Dear Captain Awkward,

Howdy. I’m 26 and currently living with my mother. She likes to buy gifts for people. Sometimes I come home from work and there will be a little present on my bed, like a little stuffed pug. It’s cute, and I appreciate the thought, but I have no space for a stuffed pug. What am I going to do with it? I literally don’t have room for it on a shelf or something.

A few months ago we were shopping together and she wanted to buy me a suitcase. I told her the trip I had been going on in a year had been canceled. She showed me a brightly colored suitcase with elephants all over it that cost $80. I said it was cute, but not my style. The next week, she had a surprise for me. She had bought me that suitcase.

Today I came home from work and she had several gifts for me. She had bought me a clothes hamper. I already own a clothes hamper, which I showed to her. She said she didn’t see it there, but anyway this one is bigger. That means it wouldn’t fit where I keep my hamper. She said this one has wheels on it. I live up a flight of stairs. She also bought me a big metal tumbler to take to work – I don’t carry refillable tumblers because I always forget them places, and they make the water taste weird, and my job actually just gave me one with the company logo on it this afternoon – and a portable phone charger – I already own one. I did not list the Reasons I Don’t Want The Things. I just thanked her for all the things.

I love my mom, and I know I’m so lucky to have someone who cares enough about me and has the funds to buy me presents at Target while I’m at work. But I do not want the things she is giving me. I can’t use them. I don’t have space to keep them anywhere. And I can’t give them to people who would want them because I live in her house. How do I curb the gifting without hurting her feelings?

Hello:

Curbing the gift-giving will almost certainly hurt, or at least bother, her feelings, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You’re not obligated to live your life under a pile of her stuff/feelings. And there are potentially a lot of feelings here, from wanting to mother and care for you to wanting to choose things based on her idea of you mixed with wanting an excuse to buy things and telling herself that it’s for her kid gives her license to shop (I will not even hazard a guess as to the ratio in play here).

Next time she buys you something, you could say “Mom, thanks for thinking of me, but I can’t use it.” 

She will explain how it’s great and you totally can use it either now or “someday.”

“Mom, let me rephrase: I like the one I have now, and I don’t want or need this one. But if you can use it, you should keep it.” 

This will be very awkward and hard. You will be under a lot of pressure to keep/take/hold onto whatever it is. She might get very agitated and accuse you of being ungrateful for how much she cares for you. You might have to say something like, “Mom, I understand it means a lot to you to give me things, but I know that you also taught me to be thoughtful about space and money and to be honest with you. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I also don’t want another [elephant suitcase/laundry hamper that doesn’t fit my room]. How can we resolve this?” 

She’s probably hearing “I don’t need an insulated soup mug” as “I don’t need you, Mom.” That can be both true and not your fault at the same time. It’s okay to be really honest with her about how all of this makes you feel. “You are so thoughtful and loving, and when you buy me presents I know you want to communicate that you were thinking of me and are taking care of me. But what I need right now is for you to listen to me and to respect me – I don’t need or want more stuff right now. I’d rather…

  • …see you buy nice presents for yourself!”
  • …spend that money on experiences we can enjoy together – a theater or concert subscription, or save up for a nice trip we can take together.
  • …find a charity that’s doing good work and buy all the stuff on their wish list.” 
  • …pop a little more money into savings so that when I’m ready to get my own place you can help me deck it out in style!”*
  • …have you write me a sweet note or card instead.” 
  • …pick out my own [suitcases, etc.]

Whatever she says, to make this work long-term, you’re going to have to have a plan for what to do if she just won’t take whatever it is back or stop buying you things. It’s fine to communicate that you have a boundary, but if you don’t enforce it the other person will ignore it. You say “And I can’t give them to people who would want them because I live in her house” but I think it’s time to reexamine that, because you also can’t keep it all in your room! Repeat after me: Once a gift is given it is yours to do with what you want.

I recommend returning the item to a space that is primarily your mom’s and leaving it (and her feelings) there. You might have to let things awkwardly pile up there for her to either absorb into her life or return to the store. Or you can return it to the store for cash or store credit (that you should feel free to quietly hold onto), or absolutely re-gift it/donate it somewhere it can be used. And you will have to be consistent, like, a thing you can’t use => say “thanks, but I can’t use it/don’t want it” => put it in the usual place you put stuff you can’t use. If she doesn’t like seeing the hall closet fill up with stuff she bought you, or she gets mad when you donate that elephant suitcase to someone who can use it, maybe over time she will stop buying you stuff you don’t need? We can hope.

*If gift-giving is your mom’s favorite way of showing she loves you, if you get your own place eventually it will be both a relief and a new front in this battle, as she starts trying to fill your new house up with stuff and your tastes and wants are pushed aside in favor of hers. If you have kids someday, get ready for giant inconvenient gifts to them that fill up your house. I think you are going to end up donating a lot, and I mean A LOT, of housewares to local charitable organizations or taking them back to stores for a refund.

Good luck with talking to her. “I know you love me, but you’re not listening to me/seeing my actual needs” is a difficult, primal conflict to have with a parent and it’s bound to get a little bit messy for a while. This kind of thing is also hard to push back against, because to people who don’t know what it’s like to not be listened to or respected in the face of someone’s chosen style of showing love it sounds like good problem, like, “Oh, I wish my mom bought me presents! You’re so lucky!” You don’t have to listen to those people, or just keep accepting piles of stuff – it’s okay that you don’t like this and want it to change. Hopefully if you stay consistent you can curb at least some of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear wonderful Captain,

I’m coming to you with a question you’ve answered several versions of before, but not quite for my exact circumstances. So I beg your indulgence.

I’m a mid-thirties woman, and my problem is that men hit on me. All the time. And I’d like to change my behavior, if doing so is reasonable, in order to make that happen less.

My looks are thoroughly average. What I have going for me, though, is charm – or charisma – or magnetism – or whatever you call it. I’m confident and funny and I listen well and I’m truly interested in other people. I get along easy with just about everyone. Illustrative incident: a great new cafe opened up near work, and I have been there every day this past week meeting various people (a friend, a first date, a volunteer coordinator, my writer’s group). On Friday, the barista came up to my table and said she’d really like to get to know me because she loved the interesting conversations I had with so many people, and she doesn’t even care that that sounds creepy. We laughed our heads off. We exchanged numbers. It was fun.

It’s not so great when many men I know either hit on me or end up developing feelings for me, and I keep having to do the rejection dances and often losing people I like and/or need. I was shielded from this for a long time because I was married. But I’ve recently gotten divorced, and this THING just keeps on happening.

When it’s a stranger or a low-key interaction of some kind, it’s easy for me to smile and say “That’s really nice, thank you, but no,” and keep going.

But sometimes it’s inconvenient. Like, my contractor, who is fully 25 years older than I am, says flirty things all the time and texts me that we should run away to an island together. IDK how to get him to back off without risking losing this thing rarer than unicorns – a good, affordable contractor.

Sometimes it makes me angry, like when a coworker asked me out, and after I politely said no, claimed he hadn’t been asking me out in “that way” at all, and then stopped talking to me, which makes me peevish because what the hell. What if it had been someone I actually need to work with?

Sometimes it’s genuinely uncomfortable. A casual friend who happened to go through a divorce at the same time as me tried really hard to get with me just because it was happening to us at the same time. I told him no, and he didn’t back off, so I had to stop talking to him.

Sometimes it’s just SAD. A beloved friend whom I only know online through my writer’s group confessed today that he’s caught feelings, “I’m a little bit in love with you.” This is actually what’s making me write to you. I hate this shit, Captain. What the fuck even. This guy is sweet and kind and as two people who are working on memoirs, we know some deep shit about each other. This guy is sound, so I know I won’t lose his friendship just because I say no. But it’s different now. I can’t share my writing with him anymore, not least because I’m writing about dating these days, and obviously it would be unkind to him to have to read that.

I’m just so sad today. And I think I’ve been sad about this for a long time, just never acknowledged it because as long as I could “deal”, I could not justify feeling bad about it to my feminist conscience.

But now I won’t deny it. This makes me sad, and upset, and I want to change this pattern if I can. What can I do to stop sending out these vibes, Captain?

There are wrinkle to this story:

1. I grew up with extremely repressive and abusive parents who hated it if I ever had friends and disowned me when I told them I had a crush on a boy. Not kidding. I was 18. A few years after that I married a man who was verbally and emotionally abusive, just always angry with me for whatever reason, punishing me with endless silences or yelling etc. For 30-something years of my life, I lived with people who have disliked me. I’m sure that messed with my head. It feels weird, weird, weird to realize people like the real me. Therapy helps, but it’s still a process.

2. While I always did have SOME friends through both childhood and marriage, I had much fewer chances to socialize. I feel like since my separation two years ago, I’ve finally come into my own. I can finally be myself without my mother calling me a slut or my asocial ex accusing me of being “fake” friendly.

3. I’ve had this problem with unwanted male attention since I was 11 years old. As a child I was blamed for it. IDK why I share this, except to say I’ve always had this issue, and I think I have felt bad about it for a very long time.

Anyway. That’s my super long question. As a good and faithful Captain Awkward reader for years, and also by dint of being a mouthy bitch from the day I learned to speak, I don’t believe I have boundary issues. What I have are maybe personality issues? Or something?

I just… I don’t know anymore. Can you help me?

– The Woman With The Problem Most People Wish They Had

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Dear Captain Awkward,

How do I respond to the ‘what are you looking for’ question? It feels like no matter what I say it’s never the right answer. If I say I want a relationship I feel like that reads as ‘I’m desperate to get married and have babies’ which I’m not (been there, done that). And, if I say I’m open to something casual then it reads as ‘I have no self-worth, this is an open invitation for you to use me for sex without any regard for my feelings or basic human decency’ (100% nope). I also hate that I might unintentionally give the other person certain expectations or drive them away before I’ve had a chance to get to know them and figure out what, if anything, I want from them.

Personally, I don’t go looking for a particular type of relationship. I just look for someone I connect with and hope that we are both on the same page. Sometimes it leads to a long-term monogamous relationship, sometimes it leads to something more casual but equally fulfilling, sometimes it leads to a whole lot of drama, and sometimes it doesn’t lead to anything.

Personally I’m open to a range of relationship options – depending on who the other person is, what our chemistry is like, and what else is going on in my life at the time. The only things I am 100% not open to are BS drama and being treated like crap.

So how do I answer the question in a way that helps me filter out the jerks and time wasters whilst still keeping my options open?

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Ahoy cap!

I am a university student who’s in the middle of those last weeks before the period ends that can be described as ‘hell on racehorse steroids’ and I’m failing one of my subjects. I feel super s***ty about, to the point that I haven’t seen my last evaluations (only the grade) but I know I have to get over my hurt and fear to see what I’m getting wrong and take advantage of my last ditch chance at passing this subject. Everyone tells me the professor I got is great, I do enjoy her classes, I don’t think she’ll be mad at me for asking for help, but I’m really embarrassed about my poor performance.

So cap, from your perspective as an educator, how do I get over my resistance to asking for help, I’m well aware it’s a largely irrational fear to ask a professor for guidance, it is their job after all. Any good strategies for communicating effectively with educators, professor, etc? Much appreciated.

The fluncky chicken

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I am a middle aged man, married 22 years with a son. My former best friend and I lived next door to each other , we became friends when I was 9 years old. We continued to be the best of friends into adulthood.We went on vacations with other friends and with our wives. When we got married, we were each other’s best man. We attended each others kids birthday parties, etc. up until 2003-2004.

In 1997 I was a manager at a large securities firm on Wall Street. My best friend was working in a hotel at the time, had no financial background or college education. He called me up desperate-essentially begging me to help him get a job as he wished to marry his girlfriend and start a family but could not afford to do so on his salary. Due to my position and influence in the company I was able to help him get a job working in my department. Later I left the company and moved on to a more prestigious firm which paid better. My best friend reached out to me again and once again I was able to help him increase his income by getting him a job in my department.

The first couple of years, things were fine. In fact I felt we became closer as we now had one more thing in common. My friend was younger than me and our relationship was similar to a big brother/little brother interaction. He would come to my desk and hang out at the end of the day and wait for me to finish my work-just so we could walk a few blocks together on the way home (we lived in different cities by this time) we would also have lunch together several times a week and email back and forth throughout the day.

About three years later, I noticed that my friend had become a bit distant. He stopped coming by my desk during the day. He stopped emailing and when I emailed him, he would not always reply or say that he was too busy to chat. I asked several times if anything was wrong- But he always denied it . After a few weeks of this,We sat down face to face -and I again asked him to tell me what the problem was. He claimed he was just very busy and had some problems at home which he would not elaborate on, and he reiterated that it had nothing to do with me. This only made things worse for me, as we had always been open with each other about our problems and now he was holding things back. All of this took its toll and with the tensions of working closely together, we began having arguments at work. At first these were minor disagreements which would quickly blow over. But things began to get more serious and eventually we had a huge fight. We both went too far and I felt bad about it. This took place right before I was leaving on a family vacation.When I returned home I checked my email and found one from my friend notifying me that the friendship was over. I was shocked that he would take things this far after 25 years and also very upset that he would be so heartless as to do this with a one sentence email offering no explanation.

Although we had unquestionably both made mistakes, the thought of losing his friendship was just devastating to me, so I took full responsibility for the fight that we had and apologized profusely and repeatedly. I was desperate . I emailed, called and left a note of apology on his desk. I heard nothing for three days. Then he called me at my desk and invited me to go to lunch. I was relieved, I apologized a few more times and he told me not to worry about it. By the end of the lunch hour we were laughing and joking as though nothing had even happened.

As it turned out that was the last time we spoke face to face. A few days later he once again stopped speaking to me. I repeatedly asked why , and he offered little explanation, only saying he thought we needed a break. I strongly suspect that inviting me out to lunch that day was a cruel vengeful tactic on his part- just to make me think we were cool, and then cut me off again. I accused him of this a year later and not surprisingly he denied it.

I tried for the next few years to get him to explain his actions. I cannot understand to this day how he could end a 25 year friendship over what was basically a rough patch that we hit for a couple of weeks. He refused to explain or even respond to my letters or emails which were I admit increasingly angry due to the frustrating and hurtful behavior on his part. After three years of this I stopped contacting him.

In the meantime he has relocated to another part of the country and he is a Vice President . Although I have had a successful career and am well compensated, he has now achieved a position which I have never reached in my 28 year career. I find this particularly galling, since if it weren’t for me he probably would be working as a waiter or bartender , and now he has surpassed me in my career. Instead of being appreciative or grateful- he refuses to even speak to me.

The older I get the more I feel the expression “life is too short” and I recently attempted to contact him again. I contacted his sister via social media and asked her to try to get through to him. I made it clear-and this is 100% true-that I have zero interest in patching up the friendship. All that I really want-and I think I deserve it- is an explanation for all of this. Why did he treat me this way after all I had done for him ? Why did he do it in such a coldhearted manner? He declined through her- stating that he does not want to “re-hash” everything. The problem is he never gave a valid explanation in the first place. He has managed to avoid facing me like an adult about this for 14 years.

I don’t imagine there is anything else that I can do to try to get to the bottom of this but I would welcome any advice or suggestions as this continues to frustrate me 14 years later.

Thank you.

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Hi there,

I’m 36, my (ex)gf is 25. Met in August last year. Fell in love. Never met anyone like her and ticks all the boxes. I felt set for life (love, kids, the lot) and when she was there, there was no one else in the room (not something I had felt before).

We fell out over something stupid and then spent the next two weeks kinda reconciling but not really making progress.

Short version: she thought I deliberately misunderstood and belittled her, didn’t like it when I would storm off in some situations (it was completely unacceptable) and was upset that I didn’t ask her about her past. I hadn’t asked because it sounded horrible and I didn’t want to put someone I love through that again. I made the wrong call. Our sex life was strained due to an pre-existing psychological ED issue, which was exacerbated by her reactions.

On the other hand, I refused to be judged by the incredibly low standards her mentally and physically abusive, serially cheating drug dealer ex had set – she called me out about an innocuous photo on insta which kicked things off. I didn’t feel heard in the relationship and I had started to feel more and more peripheral to her life, despite the fact I’d looked after her through illness and post-operation.

Communication was poor and we had both made mistakes. A bit of regrettable game playing on both sides ensued, but throughout everything, I always thought that it was all temporary and we would get back on track. We just needed to talk it through and listen to one another.

She had given me the silent treatment on a few occasions and I was reaching out to try to reconcile. Then she sends me a message effectively ending it. I tried to message, I tried to call. Nothing. I wrote her a letter in which poured my heart out and gave it to her when she came out of work. She promised to read it. Nothing in reply. I sent her cacti (sentimental symbol for us), one each day for a week, each with a sentimental note. Nothing in reply. It’s been nearly a month since her last message.

I’ve effectively been ghosted, but from a relationship that was six months of love and plans and fun and joy.

I know she’s the one. And I know we can easily overcome the things we argued about. But we can’t do that if she won’t talk. What can I do, to either win her back (as unlikely as it seems) or move on with such little closure? I’m sad, angry, lonely, frustrated, scared, confused, desperate and utterly heart-broken. I still love her.

Any help here would be most welcome.

Thank you.

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