Archive

big discussions

I’m writing this from an inexpensive AirBnB not far from Awkward Apartment, where I took a few days to be in a blank slate, away from cats and laundry piles and human conversation, so I could sit in quiet and solitude and think about how to get my ambitious projects off the ground this year. I wasn’t going to blog but this question jumped out at me and I’d like to shoot it like a fiery arrow across the horizon for me and my fellow creatives who are trying to figure out how to go from the hard drive or the manuscript drawer to the world. Here is my 2020 Note to Self:

NO MORE SHITTY LIFE-HACKS OR PROCRASTINATORY MINUTIA AROUND FORMULATING “THE PERFECT MORNING ROUTINE FOR BEING AN ARTIST” OR WHATEVER

GET TOGETHER WITH OTHER PEOPLE WHO LIKE YOUR STUFF

AND MAKE YOUR STUFF

AND SEND IT OUT INTO THE WORLD

AND THEN DO IT AGAIN

THAT’S IT, THAT’S YOUR ONLY JOB

STAY ALIVE AND MAKE ART

And now, the first letter of the year:

My dear Captain,

I have been reading your blog for many years, since the early days. It’s been so exciting watching you grow! I’ve often been able to find something in the archives applicable to my general situation, or the forums have been a help. Now, though, I’m in a fix, and I don’t know what to do or whom to ask for help, and I’m hoping you might be able to provide some guidance. I’m desperately hoping you will, in fact. I feel like I’m about to have a baby and I’m looking for a hospital.

I’ve written a drag rock opera of Bible stories about the bad women in the Bible, whores, killers, and evil queens. It came out really good. Really good. The issue is that I did it as a self-taught nobody by myself in my bedroom, and now it’s just sitting here in my lap with nowhere to go. I have no money or connections, and no way to produce it. We (husband and two young daughters) moved to a very large city a couple of years ago, and while I would never have had the scope to fully form and finish my project as it is if we hadn’t come here, I’ve never really adapted to big city life. I’ve had trouble connecting with collaborators. They way people operate here just isn’t what I’m used to. People are just so insular.

While everyone I’ve played my material for loves it, I haven’t been able to connect with anyone who can make the whole project happen. The couple of people (one drag queen and one belly dancer) who I’ve connected with seemed really excited about working with me, but they wanted to do one or two pieces at a time in a small venue. No. Would you agree to viewings of only two minutes of one of your films?

This is a piece. It’s meant to be performed as one big thing, from one end to the other. The songs form a progression and tell a story about oppression of women and queer people. It’s a whole thing! It’s not just music.

This wouldn’t be a *problem* (hence this email) if I hadn’t lost my job in September. I’ve spent my entire marriage of 17 years supporting and following my husband as he got his career going, really never having any focus of my own. I had a short-lived local career as a singer-songwriter in my youth that fizzled as I never really liked that kind of music that much, or the kind of work it entailed going it alone. I always wanted to do something different as an artist. I piddled around in a series of jobs that didn’t really mean that much to me, spent an ill-fated year in law school, stayed at home with the kids for a few years, worked as a paralegal…and when I found myself looking for work, it felt so demoralizing to be digging through job listings when I have a masterpiece sitting in my lap. But what do I do with it?

I have some friends who advise me to get on Twitter and reach out to people, but I am a ghost on the internet and have zero social media presence. When I created a profile, it didn’t go well, and I’m worried my clumsiness will only sabotage me, so I hesitate to start contacting people. And let’s say I get it sorted out and do contact people, what direction do I take that? Social media just gives me all kinds of anxiety, way more than my regular social anxiety. I don’t even want to be out there under my own name. I have kids and I spend most nights at home, but even if I were to go out and start “pounding the pavement,” I don’t know where to go. Most drag shows start when my eyes are getting heavy these days. Do I start with drag shows? Or am I looking for theater? I have no idea anymore. I feel like this strange hermit living in a cave with a golden egg, polishing it and loving it, but having nowhere to take it.

I had a plan before I lost my job to use my Christmas bonus to buy equipment to produce tracks to perform to, but even the first step went bust before I could take it.

The material is ready. I’m ready. I feel like I’m about to have this baby. What do I do?

Please help.

Thank you

Bout to Pop (she/her)

Dear ‘Bout to Pop:

Your musical sounds AMAZING and I want it IN MY EYES AND EARS right NOW.

To get it there you are going to have to:

1. Copyright your stuff. It protects you legally, it forces you to record/document it in some kind of tangible way and send it out of your house. This is a good step for someone who is where you are.

2. Make a monthly budget called “Get my show made.” If it’s a small budget right now, that’s okay, but you need a line item in your budget & your family’s budget for this. This is a big deal. This is you. This is your work.

3. Make a sacred weekly time on your schedule called “Get my show made.” During this time, you are not Mommy or Honey, you don’t give a fuck what’s for dinner or whose turn it is to pick the music in the car today. You’re getting your show made. You are working. Treat it as seriously as any day job.

4. See shows and meet people. What theater company where you live does the best/most musicals? Their directors and producers might salivate to get their hands on new work. Would they workshop something for you – stage/light/costume design a few numbers? Howabout producers in your local drag scene? Could you jointly crowdfund a fringe festival pilot? Time to hire a babysitter and drink caffeine after 3:00 pm, ’cause once a month you have a date with THE STAGE.

5. CALL THOSE PEOPLE WHO WANTED TO DO A COUPLE SONGS A WHILE BACK, APOLOGIZE, AND LET THEM PERFORM SOME SONGS.

FYI this was the part of your letter that made me yell “NO!” and “OH MY GOD!” and HAVE TO answer it.

I will stop yelling but I needed to BIG FONT yell for a second. I understand wanting to be protective of work, but I would absolutely let someone screen a single episode from a web series or a short film or read the first 10 pages of a feature script before committing to the whole thing. Your work is “too big” right now, so make it smaller!

I believe you that your piece is great and best viewed in full, but a) workshopping parts of a larger show is a standard part of the creative process (Have you ever seen your work performed? Have you ever seen any of this piece performed with lights and costumes and an audience? You will learn so much omg do it just do it please just do it.) b) “Get a short digestible chunk that people can love in front of them so they’ll ask you for the whole piece” is one of the bedrocks of getting content seen by pros in the entertainment industry. If you continue to insist that people who don’t know you or your work have a choice between “all” or “nothing,” you may get lucky someday but you’re going to encounter a lot of “nothing, sorry” on the way.

Staged readings are a thing. Workshops are a thing. Showcases are a thing. “Viral” videos of works in progress are a thing. Make them your thing. You did the hard, lonely part of having an original idea and putting it on a page. To get it on a stage, you need other people. Their enthusiasm and love for your work is not a threat to you, it is the engine that will make it real. A short version or excerpt is not a threat to the whole, it is the “trailer” that builds anticipation and excitement and shows off what you can do. Big productions evolve out of small moments, ideas, sketches.

Furthermore, “This is a show that started as a few songs performed here and there in drag clubs” is the best damn origin story imaginable, not something that will ruin the eventual “Julie Taymor presents…” on the fancy marquee. Your idea about a show about the Bible’s bad girls intrigued me, the prospect of that show originating with and piloted by drag performers completely SOLD me. Collaborate with and harness and trust the enthusiasm of these people who love the work when you are a “nobody.” What you’re telling me in your letter is that your work is great and you’ve already made some strangers love what you do and want to be a part of it. THAT is a success and THAT IS where this starts. These people who fell in love first will invest their time and love now and make it happen with you and for you through the whole life of this project.

ACCEPT THEIR GIFTS. And take them with you when you “make it.” Opening night on Broadway I want to see you give an interview like, “Me & a bunch of drag performers started this together when they took a chance on me and performed some of my songs in clubs and laundromats and wherever people would listen, now we’re all on Broadway together, singing about the Bible’s Baddest Bitches, because they believed and made it possible.”

6. Hire/recruit the best audio & video people you can to document any and all performances, have them put together a polished cut of each song and a video of the whole showcase. I put audio first for a reason – if you can only afford 1 pro and 1 student/talented newbie helping out, make the pro the audio person. Make a website with a synopsis, photos, all your information before you push the videos online. When this hits you want people to be able to find you easily.

7. Figure out this social media thing so that those songs get seen and heard and loved and sung along to. Lots of awkward, shy people are on social media. Here’s a starting point: Friends-of-blog Julie & Jessica of King Is A Fink wrote a book called Social Media Charm School for social media neophytes who are trying to harness social media specifically to network and promote and make creative projects (in their case, films). There is an older, pre-social media resource about film-funding (movies are expensive and also more my wheelhouse than theater, apologies) but I really like Shaking The Money Tree: The Art of Getting Grants and Donations for Film and Video by Morrie Warshawski. He has lots of advice about raising money through overlooked and unexpected ways but probably the most valuable advice is about crafting your pitch and using your passion and skill in how you tell the story to connect with people who might give you money or want to work with you. You are the expert on you, you are the expert on your story, you can translate that passion even if you are nervous or shy. It’s okay to be a beginner at “Show Business.” Everyone in show business started as one.

Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work are both valuable and inform the ways I first approached social media for promoting and networking. Using Twitter as an example, the people who do what you do the way you want to do it are on Twitter. You could follow them and listen to them and get to know them. Fellow aspiring goddesses of musical theater are on Twitter. You could follow them and listen to them. You don’t have to say a thing for a while, never mind crafting and pushing the perfect pitch for your project. Just listen. Who inspires you? Who draws you in? Who makes you feel encouraged and excited? Where are they submitting and promoting their work? Those are the seeds of community and fellowship, interacting like a friendly human with other friendly humans who are doing the same work you are, cheerleading each other on. [Beeteedubs Chicago, I have a 60-90 min ‘sustainable, positive social media for indie creators’ talk/workshop I will happily bring to your school or organization, lmk if having a person who hates the term ‘personal branding’ and who found ‘selling Girl Scout Cookies, a thing people love and look forward to every year’ stressful but somehow makes a whole entire living by engaging with audiences online would be useful to you or your students/colleagues/members].

I repeat: Leverage the community you already have (beginning with the people who wanted to put on a short version of the piece), follow and listen to people who inspire you, and get going.

8. Research how new musicals get made. I don’t know how they get made and can’t tell you, that’s your research to do. Hadestown started with a concept album and a small performance. At least one reader submitted their amazing-sounding piece to a contest a producer runs every year. Seed and Spark (where the above-mentioned Julie worked for a while before getting her MBA in saving the world) is a good place to start researching crowdfunding options. Where you live, what theater companies routinely present new work? What fellowships, grants, mentorships, panels, etc. for new playwrights and composers exist? Who routinely directs and produces musical theater where you live? Meet them. And RESEARCH.

9. If you must get a day job, get one where you have a regular schedule, the lowest-intensity-to-highest-money ratio, steady Internet access, and a printer. Last time I had an office job with any regularity, I got my work done in about four hours every day and I also had at least four hours a day where I was trapped at my desk and had to “look busy” but really had nothing to do and that’s part of how I became a writer. Dress well, show up 5 min early every day, and do your paid work with so much competence and integrity and efficiency that nobody will notice when you have 20 browser tabs open and 19 of them are “fringe festival submissions” and “artist residencies for emerging playwrights.” You’ve got to put food on your table somehow and that might be the somehow until this thing breaks.

10. When you get discouraged or depressed, consider “Cats.” 

“Cats” is a real thing in the world. It was ridiculous poems. Then it was a ridiculous show. Now it is, for some reason, a ridiculous movie. If “Cats” can do it, YOU CAN FUCKING DO IT. Approach your creative endeavors with the audacity of every single person who thought “Yes, ‘Cats’ is a thing we will make with our time.” The next time I see the words “worryingly erotic” I want them to be about you and your show.

Let us know when there is video/audio to share so I can smash that “retweet” button, we at Awkward Dot Com Enterprises are rooting for you. ❤

Thank you all for the kind words and end-of-year donations and patronage that have flowed in over the last week or so. I’ve been traveling and kind of made a point about not touching my laptop for a week or so, but I read everything and I’m very grateful. ❤

Everyone’s doing decade-retrospectives and my brain is melting at the thought of it. Ten years ago, I was still technically a grad student/adjunct teacher, I lived with roommates, I’d just finished my very last student film, Captain Awkward Dot Com didn’t launch until January 2011, and I didn’t meet Mr. Awkward until 2012.

But let’s do a 2019 round-up, yes? Here were the most-viewed/shared/discussed posts from the site in 2019:

First, a timely seasonal carryover from the very end of 2018,  “#1162: Is there room to compromise when it comes to alcohol and driving? (Answer: Why not set the default at “Don’t drink and drive”? I made a chart and everything.)

Next: #1215: ” ‘So…about your private reproductive decisions’ and other ‘small’ talk.” 

Let’s please stop asking people about their intense private life stuff out of passing curiosity, the idea of politeness, or because we think we’re entitled to know. When people have big news about babies, THEY’LL TELL U.

While the rest of the world catches up, this post has lots of strategies for answering (and deflecting/de-escalating) potentially fraught “small-talk” questions that can unknowingly hit real sore spots.

P.S. Letter Writer #1228 you’ve been in my thoughts and the offer to fight your family in real life if necessary is still incredibly open.

Third, #1219: “My friend’s boyfriend keeps ‘negging’ me.” 

This post has THREE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY ONE comments strategizing about whether it’s okay to tell a serially annoying dude “Look, could you stop?” and is often re-shared/cited for mention of “Schrödinger’s Autist,” a theoretical construct who only comes out in Internet discussions of cis men behaving badly toward women as a way to pre-excuse bad behavior (and has nothing to do with actual autism).

Fourth-most viewed is #1186: “How do I restore trust in my relationship?

Like the faux rank of “Captain” Awkward, “The Marie Kondo of Breakups” is a self-assigned comedy title because it’s one of my life’s missions to tell my younger self young people, especially young women, that a partner who keeps letting you down and leaving you wondering in the early stages of a relationship is probably not going to change for the better, and there’s nothing you can do to “love somebody more” into being who you need them to be.

It’s okay to want love, to risk, to try to make things work, but working at somebody who isn’t doing any work to be a good partner to you is a lonely and disappointing bet.

Fifth, #1218: “Irritability and constant criticism in a marriage. The post and comments are a good roundup of previous discussions of verbal abuse and safely extricating oneself from a draining and damaging partnership.

Good “Could this be abuse?” guideline: When someone who is supposed to love you is constantly mean and you start asking yourself “what’s wrong with me that’s making this person be so mean, how can I fix myself?” it might be time to visit LoveIsRespect.org from a private browsing window and start making plans.

Sixth, #1198: “How do I deal with work burnout and make my partner* happy?” (*My partner = my boss, who is *a* partner in the law firm where I work)

Notable for link to description of “insecure overachievers”and how capitalism hijacks anxieties and perfectionism in search of star performers, not caring who burns out along the way or how unsustainable and unhealthy the culture can get.

VERY GOOD NEWS: This Letter Writer sent me an update and is doing MUCH, MUCH, MUCH BETTER. ❤

Seventh, #1197: “He broke up with me but hasn’t moved out yet. How do I not ruin our last chance to make this work?” 

I had the worst time moving on after breakups (rejection sensitive dysphoria, yaaaaaaaay) and learning how to let people go was one of the hardest and best lessons I ever learned. I’m proud of this heartbreak omnibus and hope it can make a difference to others. There are enough ballrooms in you, Letter Writer, and I hope you are in much better straits now.

Eighth, #1194: “I’m moving in with my girlfriend and now my homophobic parents want to disown me. One of a series of posts on family estrangement and how to close doors to protect yourself and leave some open in hope of better things. “Forever is a long time, Sally.” Letter Writer, your parents don’t deserve you and I hope your new home with your girlfriend is a cozy and happy one that is everything you want it to be.

Ninth, #1233: “Is it ever safe to take a parent off a low-information diet?” 

People have choices about how they treat you, and relationships don’t get messed up overnight or for no reason, so when a parent wants you to have a “closer” relationship, does that obligate you to try to repair things in some way? Can they acknowledge why distance made sense at the time?

Probably one of the most personal posts I’ve made on the site, this brought up lots of stuff for me and was very much on my mind during holiday visits with my folks. When people talk about the past, my mom says “I don’t remember that” a lot ( A LOT) in a sharp, pointed way that clearly means “So, obviously it didn’t happen.” She’s telling the truth (she doesn’t remember) but it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen or that my memories are lies. I still don’t know how to ever ethically tell our story or tell her about my writing here, but I know our story lies at the heart of many of the things I write here.

In tenth place, several posts around the topic of “WEDDINGS, WHY ARE THEY SO WEIRD?” came in within 100 page views of each other so I’m re-sharing them all:

  • It’s Mother-Effing Wedding Season Again So Let’s Chat. Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix you, your family, your friendships, your partnership, your body. It does not have to be your sole creative act that communicates your exact social class and crafting ability.
  • #1223: “Feminist Etiquette Wedding Help”. Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix you, your family, your relationship, your body, or the world. It’s a party so try to throw a good one that makes you happy and invites your guests in to what you want vs. trying to argue with each of them about why you’re allowed to want what you want. “Oh thanks, but we’re all set!” is a very useful phrase.
  • #1188: “Grief and empty chairs at the wedding feast.Maybe the idea of ghosts first sprang from the divided vision of grieving people, the way we can both see the party as it’s happening and see the echoes of what the party should be like, our longing giving shape and color to the empty spaces where our loves should be.”
  • #1189: “Fox News, Immigrant Family, and the F**ing Wedding Invite List.Probably the Uncle could have behaved himself for one day, but this thing where we tiptoe around bigots and keep negotiating with non-bigots for “more tolerance” toward bigots has gotta stop. We can work on tolerating/convincing/courting them once we’ve out-organized and out-voted them, let people who aren’t their direct targets run interference for a change.

I should also highlight the awesome series of guest posts from Lenée aka dopegirlfresh aka the GOAT who filled in for me during surgery in the spring. I plan to have her back in 2020, as well as some other exciting guests (Rae McDaniel has volunteered to peek into the inbox to answer questions about gender, we’re just trying to get a meeting on the calendar to figure out the logistics).

The blog motto for 2019 was “Quit working so hard on relationships that aren’t working for you” and I’m still ruminating on 2020’s. How do people feel about “Do even less work than that and see how you feel?”

Love and good New Year wishes to all of you in Awkwardland, comments are open.

Got an update for us (never an obligation, but we love to read them)?

Is there a post from the past year that you found especially useful?

Did you kick ass at setting a difficult boundary this year?

Did you decide to put in “less work” with a thorny relationship? What happened?

Ahoy Captain,

This past year I (31/F) finally received a diagnosis for what I’ve been struggling with for over half my life. I have Complex PTSD/PTSD (I’ll spare you the differences and overlaps) (Ed. Note: No worries! I, Jennifer, will link people to a basic explainer.) Encouraged by my therapist I shared the PTSD with my parents. The main reason being because, with the enthusiastic support of said therapist, I am pursuing a service dog (SD).

Being able to acknowledge that yes, I have experienced multiple traumas and that I deserve to seek help and healing in a way that’s actually beneficial has been huge for me. I am very fortunate that my dog turned out to be an excellent candidate and I am owner training with the help of a professional service dog (SD) trainer. For the first time in forever, I can even sometimes think positively about the future!

The problem is that my feelings of being valid and deserving of help are new and fragile. My mother is extremely dismissive about my having PTSD, deciding to go the SD route, and the legitimacy of my dog being a service dog in training (SDiT). It often gets to the point of being triggering. And when I tell her she’s being hurtful she says she loves me, has good intentions, and somehow I end up apologizing for getting upset.

In the past I had her/the family on a very lean information diet, particularly when it comes to mental health stuff. I am worried about introducing my dog as my SDiT and it making the family feel as entitled to information and judgement as my mom. They mostly follow her lead when it comes to me. Although there have been times when my dad will privately admit mom is super critical of and often cruel to me, he has no intentions of intervening.

We live in different states so Holidays mean my siblings and I return to my parents’ house for several days. If it was just a dinner, I might be able to get through it, but I doubt I can last days in close quarters without utilizing my SDiT and I’d prefer not to lie since the truth will come out anyway.

Do you have any scripts for navigating what is essentially a medical treatment plan they don’t/won’t agree with? Tips on how to introduce my dog as my SDiT and have that be respected?

Signed,

Letting the Service Dog out of the Bag

Hello there! Captain Awkward here with a beta-read and practical service-dog suggestions from The Goat Lady. I hope we’re reaching you while there is still time to cancel or radically alter your plans for this upcoming trip to see your folks.

Because that’s my practical advice: Strongly consider cancelling the trip and probably DON’T talk more in detail about your diagnosis or treatment with your mom right this second if you don’t think it will be safe or productive. More words/context/recommendations after the jump.

Read More

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.

 

 

Hello, it’s the monthly feature where patrons of the site can ask short questions.

Q1: Thanks to years of reading your blog I finally learned how to call out -isms when they happen! But now I’m stuck at the next hurdle, where people who get called out are so mortified they go into an over-the-top apology loop and keep it up until the apology gets more annoying than the original transgression. Do you have any scripts for when people go way too hard on the apologies after being corrected? (she/her/hers)

A1: INTERRUPT!!!!

I know, we’re taught that interrupting is always rude & wrong, but honestly, it’s so useful at times, like when you ask someone to stop doing something and they take it as an opportunity to process all of their feelings about whatever it is at you. Thanks, Stu, it was so fun to experience your misogyny at work, now, bonus I get to be your personal sexism therapist, translator, and Interpreter of All Women, ooh goody! So glad we had this talk!

Multiply that by infinity for white people who freak out when we are reminded that a) racism exists and b) racism isn’t a bone in our bodies and isn’t about our personal intentions or goodness. Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe this phenomenon, and says that the “splutterings,” (extreme defensiveness, shouting, crying, disbelieving people about their lived experiences, compulsively shifting the topic to historical events (politicians who remind everyone “I marched with Dr. King!” when asked about racism now) or unsolicited non sequiturs about how cool we are about race stuff serve a purpose that isn’t just the personal shame of getting something wrong or cognitive dissonance at the magnitude of white supremacy and injustice.

“These splutterings ‘work,’ DiAngelo explains, ‘to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.’ She finds that the social costs for a black person in awakening the sleeping dragon of white fragility often prove so high that many black people don’t risk pointing out discrimination when they see it. And the expectation of “white solidarity”—white people will forbear from correcting each other’s racial missteps, to preserve the peace—makes genuine allyship elusive. White fragility holds racism in place.”

These overshares, even when the person is sincerely upset and ashamed, have a structural, ritual purpose. Ever ended up apologizing to someone who actually owes you an apology, but when you asked them to stop doing whatever it is that hurt you, they get so upset that you feel bad about saying anything in the first place and pressured to comfort them…about the bad thing…they did… to you? Yeah. Like that. But on a grand, national, and global scale.

So where does that leave us?

If you mess something up, and we all mess up sometimes, I think one good practice is to do whatever we can to not dwell on ourselves in that exact moment. Whatever our intentions were, we said something that hurts. Our feelings of shame and worry that we messed up can be real, but they aren’t THE immediate problem. Being corrected isn’t about our personal epiphany or learning to be a better person (that can wait!), it’s about stopping the harmful behavior with minimum fuss and adverse impact, and making a commitment to get it right going forward. Apologize, correct the behavior, and move on. From this piece on accidentally using the wrong pronouns:(bolding mine):

You are talking about someone who goes by “he/him” pronouns. “She is a great student. I’m sorry, I meant to say he is a great student. He’s been reading all of the assignments very thoroughly and it’s been a pleasure to work with him.” You don’t have to make a big deal out of your mistake or draw a lot of attention to it. You mostly need to fix it. You might have a follow up conversation with the person you referred to incorrectly to apologize or see if there’s something else you can do to correct it moving forward besides doing better. Making it a bigger deal in the moment is not necessarily helpful and could be harmful unless that’s what the person who was incorrectly referred to wants. Depending on the situation, you might be worried that people think you aren’t friendly towards transgender people because you made a mistake, but generally it’s good to avoid making the situation about you and your intent. A good way to show you are friendly is to get it right in the future and to act upon some of the other guidances you may find through this website or other resources.

Critique is an investment in the relationship. If someone is taking the risk of telling you you messed up, it doesn’t mean “YOU ARE THE WORST PERSON WHO EVER LIVED, PLEASE DIE NOW” it means “I care about this and I’m trusting you to get it right.” If you feel awful and embarrassed, that’s normal, just, those feelings are for you to take to your journal or a therapist, not to process in real time with the expectation that the person you offended will hang out and help you do it.

Anyway, dear Querent, here’s your shame-spiral interruption script to adapt into your own words as the situation demands.

“Hey _____, let me interrupt for a second. These conversations are awkward for everyone. I appreciate the apology, and as long as you [do the good thing/stop doing the bad thing] from now on, we’re good.” 

Interrupt. Translate their apology into a promise for better action in the future. Keep Awkwarding.

Q2: I recently joined a beer and philosophy meetup. I enjoy the group and the discussion, except for one person. Her comments are often neither brief nor relevant, with her talking as much as everyone else combined and going on tangents that don’t connect to the topic. She seems to be friends with the organizers and while they’re otherwise great, they don’t seem interested in reining her in; is there anything I can do? (she/her/hers)

A2: Since you’re new and she’s a regular, this is tricky. Almost certainly you’re not alone in feeling as you do about this person, but you don’t know who your allies are and if you complain about her to the wrong folks you will come across as the jerk.

One tactic I might try is suggesting that the big group break into smaller groups for discussion, maybe switch/rotate every 10-15 minutes, or chew on a question in small groups and have each group report back to the big group at the end. “Can we break into smaller groups next time? I love hearing from everyone and talking about the work, and with the big discussion circle we sometimes only get through a few people.” 

You can also channel group discussions with aggressive “Yes, And!” action. You don’t have to let her finish every paragraph. Wait for a pause or the end of a sentence and then speak up and throw the discussion ball to someone else in the group. “Interesting point, Alex! Phil, weren’t you talking about how ___________ leads to _________ last week? Do you think this is the same sort of question?”

That way you’re not interrupting to talk over her, you’re including other people in the conversation. Be strategic and choose someone talkative if you do this, the shy quiet people will not catch your ball and it will go right back to her.

Q3: What are your favorite ice breaker/ getting-to-know-you questions? Spouse and I trying to get out and build a bigger community. I’m not great at spontaneous chat with new people and would love a few more conversation starters to add to my bank beyond the not-great “what do you do?” (She/her/hers)

A3: Commander Logic, enthusiastic connector, has been going with “What are you nerdy about?” of late, and having great results with it. She is also great at asking people for recommendations for local things and getting them talking about their neighborhood. “Do you have a favorite bakery or coffee joint?” “If you ever have out of town guests, what’s a place you love to take them?” 

I try to think about both context and subjects that are low stakes but that people have strong opinions about. You’d be surprised at how well “What is your favorite sandwich?” at an event where people are eating, people get very excited about sandwiches.

The “what five objects would someone use to summon you” or “what would create an irresistible You-trap, like, if you walked by this place on the street you’d have to go in and check it out” threads that go around sometimes on social media are pretty good stuff.

I don’t like “Would you rather ____ or _____?” questions or “Let’s generate some debate!” type questions for this stuff, I like questions that get the person to tell me a story about themselves. If you celebrate, what’s the best Halloween costume you ever saw/wore? What was your first ever job? Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a kid? What’s a word that you knew what it meant but never knew how to pronounce? If the universe could give you back one lost item, what would it be? When you were little what did you want to be when you grew up?

Q4: I’m slowly pulling myself out of a Depression Hole where one of the biggest problems has been executive functioning. (Got a therapist, working on the medical side.) My issue is that I have a ton of deep seated shame from a childhood filled with notes sent home for missing homework assignments, getting yelled at for being late, etc. How do I avoid the shame spiral/impostor syndrome around ordinary mistakes? (She/her)

Hi there, friend! When I got diagnosed with ADHD in my early 40s on top of the anxiety & depression, there was a giant period of grieving. What would my life be like if I hadn’t been struggling so long with all the “little things” that add up to so many unfinished “big things” and so much avoidance and disorganization?

You asked how you can avoid the shame spiral/imposter syndrome around ordinary mistakes, and the answer is, you probably can’t avoid/prevent/control your feelings. That’s not a thing we can do, even though it’s a thing that people desperately want to do.

What I think we can try to do (thanks, therapy!) is practice ways of feeling the feelings without letting them sink us. On a certain level, feelings are just information. We can have the feelings, observe the feelings, name the feelings, make a note of the feelings, and make decisions about what, if anything, we want to do about the feelings. We can have compassion for ourselves about them, we can hold space for them, and maybe they don’t have to be the boss of us all the time.

One thing I do is make note of feelings that come up when I’m trying to plan my day or my week. Is a task getting moved day after day without getting finished? What are the feelings about that? It’s not magic, I still struggle with executive function stuff despite medication and therapy, but it does actually help me to know, if I’m avoiding or dreading something, why? And sometimes I’m able to say, hey, Buddy (my internal monologue is addressed as Buddy), it’s obvious that you’re procrastinating about that, so do you actually want to do it or not? What’s going on here? And that’s enough to help me get to the “I will feel better once this is done” place and get that little nugget of momentum and satisfaction from crossing it off the list.

Those narratives built in childhood about how “lazy” I was hurt really bad, and changing the narrative to, I wasn’t lazy, I just had a different brain that made it harder to do certain kinds of things, has been a process. The past affects us, but we can’t undo it, so what do we want to do with today? May your process be healing.

Q5: My friend has a bad habit of complaining to me about stuff that they know stresses me out, pausing mid-rant to say “sorry, I know you don’t like hearing about this stuff” and then continuing right on again. For Reasons I don’t want to shut them down completely, but how can I ask them to A) dial it back and B) stop apologizing when they have no intention of stopping? (she/her/hers)

A5: This is a hard one, because I think at a certain point you are going to have to shut one of these rants down so that the discomfort this person is making you feel is returned to sender. Boundaries have three steps: Deciding where your boundary is, telling the other person where it is, and then enforcing it.

This could mean interrupting one of the rants:

  • “I’ve told you I don’t like hearing about this stuff, so, let’s not do this today, ok?”
  • “We talked about this. Please find a different sounding board for ____.” 
  • “I’m sympathetic, but I’m really not up for this today.”
  • “I need you to check before you go into download mode, and I need the answer to be actually meaningful, so, not today.”
  • “Hashtag gentle reminder, hashtag please vent to someone else about stuff like this and hashtag but please come back when you want to go get ice cream.” 

And it could mean, when the fauxpology comes, holding up your hands and saying, “You always apologize, but you never actually stop doing the thing, so, can we not?” 

And it could mean that the conversation is cut short and things get very awkward and you feel enormous pressure to just give in and let it happen. But it sounds like you’ve been perfectly clear (they know you don’t like this and they do it anyway), so probably this person needs to feel the full “This is what ‘nope’ feels like” effect at least once. I can’t think of a gentle, more subtle “dial it back” way that you didn’t already try.

Whether you put this into practice or not is up to you, I just want to emphasize: It’s not mean to to tell someone ‘no’ inside a friendship.

Q6: What’s something romantic I can do for my husband serving in Afghanistan? I send him random silly stuff and we can chat and Skype and text. I’m not feeling very creative. We’ve been married nearly 20 years. (I am she/her/hers husband is he/him/his)

A6: Have you and he ever written paper letters to one another? There’s something about a tangible object that you can carry with you, something that can be read and re-read, something written quietly and intentionally to the person that has a magic to it. Maybe find a list of questions like these (not necessarily these exact ones, adapt to your purposes) and trade answers on paper over time? Could you read the same book together and have a long-distance book club (or each pick out a favorite book to assign to the other person to read) and talk about it?

Readers, what kinds of things keep you connected in long distance relationships?

Part 2 is coming.