how to say no

Dear Captain,

I’m a 20-year-old college student and I don’t drink, nor will I likely ever drink in the future. My father is an alcoholic, and every family member on his side has some form of substance abuse problem. I know that having a drink now and again will not necessarily hurt me or lead to a drinking problem of my own, but I’ve decided to just abstain completely anyways.

Most of my peers/classmates, however, like to drink and will often talk at length about it. I’ve been asked multiple times about my beer preference or some other alcohol-related question, to which I simply reply I don’t drink. For some reason, most people can’t seem to accept this and will ask me why not, or even try to convince me how great drinking is if I say it’s because I’m not interested. I don’t have a problem with other people drinking or listening to stories about it, but I don’t know how to explain my “disinterest” to other people.

I really don’t want to be a huge bummer in front of other people and say outright, “I don’t drink because my dad is an alcoholic,” but I don’t know how to get people to stop asking questions. “I don’t drink for personal reasons,” also feels like either a bummer or might lead to people asking what those reasons are.

So, Captain is there any way I can sidestep these questions without having to divulge my personal circumstances or bringing down the mood of the group?

Thanks for any help,

Sober in South Florida (she/her)

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m a 23 year old college student, and the kind of degree and profession I want to work in requires constant joint projects where working alone is not an option, and because our industry is so small, making good connections in college with your peers can be really important.

My problem is this: last semester, while working on a project together, a class mate told me he liked me and wanted to go out with me, and I turned him down because I wasn’t interested. We finished the project, he was professional, and I pulled back from hanging out at school because I didn’t want him to feel awkward.

Then the semester was over, we didn’t really talk, and when a new semester started, we hang out a bit more at school (sitting in class together, chatting at breaks), because I liked him as a friend and would have liked to work on more projects together. Two weeks ago we made some vague plans to go see a movie, he saw it without me so I offered to go to a different movie. We ate something and saw the movie (each of us paid for ourselves), and apparently he thought it was a date. Thing is, I deliberately leaned away from him and put my beg between us to not give the wrong impression. He took my bag and put it on the floor (wtf), then put his hand on my knee. He asked me if it was okay, I said no and he took his hand off. We’re on break from school now, and haven’t talked since.

I’m mad at him, and I don’t know if I’m being cruel or not. On one hand I’m pissed off he just assumed I changed my mind. On the other hand, did he harbored a crush on me for months and I was careless with his feelings? Did I sent the wrong signals, or did he ignored the signals I sent? Should I assume he is not interested in being friends?

Truth is, I’m a very traditionally attractive woman and I usually gets more romantic\sexual attention than I would like. I work with other women on projects, but only working with ladies will really limit my options.
The whole not-date throw me into a spiral of insecurities (I’m not really talented, nobody really likes me, guys lie to me and only put up with me because I’m pretty etc) and I’m feeling really shitty right now, and I can’t focus on my school work. What can I do to make things better, and to prevent situations like this in the future?

Frustrated student
(female pronouns)

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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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Dear Captain and Company,

I recently finalized the ending of a relationship…I say finalized because I’ve been trying to break up with my ex since October, but she finally was able to accept it months later…no matter how many times I told her, “my feelings for you have changed,” “I’m no longer attracted to you,” et al. For the record, she’s not a bad person…hardcore GSF carrier, yes, but a generally decent, well intentioned (if a little misguided a lot of the time) human being. When the ending finally hit her, we were able to talk more openly than we have in months and are working out all the transitional stuff without conflict.

The question is this…we rent an apartment together with me taking on the bulk of the expenses as I make more money. While I could likely move with ease, she’s not in the same position…she wants us to stay as platonic roommates for another year, continue to work on our friendship as we move forward with our separate lives. Most of my Team Me think I am nuts for considering it. I’m torn. I don’t want to be the person who says, “F You, I don’t care, I am looking out for me,” but I want to be sure that I – and she, for that matter – can move on with our lives and be okay with it. I’m at the point where if I saw her with someone else, I’d be totally happy for her. No jealously, no angst. I don’t know that I trust her to be okay in the same way. It worries me that she refused to hear the very explicit statements I was making with regard to wanting to end our relationship, and I worry about how that could pan out should I meet someone else. On the other, we do work together in terms of splitting things up around the house well, and have pretty much been platonic roommates for the last year of our relationship.

Is this worth it to save money and hassle, or should I run, run, run?

Thanks, Domestically Challenged

Dear Domestically Challenged,

Listen to your friends!



You have been trying to break up with this person, by my count, FOR FIVE MONTHS. I just met you (sort of) but your friends have been watching this saga unfold and if they say “Run!” I say “Run!”

Breaking up is a unilateral decision. When you say, “My feelings have changed and I am breaking up with you” the relationship is over! The other person does not have to agree or consent for this to be true. And once you break up, one of the pieces of good news is that you get to stop “working on” the relationship. Some exes make great friends, and sometimes the transition is pretty easy because face it, you already were more like friends and like lovers. Not so with someone who refuses to accept the reality of your breakup and thinks you should “work on” that for another YEAR of your life.

Have you ever heard the expression “Sometimes the cheapest way to pay is with money?” I think it’s a nice gesture for the ex who makes more money to help the person who has less in the event of a breakup and dissolution of households, and if you can afford to pull together a security deposit-ish fund you could give her, it would be a kind gesture. On the one hand, your ex has manipulated you into staying longer than you want to and she has had five months to ponder “Domestically Challenged seems to be making noises about ending our relationship, so where would I live if we were to break up and not live together anymore?” and you don’t owe her any money (or more time). In your shoes, I would prioritize getting yourself out first and helping her second, if at all. On the other hand, sometimes the cheapest way to pay is with money.

Before you contemplate continuing a friendship with your ex, I think you need a space of your own away from her where you can hear yourself think, not another year (!!!!!) of dragging this out. Tell her you don’t want to keep living together. Offer her some relocation money if that’s something you can do. Consider staying with a friend for a few days to give her time to process the decision. Then move out of FEELINGSHAUS and into the next phase of your life. Then figure in where (and if) your ex fits into your life as a friend.


Dear Captain Obvious,

My mom has always been on about how I look, but since I’ve turned 16 it seems to have gotten worse. She got me a fitbit that she makes me use (which I hate because it tells me I eat too many calories a day, even though it’s the recommended amount), made me diet with her, and constantly makes comments on how “I should go to the gym more,” even though I’m a perfectly healthy weight for my height. If i’m about to leave the house with no makeup on, she says “Oh why don’t you put a little foundation and mascara on before you go?” and is visibly embarrassed if she sees m in public wit none on. She also hates me wearing my glasses, as they “cover up my beautiful face” and will make more comments on them if I wear them outside the house instead of my contacts. My boobs aren’t very big, but my thighs are, so she’s always pushing me to wear push up bras and slimming clothes. It’s gotten to the point where I’m embarrassed to not be made up, am starting to obsess over my weight, and am just downright lacking in self-esteem. I’ve tried bringing it up before, but she either plays the victim or pretends like she never did any of that. Any advice on what I can do?

I’m only 16. I’m not a model.

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Dear Captain,

I’ve just spent weeks reading through your archives. I’ve learned so much and made lots of plans for how to better interact with parents, friends and colleagues. One of the subjects I read about a lot are difficult mothers and mothers in law.

My husband’s mom is emotionally abusive and very sad all the time. For a few years after marriage, I tried to tiptoe around her and keep the peace… Not that it ever prevented screaming fights or insults where I was mostly silently stunned and my husband resignedly grabbed his coat and we left. After we had some kids things got both better and worse. My mil LOVES our kids and the only times I’ve seen her smile is around them. However, the bad times were worse because now there’s more to fight about (The baby’s name is already on the birth certificate! Drop it! We’re not changing the name!) and also because I don’t want her to someday hurt my kids the way she does my husband.

A few years ago, we stopped having any contact after a particularly bad episode. Recently, my husband has stated talking about reconciliation. I’m hesitant. I can see about 100 negatives and only 2 or 3 positives.

I can see that the scripts and advice you’ve posted would work really well to help manage this relationship – if we go ahead with seeing her again. But, just the thought of it makes me so tired. It is stressful and exhausting before, during and after to interact with her. And even using your advice – it’s a lot of mental and emotional work, especially now that I’m worrying over my kids and my husband-keeping all five (5!) of them calm, quiet, and out of her rampaging danger zone. We live so far away, and the number of times we’ve flown and arrived tired and hungry and unpacked the suitcases and then packed up and left in tears before dinner…Well, it’s more than twice!

My husband is great, smart, easy -going, and a wonderful dad. He won’t reconcile without my support and help. So if I say no – it’s no. If I say yes, I have to go there WITH him to keep him steady and notice when the fighting has become too much and say, “it’s time to leave,” and drive away. I think he relies on me too much, but when I don’t want to see her, he won’t go.

She’s a lonely, sad woman who has driven away all of her family and friends. Is my exhaustion at the thought of having to “deal with her” a good enough reason to keep away?

Thank you for any advice you have.

P.S. If you have the magic combination of words that would convince her to see a therapist, I’d appreciate them.

Thank you,
Fulfilled and happy career gal, mom, and wife… Turned exhausted stressed-out shell by MIL

Hello and welcome to Awkwardland!

If your husband wants to try reconciling with his mom, I think it’s up to him to figure out a process that might work and to put supports in place for himself to make it possible, and I think that it’s okay for you to put the onus on him to do the work here.

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