Tag Archives: setting boundaries

Hello, Captain!

Could you talk about how to be good at setting boundaries in a non-situation-specific way? You get a lot of letters from people who are having trouble with someone else not respecting their boundaries, and obviously that is not the time to say “are you sure you really communicated what you meant?” But I (she/her) am someone who is GREAT at respecting “no,” but really, really bad at understanding deflection and being ‘politely’ ignored. I sometimes worry that people may generalize your excellent advice for a specific situation –

1) Express boundary
2) Hold firm on boundary
3) Minimize contact

to –

A) Gently hint at boundary
B) Gently hint at boundary again
C) Walk away.

Because that is definitely a thing that has happened to me. Not all friendships/relationships are meant to be, of course, but I really enjoy being able to be friends with people who see the world differently than I do, even when it requires a little extra communication work. So I’m wondering what you think the best way is to check in with oneself early in a relationship, when things are just barely irritating (when you, Captain, are very unlikely to be getting letters), about whether the actual, literal word “no” (or “stop”) has been said and ignored? Because I’m also pretty sure I’ve been on both sides of this, because who loves provoking conflict? Not me!

A Libra Who Doesn’t Really Believe in Astrology Except For That Balance Thing Which Is Awesome

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Jolly’s great comment to Monday’s post is going to be very relevant to these seemingly very different questions:

“You also don’t necessarily have to bring some of these things up in one big confrontation about The Whole Pattern Of Her Sucking. You could just make a point of standing up for yourself when she does the trampling behavior in the future. Next time she interrupts you, interrupt her back with a big, assertive, “EXCUSE ME, N, YOU ACCIDENTALLY INTERRUPTED ME WHEN I WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF A STORY. ANYWAY, BOYFRIEND AND I…” She physically nudges you out of a circle? Cut her off with a tap on the shoulder and a big, “EXCUSE ME, N, BUT YOU JUST PUSHED ME COMPLETELY OUT OF THE CONVERSATION. I AM MOVING HERE, HOW ABOUT YOU SIT HERE.” Don’t sound angry, just be very direct and assertive. You see what she is doing, everyone else sees what she is doing, good chance she also sees what she is doing, and just thinks she is being sneaky. Or maybe she has no idea. But either way, there is nothing wrong with a strong verbal reminder every time she attempts to trample completely over you, to let her know that she is “accidentally” being completely obnoxious. 50/50 whether she will embarrass herself in a huffy rage, or quietly correct her behavior. Either way, it will probably go some way to keeping her from continuing this kind of garbage.”

Yes. It is hard for more reserved people to get into the habit of speaking up in the moment – we’d mostly prefer to observe quietly, analyze later, and plan our next social interaction as if it’s a military campaign. But learning to speak up in the moment is a great, great habit to develop, and it is above all a habit – developed over time, requires practice, doesn’t have to be perfectly executed to be effective. Let’s dive in.

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I’m in grad school for creative writing. It’s hard. Right now, I’m taking three classes, which means that I’m reading 500-plus pages a week, in addition to commenting on my classmates’ writing and producing a poem every week. Plus, I’m teaching a basic composition course for struggling writers, and a literature course (for the first time ever), so I’m writing lesson plans and grading essays for nearly 60 students. AND I work ten hours a week to supplement my stipend enough to buy things like toiletries, books and the occasional beer on a Friday night. Also, I need to clean my apartment and do laundry and run errands sometimes. And in addition to all of THAT, I’m expected to participate in meetings, go to outside lectures, and attend all the readings by my classmates and visiting writers. And I WANT to, because oh my god I love school. School is the best thing ever. I work my ass off and I LOVE IT. This is not really about grad school.


What people think an MFA is like.

Except it kind of is. I have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which causes, among other things, crushing migraines and extreme fatigue. And there’s no cure for it, because ovaries, ew. Mostly, I manage. But there are days when I can barely drag myself around, and did I mention all the stuff I’m supposed to be doing? Sometimes I can’t do it all. Sometimes my whole body feels like a bag of wet sand that I’m not strong enough to lift. Sometimes I have to lie down and rest before I die. So I miss the reading, or the lecture, or the lunch meeting.

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More on the theme of parents & communication with adult children today.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve been reading your blog for just a few days now but I already caught on to the important part ‘speak up for yourself’.

Now my problem is that I can’t. Or rather I can’t make myself.

I’ve grown up with my bipolar mother. She’s in therapy, on meds and the whole family is very supportive.
She was stuck in depressive stage for what feels like my whole youth, so living at home was equal to walking on egg shells. No arguments, no unplanned behavior, no upsetting mom lest she burst into tears. No friends over (not that I had many). No going for a walk after school instead of heading straight home. No speaking my mind. Keeping my head down so dad wouldn’t have more to worry about.

While my younger brother dealth with the problem by taking drugs and acting up, I was the model daughter. Dream grades. Quiet behavior. Self sufficient.

I, well, broke around age 17 where she had another depressive plunge and went into the hospital. I was unable to visit her, speak to her, look at her without everything freezing. I had two years of therapy, at least one mental breakdown and unvited her from my graduation ceremony because I didn’t want to risk her ruining the day as she was almost but not quite out of the hospital.

Fast forward to today:

I’ve moved out and live with my boyfriend of 6 years. She’s not had a depressive episode in a while but is bordering on mania. She’s still self centered but more aware of her surroundings. Unfortunately she has this big idea of us being/becoming bffs. She tries to bribe me with presents (small things…flowers, yarn, chocolate). She says she loves me and I can see in her eyes that she wants me to just say it back.

But I can’t. It would be a lie. I don’t love her. She has serverely disabled me with this need for top grades, the inability to speak up for myself and the fear that one wrong step will have her telling me again what a horrible child I am and/or send her back into depression.

I generally keep my distance as she’s getting clingy again. I only visit my father (he works at me university, so I can just visit his office). But I don’t want to cut her out of my life. Or rather, I feel I shouldn’t. It would mean not seeing my father as much. I enjoy spending time with her in small doses (or at least I think so…might be self-delusion). I’m afraid it’ll push her back into depression and though I should be taking care and thinking of myself I just can’t.

The solution to my problems is just one talk/phone call/email/letter away
I could talk to my boyfriend.
I could call or email my father.
I could call or write a letter to my former therapist.

But I just sat here for three hours trying to make myself do any of it and couldn’t.

Any idea?

Lips Glued Shut

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Alice In Wonderland's white rabbit looking stressed out and late! For a very important date!

He has a giant watch, so why is he always so late?

I’m having some trouble with my sister that I don’t know how to deal with. Basically, she’s a huge flake. Often when we make plans to spend time together, she’ll change her plans and not tell me until the last minute (when or after we were supposed to meet) and sometimes not at all. She seems to do this with everyone and doesn’t understand when people get pissed at her for it. A few times she has claimed that she’s on her way home and then doesn’t show up and doesn’t answer her phone, which of course means we get worried. Later she’s admitted that she lied about being on her way to begin with.

I’ve tried to explain that this is really annoying for me and I’ve asked her to at least contact me and cancel ahead of time so I can make other plans. I’ve also asked her not to make plans with me if she doesn’t think she’ll actually make it. I get that sometimes things come up or take longer than expected, but this happens all the time. When I’ve tried to talk to her, she’s been pretty defensive about it and she hasn’t changed her behavior. She’s 19, which I think is too old for this kind of behavior.

I really enjoy spending time with my sister and I don’t want to stop doing that, but I also want her to be respectful of my time. What can I do?

Annoyed Sister

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The Hulk Hulking Out


Hi, Captain Awkward:

I used to have a really hard time using my words, but therapy is awesome and now I will totally tell people, in words, when what they are doing really needs to stop. I’m stuck, though, on how to respond to people who repeatedly ignore my words when I use them.

Example, “I love you very much, Boyfriend, but I really need you to stop calling me six times in a row when you know I am sleeping, because it wakes me up and then I am tired for the rest of the day and also very grouchy all morning.” His response “But I want to talk to you and I know you’re grumpy, but now you’re awake and I’d rather have you awake and grumpy than asleep. You’re cute when you’re grumpy.” I know I’m a late sleeper and maybe I should just put up with it, but I’m just really tired. I can’t turn my phone off because it also functions as my alarm clock.

Similar example: “Dad, you are awesome and smart, but please stop trying to tell me how to launch my publishing career. I know I am a whole 20 years old now and missed the chance to be published in high school like you thought I would, but that is not the end of the world. No, my manuscript is not ready for me to start querying agents right now. No, really. I know I’ve been working on it a long time. Thank you for this (not particularly) helpful article about e-publishing, now please let me do my own thing.” His response: “What do you think, I’m a dumbass? I read the newspaper. I know what I’m talking about. Why shouldn’t I act like an expert? You just need to want it more.” (These are both actual quotes from my people). I know he means well and I should just ignore it, but it makes me really anxious and aggravated and I want him to stop. I also want him to stop making ableist jokes and pretending my disabilities don’t exist, but this is enough examples for one letter.

How do I set boundaries? My father treats boundaries like a personal attack and my boyfriend is good with some of them but cheerfully ignores the others. I would really like some boundaries, but talking hasn’t worked. What do I do now?


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Hi Captain,

I’m in a bit of a pickle, so I’m hoping you might be able to give me some advice. I broke up with my boyfriend about two years ago, after being in a relationship for about as long. Now, unfortunately, he sent me an email asking me which job to pick (one is approximately 4000 miles closer to where I am) and whether there was any hope of getting back together and that he would never be able to love anyone else and to please explain why I left.

To recap our relationship, we met while I was on an exchange program and I ended up going to grad school there to keep my visa. He was very, very committed to the relationship and talking about marriage from the very beginning, and I was miserably alone in a foreign country. He was very good at talking, arguing his point of view, rationalizing; it was impossible to ‘win’ against him in discussions. In hindsight I feel sort of like I completely lost sight of who I am, what I value, what I need and want while I was in this relationship. The day-to-day stuff was pretty happy though and we usually got along quite well, but had fairly infrequent but massive fights in which he called me selfish, self-centered, fickle, second-handed, immature, etc. until I cried my eyes out. To be fair, I was at the time an undiagnosed depressed, anxious, generally messed-up Aspie, so it was not easy to live with me, and I probably shouldn’t have got into a relationship at all, let alone one so serious.

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