forced teaming

Update from LW below!

Dear Captain,

I love your site and have read 99% of your archive. I love the honesty and practicality of your responses and find a lot of helpful truth in them. This one, though, is stymieing me.

I have built a career that has been very successful and train people in complex aspects of my profession.

Since there are multiple cycles of the sessions required for industry certification, I get a lot of the same participants over and over, and one such is the worst energy vampire I’ve met in my entire life. I’m running out of ways to deal with her short of telling my boss to cut her out completely, thus hurting her career pretty permanently. I work hard to be patient, professional, and kind to everyone, but this woman, Emma, is beyond my capabilities.

Emma lives alone, and her husband either died under tragic and improbable circumstances or left her under equally tragic and improbable circumstances or there never was a husband at all; she was apparently adopted by a cruel aunt as a child, but that story has shifted as well and sounds suspiciously like Harriet Potter or at least A Little Princess. Each session now drags on as she rambles, and regardless of what we are discussing (usually content-specific and related to our set purpose) she finds an entry point to share irrelevant anecdotes incoherently and at length. With no exception, the other participants in each session despise this woman, and come to me privately to “deal with her.” She has been questioned on inconsistencies in her narrative by members of the group only to rail at how unfair everyone is to her and WHY WILL NO ONE BELIEVE THAT MY LIFE IS HARDER THAN YOURS. She never submits her assignments, and thus takes the sessions again and again and again (paying full price each time, so my boss just shrugs and takes her money) but the behavior never changes and it’s The Emma Show.

She has my office number due to its placement on my syllabi, but not my cell, although she asks me for it every single meeting so we “can socialize” because “you’re my sister from another mother!” She desperately wants to be friends on social media, and I have firmly told her I don’t do that with work acquaintances. She wants us to get matching tattoos. I have said no with increasing hostility to each of these overtures and repeatedly said, “Emma, I understand that you would like us to be friends, but I have to maintain professional boundaries and I know you’ll understand that I can’t breach those roles,” to which she will inevitably sigh, giggle, and pet my arm while saying, “Soon! I’ll graduate from the cycle and we can HANG OUT!”

Okay. I know that this woman is desperately lonely and probably struggles with the truth (even to herself), and I SHOULD be sympathetic. I have asked my boss to schedule her with another instructor, but my boss doesn’t want Emma in her own sessions again so I’m it. It’s to the point now that I don’t honestly know what to do short of open warfare.

Practical suggestions? A script? If I remove her from my roster it will have immediate and negative repercussions on her full-time employment and I don’t know if I can ethically do that to someone who, let’s face it, I just dislike. I strive to be a good person but my God she is testing this each time.


I hate how she pronounces “nuc-u-ler.”

I hate how she monopolizes everyone’s time, in small groups, or pairs, or whole-group activities, no matter what I do, say, relocate, or attempt. (And yes, I know how to deal with teenagers with oppositional behaviors, just not forty-year-olds who insist they are grownups.) I move her seat; she cries and moves back. I tell her I can’t pass her due to lack of work; she blames her seat mate. I tell her not to talk tonight because other people need to share and work through their (work-related) issues; she interrupts and says her problems are more important. I feel impotent because my boss will NOT back me up.

(And I hate, hate, hate going to the bathroom after her, but that’s another story for never.)

Thank you! Just writing this helped a bit. VENTING.

~Emma, I Can’t Be Your Friend
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i.e. “Your Old High School Friend Is Not A Pacifier”

Dear Captain,

I have a dilemma I hope you can help me with. I seem to have acquired an internet friend with needs a bit beyond my capacity.

I’ve struggled with depression all of my adult life. Fairly recently I decided to go on medication, and wonder of wonders, it’s helped so much. Because of that, I’ve been able to make some healthy lifestyle changes.

I wanted to share about my experience, so I wrote a Facebook post. It was overwhelmingly positive. Many people reached out to me to share their experiences as well, including an extremely distant acquaintance from high school. Call him Fred.

Fred has also had challenges with depression. From what I can gather, he’s having some challenges with drinking and drugs too. Ever since my post, he’s taken to checking in with me every couple of days.

At first I thought that was nice–people supporting people in their shared experience. But his check-ins have turned into demands. Call me! I’m triggered! Call me! I’m suicidal! Call me! I’m in trouble.

I know how hard it is to ask for help. I get that he’s not in a place where he’s going to be graceful at it. I would really like to be supportive. He’s in a lot of pain, and he’s isolated. However, he’s stressing me out.

When he contacts me, it’s with demands that I stop what I’m doing immediately and talk to him. We’re not on equal ground–he isn’t willing to schedule a call to talk to me at a time where I have time and energy to pay attention. And his check-ins aren’t about me, they’re about me asking how he is.

Last night I stayed up (far past my sleep time) trying to get a sense of the territory of his dilemma. Two hours in, I asked him a question to try to understand, and he responded, “Plz stop analyzing it. It’s not helping!!!! You can analyze on your own time.”

Of course I am open to hearing that what I am saying is not useful. However, I’m not his therapist. I’m not even his friend. I’m just a concerned fellow citizen. This was at 1 am in the morning, after I had spent the entire afternoon worrying when he told me that he was drinking and thinking about killing himself. It really bothers me to be told that I am on payroll.

I don’t want to be a bad human here. I want to be supportive as I can. However, I need a way to set some boundaries so that I don’t have to feel worried, guilty, and sleep-deprived all the time.

Any suggestions?

Impromputu therapist
(preferred pronoun she)

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I have a question about dealing with a Geek Social Fallacy #5 carrier, with a work-related twist.

I have a live-in position and a good working relationship with the other live-in staff members. Naturally we often spend our free time together, sometimes as a large group get-together but more often in smaller groups of the people we’re closest to / actually friends with.

There is one individual who generally gets on everyone’s nerves — she dominates the conversation and makes it all about herself, says slightly inappropriate things on a regular basis, asks people direct personal questions in front of everyone, etc. The problem is that she thinks that we’re all one big friend group and that anytime she hears that someone’s making social plans with another employee, it’s fine to invite herself along. She does not take hints at all, and no one wants to come right out and say, “You’re not invited to this” since this is someone we all have to live and work with on a daily basis.

From past experience, I have a feeling that trying to have an honest conversation with her would lead her to drop by everyone’s rooms to try to have hours-long FEELINGS conversations, and trying to shut that down will make her unbearable to work with. She recently renewed for another year-long contract.

Right now everyone’s strategy seems to be to make plans behind her back as much as possible, and then if she finds out and invites herself over/along, we suck it up and deal. Do you have any suggestions for a better strategy?

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Hi Captain,

I have a friend. He’s a reasonably good friend and has been there for me during some tough times. Which is why I feel guilty about what I’m about to say.

For the last year or so, we’ve spent a lot of time together chatting and hanging out. We had some sexual tension and a very brief romantic fling before deciding it was not to be. I am way happier now that we’ve decided this, but he – was and probably is still – a bit upset about it. So I have a lot of guilt over that. We chat quite a bit on FB and via text and at the moment it’s pretty constant throughout the day. However, the more we talk the more I kinda think – while I want to be friends, I want to pull back a little. Well, a lot.

The thing that is getting me down the most is that he’s so negative. Every message is about how much his life sucks or how much something hurts or how much he hates his job or his parents or how everyone else is stupid… Like I genuinely can’t remember the last time I had a positive comment from him. I know his health isn’t great, so he is being genuine. But it’s just so wearing.

I’ve tried making helpful suggestions (these go down like a lead balloon). I’m currently just leaving a while before replying (although that’s tricky cos he can see on FB when I’ve seen a message) and then saying something like “you poor thing” and either changing the subject or not really engaging further, unless the subjects shifts to TV shows or something neutral. Some days I just ignore messages altogether. But it’s getting to the point where I just don’t want to hang out with him any more – via chat or in person, because I just end up so depressed. But I don’t want to make him feel worse. I feel really guilty about all of this, because I know I used to participate in the negativity. Nowadays, I’m trying to be more positive – and seeing positive results from this – but I don’t want to just abandon him either like “my life is better now, yours isn’t, so bye!”.

The second thing is that he’s super clingy – and quite aggressive in his clinginess. He ends up scolding me about our friendship if I try to pull back a little. It starts out with if I don’t reply within an hour or so, I get a text asking if I’m mad at him. Whether I say no, or I try to be honest, he gets really really upset and starts attacking me – saying I don’t reply to him enough and when I do I’m being superficial and I’m not hanging out with him enough or when we do he feels like I’ve scheduled him in like everyone else and I’m making him feel bad… or else he brings up other stuff, about our brief fling or my new boyfriend… This sort of thing also happens if I mention something that I didn’t tell him about instantly – I get “ why didn’t you tell me?!” and then the rest of the guilt trip. If I get upset about what he’s said, he backtracks and tells me that I’m overreacting and that I “always do this” and I’m being ridiculous and that he’s just venting so “why do I always think everything is my fault?” This happens by text and in person – and in person he shouts. I’m really bad at confrontation, so as soon as he goes on the attack I forget all my words and just get upset.

I just find it all exhausting. I don’t want to be friends like this. But I feel really bad that I used to engage in all of this and suddenly don’t want to any more. I feel like a terrible friend and I’m just abandoning him when his life is still difficult and mine is getting better. I don’t know what to do.

Please help,

A Terrible Friend

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My feet are cold, but my heart is warm thanks to the generosity of the Winter Pledge Drive contributors. Thank you so much! Support the site if you can!

Today’s letter is about money and family and when those things come together in a manipulative and possibly sinister way.

Dear Captain Awkward,

My parents passed away three years ago, leaving my little brother and I in the care of my Uncle and his wife. Their method of raising children is very different from what we were used to. Mom was the type who would say no to something and then explain why and often prompted discussion. Aunt is the type who yells no and glares if you question her.

I was 17 when I moved in with them so they haven’t been able to control me as much as they have my little brother. That said, they do still restrict me a lot. We live in the middle of nowhere so I can’t move around on my own, my phone and internet are regulated, and several times Aunt has snooped on my laptop. ‘My room’ is a free-for-all where her siblings come and go as they will and she often gives my things away because ‘they were getting old.’ I should stand up to them, I know that. But then I think they didn’t have to take us in and I really don’t want to cause any more trouble, so I quiet down again.

This year they’re intending to move to a new, much more expensive house in a very upscale area. Uncle took me aside and said that once I turn 21 this year and get my inheritance, he’s going to need some help, and alarms started going off in my head.

He says the new place will enable me to move around freely, and even get that summer job I’d been begging them to allow me to apply to, but it just feels like he’s trying to butter me up. He’s often promised me things that his wife then goes around and disagrees with, or outright denies they ever said. My friend is telling me I should run away, live on my own (practically impossible in my country) or, failing that, once I get my money I should sit them down and talk about the terms of my ‘helping.’ On one hand, that does seem reasonable. On the other hand, it also feels ungrateful.

I wouldn’t mind paying rent and my own expenses. I already pay for my college and for most big things, it’s only reasonable, and I often suggested that once I turned 21 I could live off my inheritance. But they always refuse and say that ‘It’s their duty’ and they didn’t want me to touch my money.

So why is Uncle now talking about ‘sharing’? He also explicitly told me not to mention this to any of our relatives and to claim that he got the new house with his money. The alarms are blaring louder.

Am I overreacting? Am I not? Should I just suck it up and accept that, sometimes, I gotta be the bad guy?

Grateful But Worried College Girl

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Dear Cap’n,

I don’t know how best to help my DH. This message follows us having a long, slightly drunk but happy and loving chat about his life.

DH’s family history is complicated. His upbringing includes some things which, when we talk about them, he agrees were “probably abuse”, but explains that he’s somewhat normalised what happened to him, and tends to say it totally matter-of-factly, as though this were just how things are. His feelings – or lack of – are complicated by guilt. DH was born a sickly child, with complex medical needs that put a lot of strain on the family. His parents divorced partly due to the stress of it all. He did not cope well with his deformities or medical needs and his childhood was a mixture of being a bullying victim, being a bully, having serious anger issues and acting out. I’m sometimes amazed by the wonderful, loving, mentally balanced person he’s become without therapy or help.

DH doesn’t seem to know what sort of relationship he wants with his parents. He is amicable with them, visits his mother about once a month, enjoys talking to his father… but he won’t initiate contact, and he gets anxious if, for example, his mum tries to ask him to visit on short notice. At the same time, he’s just naturally bad at maintaining relationships and has asked me to help him keep in better contact with his gran and siblings. He’s never confronted either parent and even apologised to his father recently for being a “difficult child”.

At the same time, the abuse has only come out over a long time in small parts. and by the time I started to get the picture, we’d been together years and had started to build closer relationships with his parents. His mum in particular, who is always very kind and concerned and helpful, and I don’t know how to feel about her, or the FIL, or any of it. To be fair, DH doesn’t isn’t certain how he feels. He’s given me permission to ask his big sis for more info on their childhood, because his memory can cause him problems. She lives abroad though, and I’d feel weird asking by email.

Because of his relationship and memory difficulties, it’s my job to help him maintain contact with loved ones. But I don’t know how to do this where his parents are concerned. I don’t want to pressure him to get closer than he feels comfortable, but I also don’t want to be the woman that drives him from his family into hers, as his father’s second wife has started doing with him.

I’d love some advice please!

This statement: “Because of his relationship and memory difficulties, it’s my job to help him maintain contact with loved ones.” from your letter set off my Yikes-o-meter. Yikes!

Here is my advice:

Do not volunteer to be the carrier for his communication and relationship with his family, or to sort out these memories. Do not email his sister. It is only “your job” if you choose it, and you get to choose to not make it your job.

You can be a sounding board.

You can be a listening ear.

You should not be an ambassador or a manager. And you don’t have to feel any particular thing. HE doesn’t have to feel any particular thing.

Even in much less extreme situations (history of abuse, memory problems, disability) men sometimes expect that women will do the emotional work of the relationship, up to and including remembering everyone in HIS family’s birthday and buying presents/sending cards/keeping in touch. I think this sets a bad precedent, where his messed up family issues are now something that are the present stuff of your relationship. I’m sure he feels great after this chat you guys had; he just transferred all responsibility for sorting out his messy past over to you and now you’re writing me for advice on how to do it when really HE could write in for advice (not necessarily here, but somewhere) on how to do it.

This is HIS family.

This is HIS history.

This is HIS thing to solve.

I think it is admirable that you want to help your husband, and admirable that he wants to get back in touch with people and start sorting things out. And I think there is no one perfect way that he has to feel about a history of abuse. It is possible for people to have very dysfunctional relationships as children that grow into much more mellow relationships as people age, get power and autonomy, and create a series of positive interactions to build on.

But it is on HIM to contact his sister, sort out his memories, and deal with them (with the help of a professional, if necessary), and keep in better touch with his gran and his siblings. “Terrible at maintaining relationships” isn’t an actual condition, it’s a series of choices that have turned into a habit.

The best way to get in touch with people you haven’t talked to in a while is to send a greeting. People love getting mail that isn’t bills, so maybe write a postcard. “Dear _____, I hope you are well. I read/saw/ate/experienced this thing recently that made me think of you and remember the time that we _________. (Wife) and I are doing well, here is a thing that is new with me. Have a happy (upcoming holiday, season of the year), Love, Husband.” Keep it light, and remember, if communication has really lapsed, the other people don’t know what to say or how to begin either, and will be grateful for you breaking the ice. Make the effort, say something brief and kind, and then keep sending responses when they respond back. It is honestly that simple: If you want to, you will do it. If you don’t want to, then don’t do it, but don’t expect your partner to magically make it happen for you. Either admit that you don’t want to do it and make peace with that, or work on the “I want to want to, I just haven’t figured it out yet” stuff with a therapist.

You can help by dropping stuff in the mail, or picking up postcards, or hunting down addresses, or even helping him come up with things to say, but you shouldn’t manage the entire process.

The problem of making an adult relationship with imperfect relatives is not unique to this guy, it’s something we all have to figure out for ourselves.

My advice is that your mantra becomes “I am always here to listen, and I will support any decision you make, but I am not comfortable (emailing your sister, sorting out your past, taking the lead on how you interact with your family).”

I’m sure the community will have alternate perspectives to my initial “AW HELL NAW” reaction, I hope it will be helpful.

Before we jump into sad, serious things, Gollum dreamed a dream (of coming to your party?) Courtesy of my friend @spyscribe. You guys watch The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, right?

Now, some letters about living situations gone bad (#451) and very, very bad (#452).

Dearest Captain,

I need some help with relationship ambivalence.

It’s been 3 years and we live together. This is going to sound awful, but I recently has the thought that I am better than him at almost everything. He is extremely unsure of himself and is very dependent on me. He needs help/frets about making even the tiniest decisions. His indecision about inconsequential things used to be something we joked about, but now I just feel very smothered. He often makes his problems/feelings my problem or responsibility. I have had the occasional moment of, “this is definitely right for me”, but more often I have had doubts about whether I really want to be with him.

Here’s the wrench: My whole life has been in a shake-up recently. In the past two weeks, I found out I am losing my job (a job I REALLY love), found out I didn’t get accepted into grad school, then, last week I witnessed a stranger’s death. I was one of the first people to stop and help him. I stood over him as he died, before medics even arrived. The experience has really had a profound effect on me. I was very disturbed by what happened. BF knew I had all this going on though that didn’t stop him from wanting to have a big relationship talk about feeling that we’ve been in a “rut” for the past week. This was two days after the stranger’s death. 

On one hand, I feel like I should not make any major life decisions in such a period of upheaval. On the other, I get the feeling I am being tested and have a gut feeling towards making changes in my life. 

I have a gut sense telling me to end it, but I can’t *rationalize*why because everything seems fine between us. He is a very kind person, intelligent, insightful, sweet, cute, great sense of humor and he loves me very much. We live together very harmoniously. On the downside, he has depression that he has never attempted to do anything about. Recently, on my urging, he agreed to talk to a psychiatrist and then asked me to give him the number to a psychiatrist. Later, he blamed me that he hadn’t called because I never gave him the number. This is the kind of responsibility-shifting that really upsets me and makes me sad. 

In my society, there is a slavish devotion to “rational” thinking and I doubt many of my intuitions. Then here I am being the one who is indecisive and generally at-sea!

I have no idea what to do and could use a little wisdom! 

Private Secretson

Dear Private Secretson:

Your vague gut feeling that you want to end it IS the reason.

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