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bygones

Dear Captain Awkward,

After almost a year of planning, we’re in the home stretch before my wedding day in early May. Everything was lining up smoothly until I reached out for RSVPs that hadn’t been received yet, namely my stepdad, my aunt, and my grandmother (my dead mom’s sister and mother). These are my only family members from mom’s side of the family. And I was informed that none of the three are coming. My stepdad says he “doesn’t feel up to it” but honestly we’re not super close so I kind of get it; my aunt can’t afford it (no loss there, honestly, she’s a pain).

My grandmother at first said she can’t afford to come. When I offered to pay her way, it became “well I just cain’t (said in an East Texas drawl)”. I’m not proud of it but I was sobbing on the phone with her. She then wrote me a passive-aggressive letter, full of “I” statements, talking about how she has all these wonderful memories of going and doing things for and with me throughout my childhood. I’m glad for her to have those memories. Problem is, the memory I’m going to get to keep with me for the rest of my life is that she couldn’t be arsed to make an effort for me. I’m feeling really abandoned and very, very sad. Am I off base here? How do I let this go (short of going in to therapy for it – I already am looking for a new therapist after a little over a year out of therapy because of insurance reasons)? I also haven’t spoken to her since the phone call where I cried – she hasn’t called me, and I don’t know what I would say if I called her. After the letter, I’m not even convinced I want to talk to her.

I guess what I desire right now is to be told I’m not insane to be hurt by this, because past-trauma-brain is gaslighting me super hard right now and I’m tired of crying every time I think about it.

Fucking why.

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Hi Captain,

My estranged father is about to die (I am working with family to make the degree of peace with which I feel comfortable). My mother died about a decade ago. Besides the problem of anticipatory grieving and emotions feelings around an estrangement, I am struggling with a desire not to go to his funeral.

The church and hometown I situation in which I grew up were small and sometimes a little cult-like. The church left me with a lot of trauma. I have almost no contact with anyone from that period of my life any more and I like it that way.

However, it was my dad’s church and he’s known some of these people since the 70s. Particularly because of the estrangement, I don’t have a right to plan the funeral/memorial or decide to exclude some people. I expect to see a lot of people there whom I last saw at my mother’s funeral and whom I hope never to see again.

But I will be grieving. I need to go.

Might you have any scripts for how to handle people either bringing up the estrangement or attempting to make small talk? I don’t want to talk about the estrangement with anyone but my siblings. I don’t want to make small talk. I want to grieve and see him buried.

Thanks,
/Not A Bad Daughter I Swear

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Hi Captain,

For over a decade, I had a really bad relationship with my sister. She struggled with addiction and suicide ideation and, often, was just plain mean. I enabled her by making sure I was always available to her during her emotional crises and never saying no to anything she wanted. I got a weird sense of superiority from taking care of her, which I realize now, was a really sick source of self-esteem.

Fortunately, our relationship is a lot better now! She’s been sober for nearly two years and has apologized for many of the things she did when she was using. For my part, I apologized for being a condescending goody-good.

I thought things were fine as they were.

Recently, though, she called off her engagement and has started calling and texting me a lot. This is a common pattern. When she’s happy and busy, I don’t hear from her much. That’s fine by me. But, when she’s sad, lonely, or upset, the intensity of her communication ramps way up.

The other day, I asked her if everything was ok – noting that she’s been calling a lot lately. She said everything was fine, she just wants us to be closer. But, this is exactly what I don’t want! I want to enjoy her company when we see each other a few times a year. I want to talk to her maybe once a week. I don’t want to be her best friend or confidante. I’m just not ready for that.

The guilt I feel at not wanting to be close to someone who wants to be close to me is eating me up inside. Does forgiving her mean we have to be good friends? Is it ok to want the best for my sister, admire her good qualities, and still want her to kind of…stay in her own world? Is there any way I can convey this to her without seeming like a monster? Especially, since she’s going through a tough time?

Sister, Not Friend (#1182)

Hi Sister, Not Friend, your letter came in at the same time as some others, I hope nobody minds if we tackle these all together.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a sister who has been bothering me a lot lately. She has depression and a few other minor health issues, she is divorced, on disability. She is very negative and usually only wants to get together to complain about her health, my parents, her kids, or ex husband. She doesn’t have a lot of friends and constantly texts me all day. I would like to put some distance between us because all her issues are stressing me out which is leading to my own adverse health affects and I just don’t have time for them. I have tried to say things in the past but she always says “this is the straw that broke the camels back” or she feels “attacked”. She has always been like this and it’s really starting to bother me. I feel bad saying I need space when she doesn’t have any one else but I’m tired of her drama. I don’t want to cut her out of my life just limit our interactions to once or twice a week. Do you have any advice on how I can achieve this?

Sally (#1183)

Hi Sally, your letter came in at the same time as several others. We’re going to have a group discussion. Read on.

Dear Captain Awkward,

Thank you for the existence of your blog! I love reading your advice and have been slowly trying to implement this into my own relationships.

The problem I have is that I am a very passive, live and let live kind of person, living in a family of opinionated people. My dad loves to rage on about articles he’s read and refuses to acknowledge alternative theories. My mother has an uncanny ability of seeing the world through everyone else’s eyes, and therefore believing she has the authority to cast judgement on their decisions. Loudly.

My sister combines the two and adds another ingredient. Selfishness.  When her friend’s parents were getting divorced, she worried that her friendship with friend would suffer. When her university frienemy announced she was moving in with her boyfriend, to the same county as my sister after graduating, my sister worried that she would be obligated to spend all free time with frienemy, despite living 30 miles apart. My dad once complimented me on my jumper as I sat down to dinner with them. Her immediate response was to cry out: ‘But what about my jumper, dad?’ I bit my tongue so hard it metaphorically started bleeding. Call her out on any of the above, though, she calls me rude and gets angry.

Captain, your scripts and advice have been invaluable in building up my confidence to confront the aspects of our relationship that I’m not happy about, in addition to making everything about her, the way she has targeted me in the past has led to many of my insecurities.

I have put her on an information diet and refuse to engage in arguments. We have barely interacted for a number of months now.

We have recently had some bad news in the family which, I hoped, would start to bring us closer together in a positive way. It has had the effect of her calling me frequently to spill her emotional guts.

I’m dealing with my own fair share of emotions in reaction to the bad news. I don’t feel comfortable enough to share them with my sister whenever she calls, and I’m certainly not about to tell her that my eating disorder has started to resurface, because she will make it into a competition about who is having a worse time. This is one of her patterns and an easy way for her to avoid acknowledging that I have feelings.

I know my own strength and while I know that I can talk to her about family news, I don’t know how to increase the time and energy spent with her knowing that she won’t acknowledge any boundaries I’ve set up. Keeping her on an information diet has helped, but I worry that she’ll try to break past that as our relationship progresses.

I know you can’t choose family, and I want to have a good relationship with my sister, I just don’t know how.

Sincerely,

Struggling Sister (#1184)

Greetings, Struggling Sister! Something’s in the air, right? I hope it helps to know you’re not alone. You’re not alone.

Now that we’re all gathered here together, I think that if improvement is possible in these sibling relationships, there is a common approach that gives all of you the best chance of making that happen.

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It’s time to answer the things people typed into search engines as if they are questions.

Here is a seasonal jam by The Avett Brothers:

Lyrics are here.

1 “I can’t stand going to my friend’s house because she smokes inside.”

Legit! I have a very hard time with smoke (asthma trigger), the same way cat-allergic friends have a hard time hanging out in the kitten palace. Sometimes it’s possible to hang out for a little while at my lovely smoker-friends’ places with the aid of my inhaler (used both pre-emptively and refreshed periodically), sometimes it’s not. Sometimes my friends can hang out at my place for a little while with the help of Zyrtec, sometimes they can’t, and/or we need to cut the visit short. Nobody holds it against anyone (we all get to set our own risk tolerance, especially when it comes to breathing, and we all get to make our homes primarily serve ourselves). It’s okay to invite the friend out and generally try to meet in places other than her home.


2 “My sister has changed so much I don’t even know her anymore.”

What if you could let go of who she used to be, or how you imagined she was?

Pretend you just met her. Look at her like a friendly stranger might, someone without any baggage or history where she’s concerned. Try to spend some enjoyable time with her, find out what she’s interested in now, find out what you might have in common now.

Look for reasons to enjoy her company, be proud of her, look for things to be curious about and praise. If she’s unkind to you, or just an asshole, that’s different, obviously, but what if you started from a place of kindness and curiosity?

Sometimes I wish we could all do this with all of our family members.

3 “Tidying Up hard to understand her accent

.”

As someone who has studied multiple languages and taught ESL to kids and adults, I have recommendations, though I should say up front that these suggestions require the ability to see the screen and read and I’m not sure what to recommend for people with visual impairments.

If you want to watch a TV show and you have trouble parsing the performer’s accent, try this:

  1.  Turn on the captions/subtitles.
  2. Remove other distractions (don’t try to watch it in the background while you keep one eye on your phone or sorting your mail or whatever). You’re going to have to pay closer attention.
  3. Get used to the idea that you might not catch absolutely every nuance the first time. You can rewind if necessary, rewatch if necessary.
  4. Stick with it for a few episodes. It’s very likely that it will get easier the more you listen and watch. You’ll pick up the cadences of speech better, and you’ll have more context clues, you’ll get to know the performers/presenters body language/facial expressions over time.

If you try that and it doesn’t get easier, maybe the show is not for you. Try the book instead, or find something else to watch.

Moderation Note:  Kindly refrain from cluttering the comments section with complaints/criticisms/feelings/arguments/jokes/incl. compliments! about Marie Kondo, her show, her book, her approach, literally anything about her. I find the intense discourse around her exhausting at best and racist at worst, and I will delete all of it (even nice things)(even jokes that are clever variations about whether something sparks joy). I like you an awful lot, let’s keep it that way.

4 “Can’t wear anything too “fancy” or my boyfriend gets mad

.”

I have an idea, let’s look at pretty outfits and imagine what we might wear to a “I dumped that controlling jerkass” party.

Maybe something from the Vivienne Westwood ’94 collection? 

Or the recent Golden Globes?

5 “Flowers on dick.” 

Scroll down to #18 for all your funeral-arrangements-for-enemies needs.

6 “sexual favors”and “free rent” “massachusetts”



Well that’s wicked specific.

7 “My boyfriend expects me to eat from his squalid kitchen

.”

Well, what happens when you say “I’m not comfortable with that?” 

I meant to add this to the “red flags & compatibility when meeting new people to date” discussion at the end of this post last week but I forgot, so I’ll add it here:

Visit each other’s living spaces  – after you feel safe/comfortable being alone with someone before you commit to an ongoing relationship. Are you comfortable there? Do you feel welcome? Can you relax? Is what you see (smell/feel) congruent with the person you’re getting to know and what you want?

“This person’s living space upsets me” vs. “What if they can’t help it?” is a well-covered discussion topic on the site. I am not interested in judging people, blaming people, diagnosing people, excusing people, shaming people, setting these conflicts up as moral contests. I am interested in giving everyone permission to factor how a current or potential partner keeps their living space into decisions about comfort and compatibility.

Back in grad school I made a short film about a laundry pile achieving sentience. It wasn’t a documentary due to biological impossibility…for now…but let’s just say my real-life hamper did all its own stunts. By contrast, my dad, the world’s tidiest man, can sense when you are close to finishing a soda. He hovers while you take your last swallow, pounces before you can put the can down on any surface, rinses it to restore factory settings, and ferries it gently to its rightful place in the garage, where his complex recycling system made up of 12 distinct bins and barrels awaits. He is an extremely good match for my mom, who prefers to maintain all surfaces in a state of surgical sterility.

A date who preferred my parents’ “we keep the correct vacuum cleaner for each room in a closet in that room” lifestyle would have looked at my MFA in chore avoidance and thought: “Nope! We would make each other miserable!” This is fine! We would! I would gross him out, he would remind me of my dad and send my shoulders up around my ears!

Maybe the boyfriend in the search string will clean his kitchen. Maybe he’ll get dumped ’cause he won’t. Maybe he’ll be the one who breaks up because the querent made him feel judged and uncomfortable. Maybe they’ll decide to live happily ever after on takeout and prepackaged things. Fine! This is all fine!

In no universe will I ever recommend anything resembling “Since some people struggle with housekeeping, love probably means swallowing your discomfort along with whatever they cooked, no matter how unsanitary you find it.” Serious incompatibility around housekeeping stuff is a recipe for intense stress and conflict, you’re allowed to have preferences, needs, and choose a lower difficulty setting for yourself and your relationships.


8 “Why does my boyfriend treats his daughter like his wife.”

He creepy?

9 “Niece hates me for no reason.”

She has a reason. It may not be a good reason, it may not be a reason you’ll ever get to the bottom of, but it exists even if it’s only her opinion.

When I sense someone doesn’t like me, and I can’t think of a plausible reason for the conflict,  and “Hey, have I done something to upset you?” doesn’t work (either b/c I asked and didn’t get a good answer or I don’t feel comfortable enough to even ask), I try to give the person a lot of space, be polite and keep it light when I do have to interact, and see if time either mellows the situation or gives me more information.


10 “BF’s ex-girlfriend warns me about him how do I respond

.”

Do you actually need to respond? Do you need to respond to her?

In your shoes, I might say something very non-committal to her, like, “thanks for telling me, I’ll think about it.” It’s such an unusual thing to do that (in my opinion) it’s probably worth thinking about for a few days before you either act on it or disregard it.

What’s the worst thing that could happen if you do nothing about what she said? (Don’t respond, don’t address it with your boyfriend, brush it off).

What’s the substance of the warning? Is she trying to warn you about abuse? Have you noticed any red flags?

What’s in this for her? What reason would she have to lie? Like, is she trying to get you to break up with the boyfriend so she can be with him again, or to create trouble for him? Or is she trying to warn you to GTFO for your own safety?

Your answers to those questions will most likely point you in the right direction.


11 “Housemate comments on everything I do.”



I’m sure I wrote some more emotionally mature and useful responses and you should probably go read those and try those suggestions.

Right now what comes to mind is:”What are you, the narrator?”

12 “What does it mean when someone reacts to a minor little comment that bothers them with a barrage of made up hurtful things to hurt the other person?

”

Nothing good! Consider how much time you want to spend with someone who does this (if any).

13 “I feel like I am a burden on my therapist

.” 


This is probably worth mentioning to your therapist. Consider also that your therapist gets paid for the time they spend with you, most therapists have some choices about who they take on as a client, and you’re just one of many clients they see. It is unlikely they are thinking about you (as a burden or otherwise) as much as you think about them.


14 “How often to go to someones house.”

I love literally any excuse to make a chart.

Screen Shot 2019-02-14 at 5.52.01 PM

A Venn Diagram that shows the intersection of being invited to someone’s house and actually wanting to go to their house. Maybe you’ll need Zyrtec.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day to those who celebrate, happy “day before half price candy” for those who don’t. Be excellent to yourselves and each other.

Dear Awkward,

I work at a nonprofit and am the only staff member who manages our +1,200 volunteers.

My ex-husband worked with a therapist for years prior to our divorce. The ex was violent, cheated on me, and was verbally abusive. At one point when things were really messy his therapist sought me out at a public event to encourage me to get STI testing because of my ex’s unprotected contact with sex workers.

3 years later, his therapist has just begun volunteering at my place of work. I feel sickened at the thought of working with someone who reminds me so much of this ex and knows so many personal things about me. What, if anything, can I do? Should I disclose this situation to my boss?

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Dear Captain Awkward,

FYI: she/her pronouns for me and “Amy”

I had a falling out with a friend and do not want to try to repair the relationship. I am wondering what I owe this former friend, in terms of an explanation for why things have gone cold between us.

This friend and I are members of a parenting social group. “Amy” and I have kids the same age, and everyone has been friends for 4 years. Our kids are still too young to have 100% independent friendships, so if your kids decide they like each other? It requires the parents facilitating the relationship and means the parents sort of have to become friends, too.

I’ve come to realize that Amy isn’t the type of person I’d pick as a friend for myself. While she has several great qualities, she can also be very rude, cheap, thoughtless, and insensitive. If you point out “Hey Amy, what you just said/did was rude, cheap, thoughtless, and/or insensitive”, she’ll respond “I’m from Europe. That’s just how Europeans are”, which seems like a bullshit excuse to me. Sometimes she’ll even excuse her behavior immediately after she’s done something thoughtless. So, she *knows* she’s done something out of line, but she’s preemptively telling you to get over it, because Europe.

I’ve been ignoring her periodic rudeness for the sake of the kids’ friendship until recently. Last week, she made an insensitive comment about my kid and told me that her kids didn’t consider my kid to be a friend. Which sucks, because my kids *did* consider her kids to be friends. I don’t think “my kids don’t like yours” is a temporary, little-kid-moodiness thing, where they say they aren’t friends one day and then back to being friends the next. She totally meant that her kids disliked mine and have for a long time. Which is confusing, because if your kids don’t like my kids, why the heck are you inviting us over to play and for multiple kid parties every year? Why do you extend us invites and accept our invites? What’s that all about, Amy?

Since telling me that her kids don’t like mine, Amy has been extra friendly with me, texting me, liking alllllll my posts on social media, and generally buttering me up in ways she never has before. She texts to see if we want to come over (No), how we are feeling (Fine), do we want to meet at the park? (Can’t), are we coming to her kid’s birthday party next week (No, thank you). She knows something is up, and will eventually ask why I’ve distanced myself.

Do I owe her an explanation? I’m 100% done with the relationship at this point. I don’t like her, her kids don’t like mine, so there’s pretty much nothing keeping us together, in my opinion. The “Good Girl” part of me feels like I should explain why I have put distance between us, but I know that she’ll just blame the whole thing on me not understanding Europeans and try to “fix” things by shoving her kids at mine via more play dates. I don’t know what her motivation is for wanting to keep this non-friendship going, and I don’t care to find out. I’m done.

What do I owe her?

-Not Chasing Amy

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Hello! This morning I am voting, picking Henrietta Pussycat up from the vet from her spay, and then I’m answering short questions this afternoon. Review of how it works:

  • Patrons can submit questions at this thread (Advantage: More than 280 characters).
  • Anyone can submit questions anytime via Twitter – @CAwkward, #awkwardfriday. Please use the hashtag, my mentions are busy enough that I might miss it without.
  • Deadline for questions for this week is noon, Chicago time, Friday, Nov. 2. If a question comes in after that, I try to include it next time.
  • I answer as many questions as I can between noon & 2pm. If I think something is too much/too big for the venue, I’ll tell you and we’ll figure something else out.
  • I’m asking people not not submit questions about abuse & sexual harassment & violence in these short answer threads.
  • I’m also suggesting that you redirect your U.S.-election related anxieties and energies here. Our fears and our feelings are real, but there is stuff to DO right now. Let’s DO THE STUFF, to the best of our abilities. We can process later.
  • Comments open when everything is posted.

Q1: “Ahoy, Captain! I’m constantly asked about my British accent, but I’m not British! I had seven years of speech therapy as a child with articulation problems, and my voice has some quirks that sound a little more British than American. I’m white, so “But where are you really from?” comes from curiosity rather than racism, but meeting new colleagues/students/dental hygienists is awkward enough without suddenly becoming hyper-aware of my speech. Any advice on redirecting without getting self-conscious? Also, since it isn’t an accent, it’s more perceptible sometimes than others, and I worry that people will think I’m (inconsistently) faking an accent to sound smart/exotic. (oh Cthulhu).”

A1: First, a PSA: I’m glad you mentioned racism, because white people definitely need to to stop quizzing nonwhite people (and/or people with “foreign” accents) about where they are “really” from. If you doubt me, please watch this video and remember that even if you think you have good reason to ask/you are just being kind/like, you studied abroad in their country and you want to talk about it with them/you went to school with someone with the same last name/you want restaurant recommendations, you are contributing to a pattern that really and truly wears on people and they have no way of knowing that your interest is benign. If someone’s national or ethnic background is something they want to share with you or something that’s important to your interactions, trust that they will do it on their own in their own way. Stop expecting them to play “guess my background!” on demand to satisfy your curiosity.

Now to your question, a fellow Patron in the question thread had a great suggestion:

“I get that a lot (Australian with a not-very-strong accent which people read as fairly randomly either American or English). I say ” *light laugh* just Australian, but I get that a lot!” The “I get that a lot” smoothes over the awkwardness. People just… when they notice a not-normal thing it introduces a spot of discomfort and they need an excuse – any excuse will do – to slide past it. (this assuming you want to do a softening and smoothing not a dead-eyed shutdown) Some small portion will continue on with “yeah, it really doesn’t sound Australian!” – a “yeah i dunno why!” is usually enough to get us to move on to a less-boring topic. My general tone is that it is one of the mysteries of my life that people say this to me. My subtext is “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but don’t worry, you’re not alone, a lot of people share your hallucination!” “huh, weird!” Like… they’re seeing the dress as black and blue when it’s really white and gold. Very normal, not correct, just one of those things.”

I sometimes say “maybe I watched too much TV as a kid!” but that’s cause most Australian TV has American accents, I guess that won’t work for you. Some other mildly self-deprecating but dismissive thing. But not a humble brag, just, actually self-deprecating counters the risk of being seen as pretentious (I’m not sure how likely that is, and how much it’s just a worry, but either way hopefully it will help you worry less about it hopefully). Could you say “I had trouble learning to speak when I was little, so my accent ended up a bit weird!” (not sure how comfortable you are using a rough childhood situation as a glib comment, but I think it would be effective – gives a “reason”, is clearly not pretentious] [I suspect your self-consciousness about it is because of the articulation lessons – but actually quite a lot of people get this, for no particular reason]”

“I get that a lot!” + a subject change is perfect. I think this is also one of those things where people will take their cues from you – If you act like it’s a big deal, people will think it’s a big deal and be curious, but if you play it off and change the subject, most people will let it go and the ones who can’t or won’t are the ones making it weird.

Q2: Ahoy Captain. We’re getting a divorce, an amiable one, but… how do we tell our friends? Do we just put it on Facebook or what is normal procedure?

A2: I don’t know if there is a usual procedure (this would be a good marketing niche for greeting card designers, right? “We loved celebrating our wedding with you, now it’s time to celebrate our divorce, which will be final on [date]”). I’ve seen people make a Facebook announcement and didn’t find it strange, though to me it seemed like it was a late step in the process and the people involved had already spread the word a bit to friends & family. The downside of social media announcements is comments, like, people you went to elementary school with weighing in all “but you were always the perfect couple!” or “marriage takes work!” so if you do go that route think about your filters and moderate heavily.

This is where the extrovert/heavily networked people in your family and friend group come in handy, right? “Hey, talkative friend who knows everybody, X and I are getting divorced. It’s amicable and mutual, and we want to spread the word a bit but not have 100 awkward conversations where people tell us how surprised they are. Can you be our buffer about this – spread the word, and DON’T tell us about people’s weird questions and feelings? Thanks!” 

Q3: My good friend has a spouse who I’m friendly with but not as close to. I’m happy for them to attend things that I plan with my friend, and for big group stuff I invite them individually and am fine with either coming alone. But for smaller group stuff I want the spouse only if the friend is coming. I have zero problem with the spouse being there with my friend, but I don’t have the closeness where I want them alone as 1/3 to 1/6 of the group. I like them but it changes the dynamic. Is there any kind/polite way to communicate “This invitation is for you; it’s fine if your spouse comes with you, but they’re not invited to come alone”?  

A3: I have five suggestions:

  1. Script for overall discussion is probably “I like [Spouse] so much, but sometimes when I’m inviting you to a really small event I want it to be just us, so can you check with me first esp. if I don’t send them their own invite?” Also, think very carefully about whether you want to have an overall discussion or just handle it event by event, esp. since the consequences might be you get neither of them if both are not welcome.
  2. Be future-oriented, as in, change up how you do this in the future, don’t ask people to answer for the past (unless you want to make everyone feel unwelcome).
  3. If you’ve been inviting spouse through the friend, start separating it out and making sure they each get their own email or text or addition to the event page for things when they are both invited. Use your subject lines constructively – “Sal & Sally, you’re both invited to …” “Sally, you’re invited to…”
  4. Be clear and consistent – “Would you like to join me for X on [date]? It’s a tiny group this time, so no +1s or spouses, let me know by Friday.” “Wanna go to breakfast with me? Just us this time.” And then be consistent, like, if this person’s spouse can’t come maybe yours and other people’s don’t either.
  5. Sometimes this goes down easier as gender-segregated events – “Just us gents this time” – so if that’s useful to you, use it.

Q4: “What are your thoughts on Dylan Marron’s ‘Conversations with People Who Hate Me’?”

My thoughts are “this literally is the first I’ve heard of it” and I had to Google it to even know that it was a podcast. Since this comes up every time: I don’t listen to podcasts generally so the chances I’ve listened to or even heard of your favorite one are extremely tiny. I hope you enjoy (or don’t enjoy) it exactly as it deserves?

Q5: “What are some of your favorite friend-date activities for spending 1:1 time together?”

A5: Tonight I’m going to Commander Logic’s house to play Scrabble. Chances of wine/cheese/giggling are high.

I like sharing meals together. I like going to concerts and movies and the theater and readings. I like having people over for cozy couch time. Anywhere you can talk & catch up for hours (and eat!) I’m probably pretty happy.

Q6I’m 46, cis, het and female (she/her). I’m trying to get back into online dating after I had a panic attack over it last year. My major hobby/vocation/extra curricular activity is MMA—weapons, wrestling, boxing. It’s a huge part of my life. I’m pretty good at it (20 years now, I better be).

Mentioning it in dating profiles goes badly, I find, but I feel really disingenuous concealing it since it flips people out. Any thoughts on a good way to approach this?

A6: Anyone who is gonna be a good match for you is gonna be at least, AT LEAST, agnostic about your favorite thing to do with your free time. Like, the baseline here is “Hrmmm, I don’t know anything about that really, but how cool! What do you like best about it?” and you should actively weed out anyone who is weird about it.

Maybe look at it this way: You’re not auditioning for people to like some generic version of you, you’re trying to narrow down the people who can hang with who you really are. When a dude reacts badly to learning you are a skilled badass lady fighter, it’s not because you failed some audition. It’s because he is not cool enough for you. Keep looking.

Q7: How do you know when it’s time to switch mental health professionals? I’ve been with the same therapist for seven months now, and I feel like progress hasn’t been great, but I’m not sure how to determine if I need to let this process take more time, whether it’s because I’m not doing what I need to do, or whether it’s because the therapist/treatment aren’t working for me.

A7: Well, this is something you can talk about with your therapist, and pretty frankly, too: “I’m not making as much progress as I’d like to be, do you think there’s something we could be doing differently with our sessions/do you think there’s something I could be doing more aggressively between sessions/do you think it would be beneficial for me to try working with someone else/can we check in about what progress has happened since we started working together and revise our plan?” 

And if you feel like you can’t bring this up, that’s telling detail. Talking about how you work together is part of the work. More info on how to tell what works here.

Q8: I belong to a professional organization. This past year I have joined a committee for an in-person event that will be held in the next month. Only a few of the committee members are able to attend the actual event (which is to be expected) and a lot of the committee work is creating session descriptions and finding speakers. Our committee chair left the committee last month when they changed jobs, as they are no longer in our niche area. Their departure did put us in a bit of a bind as we found out that not all sessions had speakers arranged, although it has all been worked out at this point. For me personally, this added a lot of stress. I guess my question is, how do I answer questions about their departure? This event isn’t huge and their absence will be noticed, especially as I will be subbing in for a couple of speaking parts. I don’t want to bad mouth them, or make it a dramatic telling, but at the same time, I am not sure I am up for making it a happy happy story of them moving on. Especially since they told me to let them know if I had any questions immediately following their departure, which I did and which they completely ignored. Should I just mentally compartmentalize the bad personal aftertaste this has given me? 

A8: If y’all haven’t already done this as a committee, draft some kind of announcement or statement about the person leaving and make sure the news is out there. And then use that statement to guide and inform how you answer questions from people. I really feel for you being left in the lurch by this person, but I encourage you to think about the message you want to send about the organization and the event (wanting attendees to be engaged and excited) vs. your personal feelings about all of it, which might be best saved for close friends (venting at the bar) and fellow committee members (private discussions about how to fill the gaps this person left and take some of this off your shoulders).

To that end, what if you said “Departing Person left some big shoes to fill, and this last month I grew to *truly* appreciate how much work they’d done recruiting speakers in past years.” + then turned the conversation toward what you’d like this member of the organization to do? For example “If you’re looking to get more involved in conference planning, the committee could always use x, y, z” or “We’re really looking for more speakers who can talk about x, y, and z topics” or “This is my first time running this solo, if there’s something I’m overlooking, please tell me!” or “We don’t have quite enough session moderators, any chance I can get you to jump in?” 

Nobody can undo the stress you’ve been under, but orienting yourself (and your membership) toward action is gonna be the best medicine, I think. Good luck, may it all go smoothly!

Q9: Captain, as a creative and hard-working person, do you think that it better to have a more-cool role on a less-cool-overall project, or a less-cool role on a more-cool-overall project? Each project has thousands of people in it and lasts over the course of many years. I could be happy doing either but am definitely more excited professionally for cool-role-project. It also comes with a little less money that would have a non-dealbreaking but also non-negligible lifestyle impact.

A9: I don’t have an answer, just questions:

  • Which project sets you up to have the most options in the future?
  • Which project sets you up to learn from people who will help you level up the most?
  • Do you have some ongoing creative practice that’s just yours, that can sustain you either way?
  • Then, do a gut check. Flip a coin. If you had to abide absolutely by the coin flip (you don’t, but pretend with me), how do you feel about that?

Q10: I’ve been desperate for years to start doing more creative work but when a good idea moves me I become too manic to focus and can only daydream, and when I’m not manic I feel totally immobile and unmotivated. I feel like my peers are lapping me while I stay still and every cool idea I have will die with me (if it doesn’t show up in someone else’s work – although I was greatly comforted by something in the archive about that being a good sign of sorts haha). Mostly I just feel rotten about myself every time a cis white dude, specifically, gushes about his cool project – stuff by not those dudes (esp. games, comedy, YouTube) helps me, but I still feel like I’m a windbag with nothing to contribute and I only think I “deserve” a voice to spite bigger windbags, when ideally I would be lifting up, entertaining, maybe collaborating once I get over my fear of and aversion to that. I know I should seek mental health care (been feeling pretty shit for a decade) and I know timed exercises/750 words/NaNo and the like sometimes make me feel better, but nothing has made the process of actually sitting down and bringing an idea to an acceptable level of completion seem less insurmountable. Any strategies? 

A10: I’m definitely not immune to this feeling. A lot of people want tips and suggestions to see if they can bypass the process of “finish stuff, send it out, then make new stuff” or make it easier somehow and, you can’t. I can’t. We can’t. No matter how, like, insightful we get about our process or how much we plan out elegant projects, eventually we will have to reckon with “finish a thing, send it out, make a new thing.”

Some stuff that might help:

Yes, take care of your mental health. I got diagnosed with ADHD a few years back and it helped so much, both in giving me tools and strategies and also helping me let go of some of the shame and self-recrimination that was not motivating in the least. Whatever you’ve got going on, having a trained pro guide you through both your goals and your list of “shoulds” (the stuff you’re using to beat yourself up with) isn’t a bad idea.

Give yourself a License To Suck. A writing teacher literally did this for a class I’m taking, it’s printed on a business-card sized thing and we can carry it in our wallets. It’s a reminder that people aren’t born with mastery, and if it’s worth doing it’s worth sucking at it for a while in order to get better.

Take a class or otherwise find community that gives you permission to generate a lot of first drafts, break projects down into manageable chunks, work with supportive peers, build in accountability and a schedule. If you’re going to suck, suck with other people who are also trying.

Try going for volume over quality for a while. That’s what NaNoWriMo is good for, right? Process, practice, volume, non-judgment. If you struggle with perfectionism and you have lots of stuff going on, this way no project has to be the one perfect project. Check out the parable of the pots. Also, see this from Ira Glass.

Test ideas and themes in different mediums. One of the best teachers I’ve ever encountered said the most important thing to me at the end of film school, when I took a memoir writing class with her: “Not every good idea you have wants to be a film.” She also introduced me to the practice of reading/telling stories out loud for audiences, which led me to nonfiction writing, which led me here.

How freeing was that? SO FREEING. Sometimes my ideas are movies but they can also be essays or poems or this advice blog that ate my life in the best possible way. Maybe your unfinished short story is languishing because it wants to be a short film. Maybe your novel wants to be a painting. Maybe you’re really a photographer. I don’t know! Maybe you don’t, either.

Q11: Do you have any words of wisdom for an amateur writer doing #nanowrimo2018 ? I seem to have written myself into a corner and I’m not sure how to get out. (This will be my 11th win if I finish again this year, but I’m not feeling it at the moment.)

A11: It would be okay if you didn’t do it or didn’t finish this time. It would be okay if you used this year to revise one of your old efforts instead of writing something new (maybe take an old piece and shift the setting or the POV character?). If you do do it and stick with it, the habit and the process will reassert themselves and the ritual of writing will probably start to feel better even if you’re not inspired. It will probably be more fun if you find other people to cheer you on.

Q12: I’m in the early stages of a relationship. Everything is sunshine and rainbows and tiny hearts with our initials. I know this stage doesn’t last forever. At some point there’s chewing with your mouth open and dirty socks and more real and less lusty head over heels. I don’t have any good relationship models in my life. How do I enjoy the good parts without worrying so much about what’s to come? (He’s a good person. There is no but there. I like what we are building together.)

A12: Versions of this question keep coming up. The answer is always the same:

Relationships aren’t a test you can study for and get an “A” by doing the most work. So use this anxious energy about the relationship that you’re feeling as a reminder to shore up the other areas of your life. Strengthen your friendships and family relationships and make sure you’re not losing track of the other people you love. Make sure that your career & education & creative pursuits & hobbies are doing what you want them to. Spruce up your living space. Revisit your plans & daydreams about the future. Get your health checkups and dental cleanings. Spend some alone time, don’t feel like you have to be with this person every single second. Your romantic relationship is just one part of your life, and the more secure and happy you are as a person, the better set up you’ll be to make good decisions about your love life, even if that decision is “keep enjoying this!”

Q13: Hey Captain, Happy Friday! I was wondering if you have any tips for building personal discipline and a better work ethic? I have heard, all my life, that I seem to phone things in, that I’m capable of better than what I give, that I project laziness that comes across as disrespect, etc. This has come from my family, teachers, employers, (ex-)partners, etc. And, they’re not wrong – I tend to stop at “adequate” but don’t go the extra mile to be excellent in most aspects of my life. I’m a single parent with a super-demanding job and always feel like I’m running on fumes, but know I could do at least a bit better! Help?

A13: Hrmmmmm….these sound awfully like all the messages I grew up with, the ones that rebounded inside my head literally since forever, endless jokes about having “She had so much potential” engraved on my gravestone, and totally discounting all the stuff I was doing and had actually done in favor of the ever-expanding list of what I should be doing. It’s taken some mental health diagnoses and ongoing mental health treatment and the practice of years to stop automatically playing those mind-loops.

Do you want to be doing “more” and if so “more of what”?

Are we sure these people are right about you? Are you sure they aren’t saying “Hey, even your ‘phoning it in’ version of this is pretty good and we resent that about you.”

And if they are right about you, is that really so bad? You parent your kid. You hold down a demanding job. Your kid is alive and happy and your work gets done, right? So what even is this “more”?

Have you talked it over with a therapist? Because that’s where I’d start.

Q14: My job offers professional development funds (yay!). The past few years, I’ve used some of that money for membership in a local professional organization that I’ve often felt lukewarm about. (I was a member briefly after grad school, then discontinued my membership, and rejoined in 2016.) What are some helpful considerations in thinking about renewing (or not)?

A14: Considerations, in no particular order:

  • Is this the only organization in this field or is there another one (even if it’s not as local) that would be a better fit?
  • Are you fully utilizing what’s available within the organization? Maybe look back at their programs and see if there’s something there worth taking advantage of.
  • Are the problems with the organization fixable and do you feel like volunteering with the organization to shape it more to your needs?
  • Is there something else you’d rather do with that money? [A conference, a class, an investment in reading material]
  • It’s not your money, so why not? Are there upsides to belonging (networking, being able to list it on your resume)?

Q15: How much talking in class is too much? She/her, non-traditional student in a “caring profession” – my cohort is 90% female. Most classmates seem shyer to speak. My speaking enthusiasm level is Hermione-Granger-with-Undiagnosed-ADD. When I wait for someone else to go, sometimes the prof will impatiently jump in, which is frustrating because I *want* to have a lively discussion. I’m worried peers judge me for taking up space. I’m worried I might *be* taking too much space. Should I talk less? Worry less? Can I focus on some concrete way to support my peers? 

A15: There’s a lot of room between being This Fucking Guy and being that lifesaver active student who is not afraid to talk during class discussions. Your self-awareness about this makes it less likely that you’re a problem, but if it’s making you anxious it’s probably worth checking in with your professor, like, “I want to be active in discussions but I want to make sure I’m not talking over other students, any feedback/can we agree that you’ll tell me if you think I’m overdoing it?” 

If I’m a teacher of a discussion-based class and only one student is ever talking, I’d be looking for ways to mix it up, like, asking a question and having smaller groups chew on it together and then present back to the bigger group, or asking a question for discussion and then giving students a few minutes to write down their thoughts before we talk about it. Really, it’s your teacher’s job to manage the whole vibe of the room, and if there are points for class participation you’re not doing it wrong by participating actively!

The “writing it down” strategy has worked for me when I have had to speak with students who do have (documented) ADHD or just a tendency to blurt things out – “It’s great that you’re so engaged and you have a lot to say, but you interrupt me and other people sometimes, so can we try a thing where when you have a thought or a question you write it down and then wait until I pause for questions to ask it?” You might try that as a strategy for yourself sometimes if you’re worried that you’re being too much – instead of speaking out loud, write whatever it is down in your notes, and write down the things that other people say, too. You still are having the insights, right?

Another strategy (both for moderation and participation) is to make sure you’re amplifying and responding meaningfully to the things that other people say. “Going back to the question Sylvester asked…” “I’ve been thinking about the point that Sylvie made…” If your peers know that you are paying close attention to them when they do speak up, hopefully it will encourage them to keep going.

Q16: Some good friends recently told me that I apologize A LOT and take responsibility for things that are outside my control or not really an issue. My instinct was to apologize for apologizing, so it seems my friends were accurate in their assessment. 🙂 Anyhow, do you have any scripts on how to redirect this tendency in my own head and out loud? What do I say if I feel bad that something didn’t go as planned or I was less than perfect without constantly saying “I’m sorry”? (This wouldn’t apply to situations where I really am in the wrong – but if that happens, I would want my apology there to have some weight and NOT be just a reflex)

A16: Yes, I do have suggestions:

1) Practice restating apologies as expressions of gratitude.

“I’m sorry I forgot to return your book sooner” => “Thanks for lending me the book!”

“I’m sorry I’m such a bummer tonight, I’m really feeling down” => “Thanks for hanging out with me and listening.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t had much time to hang out lately” => “Thanks for being so flexible with my schedule, I’m so glad to see you!”

2) In electronic communications, type them out when you make the draft but build in time to edit and erase before sending. If I didn’t do this, literally every email I sent would start with “Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you.” I decided to stop automatically apologizing about this a few years back and I think it was a good choice. It took me as long as it took to respond to the email, in many cases I’m not actually sorry, and I wanted to stop perpetuating the standard that all emails require immediate response or that women must always pre-apologize in life.

Q17: Maybe more of a crowd-sourcing question – techniques/hacks/systems for doing things (think stretching, at-home physio, etc.) that I need to do but find boring and, while not painful, a pain? 

A17: The Pomodoro Technique (adapted to good advantage by Unfuck Your Habitat as “20/10s”): Set a timer for the length of time that you want to do the annoying thing (like, 20 minutes, but really whatever you want, you can start smaller, you’re the boss of you). Do the annoying thing knowing that there is a hard end-time. Then take a timed break to do something enjoyable (10 minutes). Reset as necessary until the stuff is done.

Someone in this community recommended Gretchen Rubin’s book about habit forming, Better Than Before, and with the caveat that she has some personal thoughts about body image & eating that I don’t share, I’ve personally found it really useful. Like, I enjoyed it at the time, but I think about it waaaaaaaaaaaaaay more often now than I thought I would when I was reading it. The biggest takeaway was that people have different tendencies about what motivates them, and if you can figure out yours you can kinda hack your habit-forming  – like, some people really benefit from having a buddy to do hard stuff with or someone to be externally accountable to, some people are just great rule-followers and the fact that it’s a rule makes it hard to deviate, some people really need to know why a thing is happening so constantly connecting the new habit to the why (“If I do my physical therapy exercises I can get strong enough for that sex position I like again”), etc.

Q18: Not the most serious question but I just got engaged (yay!) And what on earth is it about weddings that makes everybody have An Opinion?? On everything??  

A18: The intersection of family, tradition, culture, marketing, and shit we’ve grown up seeing in movies and on television is a powerful one. Congratulations! Offbeat Bride and A Practical Wedding were lifesavers.

Q19: Scripts for talking to bosses about mental health? I see a therapist twice a month and I don’t know how to explain the absences, or my occasional depressive episodes (less frequent now, yay!)

A19: If the Affordable Care Act did literally nothing else, the mandate that all health plans must cover mental health services the same way they cover any other health concern is a world-changer. Now the culture has to catch up. Until it does, disclosing mental health stuff at work is sticky, because there still is stigma, and once you disclose you can’t un-disclose. Fortunately, Alison at Ask A Manager has a great primer on this. With her advice in mind, one script might be “I have a recurring medical appointment twice a month” and no more information than that. Another one might be “I have depression. It mostly doesn’t affect work (beyond needing to check in with my counselor twice a month), but I’m having a depressive episode and need to treat it more aggressively right now, which means… [specifically what you need – time off, an adjustment to the workload, a quieter work space, a more flexible schedule].”

Q20: “My friends Alex and Pat recently had a huge falling out due to a seemingly trivial issue. Tomorrow at a wedding will be their first time around each other since the fight. Is there anything I can do help keep the peace since I’ll be interacting with both?”

A20: The bad news is the good news: There is literally nothing about their conflict that is your job to worry about. Say hello to both of them, have a great time, don’t bring any of it up unless they do. If they do, try changing the topic to “what a lovely wedding it is.” Only in case of emergency, like they re-start their argument in a way that would be noticeable to other guests or the people getting married, should you do anything (in that example, the doing something might be “ok, why don’t you both get some air!”)

Repeat after me: Not your circus, not your monkeys.

Q21: I’m at a point where my old friend group is “cycling out”. I’ve made some new acquaintances through my weekly activities that I’d love to bring up to friendship level (e.g. inviting them out), but sometimes feel shy. I’d love a script/advice on this.

A21: Remember, the best invitations have a specific time and date and place attached and you’ll have less anxiety if you invite them to a specific thing than if you mention “coffee sometime” and then wait forever for “sometime” to be real. When you’re ready to take the plunge, be specific and ask: “Wanna grab a drink after rehearsal next week?” They may not be free that day, and they may not want to get closer, but almost nobody who goes to a weekly social hobby is going to think you did something wrong by asking or find it weird, at all. Give making plans a couple tries before you give up. If you ask three times and nobody bites (and nobody suggests an alternative), let it go for 3-6 months before bringing it up again. Somebody’s gonna be very glad you asked.

Q22: Hi! recently ended 8-year relationship. didn’t live together, but work together, have creative projects together. Breakup wasn’t mutual: I instigated. Tips for how to be kind and make space for myself to move on? Do I need to end creative partnership too?

A22: Here’s all the post-breakup advice for being nice to yourself.

I don’t think you can make assumptions either way about what happens to the creative partnership now. I think you have to ask the person what they want to do, see if it aligns with what you want to do, and make the decision that’s right for you. What would you do if the collaboration needed to end? Do some research and protect your work.

If you’re reading this and you have a creative collaboration with a friend or romantic partner, I want you to stop, drop, and put something in writing about who owns the work and what happens to it in case you decide to go your separate ways someday. Do this even if nobody is making any money from the work. Do this even if you have no problems or thoughts of ending the friendship or the working relationship because a fair agreement negotiated now, while you like each other, is a huge favor to future-you if something shatters here.

Ok, that should be something for everyone. ❤