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how to say no

Dear Captain,

I’ve looked in the archives for something like this, but I couldn’t find anything. What do you do when you apologize and it seems to upset someone even more?

I (she/her) have an ex (he/him), and we have recently reconnected after a breakup and period of no contact and are trying to be friends. He was the one who ended the relationship, if that helps, and I was the person who asked for space, and recently reached out. We broke up mostly because he wasn’t the best communicator, and when I brought it up he said it was easier to break up. (He is a Geek Social Fallacies carrier)

I live in an area under shelter-in-place, and after that started he started texting and messaging more frequently, and then occasional phone calls. I wasn’t sure I wanted this much contact, but was feeling a little lonely with the SIP, and figured he was as well, we could support each other a bit. I have a wide ranging circle of friends that I have been virtually in contact with, I wasn’t focusing on him.

Anyway, we were talking about what we’d been doing since the SIP began, and I mentioned I’d been working on my writing, and he expressed interest in it, and I asked if he’d be willing to give me some feedback. This wasn’t unusual, it had been something he’d done for me when we’d been together. So I emailed it to him, he emailed some feedback (which was good feedback!), and I got caught up thinking about it and how the writing worked with his feedback, and I guess I hadn’t responded or said thank you, quickly enough? Because a few hours after receiving it he texted to ask if I’d gotten it. And I realized I hadn’t acknowledged it, apologized and thanked him.

And then a few days later I asked if he would read over an article I’m working on, and he said yes. He read it and sent me feedback a day or so later, but I was caught up in work when the email arrived (SIP and working virtually means I get SO MUCH MORE EMAIL than usual, and I got a lot before!), and I just didn’t get a chance to respond. Partially because I felt that he deserved more than a, “thanks, got it” email.

But the next morning beforeI got a chance to do this I got a text saying it was “weird,” I hadn’t acknowledged his messages. I emailed back, apologized, and thanked him. He then asked if we could have a phone conversation, which we did that evening.

Prior to our phone conversation, I realized he was probably feeling unappreciated, and made a point of acknowledging that when we talked, and said that he was also probably trying to show that he cared for me by doing me a favor, and that was really nice, and when I didn’t respond quickly enough he felt ignored or rejected or vulnerable.

And by saying that, he seemed to get really annoyed. Claimed I must be feeling resentment for our breakup, and that it wasn’t any “psychobabble” about feeling vulnerable or rejected, he’s obligated to help out any friend that asks for help. And ranted in this general vein at me for a bit. While also saying, as he ranted, that we didn’t have to have this “whole talk” about this, but he…kept talking? And talking, and talking. I tried to acknowledge his feelings, but I also didn’t want to keep discussing it, and basically listened until he wore down.

We ended it with him feeling better, I guess? But I felt worse. More so because I felt like I was trying to give a sincere apology and recognize his feelings and then we could move on, but it turned into him becoming more annoyed, and that line about being “obligated” really hurt, I thought he was just being friendly, but it now that gesture feels tainted somehow.

Captain, I don’t think it would be helpful to talk to him about this, I think I have to accept that this is just my friendship with him. But I’m confused, why did he get so annoyed? Is there a way I could have apologized better?

Confused Navigator

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Hi,

I live in an area that is under a shelter-in-place order due to COVID-19. A few of my friends have been inviting me to activities that violate the order. My go-to excuse (and the truth) has been bringing up that I live with a high-risk individual, so I’m going to stick to the shelter-in-place order. Thing is, the invitations are still coming, and sometimes with encouragement along the lines of “none of us have symptoms” or “I have hand sanitizer so you’ll be fine.” Any advice for turning down these kind of invitations once and for all while also keeping friendships intact?

Thanks! (she/her)

Hello! Thank you for your timely letter.

Mr. Awkward made something for you over the weekend in honor of his sister, an ICU nurse who can’t stay home. Samuel. L. Jackson is also on the case.

I wrote this (full of scripts) for Vox  last week. Please allow me to respond to all the people who have dug up my personal email to express their indignation since:

1. My editor assigned the story to be about younger adults trying to get through to their parents and grandparents, because that is a thing that is happening. If they had assigned me the story targeting young people or “everyone, everywhere,” I would have written that one.

Me: “X is a problem, here’s what you can do about it.”

My Inbox: “But what about Y? Why are you IGNORING Y?”

Logic: “Weirdly, both X and Y can be problems at the same time.”

Good news, everyone: The suggested scripts & strategies in the piece can probably be adapted for people of all ages, since I wrote “You can be asymptomatic but still spread it to other people, so I’m erring on the safe side” not “You A BABY-BOOMER AND YOU ALONE can be asymptomatic ONLY OLDER PEOPLE, NOT YOUNGER PEOPLE, DON’T READ THIS OR LISTEN but still spread it to other people HAHAHA ONLY THE OLD, so I’m erring on the safe side DON’T READ THIS, YOUNGS.”

2. If you are staying at home, good! Also, maybe this doesn’t apply to you and you are not being personally called out and you do not have to personally let me personally know?

3. “You said ‘stay inside‘ but our GrEaT NaTioN has MaNy AcREs of wILdERnesS and NaTIOnal ParKS which are technically oUtSiED

Ha, you really got me there! Question: Can you get back and forth to one of those without stopping along the way for gas, food, beverages, bathroom breaks, or needing to interact with any staff of anything anywhere? P.S. Life comes at you fast.

Also, I got enough emails with this specific take that I have to ask: Was there a meeting? Or a club? If so, please unsubscribe me from your newsletter.

4. Fully half of you are writing from Florida where your politicians have decided to imitate the Mayor in JAWS. I promise I was not the one keeping beaches open where you live, so if you’d like to yell at someone who was, here is your governor’s contact info. I know you know how to write indignant emails, so, get going! Or, maybe he will find video easier to digest.

If I sound upset it’s because I am. I haven’t lost anybody I personally know as of today,, but people I love are sick, and death is creeping in inexorably around the edges of my circles and making itself at home there. I want to live. I want you to live. I want everybody’s most dipshit friends and family members of all ages to live. I even want the people in power who say “relax, don’t panic, go out and have fun” when they mean “keep spending money, STONKS! may depend on it” to live, okay, yes, it’s mostly so I can see them tried at The Hague for their crimes against humanity, but I still want there to be a tomorrow for them. There are things that we can do to stem the tide, so let’s fucking do them already.

Which is why I say, bluntly, Letter Writer, the longer your friends stay addicted to magical thinking, the more people are put at risk and the longer all of us will have to stay inside. Their justifications are bullshit:

So my recommendation for you is, if polite demurrals aren’t working, maybe…don’t be polite about it anymore? Like, at all? “No, I’m not coming, also WHAT ARE YOU DOING.” Stop trying to figure out the nice way to say it, don’t watch your tone, forget hints. You can’t be serious.” 

You may get your “let’s put the social in social distancing with game night, at my place!” buds to reconsider their behavior. You may make them so angry that they keep having gatherings but don’t invite you to things anymore. Your job is not to soothe them or smooth it over, your job is to live through this. I know you want to keep your friendships intact, but to do that, you and they and everyone they know needs to actually be alive. Probably 99% of the time I am of the school of “my personal life choices aren’t a comment on yours, live your life, Friend, I’m not doing this At You” but this is an exception. You can’t control what your friends will do, but you can absolutely refuse to validate it, enable it, or pretend it’s okay.

I know my fellow country-people are hardcore bright-siders who think “overreacting” is the worst thing a person can possibly do and whose favorite activity is to debate about the exact correct level of reaction one should have to every possible stimulus, but let’s risk it this one time, okay? Experts are saying: REACT.

If they’re wrong and I’m wrong, I’d love to be wrong, being wrong would be the absolute best-case scenario, we can celebrate how wrong I was and how silly all the scientists were together someday when there’s a vaccine and a reliable anti-viral, i.e. the next time I will be able to safely leave my house. We can stand uncomfortably close, lick each other’s faces, and rub our sticky hands on all the railings and lampposts we see, I’ll show you my quarantine birdsnest hairstyle and babysit everyone’s children so y’all can go on dinner dates.

Until then!!!!!!!!: Be the weird mask person and hard core shut-in you want to see in the world, without apology.

Dear Captain Awkward:

Well, not exactly. First, some background: I (she/her) am a member of a Face Book group for fan-fiction readers and writers. I’m a longtime writer of both original work and fan works, so I like to leave comments when people post questions about plotting, characterization, etc. Trouble is, I commented on one post a couple of weeks ago, and now the original poster won’t leave me alone.

It wasn’t so bad at first. She private messaged me within about an hour of me leaving the comment, specifically requesting elaboration on what I’d said. Sure, fine, not the first time this has happened. We kept chatting, about the fandoms we were in, that sort of thing. Hey, great, maybe I’m making a writer friend, I’ve been looking for that. And then she dug a little deeper into what I liked- did I read/write mostly G rated or X rated, was it mainstream stuff or fringe, etc. For the sake of the story, we’ll say that I ended up saying, well, I mostly like m/m, I sometimes like f/f, and I’ll only read m/f if it’s really special, and that I really like reading when men tie other men up and have sex with them. So she starts sending me bits and snippets of stories she’s been writing, and most of them turn out to be m/f, where the woman is being tied up to work through childhood trauma. And in between there are questions- “if her legs were tied like that, would she be able to stay in that position?” “would he check in with her at this point, or would he just keep tying knots?” I’ve tried to answer and respond in good faith, but it’s becoming draining. Worse, as all this has progressed, I’ve realized that the writer herself probably has childhood trauma surrounding being tied up, and she is using the writing, and by extension me, as free therapy.

I didn’t sign up for any of this! I was never even asked if I was up for (or even interested in) so much as being a beta reader, let alone this mish-mash of editor and therapist that I’ve been shoehorned into. I’m generally a big fan of “use your words” but this situation has me speechless. Can you recommend any scripts to disentangle from this boundary-challenged person before I say something I’ll regret?

Thanks for all you do!

Dragooned

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Hi!

I am 28, she/her. My sister in law (“A”) is also 28 and my brother (“D”) is 31.

I have a question about gift etiquette.

Last year on my birthday, A and D gave me a bunch of used DVDs. They got me slightly damaged copies of a couple movies and every season of a TV show my parents liked in the 90’s that I have never expressed any interest in. They wrapped each one individually so they could watch me unwrap them and giggle. I got the joke – this is a terrible gift! Hahaha – but I wasn’t included in the joke. With each one I opened, I got more confused, which seemed to make it even more funny for them.

That Christmas, they did it again, and this time they did it to my parents as well. They got me individual seasons of a TV show that is available in its entirety on Netflix and that I have had conversations about with them in the past where I said I did not like the show. They got my parents copies of DVDs they already owned. All of these were slightly beat up from being previously owned. They giggled and said things like “That’s an important one” and “Better get on watching that soon” the whole time.

My parents pretended to like them the whole time, but as A and D had already done this on my birthday, I finally got frustrated and refused to open more presents from them, because they just kept coming. We all take turns opening gifts and every time it was my turn, it was another used DVD.

Meanwhile, I work very hard on gifts. Last year I got A, a notorious anglophile, a certificate to a years subscription to a service that gets a ton of different British TV shows she had been wanting to watch but hadn’t been able to get access to. I nestled the certificate in a box of fortune cookie fortunes I had collected throughout the year (she collects these and plans to cover a table with them someday). For D I spent months searching for a sweater that had the Coca Cola logo on it. (He loves Coke. He once wrote an essay on its history for a college history class.) These were in addition to other things – games they didn’t have (they love board games) and nice teas (they enjoy tea). I spent ages trying to find thoughtful gifts and then I wrapped each one in nice paper that’s in their favorite colors.

The Christmas before last they didn’t get me a joke gift. They got me a “gummy candy maker.” It was essentially brightly colored silicone molds and unbranded Jello to put in them. It was obviously a children’s toy, and when I opened it, it was sticky from being previously owned. I pretended to be interested and thanked them, which made them smirk at each other. They also gave me a wine-scented candle. It was branded as being from a winery A’s parents had gone to a month or two prior. (Meaning I think they regifted it.)

So they have always given gifts like this, last year was just kind of a new level.

After they left last Christmas, my mom pulled me aside and was like, “Do you know what was going on with all the used DVDs?”

I said, “I think they just thought it was funny.” She seemed a bit crestfallen. She gives gifts similar to mine. She had gotten A a rare kind of tea set.

Furthermore, I don’t think A used the gift certificate and I know D got rid of the sweater because this year Mom said we should take a family photo wearing goofy sweaters and D said he didn’t have one. I said, “What about the one I gave you last Christmas?” He said “Oh, right. I might still have that.”

This is not a money thing – they both make more money than I do and buy nice, new things for themselves regularly. They’re just giving me joke gifts and doubling down when my feelings are hurt. I guess they just don’t like the gifts I give them.

I don’t mean to seem like I’m bragging about being super great at giving gifts or I’m entitled to lots of cool presents. I only meant that I try to put a lot of thought into their gifts and save up for them for a long time. They take a long time to think of and pull off. And A and D get cheap gifts at the last second. I would rather they didn’t get me anything at all.

My question is, what is the etiquette for receiving gifts that hurt my feelings? Do I have to keep pretending they don’t? What should I feel about trying really hard to get them things they like and having them openly dislike them? I want to just get them Amazon gift cards this year, but if they decide to get me non-joke presents this year I’ll just look like an asshole. I don’t know what to do or say.

Sorry this is so long. Thank you in advance.

Hello, thank you for the extremely timely seasonal question that is also an example of when rules that we’re taught about good manners as a child stop working around certain adults.

A Rule Most Of Us Were Taught: “It’s rude to interrupt.”

Sometimes it is, but when you’re dealing with someone who never lets you talk, or who says upsetting things (shame spirals on an unceasing loop, un-constructive criticisms, various bigotries, answering questions you didn’t ask by explaining shit you already know, and yes – even well-meaning, enthusiastic conversational overflow from ADHD kids like me!), it really, really pays to interrupt them, and you’ll be much happier if you do. People who tend to dominate conversations won’t shrivel and die of interruption. (Truthfully, we might not even notice.)

A Rule Most Of Us Were Taught: “It’s ruder to criticize someone’s etiquette mistake than it is to make the etiquette mistake in the first place.” This is a rule about culture and fitting in.

Emily Post, one of the best-known proponents of this approach, saw her advice as a way to a) help both new immigrants to the United States and the suddenly proliferating middle and new-money classes understand social mores so they could better assimilate (with assumed advantages to them for employment and upward mobility) and b) remind her own snobby, crusty, filthy-rich peers to value kindness and making an effort over polish. She was hardly a revolutionary, but for every “don’t swing your arms please it’s unladylike” tip she ever wrote there is definitely a delicious aspect of “If a guest doesn’t know what a finger-bowl is and you, the host, try to embarrass them, call attention to their difference, or make fun of them for not knowing, YOU are the asshole in this situation and next time we run into each other in the lane be careful I don’t issue the Cut Direct in the form of a kid-gloved fist to your puckered little jerkface, you absolute failure of a human being”* running through her work. Good, right?

Sadly, somehow people have translated and handed this down as “When someone is being rude, it’s even ruder to speak up about it” even when the failure on display isn’t one of form but of kindness. Worse, they’ve taught some of us that what’s “most polite” is our silence and compliance and “civility” at all costs. The costs are adding up, to the point that thanks to old-fashioned white supremacy and widespread Fox News poisoning, next Thursday in these United States I doubt a single minute of daylight will pass without someone’s relative saying something downright genocidal without a peep from anybody (because: politeness!), but the second someone does challenge Uncle I-Put-The-Eugene-In-Eugenics, that person will be told  “Shhhh! No arguing politics at the holiday table!”** and get treated like the originator of the problem.

Is it an exaggeration to say that every word of this blog for the past nine years is meant to be a deliberate rebellion against this expectation and conditioning?

A Rule We Were Taught: GIFTING EDITION

“I don’t care if it’s a dog turd in a cereal box! When someone gives you a gift, you say ‘thank you’ and act like you love it ’til we get home.” – My Dad, Christmas, 1982, when my aunt gave me an E.T. figurine she’d crafted in a paint-your-own-ceramics workshop and I cried both because I’d wanted something Star Wars or Barbie-related and because, well, look at it. (The rest of the story, including, why is it in the top rack of a dishwasher, at Patreon).

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Image: A hideous though no-doubt lovingly crafted ceramic E.T. figurine, in the top rack of a dishwasher.

Dad was absolutely right, my aunt had worked hard on something she hoped I’d love, and she deserved a polite thank you. She didn’t know about the nightmares! But this doesn’t apply when it’s a repeat offender giving deliberately bad gifts. My big brother and I gave each other matching $35 Borders gift cards wrapped in increasingly elaborate packages for a solid decade as a way of saying, “I have no idea who you are and what you like as an adult, we can still beat a joke into submission and resurrect it, kill the joke again, and laugh hysterically at the zombie joke lurching through the room just like we did when we were kids!” It infuriated my mom that we weren’t giving “real presents,” but for us it was 100% a way of expressing love. Pranks where everyone isn’t in on the joke, pranks where everyone isn’t actively participating, pranks that fall flat every year? Are just being mean. 

Letter Writer, your parents’ confusion at the idea of joke gifts and pretense that this was in any way enjoyable tells me that you were taught something similar: Gifts are exercises in care and thoughtfulness; the worst thing in the world is to be visibly ungrateful for a gift.

Unfortunately your brother and his wife are being jerks and they need to be TOLD.  Either they genuinely think it’s funny and that you’re in on the joke, or they get off on bullying you, either way, they will not get hints. They will never ‘read the room.’ You gotta tell them.

Possible script:

“[Brother], I know you and [Spouse] love the joke gift thing, but I really hate it. This year can we either do real gifts – I’m happy to send you a list of a couple affordable things I could use and you can do the same, I’d love to get you and A. something you would definitely use – or, otherwise, can we agree to skip the whole thing? I’d rather just do nothing than have to unwrap a bunch of damaged crap again and pretend it’s fun.” 

Your parents are responsible for their own approach to this but maybe you could also ask your brother to give you money to purchase a group gift for your parents. You like picking out gifts! Volunteer to do the work and pick out something actually nice from all of you. If he offers any resistance, know that this is more trouble than its worth, get a nice gift for your parents from yourself and let your parents handle him.

If they agree to a cool gift and try to prank you with a shitty gift again, when you open the first scratched DVD of Two-And-A-Half Men or whatever utter garbage they chose this time I give you permission to say, “Oh, are we doing this again? Here, you open them, then since this is really a present for you.” DON’T PARTICIPATE IN OBVIOUS BULLSHIT. You may feel intense discomfort and pressure not to react this way (because of the “it’s ruder to acknowledge rudeness than to be the rudeness” conditioning you’ve received and because you are a good, thoughtful person) but like, enough already, Brother and Sister-in-Law! If they insist on making it weird, then let it be as fucking weird and unpleasant as they make it at least once.

As far as what to give them, may I suggest:

  • Nothing. “Oh, I didn’t bother this year – you like joke gifts and I don’t have the energy for all that. Who wants more eggnog?” I mixed a few joke suggestions in below but I am incredibly serious about trying out “Nothing” this year. They felt comfortable giving you nothing in the past, so…?
  • A single pair of white unisex gym socks each. (Socks are useful.)
  • Who couldn’t use an AA battery? You had this one in the junk drawer. It’s probably still good.
  • Donate to a charity you like in their name.
  • Your suggestion of gift cards is perfect, they never go out of style and you probably aren’t a person who can be comfortable coming empty-handed, but honestly, they don’t deserve you.
  • Seriously, save your money and your thoughtful, careful gift choices for people who appreciate them, these two are never gonna really get on your wavelength about this.

Additionally, readers have shared stories of deliberately mean, crappy, “I got everyone a nice gift and you an obviously ill-suited afterthought gift to show how much I don’t actually care about you” incidents from family members with me and asked what I suggest they do next time with repeat offenders, so may I offer up a flat “Oh thanks I would never have thought of this for myself” response and then leaving whatever it is behind under the tree, neatly tucked in a hall closet, or under a bed somewhere when you go. They’ll find it or they won’t, once it’s given to you it’s yours to do with as you please, and they can draw their own conclusions.

Yes, of course you coooooooooooooooooooooould quietly take it and throw it away or try to donate it or regift it once you get home but there’s something symbolic leaving this obviously hostile turd of a present behind for them to figure out how to store or dispose of. Of course this opens the door to the gifter trying to chase you down and get you to accept it (any excuse to bully you, right), so in that case try, “Oh, I didn’t forget, I had no desire for a [child-sized jumpsuit the color of dog doodoo][some dusty crap from the basement you’re trying to pawn off on me][a broken ice-scraper][a food thing I’m 100% allergic to, and oh goody, it’s expired][“Look I thought we covered this when I married your son and every one of the twelve years since, but I’M JEWISH, MISS ME WITH THE LIGHT UP MANGER SCENE AND THE ‘IRONIC’ CHRISTMAS SWEATERS], so hopefully you can use it? Thanks for the thought!”

Also, see above, and consider giving these people the gift of NOTHING from now on. They can try to play their game but you don’t have to participate.

*Obviously I’m paraphrasing  but if Emily Post were alive today she would 100% haunt the Am I The Asshole Reddit in her free time exhorting people to come correct even if they are tragically reduced to wearing last season’s gloves and keeping only one manservant. Believe it. P.S. Laura Claridge has written an excellent biography.

**“Don’t talk politics at the table.” Okay, I’ve been guilty of hoping  that one would work in the past, in the sense of giving hosts tools to shut down the loudmouths, but it needs an update. Most “politics” “arguments” afoot, especially among my fellow white people, currently aren’t “zoning laws should be slightly different, let’s discuss that and find the best solution,” they are more like:

Our Worst Relatives: “THOSE people with certain identities deserve to DIE and THEY are the ones VICTIMIZING ME by EXISTING LIKE THAT and YOU are being RUDE if you don’t agree, in silence.”

Us: “The opposite of all of that, actually? Also, I am somewhat Those People?”

Missing Stair Enabling Squad: “Why are you antagonizing them when you know they’re ‘just like that’? There’s no need to be uncivil!”

These lopsided calls for civility are bullshit, this isn’t about MANNERS, it’s about ETHICS and the SURVIVAL of our fellow humans, so let’s get fucking real and start Returning. Awkwardness. To. Sender. 

 

Hi Captain!

I’m an adjunct professor at a mid-sized University, a new mom, and I just had a very awkward encounter with my department head. I’m teaching one of the sections of my department head’s courses; so myself, the department head and all the other section instructors meet up each week to discuss things and make sure we’re on the same page. Before the semester started, I emailed her to let her know that I recently had a baby and if there was a place I could pump between our course meeting and the start of class. She responded that I was welcome to use her office anytime (I don’t have an office) and to let her know if I needed anything. Great! Fast forward to the first day of class: we have our course meeting and all is going well. At the end of the meeting, I ask my department head if now is convenient for her to lend me her office so I can pump; and if not, I’m happy to wait until she’s ready. She enthusiastically responds that now is a great time and that she’s totally comfortable “being around exposed boobies.”

I’m a bit taken aback at this point, I expected I’d be able to pump privately. I start mumbling about not wanting to interrupt her work when another one of my fellow adjuncts comes to my rescue and informs me the adjunct lounge is currently empty and the door has a lock. I’m relieved and my department head cheerfully remarks that’s the perfect place to pump. I make my way over to the adjunct lounge, lock the door and get to work. Five minutes later, I hear a knock on the door… it’s my department head. She whispers through the door to be let in, saying she has something important to discuss with me. Unnerved, I unlock the door and let her in. At this point, I have all my pumping gear on and am wearing my pumping bra, so I’m mostly covered up, but my shoulders are bare and one can clearly see my pumping bra. My department head looks at me for a moment, then asks me if I’ve seen where one of the other adjuncts has gone. Umm….what? She could have asked anyone else in the hallway that question, why did she have to come in and ask me? I’m clearly super uncomfortable and I respond that I haven’t seen her since the meeting. My department head stares for another moment, then apologizes profusely for disturbing me and leaves.

My question is: what on earth should I do about this? I’m incredibly uncomfortable with how she conducted herself, especially since she’s my boss. Should I speak to her about this? What should I say? Should I just pretend this never happened and hope it doesn’t happen again? I’m definitely not going to use her office to pump (or pump anywhere in that building if I can help it).

Thanks!
Awkward Academic (she/her/hers)

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I ( 27, she/her) have an acquaintance (29, he/him) who is not neurotypical (he told me this). His preferred mode of communication is texting and he frequently tries to have long, involved text conversations with me. I was pretty tolerant of this at first, but it’s gotten a bit wearing. I’ve told him several times that I “am super busy and can’t text a lot”, “am not up for all of the texting”, and “I need space”. His standard response is along the lines of “That’s ok, you’re my friend and I like talking to you” and then to continue on exactly as before.

He also has a pretty intense crush on me and I told him very clearly that I did not feel the same way. According to mutual friends, the crush continues apace 6+ months after that conversation and he’s pretty regularly asking them for updates on me. This guy has a bit of a tendency to disregard realities that he doesn’t like and at this point I’m not sure if he still doesn’t understand the boundaries I’m trying to set (understandable) or if he’s just ignoring them (not ok). How do I extricate myself from this?

Thought I Was Being Loud and Clear

Dear Loud & Clear,

Block him and be done with this tedious mess. 

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As promised…more “If you’re ‘not allowed’ to say no to someone, they are not acting like friends” content. I have kept the Letter Writer’s subject line as the post title so that readers too can have the “Wait, where is the part where this person is an actual mom” “Oh wait, phew, this person isn’t anyone’s actual mother, that would be even more horrifying” realization that The Goat Lady (my trusty inbox sorter) and I did.

Dear Captain,

I (she/her) have a friend, “Mary” who is, by her own admission, a “mom” friend. Mary is very kind– but emotionally overreaching. She feels responsible for making sure her friends are well cared for. Mary has even joked that if it weren’t for her, her friends would buy nothing but junk food and toys at the grocery store, instead of groceries. When we get together, Mary will insist on cooking, even when somebody else volunteers to cook instead. If one of us DOES cook, Mary will hover, or “help” by essentially taking over the cooking–adding ingredients and more or less pushing the other cook out of the kitchen. Mary will consistently cite any accident or mistake any of us have made as an excuse to swoop in. Then she will complain that she is always the one stuck with the cooking.

Mary also feels very much–if she thinks her friends are upset or potentially upset, she will become upset for them. (For example, I have been very stressed at work and with personal projects, and Mary started crying because I “am going to burn out” and that I am “such a perfectionist that you are going to hurt yourself!”) If I complain to Mary about anything, be it annoyance over traffic to a problem with a coworker, it becomes a “problem” and Mary is quick to give me unsolicited advice, get defensive for me or otherwise volunteer to help me solve this “problem.”

If she knows I am struggling with something, Mary will constantly bring it up (probably in an attempt to reinforce what she thinks is the “positive” message), or turn even a casual comment (“I wish could sleep for five years,”) into a big referendum or discussion on my mental health. If we have a difficult conversation or discussion, it will end with Mary crying, clutching me like I am some sort of child and even kissing the top of my head while I am just feeling frustrated. If I try to establish boundaries (“This isn’t a topic I am willing to discuss with you, let’s talk about something else”), my boundaries are immediately overridden. In fact, it seems as if my attempts to establish boundaries are interpreted by Mary as a further excuse to involve herself in me and my life!

I know that Mary is coming from a place of love and care. What reads to me as “manipulative” and “immature,” aren’t necessarily that–it’s just that it is to me! (Ed. note: IT’S NOT JUST YOU) I care very much about Mary but I am reaching the end of my rope. I understand this is part of the “mom” friend aspect, but Cap, I HATE being mothered. My own mother doesn’t even “mother” me. It has never worked on me, and will never work on me, no matter how many times Mary tries to become my surrogate mom. I’m trying hard not to become a hallmark-movie-style troubled teen and start yelling “You are not my real mom!” at her.

Sometimes, I just need to vent or talk about my issues without needing a “solution” or it turning into an “argument.” I feel like I have to walk on eggshells around Mary because even a casual joke (the kind that everyone in our generation and friend group makes!) becomes an emotionally exhausting exercise where I am left feeling emotionally infantilized and I start to resent Mary’s lack of maturity.

On top of this, Mary is attending therapy and seems to think herself the authority on all matters now–she declares herself an expert on conflict resolution but her form of “resolution” is to cry until she gets what she wants or can manipulate the narrative to seem like she was correct (in case it wasn’t obvious by now, Mary has an INTENSE martyrdom complex.)

I don’t want to lose Mary as a friend, and I can’t really get away from her for now. I don’t know how to explain to Mary that I don’t need a “mom” or a “mom friend,” and that her “mothering” is making it impossible to just be “friends.” How do you get a “mom friend” to stop “mothering” her friends?

I don’t know how to ask Mary to emotionally detach herself from me and my problems without making it seem like I am asking her to get out of my life. I also don’t know how I could possibly have these difficult conversations with Mary without it turning into an emotional meltdown on Mary’s part that she then projects onto me, as further evidence that I “need” her. Can you help me find a script to deal with Mary?

Thanks,

She’s not my mom (friend)

Optional P.S. Neither of us are parents, apologies if it was confusing!

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