is and you, the host, try to embarrass them, call attention to their difference, or make fun of them for not knowing, YOU are the asshole in this situation and next time we run into each other in the lane be careful I don’t issue the Cut Direct in the form of a kid-gloved fist to your puckered little jerkface, you absolute failure of a human being”* running through her work. Good, right?

Sadly, somehow people have translated and handed this down as “When someone is being rude, it’s even ruder to speak up about it” even when the failure on display isn’t one of form but of kindness. Worse, they’ve taught some of us that what’s “most polite” is our silence and compliance and “civility” at all costs. The costs are adding up, to the point that thanks to old-fashioned white supremacy and widespread Fox News poisoning, next Thursday in these United States I doubt a single minute of daylight will pass without someone’s relative saying something downright genocidal without a peep from anybody (because: politeness!), but the second someone does challenge Uncle I-Put-The-Eugene-In-Eugenics, that person will be told  “Shhhh! No arguing politics at the holiday table!”** and get treated like the originator of the problem.

Is it an exaggeration to say that every word of this blog for the past nine years is meant to be a deliberate rebellion against this expectation and conditioning?

A Rule We Were Taught: GIFTING EDITION

“I don’t care if it’s a dog turd in a cereal box! When someone gives you a gift, you say ‘thank you’ and act like you love it ’til we get home.” – My Dad, Christmas, 1982, when my aunt gave me an E.T. figurine she’d crafted in a paint-your-own-ceramics workshop and I cried both because I’d wanted something Star Wars or Barbie-related and because, well, look at it. (The rest of the story, including, why is it in the top rack of a dishwasher, at Patreon).

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Image: A hideous though no-doubt lovingly crafted ceramic E.T. figurine, in the top rack of a dishwasher.

Dad was absolutely right, my aunt had worked hard on something she hoped I’d love, and she deserved a polite thank you. She didn’t know about the nightmares! But this doesn’t apply when it’s a repeat offender giving deliberately bad gifts. My big brother and I gave each other matching $35 Borders gift cards wrapped in increasingly elaborate packages for a solid decade as a way of saying, “I have no idea who you are and what you like as an adult, we can still beat a joke into submission and resurrect it, kill the joke again, and laugh hysterically at the zombie joke lurching through the room just like we did when we were kids!” It infuriated my mom that we weren’t giving “real presents,” but for us it was 100% a way of expressing love. Pranks where everyone isn’t in on the joke, pranks where everyone isn’t actively participating, pranks that fall flat every year? Are just being mean. 

Letter Writer, your parents’ confusion at the idea of joke gifts and pretense that this was in any way enjoyable tells me that you were taught something similar: Gifts are exercises in care and thoughtfulness; the worst thing in the world is to be visibly ungrateful for a gift.

Unfortunately your brother and his wife are being jerks and they need to be TOLD.  Either they genuinely think it’s funny and that you’re in on the joke, or they get off on bullying you, either way, they will not get hints. They will never ‘read the room.’ You gotta tell them.

Possible script:

“[Brother], I know you and [Spouse] love the joke gift thing, but I really hate it. This year can we either do real gifts – I’m happy to send you a list of a couple affordable things I could use and you can do the same, I’d love to get you and A. something you would definitely use – or, otherwise, can we agree to skip the whole thing? I’d rather just do nothing than have to unwrap a bunch of damaged crap again and pretend it’s fun.” 

Your parents are responsible for their own approach to this but maybe you could also ask your brother to give you money to purchase a group gift for your parents. You like picking out gifts! Volunteer to do the work and pick out something actually nice from all of you. If he offers any resistance, know that this is more trouble than its worth, get a nice gift for your parents from yourself and let your parents handle him.

If they agree to a cool gift and try to prank you with a shitty gift again, when you open the first scratched DVD of Two-And-A-Half Men or whatever utter garbage they chose this time I give you permission to say, “Oh, are we doing this again? Here, you open them, then since this is really a present for you.” DON’T PARTICIPATE IN OBVIOUS BULLSHIT. You may feel intense discomfort and pressure not to react this way (because of the “it’s ruder to acknowledge rudeness than to be the rudeness” conditioning you’ve received and because you are a good, thoughtful person) but like, enough already, Brother and Sister-in-Law! If they insist on making it weird, then let it be as fucking weird and unpleasant as they make it at least once.

As far as what to give them, may I suggest:

  • Nothing. “Oh, I didn’t bother this year – you like joke gifts and I don’t have the energy for all that. Who wants more eggnog?” I mixed a few joke suggestions in below but I am incredibly serious about trying out “Nothing” this year. They felt comfortable giving you nothing in the past, so…?
  • A single pair of white unisex gym socks each. (Socks are useful.)
  • Who couldn’t use an AA battery? You had this one in the junk drawer. It’s probably still good.
  • Donate to a charity you like in their name.
  • Your suggestion of gift cards is perfect, they never go out of style and you probably aren’t a person who can be comfortable coming empty-handed, but honestly, they don’t deserve you.
  • Seriously, save your money and your thoughtful, careful gift choices for people who appreciate them, these two are never gonna really get on your wavelength about this.

Additionally, readers have shared stories of deliberately mean, crappy, “I got everyone a nice gift and you an obviously ill-suited afterthought gift to show how much I don’t actually care about you” incidents from family members with me and asked what I suggest they do next time with repeat offenders, so may I offer up a flat “Oh thanks I would never have thought of this for myself” response and then leaving whatever it is behind under the tree, neatly tucked in a hall closet, or under a bed somewhere when you go. They’ll find it or they won’t, once it’s given to you it’s yours to do with as you please, and they can draw their own conclusions.

Yes, of course you coooooooooooooooooooooould quietly take it and throw it away or try to donate it or regift it once you get home but there’s something symbolic leaving this obviously hostile turd of a present behind for them to figure out how to store or dispose of. Of course this opens the door to the gifter trying to chase you down and get you to accept it (any excuse to bully you, right), so in that case try, “Oh, I didn’t forget, I had no desire for a [child-sized jumpsuit the color of dog doodoo][some dusty crap from the basement you’re trying to pawn off on me][a broken ice-scraper][a food thing I’m 100% allergic to, and oh goody, it’s expired][“Look I thought we covered this when I married your son and every one of the twelve years since, but I’M JEWISH, MISS ME WITH THE LIGHT UP MANGER SCENE AND THE ‘IRONIC’ CHRISTMAS SWEATERS], so hopefully you can use it? Thanks for the thought!”

Also, see above, and consider giving these people the gift of NOTHING from now on. They can try to play their game but you don’t have to participate.

*Obviously I’m paraphrasing  but if Emily Post were alive today she would 100% haunt the Am I The Asshole Reddit in her free time exhorting people to come correct even if they are tragically reduced to wearing last season’s gloves and keeping only one manservant. Believe it. P.S. Laura Claridge has written an excellent biography.

**“Don’t talk politics at the table.” Okay, I’ve been guilty of hoping  that one would work in the past, in the sense of giving hosts tools to shut down the loudmouths, but it needs an update. Most “politics” “arguments” afoot, especially among my fellow white people, currently aren’t “zoning laws should be slightly different, let’s discuss that and find the best solution,” they are more like:

Our Worst Relatives: “THOSE people with certain identities deserve to DIE and THEY are the ones VICTIMIZING ME by EXISTING LIKE THAT and YOU are being RUDE if you don’t agree, in silence.”

Us: “The opposite of all of that, actually? Also, I am somewhat Those People?”

Missing Stair Enabling Squad: “Why are you antagonizing them when you know they’re ‘just like that’? There’s no need to be uncivil!”

These lopsided calls for civility are bullshit, this isn’t about MANNERS, it’s about ETHICS and the SURVIVAL of our fellow humans, so let’s get fucking real and start Returning. Awkwardness. To. Sender. 

 

aaamikkikendallbook

Image: Cover of Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists by Mikki Kendall and A. D’Amico

Good news, Mikki Kendall’s beautiful book, Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History Of Women’s Fight For Their Rights, is finally out. The IndieBound link is above, Amazon is here, it’s illustrated by the amazing A. D’Amico and just breathtakingly wonderful and gorgeous.

Mr. Awkward is cataloging his year of ambitious projects with his blog/email newsletter, Too Early Old, Too Late Smart. Mental health, fighting perfectionism, the nitty gritty daily work of acquiring a new skill and flexing old ones, it’s good stuff.

Do you wish all the holiday + faaaaaaaamily advice from our site was re-fashioned as satire for Reductress or The Onion instead? Good news, my brain did, too:

“I had never really considered that my mother-in-law might want grandchildren or have anything to say about human reproduction,” explained Lucy*, 38, a graphic designer in Baltimore, Maryland. “But then we were saying the blessing before the meal at Thanksgiving and she locked eyes with me, reached over my plate, patted my stomach, and told me that she had asked God to send me a baby soon, and it was like this lightbulb went off. I grabbed my husband and we went to the guest room right then to get cracking on giving her the Christmas Present she wants most.”

Read on for how (not) to overcome political disagreements, find common ground on “healthy” eating, and get the most up-to-date employment advice from people who haven’t had to look for a job in 30 years. Free to read and share at Patreon.

Fourth! I have promised my therapist I will organize my thoughts in more posts and fewer long Twitter threads, so let’s discuss about a recent column from Ask A Manager: Where do you start when you inherit a bad employee? The Letter Writer’s colleague is about to be promoted and inherit a known problem employee, and wants advice for how to handle that, especially when previous managers have let a lot of things slide and things have festered. Alison advises [bolding mine]:

  

   

I heartily agree, and want to re-apply this advice both to work and interpersonal conflicts. Since the beginning of the site, I’ve tried to spell out the difference between “Hey, knock it off”/”Can you please do x?” conversations vs. “We need to talk” conversations and give script recommendations for both kinds so that Letter Writers have a range of options at their disposal.

Many, many people who write to me about a ongoing stressful situation are hoping for a guide to having One Uncomfortable Conversation To Rule Them All. What is the most efficient, honest, kind, direct way to sit down with someone, spell out the range of issues, head off uncomfortable moments and potential problems ahead of time, tell someone news they don’t want to hear “without upsetting them,” say “good talk everyone,” and then never have to worry about the problem behavior or irritating habit again? Why spend all this time with little check-ins and reminders when, surely, there is a way to just address to the root causes and handle the whole thing at once?

This is an admirable impulse and I love it, every time. (((((((((MY PEOPLE)))))))))

It is also incredibly hard to pull off in real life.

When everyone is acting in good faith and there is a lot of trust and goodwill in place, State Of The Relationship talks can be useful, clarifying, and bring everyone closer together with a greater understanding of each other’s needs and preferences.

However:

When something has been allowed to fester, unaddressed over time…

When hints and subtle requests have not worked, when the person is known to ‘not take criticism’ well…

When the other person does not act in good faith and/or is un-self-aware…

When the person is someone you don’t particularly like [like a ‘problem’ coworker or roommate vs. a close friend] and you just want to get what you want and not have to delve into their feelings or reasons…

…Having a “bigger picture” sit-down to lay out some overall things the person could do to make the relationship better is riddled with pitfalls.

I say this especially for the conflict-averse [MY PEOPLE!!!] folks who might be putting off a difficult discussion until they can find the one true perfect way to have it [MY PEOPLE!!!!!]:

One of the biggest constructive conflict-management life skills I have ever learned, after much trial and error, is that it is not in any way easier to wait and talk to people in terms of overall patterns and personality traits that bother you than it is to address very specific actions you want them to take (or stop taking) at the detail level.

It’s the difference between saying “Hey, roommate, did you eat my leftovers? Ok, can you stop?” the first or second time it happens vs. letting it happen for a year without saying anything to them, complaining constantly to your friends and everyone who is not your roommate, getting angrier and angrier until the whole living space is seething with unspoken hostility, and then eventually exploding at the person with a laundry list of stored grievances, which makes them feel (understandably) attacked and defensive.

There’s a fallacy that it’s not “worth” speaking up when a problem is small because we don’t want to appear “difficult” or “make trouble” and I don’t know what put it in so many of our heads that we are supposed to save up the words “no” and “stop” and “don’t” for Special Occasions, but one of my missions in life is to extract this extremely maladaptive training from myself and anyone else who needs it. It’s not helping us. It’s not helping anyone, when you consider that good people who would be happy to give us what we need if they knew what it was tend to be mortified when they find out how long they were secretly upsetting us, and the assholes basically got to buy more assholing time at our expense, now with more plausible deniability!

Plus, it turns out that extrapolating pattens from observing others’ individual behaviors and collapsing a general statement about human behavior and applying it to one’s own behaviors are very, very different activities.

Read More

Whenever I write about difficult parent stuff (like yesterday) my inbox immediately gets filled with more difficult parent and family estrangement stuff, which makes sense because, people find out they aren’t alone and I have quite a lot to say about difficult parent stuff. It takes…a lot…to write about my family and I know I am not going to be able to answer all of these the way they deserve, so I want to gather some advice and resources in one place. I’m also going to make this an open thread where people can talk to each other about difficult family stuff.

Archives:

Here are a some of the Captain Awkward Difficult Family Greatest Hits. The tags parents, boundaries, family, faaaaaaaamily  and emotional abuse will get you more.

Common Themes and Recommendations:

  • If your childhood and parent relationships are impacting you heavily in the present (a good indicator is, you start an advice column letter with “ever since I was a child” or talk a lot about your childhood as it impacts a present-day situation), consider therapy. It’s not perfect, it’s not for everyone, but if it’s useful for anything, “placing our history in perspective so the past doesn’t have to keep eating the present” is one of those things.
  • Your parent may not want to get a therapist or make friends but it doesn’t mean you have to be their therapist or their only friend. (You might also want to read about parentification, a form of child abuse where the parent expects the child to take care of their emotional well-being and assume an adult role in the family.)
  • If you’re dreading upcoming holiday gatherings, what if you skipped all of it this year and did something you could look forward to? What does a Happy Holiday actually look like to you and could this be the year you make one?
  • You don’t owe abusive people a deathbed reconciliation, endless chances to hurt you, access to their grandchildren, a continuation of every single family tradition in the exact way they would prefer it, or a story of a happy childhood that makes everyone look good.
  • Predictable rituals and structures can help sometimes. For instance, if you’re being overwhelmed with constant contact from a needy or intrusive parent, try channeling it into a weekly phone call (or some other way of staying in touch – the form doesn’t matter as long as it’s something you can sustainably do).
  • You don’t owe your family every scrap of information about you. People who judge and punish your choices maybe don’t get to be in the loop about your choices anymore.
  • You’re the boss of your body: what you eat, what you wear on it, who gets to touch it and how, how you treat illnesses and problems that occur, how you feel about it. You. Nobody else. You.
  • The first time you say no or otherwise set a boundary is the hardest. Expect an “extinction burst” and other attempts to test and get around the boundary, expect to be chewed out for being selfish, rude, unreasonable, ungrateful, etc. If you can weather this storm and hold fast, it will almost certainly get easier from there. Never easy, but easier. Be consistent over time and see what happens.
  • I’m generally pro “let’s hash this out honestly and straightforwardly ask for what we need!” but not everybody is capable of that and not everything gets better by talking through it in detail. There are things in life that we might never get to the bottom of.
  • Be wary of the word “should” coming from someone who is routinely not nice to you. Does your family want connection or do they want a performance? Lots of things “should” happen. What is happening. Start there.
  • Be wary of people who think that being related means they get to skip all politeness and kindness when it comes to you.
  • Be especially wary of people who think that being related means they don’t have to make an effort to be kind but you have to make effort to please them at all times. “But we’re a family!” claims that are all about what you owe them and nothing about how they are supposed to treat you are hollow bullshit.
  • If you interview to work somewhere and they tell you “we’re just like a family here!” it means: This place sucks at boundaries and will suck you dry. Maybe you need this job, but…don’t get too comfortable. Nobody who ever says this about work is talking about a cool, good, supportive family.
  • Roads, planes, and phones work both ways.
  • People have choices about how they treat you.
  • People can be “doing their best;” their best can be not what you need. Not all help is helpful, intentions aren’t magic, people can mean well and do not so great. “I meant well” and “I did my best” can be true, that doesn’t mean it was okay and that nothing has to change.
  • If someone tells you they aren’t in touch with a parent anymore, before you tell them they’ll regret it or “you only get one mother!” or open your mouth to say anything about “forgiveness” or reconciliation, consider just how bad something would have to get for this to be the safest decision. Estranged parents like to pretend they get ignored and abandoned willy-nilly, my inbox tells the story of adult kids who have been auditioning for basic love and kindness for decades and not getting it and who still want desperately to connect.
  • If someone gives you the silent treatment, instead of chasing them and auditioning for their approval and attention, try changing tactics: Enjoy the silence for a change. It’s painful and stressful but isn’t it a tiny bit better than the constant criticism/screaming/disappointment/pressure?
  • That said, it’s okay to still love your family, to still want a family, to still want to try, even when the history is bad. You’re not silly for caring about this or wanting to fix it even if the expectations need to stay low for safety’s sake.
  • You don’t have to be perfect or communicate your needs perfectly in order to deserve kindness and consideration. One of the most healing things I ever did was to let out how upset and angry I was feeling without strategizing about what would convince the other person that I was allowed to feel that way.
  • Repeat after me: “I can live with my family’s disapproval, but I cannot accept their unkindness and abuse.”
  • Some relationships will never become healed, “normal,” good, “close,” or resemble what they “should” be like. Some shit is unfixable. Let’s honor that. For some of us, “slightly better” is a win. “Not completely awful” is a win. Sometimes you can build on that. Let’s honor that, too.

Questions Within Questions: 

If you’ve written to me because you live with difficult family members and your home life is your chief source of stress, my #1 piece of advice is: Move out as soon as you can manage it. Abusers do not change as long as they have easy access to their targets. Put 95% of your energies into finding a different living situation – maybe with a different family member, maybe with friends or roommates, maybe on-campus housing, maybe a house-sitter or caretaker-type situation, maybe public housing/assisted living where that’s available, leave no resource un-tapped or un-researched to get yourself out – and like, 5% into changing the dynamic at home. The dankest closet in a place where nobody yells at you can be a paradise. Some how-to info is here. More here. I realize that not everyone can move out, or move out right away, so here is some info about how to endure in the meantime.

I hate that I don’t have more to offer people who must live with mean people. I wish I had approximately 100 million dollars to start a series of chill queer communes with fast internet, robust counseling and disability services, quiet spots for introverts and gathering places/weekly events for extroverts, highly-paid household help so nobody has to fight about cleaning the toilet ever again, highly-paid free-to-residents childcare on the premises, we’d just incorporate and buy the best group health insurance for everyone, plus there’d be a maker space full of art supplies and craft tools and carpentry stuff, and a “Call The Goat Lady And Her Army Of Assorted Internet Aunts” hotline to remind you to eat a food and take your meds. We would set them up one by one in swing districts and be like, “Congratulations, your city council is run by gay socialist unicorns now.” :throws glitter:

If you’ve asked me, “When it is it okay to go low- or no-contact with a parent, how do I know it’s bad enough, how do I know I’m being fair,” here is your answer:

You don’t have to decide all at once, forever, right now. You don’t have to be fair. If you think taking a break from working on your relationship with your family or spending time with them would make you feel better and give you some peace from the stuff that’s bothering and hurting you, try it out. Be less available. Don’t visit. Skip The Holidays™ this year. Do less work. Take some time for yourself. Work with a therapist if you can, dump all the feelings out in a journal if you can. Volunteer less information. Hide/lock down your social media and reclaim your privacy. RSVP “no” to family events for a while. Then see how you feel. If things get better and you feel better, if you miss them terribly or want to try something else down the road, try that. They will probably notice and have feelings about whatever it is you’re doing, people don’t to wait like flies in amber for you to be ready to engage with them again, but you don’t need to ask for permission or make a dramatic statement to slow fade for a while and see how you feel.

If you’ve asked me to help you explain to your parents precisely why you are cutting them off in a way that will make them understand your decision, here’s your answer:

Reasons are for reasonable people. The probability is that no matter what you say, parents who have driven you to the point of cutting them off won’t ever understand,  won’t ever apologize, and they won’t ever change, so tell them literally whatever makes you feel like you got it all off your chest and then go have some peace. If that’s “nothing,” tell them nothing. If that’s “I need some space, I’ll get in touch when I’m ready, until then please respect my privacy” tell them that. If you’re thinking of this communication as a way to get them to see how they fucked up and apologize and fix it, I am so sorry, but that’s a recipe for disappointment. They won’t get it, but do you still need to say it? Keep your expectations low about what they’ll do and be good to yourself.

Outside Resource:

The best book I know about difficult family dynamics, estrangement, and boundaries is Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Good Enough? You don’t have to be a daughter, you don’t have to be concerned about a mother, and nobody has to be “narcissistic” for the tools on how to navigate setting boundaries and possibly going low contact or no-contact with a parent to be valuable. From a past rec:

“The one takeaway from that book that sticks with me to this day, 5+ years after reading it, is that while you can sometimes reset a difficult relationship with someone who has “all about me!” tendencies to be more pleasant overall, you cannot expect to necessarily have an emotionally authentic relationship and you should let go of the prospect of either a reckoning with the past or a self-aware admission of how the person created and contributes to the dynamic between you. McBride suggests grieving for what was lost and what you should have had, keeping your expectations low, and disengaging without guilt when self-care demands it.”

Discussion Guidelines:

  • Treat people like the experts on their own experiences. If your family is happy and kind, then, respectfully, you might not know what we’re talking about and it’s okay to just read without commenting, especially if the alternative is trying to come up with Good Reasons™ an abusive family member could reasonably be behaving that way. “You look good today” can be a compliment or a mortal insult depending on the context, trust that the letter writer/commenter/storytellers know the context.
  • Read the site policies, especially if you’re new and it’s been a while.
  • Logistical Note: The spam trap eats legit comments all the time. I clean it out as soon as I can. I know it’s very annoying, but generally you don’t have to send repeats if something didn’t post the first time.
  • If recommending a book, article, community etc. you’ve personally found helpful in the comments, along with any links please include a sentence or two on what the recommendation is about and why, personally, you think it’s valuable.
  • Re: Above point, remember, we don’t have to audit or debate people’s personal recommendations to come to an objective standard of what is valuable – everybody can read reviews and do due diligence and use what’s useful and ignore the rest.

I love this community. I love us. We can’t fix it but we can be here for each other and bear witness for each other. Thank you. Comments are open.

 

 

It’s time for the thing where we pretend the search terms people typed into their computers before they landed on this place are actual questions. Context is missing; that’s kind of the point.

Let’s start with a song, as is traditional. Here’s Willie, breaking our hearts a little with his cover of “September Song:”

Onto the terms:

01: “The Field Of No Fucks Given”

Inspired by this meme from the Bayeux Tapestry, also sometimes known as “The Fuck-Its,” this is where you move when you’ve tried every reasonable measure to get along with  people and they still won’t let you breathe, so you decide to stop trying so hard (or at all) to appease them since being accommodating is not getting you anywhere. If a person refuses to be pleased, and you’re not harming anyone, you might as well please yourself? Related post.

An old timey-sampler that says "Behold the field in which I grow my fuck. Lay thine eyes upon it and see that it is barren."

Literally any excuse to use this image from now on.

Strong start, Internet!

02: “Exit Interview Bully Boss” 

I am of two minds about exit interviews. On the one hand, they can be your final chance to speak truth to power and make sure there is a record of your boss’s bullying (you’re leaving, but maybe your frankness can help those left behind). In this scenario, I’d especially want to get incidents of harassment and misconduct on the record, use the documentation you’ve (hopefully) done and language like “Now that I don’t have to worry about retaliation, I’d hate to see this behavior become an expensive legal issue for the company if not addressed.” This seems like a good time to remind people about the Al Capone Theory of Sexual Harassment, where data shows that people who harass people at work (surprise!) feel entitled to break lots of rules and cheat on their expense reports, so looking for patterns of crappy behavior is revealing.

On the other hand, your company never cared about this problem before this moment, they didn’t care about changing the circumstances for you when you actually worked there, so why put yourself through a difficult ordeal and possibly come off looking “difficult” to the people who will still have to give you references down the road? I think it’s really up to you how much you give to an exit interview. Especially if your exit interview is WITH your bully boss (vs. a human resources person) I think it’s okay to say “I’d prefer not to” or “Nothing to add, I wish you and the company well” and GTFO. You don’t owe anybody free management consulting or one last chance to bully you.

03: “I’m too busy for my boyfriend.”

Maybe…talk about that honestly? Like, here is what my schedule is, this is what time I have, does that work for you, how can we make this work, can we make this work, do we even want to make this work (given these constraints)? Two perfectly wonderful people can have mismatched needs and schedules.

04: “My workmate is always grumpy on Friday.”

Not a fan of The Cure, then, this person? Maybe something difficult on Thursday nights or something difficult coming up on the weekend?

Since you can’t really know (and might not want to if you could), and you know this is a routine thing, maybe try to get all the important stuff that needs their input done on Thursdays so you can both give and get space on Fridays?

05: “Ask for another place at office coworkers talk too much.”

  1. I believe you! I once had a database manager job that required focus and pretty much zero human interaction, but I sat right outside a busy conference room, so half my day was spent taking my headphones off and saying, “Oh, sorry, I don’t know what meeting that is or if “Richard” and “Julia” are waiting for your slides or when they’ll be done, sorry!” (Tbh I don’t know who those people even are) and the other half my day being told “Wow, sure is quiet over here!” and trying not to say, “Well, it was quiet, Andy” 
  2.  Perhaps a better way of asking for this is less about blaming/tattling on the talkative coworkers and phrasing it more in terms of your work, as in, “The [specific] work I do needs a lot of focus and concentration, is there a way I can move to a quieter spot?”
  3. Bonus points for identifying a specific quiet spot in the building in advance. Don’t share it out of the gate (you’ll seem entitled and they might have other plans for that space, so don’t assume), but hold onto it for if they seem open to moving you but not sure where they can move you. “Is _________’s old cube still open? That would work really well for me I think.” 

Open office plans are the worst (and they know it).

06: “That awkward moment you both want to hug each other but don’t end up hugging.”

Oh, I see you’ve met…me. And everyone I know. Welcome! Maybe someday we’ll hug, but not today. Or, maybe we will. Who knows?

07: “My new relationship just said ‘he can’t do this.'”

Believe him and delete his number. (I’m so sorry, but in most cases you’ll probably be so much happier if you do this sooner rather than later vs. trying to cajole or hold space for him).

08: “Went to my husband’s game and he didn’t introduce me to anyone.” 

Look, you know this guy best, you know your usual social patterns of who introduces who best, but that’s definitely odd and deserving of at least a question: “Dude! Why didn’t you introduce me to anyone? Did you want me to come to your game or not?”

Next time, if there is a next time, introduce yourself (which, my most generous possible read is: Your husband assumed you would). “Hi, I’m ________, _________’s wife/husband/spouse. Nice to meet you!” 

09: “He hasn’t logged onto the dating site since we met.”

You clearly have in order to be able to tell! Which is completely okay, don’t assume a new date-thing is exclusive unless you’ve both talked about that and agreed to some kind of exclusive arrangement, for instance, he could be not logging into the site where he specifically met you and still be Christian Mingling somewhere else. So this is not necessarily a telling detail. Does it make you feel excited to think about the fact that he seems to be focusing only on you? Or does it feel like pressure/a trap? What do you *want* this relationship to be like? Probably figure that out and when you’re ready, talk to him.

10: “How to ask someone to host Thanksgiving.”

As straightforwardly and with as much lead time (think: today, today is a good day to get this done) as you possibly can. “Would you be up for hosting Thanksgiving at your place this year, and if so, what would you need from me/the rest of us to make that work?” 

They’ll either say yes or they won’t, so give them the respect of a direct request and a chance to refuse.

11: “How to indirectly invite yourself.”

There are probably exceptions (there are always exceptions) but here is how I generally roll:

If you don’t feel comfortable enough/close enough/confident enough with the situation and people to say, “Hey, mind if I join you?” and be cool* if the answer is “Not this time, sorry!” then probably don’t invite yourself to stuff, indirectly or otherwise. I have no magic hint-scripts for you. They don’t work. They create SO MUCH anxiety, on both sides. Ask. Or don’t, and either work on the relationship or your own confidence between now and next time so you’ll feel comfortable asking and have more knowledge about whether the host is a “the more the merrier!” type of person.

*You can FEEL horrible, rejection from a thing you wanted sucks, just, probably take the performance of feelings about inviting yourself to a private event to a private space and don’t pressure the people to change their minds if they say no. Your dignity and their eventual willingness to consider including you in the future will both be better for it.

12: “Moving out of helicopter parents’ house.

In some relationships, you announce your intention to do a thing, then carry out your research/planning, then discuss options/timelines and get advice/input/help, then actually do the thing.

In some relationships you do all the planning parts very quietly, make your decision, and then inform the other people about a decision you’ve already made about a plan that is already in motion. It can help to deliver this as very positive, exciting news that you expect them to be supportive and happy about (even if you suspect the opposite), it gives you a tiny bit more armor when the Worry Bomb goes off.

In some relationships you make a safety plan, hire a moving van and recruit friends to come get your shit while everyone else is at work, and leave a note on the kitchen counter.

You know your situation best, good luck!

13: “Captain Awkward sex ed for younger kids not high school yet” 

Glad you asked! Captain Awkward does not have to make this resource because somebody else totally handled it!

Scarleteen’s Heather Corinna and illustrator Isabella Rotman collaborated on a comic and activity book for pre-teens called Wait, What?, it just came out this month, it’s great, it covers body stuff, identity stuff, consent, relationships, basically “how do learn about this messy and complicated thing and not be a jerk,” it’s inexpensive, I want to push it into the hands of every parent and teacher I know.

Buy Wait, What???: A Comic Book Guide To Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up at Women & Children First / Amazon / Wherever books are sold. If you enjoy it and find it useful, leave a review, these really help with sales.

14: “White noise machine having sex”

White noise machines can mask your sex sounds for your roommates/neighbors and mask their sex sounds for you, so if you/they like it loud, probably a worthy investment. The way this is phrased  reminds me of the time one of my students made a short film about a Tivo and a Roomba who fell in love. As soon as the humans would leave for work, Roomba would trace hearts in the carpet and Tivo would play romantic movies. 60 seconds of adorableness, shot on 16mm reversal so sadly I do not have a copy to share.

15: “My biological father was never around and now wants to come to my wedding.”

He can start with “lunch” or “coffee.” If that, even. This is completely, completely up to you and do not let “tradition” or “faaaaaaamily” sway you if you don’t want him there. Weddings don’t exist to fix our families. Yours does NOT have to be the stage for reconnecting with an absent dad.

16: “I get drunk and start being extremely rude to women… do I have an underlying problem?” 

You’ve got problems, plural. Quit being a misogynist, quit being a rude asshole, lay off the drinking, maybe only greet your fellow men when you’re out on the town, see how you do.

17: “Is it odd to turn up outside someone’s work at end of day?”

If they’re not expecting you, you don’t have plans to hang out, and if you don’t know them well enough to know for sure they’d be happy to see you at work (thereby crossing the streams) then yeah, it’s somewhere on the scale between “odd” and “terrifying” with stops at “intrusive” and “creepy.”

Most of us have TELEPHONEPUTERS in our POCKETS where we can ASK people in our lives what they would prefer. USE YOURS.

That’s all for this month, thank you for keeping it weird!