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Dear Captain,

I am a 4th year PhD student in a STEM subject and I feel that everything has gone off the rails, in part because my adviser and I don’t communicate well. I will try to be brief- there is a lot to unpack.

I started my PhD at 23 without a Masters, so I knew it would be challenging, and I came in with a pretty huge chunk of imposter syndrome. I was hoping my adviser would be a lot more hands-on than he has turned out to be, and without any kind of structure (other than “here’s what our current grant is, do something related to this”) I have struggled to find my footing and push my way forward. I struggle with anxiety/depression that leave me paralyzed when I feel I don’t have direction, and have been left largely to self-direct in a vacuum. Consequently, I have made a lot of mistakes and fallen flat on my face a lot. All of that is on me to fix, and I have a therapist who is helping me build better habits and address these issues. I know it is within my capability to finish this PhD, even if I feel I’ve wasted a lot of time and I’m no longer certain what I’ve been doing is what I want my question to be. I achieved candidacy, so I’ve managed to keep pressing forward despite my own mistakes and some systematic failings in my program. (They want us to finish in 5 years and I have felt very rushed by their demanding schedule, even though no one has managed that yet. I didn’t push back on this schedule until I slammed into a deadline I wasn’t prepared to meet. Consequently I had to re-do my proposal defense, in part because of our communication issues.)

My adviser is a major source of difficulty for me. A year and a half into my PhD (after I had just sat for my first set of exams), he told me that I was “falling behind”. He couldn’t really articulate to me what that meant, apart from suggesting I put in more lab hours on the weekends. It hasn’t gotten a lot better from there. His criticism is always framed with a lot of judgment and personal attacks- for example, when telling me that I don’t do well speaking off the cuff, he told me that I sounded like Donald Trump. He’s also told me multiple times that he doesn’t know if I can make it through my PhD (including the day before my second proposal defense.) He has high expectations but I don’t ever feel they’ve been clearly articulated to me, and all I get from these conversations is the sense that I’m not meeting them. He’s also a bit temperamental, and I find him very difficult to read, so it’s easy to make him irritable without even realizing that you’ve done it until he chews you out. The problem with his criticism is that there are often valid pieces mixed in that I need to address- pointing out that I’m struggling to frame my work properly is valid and helpful. Saying that he can’t visualize how I’m going to be a successful scientist is…not. Admitting to him that I have been struggling has not gotten me a lot of support either- when I said I struggled with the second proposal defense and became really depressed, he told me maybe now wasn’t the right time for me to be doing this. Several times he has framed his criticism with “and other people think this way too” without elaborating on who or in what context. I honestly don’t know if he knows what he says comes across as hurtful/abusive/manipulative, or if he thinks he’s being supportive. I also don’t think it matters which he intends, since the effect is the same.

Captain, I’m aware that this sounds like a terrible toxic relationship. But I love the field I work in, and it’s a small enough field that if I can’t repair this relationship with him, I don’t know that I will be able to continue having a career. I do want to finish school. I don’t want to quit, or be thrown out, but he’s hinted multiple times that he’s unsure of my capabilities and that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. I know I need to be more confident and assertive and I need to be proactive in pursuing ideas instead of checking every decision with him. I think that’s what he WANTS me to be doing, even if his criticism sometimes makes it hard to feel safe to do so. My resources for who I can talk to about this are thin, and every time I try to think of what to say it mostly sounds like “I know I’m screwing up, but he’s really mean, ok.” The other graduate students are supportive, but I don’t know how to draw on my committee for support right now or how to approach other faculty for mentoring. Particularly when it seems like he’s talking about me behind my back and telling them I’m not doing well. Sometimes I feel so completely lost in this mess that I don’t even know what I want help with any longer, except that I just want help, and to feel supported. Which I don’t think he’s capable of giving.

How do I begin to fix this communication issue? He is not going to change at this point in his career (he’s a significantly older white male, I’m a young woman etc.) I am not going to quit or give up. I don’t care if he likes me as a person any longer, but I do care about my career, and his potential impact on it. I want to make it to the end of my PhD and do a good job. How do I tell him that a) I understand his critiques and respect his opinion on my shortcomings, but that b) the way he frames them makes it difficult to implement them and makes me feel…anxious? Upset? Furthermore, how do you tell someone (who is known for expecting people to read his mind) that his expectations for what he wants aren’t very clear? What can I say to him to get a better idea of what he expects from me, without offending him? I’ve tried to approach the “what do you need from me to help you help me” angle, and tried to get more regular communication going, but for some reason or other it falls apart. I’m willing to try again, but I have to have a clear idea of how to make it stick and how to approach him constructively. Right now I just don’t.

Any help would be appreciated! Thank you so much, Captain. I’m sorry this got so long.

Sincerely,
Very Tired Graduate Student (She/Her)

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Video description: The Bangles cover Big Star’s September Gurls in Pittsburgh in 1986.

It’s time for the monthly thing where we answer the things people typed into search engines as if they are actual questions. This feature is generously funded by Patreon supporters.

1 “How to stop a neighbour and hubby putting me down every time I walk past
.”

Ugh, your husband is being a giant asshole, and it’s time to tell him straight up to knock this behavior off. “Stop doing that. It’s rude, disrespectful, and it hurts my feelings.” If he won’t, you’ve got Husband-problems more than you have Neighbor-problems.

2 “What does it mean when a girl says focusing on school right now after you say your feelings
.” 

It means she did not enthusiastically say “Yes, I feel the same way, let’s definitely date each other!” It means she’d rather focus on school than go out with you. Interpret it as “No.”

3 “Anonymous STD notification letter.”

National treasure website Scarleteen recommends InSpot  for sending an anonymous e-card and has a good how-to guide on doing this kind of notification. Australia has a service called Better To Know that lets you notify partners of possible Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) anonymously via text or email. In both cases, you enter info, the person gets a message that lets them know that they may have been exposed to an STI (+ there’s a way for you to enter which ones) and should get tested. There’s a good roundup of similar services in this article.

If you’re feeling blue and alone in this, the Netflix show formerly known as “Scrotal Recall” (now renamed Lovesick) is a romantic comedy about a man who must notify past sexual partners about possible chlamydia exposure.

If you don’t want to go anonymous, a simple text or phone call that says “Hey [Sex Friend] I recently tested positive for ________. You should get checked out, too” is a very kind and ethical thing to send. The more we all remove stigma and shame around STIs, the better job everyone can do taking care of ourselves and each other.

4 “My boyfriend mom prophesied that we are not meant to be together.”

Translation: Your boyfriend’s mom does not want you to be together.

What do you and your boyfriend want?

5 “When some knocks on door and says the Lord compelled them to stop and talk to you.”

Translation: The someone wanted to stop and talk to you.

What do you want?

6 “How to decline a neighbor asking us over

.”

“How nice of you to think of us, but no thank you.”

7 “What to do when your friend sets you up on a blind date and the guy’s interested in her.”

Acknowledge the awkwardness, have a good laugh together, tell the guy “good luck, dude, tell her how you feel and maybe we can avoid this sitcom nonsense next time” and go home with your dignity. You didn’t do anything weird.

8 “Should you invite girls of interest to your party

.”

Throwing a party is a great reason to invite someone that you might be interested in romantically over. That person can meet your friends, see your place, everyone can see how everyone gets on together, you can get to know each other better without having it be a DATE date, etc. Why not?

Now, girl(s) plural is an advanced move, but again, why not?

9 “What do you do when your daughter owes you money and is not paying you back but takes vacations and spends a lot
.”

Ugh, this is a hard one. Here are some steps for dealing with friends and family members who are not good/prompt/conscientious about paying back loans,

a) Assume that you won’t ever be repaid. Take whatever steps you need to shore up your own financial well-being so that you’re not depending on that money. If you do manage to collect it it will be a happy thing.

b) Ask the person to repay you what they owe. If you bring up fancy vacations or their other spending they will get automatically defensive, so skip that part in your request (even if it is relevant to the issue). Why skip it? You don’t need the story about how she bought the tickets long ago or how they were really a gift from a friend and you don’t want to give her a reason to feel judged and aggrieved (even if judgment is warranted). The vacation money is spent. It’s not coming back. She knows that you know that she knows that she owes you money. Just be simple and direct and ask for what you need:

Script: “Daughter, you still owe me $______. When can we expect repayment?” or “Daughter, you still owe me $_______. Can you repay me by (date)?” Brace yourself for the wave of defensiveness and excuses that is coming. Do not, I repeat, do not get into the details of her spending or her excuses or reasons. Just repeat the question. “Okay, so, when can you get the money to me?

c) Don’t lend this person any more money. You may or may not ever get the money back, but you can definitely control whether you lend them more. You now have a lot of information about how they’ll behave when you lend them money and you both have a hard, awkward lesson. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior here, and “I’m sorry, Daughter, I don’t feel comfortable lending you money since you didn’t pay me back” is a situation your daughter created, not you.

I hope you get a good result. Also, general thought, if you are going to lend money to friends or family, it’s a good idea to put something in writing: How much, what it’s for, when & how will it be paid back. Your script can be “Let’s just write it down so we all know what the agreement is and I never have to bug you about paying me back.

10 “Etiquette of peeing when surfing.”

We are people of action and lies do not become us: In the unlikely comedy of errors that lands me on an actual surfboard in an actual body of water, there is no way on earth my enthusiastic and prolific middle-aged bladder is gonna be able to wait until I swim to shore, find a land-based bathroom, and peel off my wetsuit in time to pee decorously in a toilet. This seems like a “it’s a big ocean” and “that’s between you and your wetsuit” issue to me, but maybe an actual surfer has insight?

11 “How to make girlfriend move out to Colorado.”

You do not make. You ask, and then she either moves or she doesn’t.

12 “I have to leave the Midwest or I will die but my husband thinks it’s all in my head.”

Ok, this seems like a REALLY specific situation and we are DEFINITELY missing context here but what if I said “Even if it were in your head, is your need to go so great and so urgent and so necessary that it’s worth going alone, even if that’s a difficult & sad decision?”

13 “Dating female academic awful
.”

It certainly can be, since the prospect of relocation is always hanging over the whole deal.

14 “He said he wants to do his own thing and maybe see other people.”


Translation: “I am planning to see other people and have less energy/focus/time/interest for a relationship with you.”

It’s a prelude to a breakup, possibly one where “he” either wants you to be the bad guy and actually do the breaking up or where he’d like you to stick around in his life but in background/low-priority mode.

15 “My 23 year old son looks so unattractive, but he won’t shave or cut his hair
.”

[Bad Advisor] Well, it’s definitely 100% his job to make sure his face and body look attractive and acceptable to you, his parent, at all times so definitely be sure to bring this up as often as possible! Your concern, constantly expressed, will only bring you closer together as a fellow adult human strives to please you in all things, including and especially the hair that is growing on his personal face and body where he lives and you do not.

Also, to be on the safe side, hide all of your copies of the musical about this very question, lest he get ideas about fur vests, naked dancing or protesting the Vietnam War.

It is not only your business but your duty to set this young man straight. [/Bad Advisor]

16 “What does it mean if you ask for a guy’s phone number and his response is he is antisocial
.”

He did not want to give you his phone number, or, if he does/did, he is warning you that he doesn’t want to actually hang out. Try again, another dude, another day.

17 “Fucking past due invoices.”

Fucking the worst.

18 “Girlfriend of 11 years is leaving me
.”

Wallow. Fuck Around. Do The Thing.

Repeat the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear to yourself.

(Or not, as it suits you).

19 “Angry that my husband allows his parents to come whenever they want
.”

This would make me angry, too. His family may have a drop-in culture or agreement and expectations, but you do not, and therefore the family that you and your husband make together does not. There are several conversations/actions that need to happen if they haven’t already (and maybe they have and need to happen again):

a) “Husband, I want your folks to feel and be welcome in our house, but to make that happen I need some advance notice. Please ask them to call first and ask if we’re free, and please check with me before you say yes.” 

b) “In-Laws, I really want you to be and feel welcome in our house, but I need more advance notice than you’re accustomed to providing. Just dropping by, even when I’m happy to see you, really stresses me out. I know this is different from how you do things in your family, but I need you to call first and ask if I’m free or if now is a good time. Thanks!” 

c) “Husband, I know I’m somewhat ‘changing the rules’ on your family, but I really need some consideration here. Back me up.” 

d) When they just drop by anyway and your husband isn’t home try: “Oh, too bad this isn’t a good time, I’m just stepping out” + LEAVE (go to the library or run errands or something, just take a drive around the block on principle). Btw if they have keys and are in the habit of just letting themselves in, put the chain on when you’re home alone. Teach them that you won’t drop everything because they came over.

e) When they just drop by anyway and your husband is home, “Oh, too bad, this isn’t a good time, I was just about to take a nap” + HIDE (in your bedroom with the door shut  – keep books handy – and let him do whatever work of entertaining them). Risk seeming unwelcoming and unfriendly. You ARE unwelcoming…to people who invite themselves over.

This didn’t start overnight and won’t go away overnight but in my opinion it’s a battle worth picking.

20 “How to agree a girl for fucking if she dislikes doing it.”

Find someone else to fuck. Someone who likes doing it. Someone who enthusiastically likes doing it with you.

What the fuck, people.

21 “Got an apology from my ex after 15 years
.”

That had to feel weird.

Whether this was welcome or unwelcome contact, there’s one important thing you should know:

It doesn’t obligate you to do anything or feel anything or re-open any kind of contact with this person. If you want to talk to them, ok? You could say “Thanks for the apology, I forgive you and wish you well” if that is true of how you feel.

But if you’d rather let the past stay in the past, you can 100% delete the weird Facebook message or whatever and go on with your life.

22 “Did the date go good or bad?”

This is a great question. You can’t control whether another person will like you, so after a date ask yourself:

  • Did I enjoy myself?
  • Was I relaxed and comfortable with this person?
  • Could I be myself around this person?
  • Did the conversation flow?
  • Did I feel like the other person was on my team, helping the date go smoothly and laughing gently at any awkward moments? Or did the awkward silences turn into awkward chasms on the edge of the awkward abyss?
  • Did the other person seem at ease and comfortable with me?
  • Was the actual time we spent together fun/enjoyable/comfortable/pleasurable?
  • Was it as good as spending time alone doing something enjoyable or with a good friend or do I wish I’d just spent the evening at home?
  • Was I bored? Checked out? Apprehensive?
  • Was it easy to make plans?
  • Do I feel like the person was listening/paying attention/engaged?
  • (If kissing is a thing you’re interested in) Can I picture myself kissing them?
  • Am I looking forward to hanging out again?
  • Were there any red flags?*

If the date went well for you, where you enjoyed yourself and felt good, ask the person for another date. The rest is up to the other person.

If you can get in the habit of checking in with yourself about your own comfort and enjoyment levels during and after dates, even a “meh” date can be useful because you’ll know more about yourself and what you’re looking for.

*Bonus list of some of my personal First Date red flags from back in the day when I bravely put on clean shirts and lip gloss and met strangers from the Internet for drinks:

  • Was the person I was meeting generally congruent with the person presented on the dating site and during any prior conversations? If you’re “single” on the dating site and suddenly “planning to get divorced btw we still live together and no one at work knows we’re separated so I’d appreciate your discretion” when we meet, if you’re 28 in all your dating site photos and 58 in person…it was not going to work.
  • Did the person monologue the whole time?
  • Did I feel like I was monologuing the whole time at someone who just shyly stared at me and nodded? (The Silent Type is a great type and it may be your type but experience tells me it was not mine).
  • Did I feel like I was an unpaid nonconsensual therapist while someone shared everything about their life?
  • Did the person constantly talk about their ex & exes?
  • Was literally everything they said a complaint about someone or something?
  • Were these complaints at least funny and entertaining?
  • In these complaints was nothing ever their responsibility? Was it just a long list of Ways I Have Been Wronged By Others with a subtext of Surely You Have A Duty To Not Disappoint Me Like Everyone Else Has (Now That You Know My Tale of Woe)?
  • Ugh, mansplaining, especially politics or philosophy, how movies get made, the “authenticity” of whatever food we were eating, the makeup & history of the neighborhood where I lived and they did not (for example when I failed to pick the “most authentic” taco place in Pilsen or Little Village), telling me why everything I liked was actually overrated.
  • Talking during movies. No.
  • Taking me to some sort of performance and then critiquing how much it sucks into my ear in real time. No.
  • Overfamiliarity, over-investment. “I can’t wait to introduce you to my son, he’s going to love you!” Ok but u just met me I am still wearing my coat slow down friend.
  • Overdoing innuendo & sex talk too soon, like, “I just got a new bed, it’s very comfortable, you’ll have to come test it out with me later heh heh.” Ok but u just met me I am still wearing my coat slow down friend.
  • Overdoing it with the touching. If dinner and a movie remind me of how my cat likes to constantly crawl all over me and make annoying biscuits everywhere it’s too much touching!
  • Negging of all sorts, especially “I don’t usually date ________, but you seem really cool.” (Bonus Nope!!!!! if the blank includes fat people, feminists, “women who seem really smart”)
  • Constant contact, expecting constant texts/calls/emails before we’ve even met in person, all up in my social media biz, “liking” every single photo/comment going back through the archives. It feels good to be seen and not so good to be surveilled.
  • Neediness  – We literally just met, so, surely there is someone else in your life who can drive you home from dental surgery or hold your hand while you put your dog to sleep or fly home with you to your father’s funeral or weigh in with you about whether you should accept this job offer? (All true stories of actual things actual men wanted me to do after a few emails and one hour-long bar or coffee date). I will move mountains to take care of people I love, when, you know, I have had a chance to figure out if love them.
  • Casual, “ironic” sexist or racist comments, dropping code sentences like “I hate all the political correctness these days, I feel like I can’t say anything.
  • Bringing your feature screenplay to the date for me to read.

Your Mileage May Vary, as the great saying goes. My list doesn’t look like anyone else’s and I may have had stuff on there that is not necessarily a problem in itself or not a problem for you, or where there are exceptions to be made (I did drive the guy home from dental surgery as a human favor for a fellow human being, I just didn’t date him more) or that are just differences in styles and interest levels. It’s not meant to be universal and it’s about compatibility with you vs. any one thing being Good or Bad.

I’m including the list because I developed it over time by paying attention to what made me feel good, comfortable, safe, relaxed, happy, excited and what made me feel the opposite.I stopped asking people “Is this normal/cool/okay thing when you date?” and started asking “Am I good with this?” and “Am I delighted by this?” Those experiences (and the decision to be picky about second and third dates) helped me avoid some entanglements that would have been fleeting at best and draining at worst, and it helped me know “Just Right” when I saw it.

We focus so much on the auditioning aspect of dating – Am I good enough? Does the other person like me back? – that our own comfort and needs and pleasure can get lost right when we need them most. It was a good date if you enjoyed yourself and felt good and did your best to be kind and considerate. It was a bad date if you didn’t enjoy yourself. Whether a good date will lead to another one is up to more than just you.

 

Sometimes letters just stack up together in a sequence sort of perfectly. Thank you, Letter Writers!

Ahoy, Cap’n!

I am a frequent lurker, sometimes commenter, and I have a question that probably has a pretty easy answer, but as I am super awkward myself sometimes, especially in dating, I am struggling to figure it out on my own. Maybe you and/or readers can help.

Do you have any advice/scripts for what to do/say when someone you’re interested in dating wants to talk on the phone and you have an aversion to phone conversations? Like, I’m fine online, and through text, and I have no problem with face-to-face conversations. But something about sitting on the phone with someone (especially someone I’ve never actually met face to face, but even someone I’ve already met) gives me a serious case of anxiety. I only have long phone conversations with good friends who I’ve known for years, and that’s only once in a great while. I wasn’t like this as a teenager – I liked having long phone calls with boys! It’s just something that, as an adult in the dating world, I’m not comfortable with. Unfortunately, many of the men I try to date get awfully pushy about it, even when I say something like, “I’m not really a phone person.”

Do you have any advice for how to be more direct about this without offending anyone, or maybe how to explain it so that they understand that it’s not them, it’s really me? Also, am I weird for having this phobia at all?

Thanks so much!

Signed,
Always Hoping For Voicemail

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Dear Captain Awkward,

It’s been two years since my diagnosis with a very aggressive form of breast cancer, and eighteen months since my double mastectomy. The type of cancer (IBC) ruled out immediate reconstruction with implants (which I would have declined anyway, because not for me).

It used to be that women with IBC didn’t get reconstruction, because TBH we usually didn’t live all that long. Nowadays after a waiting period of two years or so one can have a DIEP flap where skin, fat and blood vessels are taken from the stomach and grafted onto one’s chest.

I’ve completed treatment, there’s currently no sign of cancer, and I’m doing well. I’m trying to move forward and get on with my life as much as possible.

But here’s my problem: medical folk keep pestering me to get reconstruction and don’t seem to understand that I DON’T WANT IT.

I’ve made a list of the pros and cons and–while it’s fine for others, it’s not fine for me, right now, under these particular circumstances.
I’m a smart person with a supportive partner, friends and family. Yes, the things surgeons can do are amazing. I know all about my options. If I want more information I know how to get it.

But..the continual unasked-for conversations from presumedly well-meaning medical providers are irritating at best and at worst can send me into a days-long depressive spiral.

Because I was trained to be a people-pleaser and discount my own ideas and opinions, and when I hear, “Have you considered reconstruction? We can do amazing things and by the way, you basically get a free tummy tuck..”

..my brain translates it into, “You are not okay the way you are, and your choice is not a valid one and your appearance is not acceptable. You are BROKEN. Let us fix you.”

What none of my medical providers seem to understand is that I want to maximize my physical activities and minimize my time spent in hospitals to the greatest extent possible, and for the most part I don’t give a rat’s behind whether I meet society’s expectations of how a female should look.

I’ve always been large-breasted and very self-conscious about it, and at the same time considered myself a bit of a “tomboy”.

It turns out I’m more at home in my body without breasts, have less back and neck pain, don’t miss bras or boob sweat, and enjoy wearing button-down shirts I buy from the men’s department.

My sex life is just fine.

I identify with others in the “flattie” community far more than anyone else in Breast Cancer Land.

But when doctors start pushing reconstruction, I feel as if my choice to remain flat is being questioned, and it affects my mental health when my efforts to explain and/or justify my choice seemingly fall on deaf ears.

Is there a script to politely shut this down? I’d be grateful for any suggestions.

Her/She pronouns, and just sign me “Flat and (Mostly) Happy”

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I did not grow up in a house that did conflict- I joke (but not really) that I wish my parents had fought in front of their children. Because there was never an emphasis on healthy conflict, all conflict equals bad conflict. While I feel that I can talk to my dad about issues, the real problem is my mom.

When my mom calls (every day/every other day), I go through a nerve wracking thought process. If I don’t pick up the phone (because I had a long day, because I don’t want to talk to her or anyone), she’ll become more and more anxious and escalate communication attempts. I find myself yelling to the phone, ““What do you need!?!” as it rings and before picking up. If I do pick up the phone, immediately she’ll ask, “What’re you doing?” in a tone that implies I’m doing something bad. When she calls, it’s rarely about anything time sensitive or an emergency- it’s mostly just to chat.

If she calls when I’m in traffic, and I pick up the phone and say I can’t talk, I’m dealing with driving, her tone is disappointed. However, sometimes driving is the best time to call her, because I can say that I’m home now so I have to go.

For example: I had a very busy day at work. My mom texts me a general “How’s your day going?” type of text. Nothing time sensitive, not an emergency. I see the text and ignore it because I’m in meetings all day and don’t have the brain space to deal with it right then. That evening, I go to a bookclub that my mom and I are a part of. She sees me, and immediately has a wide eyed expression, and exclaims, “Didn’t you see my text? Why didn’t you answer???” Then I have to reassure her that I was busy all day, and besides, I would see her that night.

Recently her most passive aggressive text: She posted in the family text chain, “Any recommendations for a Pandora running station?” at 5:00pm on a Sunday evening. No one responded that night, and the next morning, she posted, “Thanks fam!”

I feel that I’m good about getting back to her- I usually respond to a text within a couple of hours, and never more than 24 hours.

I’ve seen her and my dad every weekend for the past month (which is way too much in my books, but it included some family event things). When I’m at their house with my brother and sister, I find myself constantly making sure that she doesn’t feel neglected or teased. If she feels that we are not bonding as a family as she’d prefer, she lashes out and becomes mopey and angry.

I’d like to not go full nuclear and destroy the relationship, but I’m tired. I’m tired of constantly checking my phone, because if I miss a call I’m going to hear about her anxiety and how much she freaked out. If I miss a text and don’t respond for a couple of hours, I’ll get a “You ok??????” type of text and escalating from there.

What I really need: a way to tell my mom that her constant need for contact and communication is too much. Basically my mom has no chill and low boundaries, plus a heaping dose of mother anxiety. Help me!

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I participate in a small sport, with several branches. I am both a referee and a ‘player’ in this sport. (If you see any inadvertent clues as to the sport, please could you edit them out?)

At the club where I practice, lots of people know that I referee, and often ask me questions about the rules. I don’t mind these questions, and enjoy answering them, it’s part of why I love being a referee, and part of what has helped me become one of the country’s (UK) most senior referees in one branch of the sport.

In one of the smaller branches, I’m actually getting quite good – in fact I’ll be representing my country at a world championships later this year. This is my first time at an international event, and unsurprisingly, I have ramped up my practice.

My problem is when I have gone to the club to practice, and other club members start asking me questions. It generally starts out OK with just one question, but that inevitably turns into “but what if [related but slightly different situation]?”.

How can I politely let people know that they have crossed the line from a welcome short question and answer into an imposition? Especially when the line is crossed quite quickly. I want to end the conversation as soon as possible while still making it clear I’d be happy to answer short questions in future? This is complicated slightly by the fact that I’m an introvert with extreme shyness, and anxiety. And having to tell someone no feels like confrontation to me and brings my anxiety right up! Also, these people are my friends, and answering questions starts off as a nice way to interact with people I like.

On a slightly extended note (feel free to edit this out if you prefer), an example was this weekend. I was pretty tired after going for a run first thing, and then spending all morning at practice. I had broken for lunch and was making a cup of tea in the clubhouse. A Lady from the club started asking me questions about the new dress code, and I replied with a sensible answer. But she kept asking the same question “could I wear this, could I wear that”. I felt like I had to keep answering. I did walk away, when I was too tired to keep standing, and had actually gone and sat down on the other side of the clubhouse but she followed me and started asking what local competitions would be suitable for her daughter. I said outright several times that I didn’t know about junior competitions, but she kept on asking and asking and asking. Captain, I was soooo tired, and this was my lunch break! I just wanted her to go away. This is an extreme example, as the lady in question doesn’t pick up on social cues very well, so I might need something more pointed for her.

Thank you for your lovely blog, I have really enjoyed reading since I discovered it a few weeks ago.

All the best,
Trying to Practice (she/her pronouns)

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Hi Capt,

Surely this has been asked before, but I can’t find anything this straightforward in the archive. What do you say when someone wants to be your friend but you just don’t like them?

I feel like at any given time there are a few people in my life who really want to be my friend but who I just don’t find all that interesting or fun or my cup of tea. Usually they have done nothing wrong and are in no way offensive; I just don’t like them. Usually they pursue me pretty hard, inviting me to things and politely but persistently trying to schedule friend-dates. Usually we are socially connected so there’s no ghosting on them forever (also that’s mean), and also it means bearing the burden of showing up at a real friend’s party and having not-my-friend be super excited to see me and be all “it is so awesome to see you, we need to catch up!” Ugh.

I sound like such a jerk in this email. I don’t want to be a jerk! I also don’t want to spend time with people I don’t like, and I don’t need new friends badly enough to give these folks a chance, and inevitably they are the sort of people who stubbornly refuse to notice that their invitations are never reciprocated. I also wonder why I seem to attract oblivious quasi-groupies when I am definitely not the cool one in my friend group and also I am really not that nice to people I don’t like. Like, I’m not an asshole (I hope), but no one could claim that I lead these not-friends on; it’s not like I say “omg we def need to catch up but I’m just soooo busy rn,” I’m more like “sorry, can’t make it! EOM”.

Got a script for saying “no I don’t want to hang out with you and it’s not that I’m busy, I just don’t want to” without making it a Huge Deal? Or for telling a new acquaintance that no you don’t really want to get coffee some time or friend them on Facebook? Also what’s with people friending folks on FB who they met once for like a hot second and then being offended that you don’t accept the request? Hi I don’t know you so I definitely don’t want to see your vacation photos nor you to see mine.

Maybe I am just a jerk.

Oh lordy these people probably write to advice columnists about me.

Signed,
Not Your Friend
(She/her)

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