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Behind a cut for emotional abuse, misogyny, and discussion of these things as specifically related to recent gun violence and the possibility thereof, which is not what the Letter Writer asked, but definitely something I saw in the question.

I did a giant dump of cat photos for patrons if you need to click on over that way. ❤

Hello Captain!

I’m a woman in my 30s (she/her/herself) and am very close family. We had always been pretty tight-knit, but when my mom passed away a few years ago after a long illness, we made an effort to be there for each other even more. Although we all live separately, my brother, sister, and I made an effort to always visit our dad weekly, usually on the weekend due to our work schedules.

I love my dad and want to continue to be able to visit him regularly, especially since that seems to have been a great comfort to him after dealing with mom’s long illness. The problem is that, since we are all usually visiting on the same days, this often puts me in direct interaction with my younger brother.

My brother very clearly does not like me and wants to bring me down and make me out to be “lesser” in as many ways as possible. Every time I meet his friends, he will find a way to introduce me by saying “LW is the creative one, but I’m the smart one.” (He is not.) He will openly imply that I cannot do simple things in a way that seems like he’s helping (i.e. “Do you need me to park the car for you?” as I pull next to the curb of an empty street) or straight-up tell me I am doing very simple things wrong (i.e. walking across a parking lot). He makes lots of jokes-that-are-not-jokes about how terrible I am (i.e. I don’t have my dad’s birthday gift two weeks in advance? “Well, I guess you must not love Dad that much, ha ha ha.”) Whenever he can, he makes a point to describe how wonderful he is (he’s SO smart! Has so much money! Dad loves him BEST!) and he seems to be dismayed whenever I get praised for anything.

And this is how he is when he’s in a GOOD mood. He tends to cycle between normal-if-obnoxious to outright hostile on a regular basis. For a few months, things will be okay, and then he will be incredibly angry and nasty. A lot of the time, I have no idea what triggered the change, though when I can tell what it is, the trigger is usually ridiculously minor (i.e. I almost beat him at a board game). Whenever this happens, he will begin outright cruel insults, especially if he’s able to be in a situation alone with me, like a car. This has, on occasion, resulted in him berating me until I cry, which sometimes makes him ease off (though he will never sincerely apologize). Some of this can lean into outright dangerous (such as berating me until I cried while I was driving us through a major storm).

I know where some of this behavior comes from. My now-deceased mother modeled a lot of similar behaviors while she was alive, and we all just sort of learned to live with it. But at least she loved and raised us, and had the excuse of being a stressed-out mother of three who spent many years being very, very ill — my brother is none of that. But because we learned to live with it with mom, my family turns a blind eye to his behavior, especially since it is mainly directed at me alone. My sister actively defends him (she likes me fine, but she ADORES him), and Dad just sort of lets it all slide, since the nastiest behavior never happens while he’s around. My family will often refer to me as “The Nice One” of the siblings, which I feel like has come back around as a way to dismiss anything that happens — I’m the Nice One, so I’ll let it go, and if I don’t, then the problem is that I’m not being nice enough.

The other influence is that my brother seems to have gotten more interested in Red Pill, anti-feminist influences in the past few years. He has made comments defending Red Pill forums before, and always seems to know about an inordinate amount of videos of female celebrities getting put in their place. Recently, he’s been involved in a very male-centric side hustle that I think is influencing him, and he’s made a lot more veiled-misogynistic things since it started. I’d hoped that he might ease off of those ideas when he recently got a girlfriend, but instead he just uses her as an ally to his other behaviors (such as bragging about how he tells her all sorts of awful things about me).

He reminds me a lot of LW #1141’s husband in terms of behavior, but the trouble is, I can’t “break up” with him or divorce him like I would an SO. I can’t avoid him without losing my relationship with my dad, and if I cause a rift with him, my family will probably side with him because “that’s just how he is”. After losing my mom, I don’t want to lose any closeness with my dad or my sister, but I hate that that involves being around someone who enjoys hurting me.

Outside of this, my life is pretty great, so part of me feels petty for even focusing on this so much. I find myself thinking “I hate my brother” often, but that feels so disproportionate to what’s actually happening. But I also hate that one day of every week is spent being insulted or on edge, waiting for some new piece of nastiness, especially when I will inevitably spend days afterwards seething from whatever new insult is thrown my way. Any advice on how to handle this?

Hello, I’m so sorry about your mom, and I’m so sorry you’re being subjected to this.

First, some reminders:

You didn’t cause this and you’re not “petty” or overreacting. And let’s very real and very specific for a second: I got your letter before the rash of this week’s mass shootings in the United States, where we talk about our mass shootings in terms of “this week’s” version. I am answering it after the shootings, in the context of those shootings, where the Dayton shooter was known for a history of misogynist threats and murdered his sibling. If your brother is Gun People, and you see that he is escalating and becoming more of a Gun Person, this is a Code Red. At very least, talk to a counselor about your fears and make a safety plan.

If I’m being hysterical, let me be hysterical, I’m feeling a little hysterical at the moment, I admit that! I want to be wrong, I want so much to be wrong, maybe your brother will never pick up a gun, maybe he’ll “just” verbally abuse you forever and try to drive a wedge between you and the rest of your family. But reading about the way your brother treated you during the storm chilled me to the fucking bone. He was willing to risk the safety both of you in order to be cruel to you. That is unacceptable and terrifying, and you feeling “I hate my brother” isn’t disproportionate or petty. At all.

People have choices about how they treat each other. Family dynamics aren’t fossils or unchangeable tablets of stone. They are a series of choices. Bad ones can be discontinued. Harm can be stopped. Injustice can be rectified. But people have to choose.

You can’t fix your family. You definitely can’t do it by yourself. If you try and fail, if you speak up and fail, if you do your best and this thing goes bad, it wasn’t because you said it wrong, there was a better script, you should have been more patient, you chose the wrong time, it’s too close to your mom’s death, you should have just let it go, you got ‘too angry,’ or ‘not angry enough,’ etc. You’re not the one causing problems here. You don’t have to keep showing up and silently enduring horrible behavior in order to deserve your fucking family. Hold onto that, please.

I can’t offer guarantees that any of this will get better any time soon but I can offer strategies to try out to see if it lessens the impact of the worst of it on you.

There is one part of this that you can control without needing the permission or support of anyone else in your family: You can limit the time you spend with and overlap with your brother.

Absolutely no more alone time with your brother. No car rides where he can verbally abuse you. No car rides at all. He’ll have to find another way to get places, crying-while-he-insults-you time is done now. He can obviously control his behavior when he’s around your dad and your sister, he’s deliberately waiting until he won’t be observed to attack you, which means he is attacking specifically you on purpose in a way designed to get your family to deny and keep enabling it. He can’t be trusted right now. It’s okay to set “I’m not driving you anywhere after the crap you pulled, rides are for nice people, ask me again when you’ve gone a year without saying anything mean” as a boundary.

I also suggest that you find another time during the week to hang out with your dad and avoid the weekend whole-family togetherness for now. It doesn’t have to be forever, I realize it messes with the picture of all of you as a close family banding together in a crisis, but your brother’s behavior is also messing with that picture. Control what you can control by taking yourself out of range of his behavior, at least for a few months. It’s okay to make up reason for the change if that makes it easier for now. “Oh, I started [activity] on Sundays, so Tuesday nights just work better now.” Break up the routine where these charming little “incidents” accumulate, and give yourself the gift of time with your Dad without this asshole around.

Activate your own support system. This is a good problem to take to counseling. Bring friends along with you as a buffer if your family has a “we behave ourselves for outsiders” dynamic. Make sure to be around people who like you, who see you, who back you up, who can be trusted. When you do go to an all-hands on deck event, have your own transport to and from, don’t give anyone a ride, pick a shorter window to stay, leave early if things get ugly. Bring a friend will stand up and say “Nice seeing everybody but we really need to get on the road!” if shit starts escalating, giving you necessary cover and an ally and a ride.

When you have to interact with your brother’s girlfriend, keep it to hello, goodbye, passing the salt, and the weather. She’s probably taking the brunt of whatever this is behind closed doors or will be soon (which you can’t fix) and is glad to see someone else take the bullying for a change (which you can’t fix). You can’t help her. You can’t save her. If he says gross things about women in front of her, call him out on it, don’t expect her to thank you. Women are quite capable of upholding patriarchy and trying to play the “I’m not like other girls” card. You can’t stop her, you can’t fix it, she’s not your job. Take care of you. Be as pleasant as you can to her when you have to interact with her and steer clear as much as possible.

When your brother is mean to you or says generally terrible things in front of other people, it’s okay stop being The Nice One.Speak up! “Dude, why would you say that?” “Dude, misogyny much?” “Gross.” “Yikes.” “Ouch!” “Hey! Not cool!” You can’t “ruin” a party where someone took a giant word-dump in the potato salad already. Your family will try to spin it that way, they like having you as the Nice One, but it’s okay to push back. Disrupt the pattern where he does this and everyone just lets him.

Start pushing back on the “That’s just how he is” stuff as you can with your dad and your sister if they try to intervene by convincing you to keep putting up with it = “Then how he is is AWFUL right now, specifically to me, and I need it to stop when we hang out together. I’ve had no luck, can it be your turn to deal with it?”

  • Additional Scripts: 
    • “Are you okay with ‘how he is’? Maybe you wouldn’t be if he directed it at you the way he directs it at me.” 
    • “I know he’s grieving, we all are, but I’m not being mean to him, I’m just trying to keep my distance so he won’t be mean to me. I’m grieving too, and he doesn’t get to treat me this way.” 
    • “It wasn’t okay when Mom talked like that, either, but I can forgive it because she’s gone and I know she loved me. I’m not signing up for 50 more years of it from Brother, though!” 
    • Are you really telling me I have to let him talk to me like that forever, and I never get to say anything back or take steps to protect myself from it, and you’re okay with that? And you’re trying to tell me I’m the problem? And that’s ‘easier’ or ‘better’ somehow than saying, ‘Hey, Dude, knock it off’ when he’s clearly out of line?” 
    • “I love [brother] but I don’t like him very much right now, and he’s not behaving like somebody who loves me. I hope it can be different someday, but I’m not the one making it like this, so if you want something to change, maybe talk to him.” 
    • “Come on, it’s not a mystery why I would want to be around less. [Brother] is taking out his personal bullshit on me, and I want him to be okay, but that doesn’t mean I have to sit still and just take it. If you want to see ‘the whole family’ all together, make it a space where everybody has to be kind. I can’t do it by myself, he doesn’t listen to me. But he cares what you think.” 
    • “You don’t have to fix our relationship, you just have to be honest about what it is like, and not pressure me when I want to hang out without him, or automatically take his side when he’s clearly acting out.” 
    • NAME THE BEHAVIORS. “That’s just how he is.” = “Okay, so ‘how he is’ is a person who will berate and insult me while I’m driving on a dangerous road in a storm until I cry, because he’d rather run us off the road than be nice or even be quiet for an hour. That’s not minor, that’s abusive, and scary, and it’s all directed at me. I’m not okay with it. Why are you okay with it?” 

Start with actions. Be around less, or differently, change up the routines that are allowing this behavior to fester. Push back on individual incidents and see how far you get. I think you need to give yourself a break for now. Blog motto for 2019: Do less work (to “fix” relationships with people who make you feel awful.) Take breaks. Be nice to yourself.

Then, listen, this is the hard part. I think there is probably room for one heartfelt face-to-face talk with your dad where you tell him what you told us. Where you ask him if he’s noticed what you experience. Where you ask him how he feels about what he’s noticed. Where you tell your dad that you are afraid of losing your brother to gross ideologies, that you hate the way he treats you, how it hurts your feelings, and how it extra hurts your feelings when nobody sticks up for you and everybody seems to expect you to just take it. How you like being “The Nice One” but it doesn’t mean being The Doormat One.  How even though you want more than anything to be close to your family, your brother’s behavior is filling you with dread. How he abuses you when he thinks nobody else can see, how he counts on you never telling anybody, but you’re done hiding what happened. Where you tell your Dad that you’re afraid that if you stand up for yourself that the family will side with your brother, and you’ll lose everyone the way you lost your Mom. Where you ask your Dad to talk to your brother, and to have your back if he’s mean to you at family gatherings, and where you ask him to stop excusing and ignoring what’s happening, because you love him and you want to see your family but you’re not okay with being constantly attacked by someone who is supposed to love you and then having everybody else who loves you tell you that you’re overreacting and that this is the price for having a family.

I want your dad to ace this, to show you that he can be the dad you need right now, to understand how hard you are trying, what you are enduring, so that you can spend time with him and try to preserve the closeness of your family. I want it so badly for you. But it may not happen, so if it doesn’t, if your dad lets you down, always remember, your dad has choices.

Your dad has choices. He can say, “I’ve seen how your brother treats you and I’m sorry I haven’t stepped in, I was hoping it would clear up over time, that he’d outgrow it, and I didn’t know what I could say, but you’re right, it’s not okay. I’m going to talk to him, and you’ve got my support – if you need a break from hanging out all together, I’ll understand, if you need to step out when he gets over the top, I’ll understand, and if you need to set him straight, I’ll understand – I know it’s not you causing trouble. I love you, we’ll get through this.” 

Your dad has choices. He can say “that’s just how he is” or “boys will be boys” or “he’ll grow out of it” or “you can’t expect him to behave” or “can’t you try harder to get along with him” and otherwise ENABLE it, or he can stand up and say, “Hey, son, these things that are coming out of your mouth, they are ugly and not like you and I know you know better than this, so knock it off! You have to be kind to your sister when we spend time together! It’s not okay to hate women! What is this woman-hating bullshit you’re reading, it’s poison, you gotta stop it, do you want to end up like all those losers on the news someday? Because lately you sound just like ’em! Oh, ‘your friends’ talk like that, too? Then you need better friends, buddy. Oh, it was ‘just a joke’? But jokes are funny, what you said was just mean. I love you a lot, son, I know this isn’t the best you can do. Come on, show me that you can treat your sisters and everybody with kindness and respect. We all love you, we know you’re better than this right now, come sit down and stop spouting that crap, let’s talk like human beings who love each other, we’re all we’ve got.” 

I realize I’m ignoring your sister in this answer, since she’s not the main nexus of the conflict, but let’s talk about her. You know she loves to take your brother’s side, she’s not really safe for you to confide in, you might get mileage out of having an occasional Sister Breakfast! to catch up and talk about light topics, and maybe she gets her own heartfelt talk, like, “It’s okay if you love [Brother] best, I still love you and we’ve got our whole lives to be sisters, but come on, you cannot keep enabling his sexist bullshit or pretend you don’t see how he treats me differently from how he treats you. I’m not the one messing this up for our family and I need you to be on my side about this one thing: He’s not allowed to be mean to me when we all hang out, and when he says something awful, I need you to not defend him or pretend that I’m the one in the wrong!”

From there, your sister has choices. She and your dad have choices. About what they’ll let go. About what they’ll ignore. About what they’ll enable. Abusers are their own fault, but at a certain point, when you know someone is abusive, and you keep inviting them to every last thing and insisting their target can only see you at places their bully will be, too, and you keep letting them heap insults on their target without checking any of it, or you keep pretending not to see it, or you keep making excuses for it, and then you tell the target to shut up and make peace and convince yourself it’s their fault for not being Nice Enough, and act like the target is the problem if they want to hang out in abuse-free environments once in a while, congratulations, you’re complicit! “He’s always nice to me doesn’t mean shit, “He never acts like that when I’m around doesn’t mean shit, your sister and your dad can both love your brother and not try to gaslight you about what he’s really like or pretend he treats you both the same way. “I love you, but you’re acting like an asshole, knock it off!” are words your sister and your dad can choose to say to their beloved bro/son once in a while. You’re not the weird one for expecting basic courtesy and respect.

Contingency Plan: Everyone’s so afraid of your brother’s anger, they think if they ignore it it will go away or it won’t get that bad, or they’re afraid of having it explode and target them, or they think you can handle him on your own. You’re afraid of it never stopping and of everyone else taking his side. But why isn’t anybody afraid of your anger? What happens if, the next time your brother says something awful at a family gathering, you stood up to your full height, used your loudest voice, and said, “DUDE, NOT OKAY. Why are you acting like this? Why are you saying these things? I love you, brother, but I need you to be so much better than this. STOP treating me like crap. STOP spewing hatred about women. If you can’t say anything nice, then shut the fuck up, it’s free!” 

I’m not finished. What if you turned to your dad and your sister and also in your loudest voice said, “Hey, thanks to both of you by the way for being no help at all. You really think it’s okay for him to talk to me like this? You think it’s okay for him to talk like one of those loser manifestos? How many of these ‘jokes’ are you gonna pretend you didn’t hear? We need some NEW RULES for family get-togethers, and the first rule is, BE KIND OR SHUT UP.” 

If you do this, leave right afterward. Let them hang out together in shocked silence or let them vent about how “crazy” and “irrational” you are. Let them enjoy the company of the asshole without The Nice One to mediate and take the brunt of whatever your brother dishes out. Let them stew in the choice they are making. Your sister and your dad will initially try to get you to apologize and blame you and try to get you to stay or come back and smooth it over, they’ll try really hard, but I think theyWILL still sit up and take notice if the person who usually does not yell finally snaps and says some true things.

Yelling is NOT my go-to mode, I don’t like losing my temper, I don’t like starting here, I get very upset when I’m pushed to this extreme, I will go decades and miles out of my way to avoid it, and you’re the best judge of whether it’s even safe for you to do this given how hostile your brother is toward you, but I’m not going to lie: The times people in my family were being assholes to me and I finally stopped trying to Gently Persuade them or Just Quietly Take It and stood up and YELLED BACK and WALKED OUT and HUNG UP, because YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TALK TO ME THIS WAY, it completely changed our dynamic. And it changed the bystander dynamic, too, when I was like, “I know you are not the instigator of this, but when you sit there quietly with your mouth open in the breeze when I get screamed at, it makes me feel like you agree with what’s happening, that you’re okay with it as long as it’s not directed at you. But I always stick up for you, so, are we gonna stick together or not?” 


In the short term, they grumbled and tried to use old strategies to reel me back in.

In the long term, they wanted to still have a family, so they started being nicer to me, and whenever they tested the boundary and tried to revert to the old order, they learned that I don’t show up places to be abused. Luckily, time did its work, when we did see each other we made new, nicer memories together, and it did get better, as those memories crowded out the old ones and became the basis for something new.

It was risky and lonely and really hard for a very long time (that’s why it’s the contingency plan, not Plan A) because I had to do it without knowing if it would ever get fixed, but I learned that some people will utterly refuse to hear you or understand what you are risking to be in their lives until you profoundly change the balance of power. Forever is a long time, Sally,” I know you’re very afraid of estrangement, but estrangement is already in process if you’re getting picked on every time y’all hang out. Your dad doesn’t want to lose his family. Your sister doesn’t want to lose her family. My guess is that they don’t know how to fix what’s happening and they’re counting on you to lay yourself down in the gaps a little while longer in the hopes it will blow over. It won’t blow over, sadly, but I think you have a place and a say here, and more power than you guess.

In the end, you can’t fix your brother or your family, and I know that you know that I know that it’s not just your family. The world is full of entitled, hateful young men who desperately need someone to set them straight, just, I don’t think the primary targets of their abuse are the ones who have to do that work, they aren’t the best placed to do that work, nor is it on them to do that work. It’s on the people in their lives who can still reach them, the ones they might still listen to, the ones whose good opinion they might still care about, the ones who like and love them and who aren’t being targeted by them who can still safely say, look, put that gross shit down and come back to us, you’re always welcome here, but your hate can’t come along.

For that to really happen, the bystanders in our families have to be willing to be honest about who is causing the problems, to stop blaming victims, to stop ignoring cruel bullying behavior and hateful “jokes,” to stop kidding themselves that it will stop on its own, to stop pretending that hate is a phase that people “grow out of,” to stop pressuring everybody to be more okay with their Large Adult Sons who constantly spew cruelty and be honest with themselves about whose turn it is to step up and speak up and make it fucking stop already. I think a lot of conversations like this need to happen, right now, and I think it’s men who need to take the lead in addressing misogyny (they don’t listen to us, we tried), so if you’re reading this and you have a friend or a nephew or a son or a cousin or a teammate who makes you wonder, “Am I gonna hear about you on the news someday, buddy?” and you are not the target of their bad behavior and terrible beliefs, it’s time for a check in“When you say stuff like that, I don’t know what to say. I’ve been quiet because it’s really awkward to talk about this, you’re obviously your own person, I’ve wanted us to be people who could agree to disagree, I assumed it was all a joke or a passing thing and it wasn’t my place, but now I have to ask: Do you honestly believe that? Where did you learn that? What makes you say that? Do you really think that’s okay? Did you think I thought that way, too? ‘Cause I don’t. Do I need to worry about you? Can I convince you to stop hanging out on those sites and making jokes like that? Can you please be kind to everyone in our family/class/team/school/improv troupe?” 

Will it fix the problem or address the “root causes”? I don’t know! But “shocked” silence sure as fuck isn’t working, nor are “thoughts and prayers,” nor is waiting for a dysfunctional and fascist government to figure it out, so, let’s try something new and see where we get. We can’t control what people will think and feel, or what they’ll say and do, but we can stop enabling it in our spaces, we can stop expecting the victims to magically accommodate it all away so that we don’t have to ever do something about it. We can at least say, “I noticed what you said and I’m not okay with it” and remove the sea of plausible deniability they use to test the waters and then escalate and escalate and escalate and pretend that everybody secretly agrees with what they are doing, we can stop pretending all this “just comes out of nowhere.” We know where it comes from. It starts with words.

Letter Writer, maybe your brother isn’t persuadable right now, okay, then your family has choices. One choice is: “Abusive behavior is not allowed, spouting misogyny is not allowed, either be nice to your sister and stop saying sexist crap, or go home.” I hope your family gets it right.

Note: The LW updated me that fortunately her brother is not Gun People, so, I am breathing a tiny bit easier. The rest of the advice stands. Check on your people.

MzHeather Aug 31 '19 · Tags: fusevy, love, relationships

Hello, it’s the monthly feature where patrons of the site can ask short questions.

Q1: Thanks to years of reading your blog I finally learned how to call out -isms when they happen! But now I’m stuck at the next hurdle, where people who get called out are so mortified they go into an over-the-top apology loop and keep it up until the apology gets more annoying than the original transgression. Do you have any scripts for when people go way too hard on the apologies after being corrected? (she/her/hers)


I know, we’re taught that interrupting is always rude & wrong, but honestly, it’s so useful at times, like when you ask someone to stop doing something and they take it as an opportunity to process all of their feelings about whatever it is at you. Thanks, Stu, it was so fun to experience your misogyny at work, now, bonus I get to be your personal sexism therapist, translator, and Interpreter of All Women, ooh goody! So glad we had this talk!

Multiply that by infinity for white people who freak out when we are reminded that a) racism exists and b) racism isn’t a bone in our bodies and isn’t about our personal intentions or goodness. Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe this phenomenon, and says that the “splutterings,” (extreme defensiveness, shouting, crying, disbelieving people about their lived experiences, compulsively shifting the topic to historical events (politicians who remind everyone “I marched with Dr. King!” when asked about racism now) or unsolicited non sequiturs about how cool we are about race stuff serve a purpose that isn’t just the personal shame of getting something wrong or cognitive dissonance at the magnitude of white supremacy and injustice.

“These splutterings ‘work,’ DiAngelo explains, ‘to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.’ She finds that the social costs for a black person in awakening the sleeping dragon of white fragility often prove so high that many black people don’t risk pointing out discrimination when they see it. And the expectation of “white solidarity”—white people will forbear from correcting each other’s racial missteps, to preserve the peace—makes genuine allyship elusive. White fragility holds racism in place.”

These overshares, even when the person is sincerely upset and ashamed, have a structural, ritual purpose. Ever ended up apologizing to someone who actually owes you an apology, but when you asked them to stop doing whatever it is that hurt you, they get so upset that you feel bad about saying anything in the first place and pressured to comfort them…about the bad thing…they did… to you? Yeah. Like that. But on a grand, national, and global scale.

So where does that leave us?

If you mess something up, and we all mess up sometimes, I think one good practice is to do whatever we can to not dwell on ourselves in that exact moment. Whatever our intentions were, we said something that hurts. Our feelings of shame and worry that we messed up can be real, but they aren’t THE immediate problem. Being corrected isn’t about our personal epiphany or learning to be a better person (that can wait!), it’s about stopping the harmful behavior with minimum fuss and adverse impact, and making a commitment to get it right going forward. Apologize, correct the behavior, and move on. From this piece on accidentally using the wrong pronouns:(bolding mine):

You are talking about someone who goes by “he/him” pronouns. “She is a great student. I’m sorry, I meant to say he is a great student. He’s been reading all of the assignments very thoroughly and it’s been a pleasure to work with him.” You don’t have to make a big deal out of your mistake or draw a lot of attention to it. You mostly need to fix it. You might have a follow up conversation with the person you referred to incorrectly to apologize or see if there’s something else you can do to correct it moving forward besides doing better. Making it a bigger deal in the moment is not necessarily helpful and could be harmful unless that’s what the person who was incorrectly referred to wants. Depending on the situation, you might be worried that people think you aren’t friendly towards transgender people because you made a mistake, but generally it’s good to avoid making the situation about you and your intent. A good way to show you are friendly is to get it right in the future and to act upon some of the other guidances you may find through this website or other resources.

Critique is an investment in the relationship. If someone is taking the risk of telling you you messed up, it doesn’t mean “YOU ARE THE WORST PERSON WHO EVER LIVED, PLEASE DIE NOW” it means “I care about this and I’m trusting you to get it right.” If you feel awful and embarrassed, that’s normal, just, those feelings are for you to take to your journal or a therapist, not to process in real time with the expectation that the person you offended will hang out and help you do it.

Anyway, dear Querent, here’s your shame-spiral interruption script to adapt into your own words as the situation demands.

“Hey _____, let me interrupt for a second. These conversations are awkward for everyone. I appreciate the apology, and as long as you [do the good thing/stop doing the bad thing] from now on, we’re good.” 

Interrupt. Translate their apology into a promise for better action in the future. Keep Awkwarding.

Q2: I recently joined a beer and philosophy meetup. I enjoy the group and the discussion, except for one person. Her comments are often neither brief nor relevant, with her talking as much as everyone else combined and going on tangents that don’t connect to the topic. She seems to be friends with the organizers and while they’re otherwise great, they don’t seem interested in reining her in; is there anything I can do? (she/her/hers)

A2: Since you’re new and she’s a regular, this is tricky. Almost certainly you’re not alone in feeling as you do about this person, but you don’t know who your allies are and if you complain about her to the wrong folks you will come across as the jerk.

One tactic I might try is suggesting that the big group break into smaller groups for discussion, maybe switch/rotate every 10-15 minutes, or chew on a question in small groups and have each group report back to the big group at the end. “Can we break into smaller groups next time? I love hearing from everyone and talking about the work, and with the big discussion circle we sometimes only get through a few people.” 

You can also channel group discussions with aggressive “Yes, And!” action. You don’t have to let her finish every paragraph. Wait for a pause or the end of a sentence and then speak up and throw the discussion ball to someone else in the group. “Interesting point, Alex! Phil, weren’t you talking about how ___________ leads to _________ last week? Do you think this is the same sort of question?”

That way you’re not interrupting to talk over her, you’re including other people in the conversation. Be strategic and choose someone talkative if you do this, the shy quiet people will not catch your ball and it will go right back to her.

Q3: What are your favorite ice breaker/ getting-to-know-you questions? Spouse and I trying to get out and build a bigger community. I’m not great at spontaneous chat with new people and would love a few more conversation starters to add to my bank beyond the not-great “what do you do?” (She/her/hers)

A3: Commander Logic, enthusiastic connector, has been going with “What are you nerdy about?” of late, and having great results with it. She is also great at asking people for recommendations for local things and getting them talking about their neighborhood. “Do you have a favorite bakery or coffee joint?” “If you ever have out of town guests, what’s a place you love to take them?” 

I try to think about both context and subjects that are low stakes but that people have strong opinions about. You’d be surprised at how well “What is your favorite sandwich?” at an event where people are eating, people get very excited about sandwiches.

The “what five objects would someone use to summon you” or “what would create an irresistible You-trap, like, if you walked by this place on the street you’d have to go in and check it out” threads that go around sometimes on social media are pretty good stuff.

I don’t like “Would you rather ____ or _____?” questions or “Let’s generate some debate!” type questions for this stuff, I like questions that get the person to tell me a story about themselves. If you celebrate, what’s the best Halloween costume you ever saw/wore? What was your first ever job? Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a kid? What’s a word that you knew what it meant but never knew how to pronounce? If the universe could give you back one lost item, what would it be? When you were little what did you want to be when you grew up?

Q4: I’m slowly pulling myself out of a Depression Hole where one of the biggest problems has been executive functioning. (Got a therapist, working on the medical side.) My issue is that I have a ton of deep seated shame from a childhood filled with notes sent home for missing homework assignments, getting yelled at for being late, etc. How do I avoid the shame spiral/impostor syndrome around ordinary mistakes? (She/her)

Hi there, friend! When I got diagnosed with ADHD in my early 40s on top of the anxiety & depression, there was a giant period of grieving. What would my life be like if I hadn’t been struggling so long with all the “little things” that add up to so many unfinished “big things” and so much avoidance and disorganization?

You asked how you can avoid the shame spiral/imposter syndrome around ordinary mistakes, and the answer is, you probably can’t avoid/prevent/control your feelings. That’s not a thing we can do, even though it’s a thing that people desperately want to do.

What I think we can try to do (thanks, therapy!) is practice ways of feeling the feelings without letting them sink us. On a certain level, feelings are just information. We can have the feelings, observe the feelings, name the feelings, make a note of the feelings, and make decisions about what, if anything, we want to do about the feelings. We can have compassion for ourselves about them, we can hold space for them, and maybe they don’t have to be the boss of us all the time.

One thing I do is make note of feelings that come up when I’m trying to plan my day or my week. Is a task getting moved day after day without getting finished? What are the feelings about that? It’s not magic, I still struggle with executive function stuff despite medication and therapy, but it does actually help me to know, if I’m avoiding or dreading something, why? And sometimes I’m able to say, hey, Buddy (my internal monologue is addressed as Buddy), it’s obvious that you’re procrastinating about that, so do you actually want to do it or not? What’s going on here? And that’s enough to help me get to the “I will feel better once this is done” place and get that little nugget of momentum and satisfaction from crossing it off the list.

Those narratives built in childhood about how “lazy” I was hurt really bad, and changing the narrative to, I wasn’t lazy, I just had a different brain that made it harder to do certain kinds of things, has been a process. The past affects us, but we can’t undo it, so what do we want to do with today? May your process be healing.

Q5: My friend has a bad habit of complaining to me about stuff that they know stresses me out, pausing mid-rant to say “sorry, I know you don’t like hearing about this stuff” and then continuing right on again. For Reasons I don’t want to shut them down completely, but how can I ask them to A) dial it back and B) stop apologizing when they have no intention of stopping? (she/her/hers)

A5: This is a hard one, because I think at a certain point you are going to have to shut one of these rants down so that the discomfort this person is making you feel is returned to sender. Boundaries have three steps: Deciding where your boundary is, telling the other person where it is, and then enforcing it.

This could mean interrupting one of the rants:

  • “I’ve told you I don’t like hearing about this stuff, so, let’s not do this today, ok?”
  • “We talked about this. Please find a different sounding board for ____.” 
  • “I’m sympathetic, but I’m really not up for this today.”
  • “I need you to check before you go into download mode, and I need the answer to be actually meaningful, so, not today.”
  • “Hashtag gentle reminder, hashtag please vent to someone else about stuff like this and hashtag but please come back when you want to go get ice cream.” 

And it could mean, when the fauxpology comes, holding up your hands and saying, “You always apologize, but you never actually stop doing the thing, so, can we not?” 

And it could mean that the conversation is cut short and things get very awkward and you feel enormous pressure to just give in and let it happen. But it sounds like you’ve been perfectly clear (they know you don’t like this and they do it anyway), so probably this person needs to feel the full “This is what ‘nope’ feels like” effect at least once. I can’t think of a gentle, more subtle “dial it back” way that you didn’t already try.

Whether you put this into practice or not is up to you, I just want to emphasize: It’s not mean to to tell someone ‘no’ inside a friendship.

Q6: What’s something romantic I can do for my husband serving in Afghanistan? I send him random silly stuff and we can chat and Skype and text. I’m not feeling very creative. We’ve been married nearly 20 years. (I am she/her/hers husband is he/him/his)

A6: Have you and he ever written paper letters to one another? There’s something about a tangible object that you can carry with you, something that can be read and re-read, something written quietly and intentionally to the person that has a magic to it. Maybe find a list of questions like these (not necessarily these exact ones, adapt to your purposes) and trade answers on paper over time? Could you read the same book together and have a long-distance book club (or each pick out a favorite book to assign to the other person to read) and talk about it?

Readers, what kinds of things keep you connected in long distance relationships?

Part 2 is coming.





MzHeather Aug 31 '19 · Tags: fusevy, love, relationships

Hello, monthly feature with short questions from patrons continues from the previous chapter.

Q7: I am single in my 40s and have never had a serious long-term partner. I used to think I hadn’t met the right person yet but have recently come to understand that I’m aromantic (and probably demisexual – not ace but I don’t really feel like chasing after sex, either). I don’t know how much of this to share with the world, specifically my late-70s parents who would need the aromantic crash course. Thoughts? (he/him/his)

A7: You know your parents best, so you know how much energy you want to invest and how likely they are to be receptive. You don’t owe them (or the world) the details, on the other hand, they’ve surely noticed by now that you don’t seek long-term romantic attachments. If you do decide to speak with them, maybe that’s the context to use, like, “Parents, I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’ve never been that interested in romantic relationships, I just found out that a lot of people feel this way and there’s a word for us – aromantic – pretty cool, right?” 

You’ve been reading a lot about the topic, so possibly pull together some of the resources that made it easier for you to describe your identity so that if your parents say, “How interesting, I always noticed that about you but didn’t want to pry, tell me more,” you’re prepared and if they say, “What’s that? Kids these days!” you’re also prepared.

As for the world, probably the best thing I can do is ask our readers: Got a favorite community or other resource for aromantic info and peer support? This place seems pretty active and detailed, from what I can tell, but I’m not a member.

Q8: I am coming to terms with the fact that my boundaries are… not great. Being a Ravenclaw, my first instinct is to seek out books. I found the seminal BOUNDARIES by Cloud & Townsend, and while it confirmed that yep, boundary problems abound, this book is a terrible fit for me because I have a lot of trauma around religion and every other sentence is a Bible quote. Can anyone recommend other great boundary books? (She/Her)

A8: Who wants to recommend some non-religious books about boundaries?

Q9: I love my wonderful boyfriend so much and find most of his quirks delightful. But his breathing irritates me a lot. When we’re resting on the couch or in bed, he holds his breath for long periods of time and then lets it out really loudly. When we’re cuddling, he breathes in my face and I have no air to breathe. We’ve talked about it but he often doesn’t realize he’s doing it. Any ideas? (She/her/hers)

A9: There’s no good way to tell someone, “You breathe wrong,” but I do have some ideas.

First, if your boyfriend isn’t already seeing a doctor about this, it’s time. Habitually holding the breath can be a stress reaction, it can also be a sign of a medical condition (apnea, sleep and other kinds, for one example). We can’t & won’t diagnose strangers via blogging (fortunately you have a working search engine and can look up specific possibilities and symptoms in detail) so I’ll just say as someone who was diagnosed with asthma as an adult specifically because a partner said, “You’re breathing weird, I’m worried about you (& annoyed), please get it looked at.” He was right, I had developed odd, subconscious, habitual workarounds to try to control coughing and get enough air and it took someone else being around all the time to notice. Your script can be some version of “Hey, this breathing thing might not just be a quirk, so can you please make a doctor appointment and at least rule out the prospect of something serious?” 

In the meantime, look for cuddle positions where he’s not breathing in your face (big spoon, little spoon?). If he can’t control whatever this is or he always forgets, you can remember and take steps to make sure you can always breathe. It won’t be a mystery as to why, he knows why, flip over when you need to so that you can still be close and minimize face-to-face time while he gets checked out. Hopefully he can get some answers and both of you can get some relief.

Q10: Last year, my sister was killed in a very public accident. I’ve been struggling with how to tell friends and acquaintances that I speak to intermittently what happened. I don’t know how to bring it up, and get emotional when I do. Can you give me some scripts to follow so I can explain the situation and (maybe) not fall apart while doing so? Thank you so much. (she/her/hers)

A10: Oh, how awful, I’m so sorry! The loss of your sister + the newsworthiness (constant reminders + people’s need to speculate) must have been a special kind of hell.

I always fall back on two strategies for communicating bad news that I’m nervous or stressed about sharing.

First, it’s okay to use email, text, social media, etc. and share the news before any planned hangouts, and tell people exactly what you told us:

“Friend, you may not have heard this, but since we saw each other last, my sister was killed in [incident]. I get very emotional when I talk about it and I never know how to bring it up, so I thought I’d send you a note before we [have drinks][go birdwatching][resume our opera subscription] this week so you’ll understand if the ‘So, what’s new with you?’ part of our conversation gets a little messy.  I’m really looking forward to seeing you and catching up.”

You could do this one-on-one, you could do this in batches, or all at once, whatever works for you. Ideally, you’ll feel better not dreading having to deliver the news in person, and your friends and acquaintances will appreciate knowing that this huge thing happened to you and having a minute to [privately react][privately Google what happened and refresh their memories/satisfy curiosities][privately react again] before you see each other.

Second, enlist the connectors/planners/hosts/organizers in your social and professional groups to spread the word for you. The kind of people who take it upon themselves to organize a book club or a college reunion or networking event often see keeping up with everyone’s news as part of the role, you can absolutely message them or call them up and ask for their help spreading the word. Maybe something like:

“Hi [Nice Person], I hope you’re well. Can I ask for your help with an awkward task?

You may or may not have heard the news, but I  lost my sister in an accident last year. As I emerge from just being with my family, I’m realizing that a lot of people don’t know, and I have this recurring problem of having to break the news again and again. I’m looking forward to catching up with all of you at [upcoming event], so would you be willing to quietly spread the news of what happened for me before we all get together?

Then tell people what you want them to do/not do about your news. For example:

“I’m looking forward to [discussing the book][rehearsing the play][building the marketing plan for the North East region][registering new voters] and hearing what everyone’s been up to, and it would really ease my mind if I know every “so what’s new with you” conversation won’t be a rehash of events and that people won’t be surprised if I’m a little down or easily flustered. Thank you.”

You’re going to get some “I’m so sorry,” and shoulder pats and hugs when you do see people, but this way hopefully every time you run into people it won’t be a Run, Lola Run! or Groundhog Day-style montage of surprise and grief.

Q11: Hi Captain, here’s my question: I am Childfree by Choice, and I used to think kids just stressed me the fuck out. Turns out I was mistaken – I’m quite comfortable in situations with babies/kids, where their adults are supervising them well, and I know the boundaries about how and when I should intervene if I’ve noticed something unsafe before the other adults have. It’s the more ambiguous situations that stress me out. So like, if a crawling baby is making a beeline for something dangerous and I’m the first one to notice, I am a-OK with going over and picking the baby up, distracting them, and pointing them another direction. That’s my duty as a friend or auntie.

But with bigger kids, especially if it’s clear that their caregivers are aware of the situation but not responding they way I think they should be, that really stresses me out. Like when there’s roughhousing that is getting mean and the smaller kid isn’t enjoying it anymore, or some kind of play that’s pretty much guaranteed to end up with somebody getting hurt, and the caregivers are just giving half-assed verbal warnings and not following up when they’re ignored. But they’re not my kids and I’m just a friend or relative of the parents, so my impulse to physically wade in, tuck a child under my arm like a bad kitty, and remove them from the situation, is probably unwelcome. What is the correct course of action in a situation like that?

A11: I would say, mostly, if the parents/caregivers are nearby/available and the kids aren’t coming to them for adjudication or comfort and it’s not a “you are seriously going to injure yourselves/each other or break something expensive” situation, grabbing & tucking the child like a football is going to be overkill. From my Not-A-Parent observation deck, when there’s an adults-and-kids-who-aren’t-toddlers-anymore gathering going on, there are some skills being learned and practiced on both sides:

  1. Kids are learning to play together and have some autonomy without coming to adults every five minutes, and to self-soothe and self-regulate if they don’t enjoy something.
  2. Parents are learning to find balance. What’s the right mix of socializing with fellow adults, keeping an eye on kids, but also letting everybody have a little space?The “correct” amount of supervision is always in flux. If something bad does happen, there will always, always, always be a subtext of “why wasn’t somebody watching them more closely” but like, sometimes you can be RIGHT THERE and the kid can still shove a nickel up her nose or decide that she can fly.

As a Not-Their Parents observer, there is no “the” correct course of action but there are a few strategies, which I’m adapting from “bystander intervention” training, where the emphasis is on de-escalating difficult situations while still respecting everyone’s autonomy, often expressed as “D’s” (3 Ds, 4 Ds, depends on who you ask):

  1. Direct: Your scoop-up-a-kid instinct would be classified as direct intervention, as would telling the aggressors to knock it off. A matter-of-fact reminder of what you want them to do (“Hey, Buddy, let’s use our inside voices and keep our feet off the furniture, thanks”) (All kids and pets are addressed as Buddy) can work better than lots of non-specific “Quiet down!” reminders.
  2. Distract: If you do intervene, don’t necessarily do it by “rescuing” the smaller kid or admonishing the bigger kids, jump in with a distraction instead. Ask a question, show them something cool on your phone, get them to help you with a task. It’s part of bystander intervention generally, where ‘confronting’ people is risky (and can escalate a bad situation), but engaging the target in friendly conversation communicates ‘you aren’t alone, there’s someone here to catch you if you fall.’
  3. Delegate: Get a parent. “Are they allowed to jump on that?” “Hey, I think that the fun screaming might have turned into the not-fun kind.” “If we’re every hanging out and I see some roughhousing that crosses a line, or some of the kids being mean, would you like me to come get you or jump in there myself?” It’s okay to be selective about who you ask and how you ask, if you know that certain friends are easily riled or take questions like this as implied criticisms, you’re the best judge of how likely someone is to hear you. Also, turf matters: In your house, or where you are the host, it’s okay to be more active (“Please don’t touch that/jump on that/eat that/open that/Please use inside voices so the neighbors can’t hear us/Don’t pick up the cat she doesn’t like it,” etc.) Think of it as communicating “Party Rules” vs. “Correcting People’s Parenting.”
  4. Delay: Kids (like kittens) can get pretty rough in short bursts and be totally chaotic and then snap back to being best buds in an instant. Sometimes you can’t prevent whatever it is, but it’s okay to hang back, let it resolve itself and check in with the kid who was on the bottom of the pile, “How are you doing, Buddy? Wanna come sit by me?” If the kid was really upset by something, give them the opportunity to tell you about it.

This stuff can be so fraught so again, there’s no one approach. If you get really stressed out by certain friends’ parenting dynamic, maybe take breaks and schedule some adult-only time to give everybody a chance to grow out of whatever “difficult stage” is happening now. It’s okay to enjoy being around children sometimes and also to be stressed out by them sometimes, it’s okay to find some people’s parenting style kinda stressful and wish they’d supervise their kids more closely at gatherings without having any particular obligation to Do Something about it.

Q12: So, how can I (F) respond to the “just relax” I get from guys when they’re being disruptive, and I raise an objection. My two most recent examples: 1) coworkers in the back of the room at a staff meeting, cutting up and being so noisy I couldn’t hear what our boss (the department head!?) was saying up front. “Guys, can you quiet down, please?” “Oh, just relax.” 2) Thumping and banging and screaming and yelling coming from upstairs neighbors. (Sounds like, when I was a kid, would occasionally accompany black eyes and broken bones.) Saw them out in the parking lot, asked, “Everything okay?” Dad got incredibly defensive and, after a shouting argument, muttered, “Just relax.” I thought this was common enough to be a Thing, but I don’t find any discussion of the phenomenon online.

A12: Things I know about the command “Just relax!”

  1. It is often used by people who want to manipulate you into doing something you don’t want to do and people who want to punish you for being right when they know they are in the wrong.
  2. It has never, in the history of the world, made anyone actually relax.
  3. One possible response is a flat “I am relaxed” and then continuing to expect what you expect and need what you need (Workbros to shush already, “I am relaxed, I’m just making sure everyone’s okay, it sounded pretty rowdy last night. Have a great day.”)
  4. When men say it to women, they want us to be quiet and afraid of appearing “shrill,” so another possible response when circumstances warrant is to selectively and strategically show them what EXTREMELY UNRELAXED looks like and then snap back to “Ok, so, what were we talking about? Right, I’m gonna need you to _____.” Neither examples you shared warrant this strategy yet (you don’t want to escalate with scary neighbor), but for habitual offenders who you don’t work with? Sometimes reminding people that they have choices and that you also have choices can snap people into coming correct.
  5. As for the neighbor situation, his defensive reaction is right out of the textbook, so read the bystander intervention stuff up thread and think about de-escalation, especially distraction. This has a nice short summary (probably don’t call the police unless it’s an immediate life-or-death situation, check in with the other parent subtly). You could also talk to a DV resource like LoveIsRespect.org for more guidance.

Thanks for the interesting and challenging questions! We’ll be back with more in about a month.

MzHeather Aug 31 '19 · Tags: love, relationships, fusevy
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