Archive

Overthinking It

Answer 1: On Crushes

So, you have a crush on a friend.* But everything is terrible/uncertain/stressful.

Send the love poem. Say the thing that’s in your heart. If not now, when?

What’s the worst that can happen? They don’t love you back, i.e. the status quo?

What’s the best thing that happens? They do!

The thing you’re torturing yourself about – “Do I do it in a phone call? Do I send a text? Do I yell it from 6-10 feet away?” – You know this person best and you know you best.  Your way is going to be the right way if they feel that way about you. If they don’t love you back, they don’t love you back. It’s not because you said it wrong. (Read this poem). If your instincts are telling you now is not the time, then you are probably right about that and having just the right words won’t change it.

Practice Round: Tell the people you don’t want to smooch how much you love and care about them, too. Yell “thank you” to the trash removal people from the window. Tell the grocery delivery person and the pharmacist what a good job they are doing. You’ve got excess love so give it away.

Answer 2: On Closure

Hey remember that friendship/relationship that ended very badly and they told you not to contact them again and to stay away?

You were doing okay, you were taking your feelings to the gym or the bike trail or the knitting project or the social circle.

But now the world feels like it’s ending and you’re suddenly obsessed. What if you could talk to them just one more time and make yourself understood and focus on “what’s really important?”

“Fix this,” your jerk of a brain whispers, “And maybe you’ll fix the world.” 

“You can’t fix the world,” your absolute dillweed of a brain reminds you. “But what if you could fix this one tiny thing?” 

Beloved, write the letter where you get to say everything you want to say. Get it all out on the page. Do not send this letter, but do write it.

Now, write yourself the letter you wish they’d write back. Imagine them saying everything you most want to hear, imagine them telling you “I am sorry” and “I miss you, too,” and “I love you” and “I forgive you.” Spare no emotional expense. Include every good and kind and loving thing remember this person ever saying to you, every compliment, every private joke, every happy memory you can think of. Write the happy ending to the story that you wish you had.

Burn the first letter.**

When you feel obsessed and lonely read the second one back to yourself.

The good times you and this person shared were real. They still happened to you. What shone then shines now. The things they loved about you are still in you. That’s all still yours, even if this one person is no longer in your life. They are not the boss of how you get to be loved or whether you deserve love, just as you are not the boss of whether you get to keep trying to demand it specifically from them. We can wish people well and send love in their direction and still follow separate paths.

After you re-read the good letter, channel the feelings into action that doesn’t harm anybody or further obsess you. Do something that is physical, mundane, and and an act of care for yourself and the others in your home environment: Scrub the bathroom down, clean out the bottom drawer of the fridge, dust the baseboards. Call your elected officials. Find something you’ve been putting off and do it.

Finally (do not skip this step), get in touch with someone who always does want to hear from you, someone who is always glad to let you in, somebody you don’t have to work at. The absent person isn’t the only love or friendship you will ever have in your life. You have excess love right now, so give some away.

 

*Advice does not apply to crushes on an employee/assistant/student/a roommate you are quarantined with/somebody you have power over, or any person who has to be nice to you because of where they work or because they can’t get away from you. Leave your barista/pharmacist/grocery worker alone. 

**Safety first! Shredding it into tiny pieces or making elaborate paper snowflakes is also a dramatic and symbolic act of destruction.

 

Dear Captain,

I had a friend I first met about 15 years ago. We got on amazingly well: mutual friends called us “one mind in two bodies” because our personalities were so similar. We understood each other almost perfectly and could talk and laugh for hours about things nobody else quite got. We then had an extraordinarily intense romantic relationship: we were ridiculously in love and had an incredibly deep connection. It ended because I was super needy and honestly wasn’t ready for that sort of relationship. We were both heartbroken and intended to get back together one day, but life took us in other directions. We tried to stay friends but I wanted too much from him; he felt he had to keep me at arm’s length. I told him I had too many messy feelings to have a healthy friendship, he begged me not to go, I said I hoped to be back one day, there were tears on both sides and we went our separate ways. This was in 2008. Resolving to take something positive from what happened, I worked hard on myself, addressed the co-dependency issues that had driven ALL my previous partners away, and now I’m married to an awesome guy I’ve been with for 10 years.

This January, we finally got back in touch. I apologised for some hurtful things I’d said when I was in a lot of pain over losing him. I told him how I’d changed for the better. I said if he forgave me for being a jerk I would love to rekindle that awesome friendship if he wanted to, now Other Feelings weren’t an issue any more. He replied to say it was a lot to take in (naturally) but he would answer via email, not to worry if that took him a while and, in the meantime, how was I?

Since then we’ve exchanged several messages but often he takes days, even weeks to reply so we haven’t really got a good conversation going (except one night when we texted about random stuff until 2:15am, which showed we still have that great connection and same weird sense of humour). Because communication has been so sporadic, it’s hard to gauge what sort of friendship we might have if at all. When he does reply he’s warm and affectionate, laughs at my jokes and sends me cool stuff he knows I’ll like. But because of our complicated history I’m unsure how well I can walk the line between “yikes, co-dependent ex-girlfriend is messaging too much!” and not having enough contact to re-establish a friendship.

I’m trying to give it time – maybe he’s just not ready and could be navigating A Swamp of Unexpected Feelings himself. But I feel with this sort of situation it’s important to be honest and open from the start about what you want, like I was in my first message to him. I gently reminded him he said he’d email me and while he didn’t have to, I’d appreciate knowing where things stood between us. He said he was busy but could do it next week… which was several weeks ago now and don’t feel I can ask again. Me badgering him when he needed space was why we stopped being close in the first place.

I’m feeling a bit lost about how to handle this situation. At the moment I’m playing it by ear, replying to messages when they come, trying not to send too many back, giving him space when he doesn’t reply. But while I’m thrilled to be back in touch, there’s this elephant in the room, it’s…uncomfortable, and I don’t believe he’s going to send me that email – it’s been nearly 2 months. How can I figure out what the relationship is between us without making him feel pressured to talk about things he clearly doesn’t want to talk about?

Hopeful Friend

PS I searched for similar letters but the closest I found was you advising not to reach out to an ex for friendship until your feelings reached the point of “oh yeah him, I wonder how he’s doing, would be fun to catch up.” Which is what I did… but now I don’t know what to do next.

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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 there,

I’m hoping to find some scripts/strategies to employ when I run into someone I’m happy to chat with, like a friend or one of the super friendly baristas at a coffee shop I’m always in, and they ask “so what’s new with you?” or “what have you been up to this week?” when the honest answer is often something like “I managed to leave the house every day” or “Well my house is still messy but I did write 70 thousand words of erotic fanfiction in the past few months” or “I’m sorry but my depression seems to be leaning hard on my memory lately and I have no idea what I did yesterday, let alone last week.”

Sometimes I even have done something I could talk about; there might be a knitting or art project I picked up, I try to take small trips to see friends when I can, and of course plenty of my friends would be happy to talk about the weird fanfic I’ve been writing. But in the moment I rarely remember any of this.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been at a bar and forgotten the name of every cocktail you have ever enjoyed or even heard of the moment you get the bartender’s attention, but that’s what this feels like. I’m a deer in the headlights and can’t think of something that’s even vaguely interesting and not some form of “I’m super depressed so I can’t remember, sorry.” That’s fine to say sometimes, I know, but I don’t want that to be my response every time someone talks to me in person.

I am getting as much mental health support as I can; I have a good therapist and meds that seem to work as well as anything else could (I tried some new ones last year and it was a disaster), but I’m still struggling a bit; I don’t mind being honest about that, in many circumstances, but I feel so dull and boring when these questions come up and at times it impacts my confidence around other people. I’m trying hard right now to get out more and connect with people because I know that’s good for me but I keep hitting this awkward roadblock. Any thoughts?

Thanks,
I Promise I’m Not This Boring, For Real (he/him)

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Here is the second post in this week’s collaboration between Jennifer P. from CaptainAwkward.com and Alison Green from Ask A Manager.

Previously On: “Is it disloyal to leave a company who cut my pay and postponed my promotion?” (Nope! Cutting everyone’s pay is like the part in the horror movie where the house says “get ouuuuuut” and none of the cabinet doors will stay closed and suddenly there is a ghost boy with no irises (only pupils) staring at you while you shower, maybe the time to leave is right now?) and “Can I talk about my boyfriend’s other girlfriend at work?” (Sure, but maybe check with her first?)

Additionally, there was a question about ADHD and applying for jobs that we didn’t get to and that needed more space than this short format, I’ve answered it over on Patreon: (Part 1)(Part 2)

Now for today’s question batch:

1. Everyone in the office is hanging out without me and it feels like high school.

I work in a very clique-y office where I am just not in the main clique. I have a coworker who is sort of in the same boat and we have bonded over it, but she’s still more in than I. These people tend to organize outings outside of work to which I am not invited, but where as far as I can tell they include everyone I work with. I’ve sort of just been ignoring it, but now they keep talking about their plans, how much fun they have, etc while I’m in the room. Look, I understand if you don’t want to invite everyone (though it’s still quite hurtful frankly) but can’t they at least keep it a secret if they don’t want me involved instead of rubbing it in my face? I feel like I’m in high school again. (For the record I am in my mid-thirties). And I feel like crap. Look, I’m on the spectrum, and I know that means I will often have to deal with being the outsider, but this just seems unnecessarily cruel. Am I overreacting?

Jennifer (Captain Awkward): When social interactions among adults ping the old “OH NO, NOT HIGH SCHOOL, NOT AGAIN” radar, a good question is: Are people being mean or are they being lazy? Mean happens, certainly, but when in doubt, start with lazy. As in, maybe people are purposely excluding you (not everyone has to become free-time friends with coworkers) but it’s also incredibly likely that people assume that someone else already invited you and that if you don’t come to a particular thing it’s because you didn’t want to. 

And I’m talking about the merest blip of a thought, a second or two of wondering “Should I invite Fergusella?” “Eh, but they never come to stuff” and then moving on with their day. The longer this goes on, the easier it is to mirror these bad assumptions, and perversely this applies to people feeling comfortable talking about events in front of you. “Everyone’s invited, the more the merrier, I don’t have to make it explicit” or “Well, Fergusella would say something if they really wanted to come, right?” feel easier than changing anything. Your coworkers aren’t thinking about ableism, your history of being left out, or the very real worry that speaking up could expose and codify a probable afterthought (lazy) into an explicit (mean) choice probably because they aren’t thinking about you all that much in the first place. “They just forgot me” probably doesn’t feel less awkward than “They just don’t like me,” but it leaves more to work with in changing the situation.

Speaking of implicit vs. explicit: If literally every single person in your office is going across the street for after-work drinks and talking about it in front of you on the regular, there’s a 99.99% chance that you are and have always been invited and people assume you already know that. If you’d feel better knowing for sure, you won’t make it weird by asking, “Hey, is this invite only or can I join you?” If people are mean in response, it’s because they are mean people, not because you did anything wrong by trying to clarify it. (Now, if it’s a weekend and people are gathering at somebody’s house, that’s different: Like vampires, coworkers need to be invited in.) 

Before you do anything, an important question for yourself is: Do you want to get to know these specific people better and become friends with them? Do you want to not only be invited but to actually go to more of these things? If so, one strategy might be to choose one or two the kindest, friendliest people in the group and invite them to a very occasional solo lunch or coffee. Not from a “Why does nobody ever invite me?” angle but from a “I’m trying to be more social in 2020 and you always seem so nice and fun” angle. “I’m trying to be more social in 2020” is a useful script because it communicates that you want to hang out with them in a way that doesn’t blame them for leaving you out in the past. Once you know people better and have a one-on-one relationship, it’s less risky to have conversations like “Do you do bowling karaoke every weekend? It always sounds so fun, is it ok if I tag along once in a while?” Or even, “Hey I’m autistic, and have kind of a terror of poking myself in where I’m not wanted, so it really helps me when people turn ‘Anyone up for lunch?’ into ‘Would you like to get lunch?’ That way I know for sure I’m invited.” 

Is it less about these specific people and more about generally feeling left out and lonely? Then that’s probably a sign to work on your friendships and social life in general, inside and outside work. You’ll be able to let the chit-chat about what the office is up to go by much more easily if you’re having great weekends doing exactly what you like.

One thing I always want to tell fellow adults who may have a history of being bullied and left out: Hosting and event planning is a lot of work, and it’s not generally something the Popular Kids(™) we remember from school do as adults specifically to torment each other. Those dynamics certainly exist, I definitely believe any horror stories any of you might tell me about people in your office who think recreating school cafeteria seating hierarchies is the social pinnacle of achievement, but I think it’s good to remind ourselves that most extroverts/outgoing/social folks are doing what they do because they *want* to include and enjoy people.

Additionally, extroverts get social anxiety too.(Will people actually show up? Will they have fun? Will there be enough chairs? If I didn’t invite people, would anybody think to invite me?) They also get burnt out and feel unappreciated. If you’re trying to break into a social hub at work or outside it, it might help everybody leave high school behind to stop looking at the organizers as powerful gatekeepers who have it all figured out, and stop assuming that you have nothing to offer them. When you are invited to things, assume people want you there, enjoy yourself, offer to help if you can, and most of all, notice and appreciate people’s work in planning and hosting. It’s easy to dunk on Mandatory Office Fun, but going out of your way to say “Thank you for putting this together, that was the best sheet cake yet, need a hand cleaning up?” can win you allies on the Party Planning Committee for life.

Alison (Ask A Manager): And thus a perfect answer was written, and will be one I link people to for years to come.

I’m not trying to be lazy, I promise, but this is so comprehensive and wise and I feel I can do no better than joining in presenting it to the world.

Jennifer: Well, thank you. I obviously have a lot of feelings about this. 🙂 

2. People tell me how my name is pronounced (wrong).

I have a name that’s pretty common, but has multiple pronunciations. I pronounce my name the less common way, and usually when I meet new people they pronounce it the more common way. When I try to kindly correct them (“Oh, I actually pronounce it like Cahr-a, not Cair-a”), more often than not people push back. Everything from “Well, all the Caras I know pronounce it the other way” to “That’s weird” and “I wouldn’t spell it that way if I pronounced it like that.”

I try to be patient, but this annoys me to no end. Partly because I am 100% sure I am spelling and pronouncing my own name correctly, partly because I have had this conversation no less than once a month for 20+ years. I know people don’t love being corrected, but I do my best to clarify kindly with a smile, and struggle to keep that smile when the umpteenth person in my life tells me that my name is weird.

I don’t want coworkers’ first impression of me to be “Woman who has no sense of humor about her name,” so more often than not these days I just don’t correct it and skip the discussion. But then if a coworker I’ve worked with for a while does notice that I introduce myself differently than how they’re saying my name, they’re annoyed I didn’t correct them sooner. I feel like I can’t win!

Any advice for language I can use to correct mispronunciations and shut down pushback without getting defensive? It’s especially challenging when it’s someone like my grandboss or senior executives telling me how I should pronounce my name.

Jennifer: I’m a Jennifer who everybody wants to call Jen or Jenny the second they meet me, so, solidarity! I know that tension between “I do not want to ruin this friendly moment” and “But that’s not my naaaaaaaaaaaaaame arglebargle.” 

There has to be a path between the pompous guy I went on an extremely doomed date with who introduced himself by pre-correcting everyone (“Hi, I’m David, DaVID) and the time I was 22 and my 55-year-old boss kept calling me “Jenny” because his last assistant was Jenny and I asked him not to about 100 times and then I finally snapped in a meeting and called him “Tommy” instead of Tom in front of our grandboss and a client (“Oh Jenny will get that right over to you” “Sure thing, Tommy!”*), right? 

You are already doing the right thing by smiling and gently correcting people when they mess up and your best bet when they make it weird in a professional setting is to keep smiling but also keep insisting. “Oh, I get that all the time, but really, it’s Cah-ra, thank you so much” and then skip as quickly as possible to the work topic at hand. The vibe to aim for is “No worries, it’s an easy mistake to make, and I am going to do you the magnanimous kindness of forgetting all about it and pre-thanking you for doing the right thing.” Most good people will want to get it right from now on and people who don’t take the face-saving out you gave them are showing you something about who they are, ergo you won’t be the one making it weird if they keep doubling down on awkwardness and you get real humorless for a minute. The social contract insists that we call people what they want to be called no matter what our assumptions are, and if it means getting corrected sometimes, then it means accepting correction with kindness and grace. 

*You know what? I can’t recommend this strategy as the most professionally diplomatic one, but it only took being called “Tommy” once for a middle-aged cisgender guy to be reminded that names are important and it matters how we use them especially in professional settings. He could feel how disrespected I’d felt for himself, and he did take it to heart. After a very awkward moment in the meeting and a wee lecture on professionalism, he sincerely apologized, and my new work/Jellicle Cat name JennyohcrapI’msorry-iFER! became a running joke between us. 

Alison: Yep, matter-of-fact and breezy and moving on is what you want here. As if now that you have clarified that you do indeed know the correct pronunciation of your own name and it is not the one they want it to be, of course they will accept that and not make it into a whole big thing, because of course  they would not be so odd or boorish as to do that.

That’ll work with most people. Anyone who continues dwelling on it after that point is being rude and weird and you are allowed to say react accordingly, with a reaction that conveys half “how strange” and half “how embarrassing for you that are responding this way.” Like a puzzled look and/or a very dry “okay then” followed by an immediate pivot to a work-related topic. 

I think some of the frustration here is probably just having to go through this so many times with so many different people, even if most people aren’t all that rude about it. It’s just exhausting to have go through “wait, is it X?” / “no, it’s Y” every time you introduce yourself. 

3. Coworker won’t stop talking about her diet.

My small-ish office has monthly meetings that start with a personal check-in. It’s a time for people to share news about vacations, babies, etc. For the last few months, one of my coworkers has shared news about her diet. What she’s eating, whether she’s lost weight and, just today, how many pounds she’s lost! She talks about all this in other settings around the office as well.

Like many people, I struggle with disordered eating, and hearing her talk about losing weight constantly is unpleasant. Even if that wasn’t true, I think this is still really unprofessional. She hasn’t responded to me pointedly ignoring her or even (jokingly) saying that I didn’t want to hear about whatever she was eating. Can I address this with our supervisor? How should I phrase this? I’ve tried to let it roll off my back but it has been really difficult to cope with.

Jennifer: I wish more workplaces agreed that diet talk and obsession with weight is unprofessional, unfortunately the trend toward making employees wear fitness trackers and participate in humiliating (and discriminatory!) weight loss competitions makes me despair of getting a consensus around that any time soon. 

You’ve tried ignoring your coworker and jokingly saying you didn’t want to hear about her eating, which are good strategies to start with. Since it hasn’t stopped, before you make it a supervisor issue, what if you stopped joking? Could you pull her aside for a private direct conversation before the next scheduled meeting? A script could be “I can tell you are so excited about this diet and you had no way of knowing this, but hearing about weight and diets can be triggering and very distracting for people recovering from eating disorders. Can you update us about something else fun that’s going on with you at the next meeting? I would appreciate it so much.” 

If you focus on that specific meeting (vs. trying to monitor all her conversations in the office) and keep it personal (vs. “this is generally unprofessional”) it will help you figure out a few things before you take it to a supervisor level. Is she willing to listen to you? Does she try to curb herself at all? Or does she double down in the meetings and escalate in the office? National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is coming up February 24-March 1, and maybe your human resources team needs a timely reminder to spread the word about the importance of showing sensitivity by not talking about diets and weight loss in professional situations because we never know who is struggling. 

Alison: I love this advice. I co-sign it heartily.

So often people try delivering a message via joke, it doesn’t work, and then they feel stuck. There’s nothing wrong with starting that way — sometimes the other person does successfully receive the message that way, and framing it as a joke lets them save a little face and lets you both avoid a potentially awkward (or at least more serious) conversation. But if the joke doesn’t work, that’s a sign that you’ve got to move on to a more direct conversation if you want to solve the problem.

I can see why you’re unsure of how to do that here though! It feels weird to ask someone at work not to talk about a topic of personal interest to them, especially in a culture that seemingly loves talking about that topic. And you might worry she’ll feel you’re shooting down something that is a source of real pride/joy/satisfaction to her. That’s why I love Jennifer’s wording — it acknowledges that the topic is legitimately exciting and positive for the coworker, explains why it’s landing in a different and harmful way for you, and asks to enlist her help. It doesn’t tell her she’s doing anything wrong, which is really key. It’s just “this is affecting me differently than you realized.”

And yes, if that doesn’t solve it, at that point it’s reasonable to raise it with your manager (or, if your manager isn’t especially skilled at this kind of thing, then with HR). 

Jennifer/The Captain again:Thank you again, Alison, for letting me into your mailbox and your Secrets Of Being A Creative Sole Proprietor advice, let’s please do this again sometime. ❤

P.S. Bonus cat photo content.

 

 

I’ve gotten a bunch of letters about family weirdness and estrangement and boundaries (weird, almost like there was a series of events in the last month that forced a lot of family togetherness, can’t think would have caused all these old wounds to re-open at the same time? 😉 ) and I’m going to put up a series of them this week. This one is about the aftermath of cutting ties with a parent and the still-present worry that running into them will be awful.

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Dear Captain,

I (34/she/her pronouns) have a new stepfather as of this summer. He has been with my mom off and on for the last 10+ years, and they finally married in July 2019. I think this man is a Garbage Human, but we have to let our parents make their own adult decisions.

A bit of background – my highly narcissistic mom and I have reached a detente after several years of fighting and NC (no contact). She knows what sort of leash she is on, she knows that access to her only granddaughter depends on her good behavior. We mostly get on ok.

SF seems to be of the opinion that he can smack talk my mother’s shopping habits to me when she is not there. I could use some scripts to help deflect him, because while I am very frequently in my first class compartment on the “My Mom is Awful” train, I do not want my stepfather as a seat mate.

Help?
This Train Has No More Room

Hello This Train Has No More Room:

Oh yeah, shut it down.

Your stepdad humorously venting or having “Hey, is this normal, or…?” or “Here’s what’s going on with me” conversations with a close friend or other trusted member of his personal council of advisors is within bounds, but you don’t have to join that advisory board.

He’s either trying to bond (badly), assuming y’all are much closer than you are, or sending out a triangulation advance scouting team to test things like “Will LW not repeat mean stuff to her Mom?” and “But will she repeat the stuff I strategically want her to, so it comes from her and not me?” but it doesn’t really matter what he’s after, you can still opt right out. He could be like “I’m just making conversation, your mom is what we have in common” and you could still decide “Nope!” He doesn’t have to be aware of the history of how much effort it’s costing you to even be around him and your mom for you to decide “I’d prefer not to,” and you don’t have to explain yourself.

You don’t have to explain yourself, but silence will only encourage him to continue, so the next time he tries this you’re going to have to say something. Possible scripts:

  • “Wow, what a weird thing to say to me about my mom.” + redirect your attention away from that topic. 
  • “Sounds like a good one to talk about with Mom, a therapist, and…nope, actually just those two.” + redirect your attention.
  • “I thought we covered this: Don’t say anything to me about my Mom or anyone in my family that you wouldn’t say when they’re in the room.” Then, redirect your attention.
  • “‘Ladies be shopping’? Whoa, save it for the comedy club!” There is a decent chance he is one of the legions of shame-proof straight, cisgender men who are convinced they could do stand-up professionally despite never once having made a person who wasn’t dependent on them for a salary, lunch tip, or lucrative sales contract authentically laugh. If he comes back with “Ha, I’ve always known I could do stand-up!” try “Sure. Pose as a time traveler from 1983, and let me know when it is so I can not be there.” Then redirect attention, etc.
  • Use your “Yikes.” “Wow.” “What.” “Nope!” “But jokes are funny.” as necessary and then redirect your attention.
  • You could ask him, “When you say mean stuff about my mom what is the reaction you are hoping for?” but do you actually want to know? If you think he’s looking for an excuse to expound, don’t use this one.

Redirecting your attention could mean:

  • Being very terse, flat, and boring in your reactions.
  • Changing the subject.
  • Leaving the room. Doesn’t have to be a dramatic exit to make a point, wandering away because you need a glass of water or to make a phone call or use the rest room does the job.
  • Ending a phone call, social media back-and-forth, or text conversation. Anything from “Ok, gotta go” to not replying to selective replying to using “mute” and other filters to best serve you.
  • Starting up a pleasant side conversation with someone else in the room.
  • If you are a person who tends to space out, harness it. Were we still talking about that thing? Who knows? You kinda spaced out there for a second. (Might as well make it work for us for once).
  • “Rudely” disappearing into your phone. Sometimes the people in the internet are much nicer than the ones we’re related to, sometimes “Oh, sorry, I’m getting distracted by this work message, I need to handle it, if you’ll excuse me” is what gets you out of the moment.
  • Over time, limiting contact with people who routinely stress you out. You know all about that, Letter Writer!

I know I’ve recommended all the above actions individually a whole bunch, but I started thinking of them as a unit to be filed under “redirecting your attention” during the holiday posts, some of the “reasons are for reasonable people” and “why do we spend so much time and energy on the worst people?” discussions, and definitely as part of a “do less” approach to fraught relationships. We spend so much time and energy worrying about communicating with people who don’t give a single shit about our feelings or our comfort. Can “do even less!” in 2020 be about changing that equation?

For example, politely changing the subject is useful, I’m a fan, I like to let people save face and de-escalate situations when I can. But how long do we have to knowingly walk into certain rooms with a list of safe, innocuous topics that we extensively strategized about beforehand, and then cheerfully toss them out like a gym teacher distributing tennis balls at the beginning of class and pretend this is normal, neutral thing to have to do?

Do we have to pull every mean and annoying person we know aside and earnestly and patiently discuss our boundaries, or spend all family gatherings navigating patiently around the people we don’t like and didn’t come to see? Or can we say a quick “hello” for routine politeness’ sake and because it would take more effort to freeze them out, and then go talk to the people we actually like?

When someone says something out of line, can it be enough to say “Jeez Louise! What a weird thing to say” and then skip right to “Oh hey, there’s Louise, I’m going to bring her a glass of water” and keep it moving right out of that conversation? Not as a way to “reinforce the boundary” or convince anybody of anything, more like, that’s done, now I’m reclaiming my attention and re-directing it where I want it to go, somebody else can change the subject for a change.

‘Cause sometimes what the person who is behaving badly wants most is more of your attention, by any means necessary, and if they don’t get the initial high-five or commiseration or invitation to expound they hoped for, they’re willing to be loud and wrong if it means they can suck you into a longer conversation where you discuss the subject by which they mean they get to talk more about it. 

If your stepdad is one of these people, being told “no” is just fine, he’ll promise he won’t say mean things about your mom anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s gonna shut up, not when he’s just gotten started, can he interest you in a long, involved back-and-forth about why he is the Normal, Cool, Reasonable One Who Is Trying Here and you are the Touchy, Humorless One Who Can’t Take A Joke, Just Like Your Mom, now with extra bad faith? It’s entirely possible that the more you try to talk about stuff you don’t want him to share, the more opportunities he has to try to “discuss” your mom with you, which…is exactly what you don’t want.

Emotional sea-lioning is still sea-lioning, someone whose opinions you don’t care about being “very concerned” (or whatever) and wanting to “get to the bottom of things” or “work on our relationship” doesn’t mean you have to play along. “Ok, stop doing the behavior and the relationship will be fine” is your way out of that one. Resist the pressure and the urge to play the “what if” game. What if your mom’s shopping is excessive and causing financial problems or making him think dementia is happening and he’s worried about her? ‘kay, maybe, then he should talk to someone who is close to your mom (clearly not you) and someone who didn’t just get finished telling him “Hey don’t tell me stuff like that about my mom” i.e. Not You. What if your mom is mean to him and he’s regretting the marriage? He should talk to someone who likes him (Not You, again!), someone who cares about their marriage (this role will be played by…Not You!). Does he want someone to talk with about aging, wills, elder care, and the like? Simple, he can ask people he knows for recs or type those words into Google and click any results that do not contain your name. Is he trying to loop you in because that’s what would happen in other families? Cool, cool, somewhat understandable, but he’s known you for 10 years and he knows you don’t have that relationship. Does he think he can repair the relationship you and your parent have with each other? What an unusual hobby, he should get that looked at by (you guessed it) Someone Who Is Not You. Is your mom perhaps deputizing him to talk to you on her behalf? She knows where that game ends by now, it ends with You, Not talking to Her for extended periods of time. It doesn’t matter why. Hold fast to the safe, happy life you have created and don’t let either of these people make their problems into your problems. 

Letter Writer you are smart and realistic, you obviously have some hard-won boundary-defending skills, and correctly, you don’t want to change this dude, you just want to avoid this dude slightly more and slightly more skillfully than you already avoid him. So when your stepdad says weird stuff about your mom to you, tell him to stop in the quickest and most efficient way possible and then redirect your attention. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, if your stepdad thinks you don’t like him much or that you are unreceptive to his confidences, those things are true, so…:shrug emoji:?  If someone you don’t like, whom you see incredibly rarely, under highly-controlled circumstances decides you’re not exactly his cup of tea, I think you’ll manage to carry on somehow. 😉 If the train called “Mom is Terrible” and the train called “Both Of You Are Terrible” leave the same station at the same time, they will be necessarily be on parallel tracks that can’t meet without causing a serious accident. It doesn’t matter if they are headed in the same direction part of the way, or how long it takes to get where they’re going, or if they double back and cross each other’s paths sometimes, this isn’t the fucking SAT and you don’t have to show your work.

Let us close with a video montage. Is Miranda Priestley (antagonist of The Devil Wears Prada) a paragon of warmth and human kindness? No.

Is Miranda Priestley going to get three visits from three spirits one Christmas Eve to examine her past, present, and future? No, every rich mean person doesn’t get issued a personal redemption psychopomp, but I would watch the hell out of that movie, twice if there were Muppets.

Is Miranda Priestley extremely good at getting people to stop talking when she’s done listening and might you want to harness some of that “I said what I meant and I mean what I said kthxbye” energy when you talk to your stepdad? Oh yes.