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manipulation

Dear Captain Awkward,

I should probably start off by saying that I come from a culture (one of many) where family ties are super close, and family members getting into your business is acceptable and if you complain about it you’re ungrateful and aggressive.

I am now going to be working in another country (my country of birth) for the summer, and my aunt and grandparents are also here, staying in their home. I’m living alone (hallelujah) in another apartment, but i go over there once in awhile to see my grandparents.

However, something very strange is happening. I’ve been on my own pretty much, or trying to be. My aunt, however, decides to accompany me back to my dorm whenever i leave their home, even though I do not ask her to do this. She also decided, unilaterally, that she would accompany me to meet the person I’m working for. So she came in and SAT IN THE MEETING, and she did all this at the speed of light, totally ignoring my attmepts to divert her and giving me no chance to say hey, maybe you don’t need to be here. The job is acutally an internship and has been in the works, and this was not my first impression on the person I’m working for, so I’m not as mortified as I would be. The interviewers are also from the same culture, and appeared to understand the dynamics of the situation, for which i’m thankful.

That’s not the weird part. The weird part is that on the way back, as we went our separate ways, she told me that I needed to be more independent. I had no idea how to respond, besides “uh, i’m perfectly capable of being independent, except when you all foist yourselves into things that don’t concern you.” This is a common pattern in my family – be overbearing and steamroll people, then proclaim that they are too dependent and can’t live on their own and NEED the intervention of people constantly trying to dictate things to them.

What i’m wondering is…..what on earth do i do here? If i object to their meddling it’s considered rude. If I accept their “help” without comment, they use it against me to claim that I need their help, when i never asked for it. What. The. Hell.

Signed,

Trapped in a Feedback Loop

Dear Trapped in a Feedback Loop:

I want to introduce you to my favorite word right now and it’s not “no” or “wow” or “really?” as you might suspect. It’s “okay” and I’ve found it useful whenever someone is projecting something onto me that isn’t really about me at all.

Family Member: “You really need to be more independent!

“Okay.”

Family Member: “If you don’t listen to my intrusive advice, terrible things will happen!

“Okay.”

Family Member: “I’m just worried that my stream of anxiety about you will actually come into being!

“Okay.”

Family Member: “I’m just worried our family won’t see it as a ‘real wedding’ if there is no religious aspect.” (True story, y’all)

“Okay.”

It’s a different version of “Sure, I’ll think about it!” where you will think about whatever it is (and then not do it if it doesn’t suit you). It’s a non sequitur/feigned agreement way of saying “I heard you and I am not particularly ruffled by your concerns but I also don’t want to fight with you.” It doesn’t work in every situation, but try it out and see what happens. Sometimes it stops the conversation in its tracks because there just isn’t any place to go from there.

Another way to deal with the “You need to be more independent (while I totally undercut your independence at every turn)” Auntie is to ask her what she means. “Auntie, I’d love to be more independent. Can you help me understand what you mean by that?” She’s not gonna gain sudden self-awareness about how her intrusion on your job meeting or walking you home every single night conflicts with that wish, but it might help to know her specific concerns and get an idea of her point of view about everything. Don’t argue with her when she answers you even if what she says is very unfair, just hear her out and tell her you’ll think about what she suggested. Then, over time (not during that particular conversation, just, when another intrusion comes up organically in a specific situation), gently and inexorably refer back to that conversation. “Auntie, I’ve really taken to heart your advice about being more independent, and I’d like to handle work meetings by myself.” “Auntie, you’re very kind to escort me home, but for the sake of being more independent, I’d like to go by myself tonight. Thank you!” Think of it as boundaries-Aikido, where you are channeling her aggression away from yourself. In that sense, the “Be more independent!” advice was a gift she gave you to help you start gently maintaining your boundaries. It gives you a way to say “Thank you, but thanks to your excellent guidance,  I got this!” and carve out some space in a constructive way rather than lapsing into a teenaged-sounding “QUIT SMOTHERING ME!” (even if that’s legitimately how you feel around these folks).

She will not disengage quietly, so know going in that it will probably take many attempts. Go slow and avoid ultimatums to the extent that you can.

 

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 eats French fries. (EVERY SESSION. LOUDLY. WITH MAYONNAISE WHO DOES THAT.)

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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It appears to be Dude-B-Gone week at Captain Awkward Enterprises. Also, re: confusing post numbering (850/849), sometimes I write a bunch of answers at once and schedule them ahead of time and they post out of order. We’ll carry on somehow!

Dear Captain,

I’ve found myself in a weird situation and I’d love to have your advice. I’m a graduate student and I have a visual impairment (I’m not in the US, but if I were I would qualify as legally blind). A few months ago I happened to meet a fellow graduate student at my institution who has a similar disability. I thought he was an interesting person and I was excited to meet a fellow student who shared that aspect of my experience, since most of my friends are sighted.

We arranged to meet up for coffee. I thought this was just as potential friends, but during the course of the conversation it became clear that finding a girlfriend is very important to him and that he saw it as more of a date. He also did a few things that made me quite uncomfortable: for instance he insisted on sitting very close to me and on touching and hugging me (I really don’t like being touched by anyone I don’t know well, partly because like many Blind/visually impaired people I often have to deal with strangers trying to touch me when I’m out in public places). Shortly after this he asked me on a date. I said no, but he kept asking and I did agree to meet him for lunch a few weeks later. I was hoping I could make it clear this time that I was only interested in being friends, but the same thing happened with the touching, and the whole event had a very date-y vibe even though that was not what I wanted.

After this I decided I didn’t want to see him again. Fortunately I had never given him my phone number, so I simply unfollowed him on social media and stopped replying to his messages and emails, hoping he would take the hint and stop sending them. They didn’t stop coming, though, and some of them were quite odd – for instance, he sent one asking who the men in some of my Facebook photos were (mostly members of my family and male friends, but I suppose he couldn’t have guessed that). On two occasions he also turned up at the place where I volunteer and hung around outside waiting to talk to me. Kind fellow volunteers dealt with him on both occasions, but I was still sufficiently freaked out by this to unfriend and block him on social media.I think this was probably an overreaction, since I never told him I didn’t want to be in touch and he may have been understandably confused.

Following this we had a few weeks of silence, but then I received an email from him on my university account, asking if he had offended me, and if anything was wrong with our ‘friendship’. It’s clear from the email that he has a lot more invested in our relationship than I do and that he sees us as close friends, whereas I would characterise us as barely more than acquaintances, as we’ve only met five times in person, counting the coffee date, the lunch and the turning up at my volunteering place. That strikes me as an unhealthy imbalance and frankly it would make me want to stop seeing him even without the odd behaviour which went before.

Am I obliged to respond to this email and reassure him that he’s done nothing wrong? What, if anything, do I owe this man? I know I should have been clearer about not wanting to date him and about cutting off contact. I’m sure he never intended to do anything creepy, although it’s clear that he is isolated and his social skills are very poor. I want him to be able to expand his social life and be happier, but on the other hand his apparent inability to recognize boundaries makes me want not to be in touch with him. I’m worried that if I don’t respond to him he will interpret this as rejection and lose the confidence he needs to make more friends. Aside from that, I feel like I’ve failed to show solidarity with him as someone who shares his disability. What should I do?

Yours in confusion,
I Volunteered, But Not For This

P.S. I am a woman and use ‘she/her’ pronouns.

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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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Hey Capt,

I find myself in a delicate situation regarding my best friend of 2 yrs Julie (23f) and her fiance, Jon (23m).

Julie met Jon and became engaged to him this past summer; they’d been seeing each other 4 monthes in a LDR. There had been many issues (Jon was unwilling to commit for awhile, struggles with alcohol, has bipolar and a dark past), so there side-eyeing and lost friendships over the course of everything. At this point, the dust has settled. Julie and I are still close, but there are few she’d call close friends.

Before she met Jon, we were at that comfortable “let’s hang out pretty much everyday in sweatpants or meet up between classes” type of friendship. I figured that we’d get much less time together once she started dating; I wasn’t expecting the engagement, but I tried to be as supportive as I could. She tells me often that she appreciates my support, though I have expressed concerns re: Jon’s past, issues, etc. I’ve read all your darth articles quite a few times.

However, it’s getting hard to do this because almost every time we have plans beyond coffee, Jon is suddenly suicidal or “worried he’s in a bad place” or “more down than usual”.

Julie is very sensitive to this, and will promptly cancel with many apologies. I’m fine rescheduling coffee or lunch. When it’s a day plan though (birthday party, sleepover,etc), that bothers me. Add that to the fact that she’ll be texting with him because he’ll feel ignored otherwise, and I don’t know how to approach this.

It feels cruel to suggest she not tend to her partner when they’re going through a hard time ,but it bugs me that his hard times always fall on days where we’re supposed to be having plans, It also makes me feel like I can’t express frustration or hurt, because how selfish is it to want to see your friend when their SO is in a bad place?

It’s gotten to the point that any time she bails, I can be sure Jon is the reason behind it. I want to support her, and be there if she needs me, but I also want to be able to schedule time without constantly being trumped by Jon’s emotional issues.

What should I do, and how can I talk about this without making her defensive?

Sincerely,
I Miss My Friend

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Hello Captain,
I’m 29 years old, living with my parents, my older sister and my niece.

My mother stopped work when she gave birth to me, so she’s pretty much been a housewife all her life. My father is that wonderful combination of breadwinner and financial abuser (i.e, he has enough money to buy expensive shoes and perfumes for himself, but asking him for money so we can have food and power supply is like talking to a wall), so when things are down, it falls to my sister and me to pick up the slack when it comes to money. My sister just started a new job, and I’m still entry-level at the job I’ve had for nearly three years.

The thing is, it usually falls to me to pick up the financial burden. I’m asked to pay the cable, the internet, the groceries etc all the time. I’ve asked my sister for both of us to split the bills, but she doesn’t agree. And when I ask my mother to talk to her, her preferred method is to placate me rather than talk to my sister. Usually, this means that I’m counting every cent until payday because I don’t have a lot for myself. Despite this, anytime I buy food/toiletries for myself, I’m expected to share with the two of them. I plan out my groceries and needs for the month, and I literally cannot afford to be replacing items if they finish earlier than expected.

I need help saying no, especially to my sister. Every time I try to be firm, I’m called ‘selfish’ and ‘I used to be so nice’ and ‘we’re family, so we share everything.’ I don’t think it’s selfishness to want to let my personal groceries last as long as possible, especially when I can barely afford to look after myself, and especially when my sister won’t do anything. I’m at that point where I’m seriously considering buying a small cupboard/fridge, putting it in my room and keeping everything locked up when I’m not home. What should I do?

– Not Selfish

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