“Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dear Swipe This!
I’m a teacher and I have a coworker who’s driving me bonkers. She complains non-stop and comes to me to vent. No matter what’s happening, she acts like it’s an emergency. She’s usually mad about the same things I deal with, like a difficult co-teacher or rude parents. So part of me can empathize. There are things that are difficult and annoying about this job. But her complaints are so over-the-top and she needs constant support.
Lately, it’s gotten worse. She bursts into my room while I’m teaching. And she texts me throughout the day. And when work is over, I go home and the texts keep coming. I feel like no matter what I say to calm her down or offer support, she just keeps going. She won’t let anything go, and when she does finally get over something, another problem always comes up. She has an endless supply of problems. I just don’t know what to do anymore!
I know you’re probably going to tell me not to engage her (some of my friends already have), but if I don’t respond right away, she just texts me MORE. Sometimes, I’ll look at my phone, and I have more than 10 unread messages from her. I guess if I didn’t work with her, I’d just ghost her and let the friendship fade away, but since I know I’ll have to face her at work, I feel like there’s no way out.
I am honestly an enthusiastic texter, and I feel like I brought this on myself. I became friends with this co-worker a while ago because we shared a mutual friend at work. We shared a group text and sometimes it was fun to vent on there and laugh together about all the stupid nonsense that gets on our nerves in a week. But then our mutual friend quit, and now I’m stuck with this coworker who won’t leave me alone IRL, and when I finally escape, there she is, again, in my phone!
The thing is, I do feel bad for her. She’s older than me, she’s had a rough year, and she’s frustrated in her career. She seems to be having a streak of bad luck at work and in her personal life. Things just aren’t that great for her right now. But, at the same time, I can’t help but think that her negative attitude is part of the problem. (Not that I’d ever tell her that!)
Anyway, I’m at my wit’s end. I feel like my space at work is being invaded. And now I feel like she’s invading my after-work hours too. Is there a nice way to tell someone to leave you alone? I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but I have a lot going on in my own life—I’m about to move to a new home and I’m pregnant with my first child. I’m preparing for some really big changes and it can be really tiring. Sometimes, I just don’t have that much to give. Is there a kind and caring way to tell someone to leave you the fuck alone? What should I do?
Not Your Mommy
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Dear Not Your Mommy,
Have you ever entered a public restroom and discovered that the lock is broken? Depending on how badly you need to go, maybe you take your chances and keep one eye nervously on the doorknob while you do what you’ve got to do. Or maybe the restroom is small, so you contort yourself. You press an arm or a foot to the door and strain over the toilet and hope it will all be over as quickly as possible.
When you find yourself contorting and stretching yourself as you have with your coworker, it’s a sign that healthy boundaries are missing. We can stretch ourselves at times. In fact, there may be circumstances where we have to. But when you put yourself in a situation where your boundaries are constantly tested or threatened, you start to feel stressed, anxious, and possibly out of control.
I mean, you can survive an uncomfortable bathroom if you know the experience is temporary. But what if you had to deal with that broken door every day at work? What if that restroom was your only option? You’d probably tell your boss or manager that the situation wasn’t livable.
As children, the bathroom is one of the first places where we learn boundaries. We learn that everyone is entitled to a certain amount of privacy or space. Unfortunately, we don’t always extend those conversations to what we’re entitled to when it comes to how we relate to others. You wouldn’t put up with someone barging in on you in the restroom, so why are you letting your coworker invade your daily life with constant drop-ins and texting? Simple: You were never taught how to say no to people in need. In fact, depending on who your parents were and what your family was like, you may have been taught that it was important to always be nice and welcoming, no matter what! And I have to tell you that is an absolute lie.
Here’s what I wish the grownups would have taught you instead: Doing the “nice” thing isn’t nice at all if it leads to self-harm.
You’re sacrificing yourself and your needs for your coworker’s comfort. You’re so bent on not upsetting this very upsetting and frankly inconsiderate person that you’re creating an impossible situation. And you’re doing it at a time when, quite frankly, your focus should be on you. You’re about to move into a new home and have a baby, and those are incredibly challenging tasks that require a lot of support. Why are you so worked up over how to handle this coworker? Has she asked how she can be of service to you? Has she offered you support? Has she even considered how incredibly rude it is of her to implicitly demand so much time and attention?
I don’t believe that relationships should involve keeping score or tit-for-tat antics. But I have to say, when you find yourself ruminating over the best way to deal with someone who would never give a second thought to how their behavior might affect you, you’ve really got to slow your roll.
I can understand why you’re feeling so panicked. From your perspective, this situation is inescapable. When you try to dial back your interactions, she just ramps up the intensity. But that’s only because you haven’t taken any actions to set a clear boundary. So let’s start with the texting. You can easily mute her. If you have an iPhone, all you need to do is go into your current text thread with her, press the little “i” in the top right corner, and set “hide alerts” to “on.” That way your coworker can text you all she wants, but she won’t blow up your phone. You can respond to her at your leisure. Or, you can simply not respond. I guarantee you no one will die and she will survive.
If you want to handle the situation more directly, I’d say you are well within your rights to set a firm boundary with her. Did you know that in France it is illegal for your boss to email you after work hours are over? Illegal! Tell her that you’ve decided, for your own health and happiness, that you’re leaving work at work from now on. You can say, I know we’ve commiserated in the past, but I’ve realized that doesn’t work for me anymore. I would also set a firm boundary with her at work. Tell her it isn’t OK to interrupt your teaching and that you’re concerned you could get in trouble with a supervisor if she’s found in your room mid-lesson.
But I think the most important shift you need to make has nothing to do with your coworker and everything to do with your own personal, internal boundaries. It sounds to me like you believe you must be kind and pleasant and helpful at all times. I bet you are a wonderful friend, and the people near and dear to you value this side of you. But that is not your only value as a human being. You should know that your real friends and loved ones will love and value you no matter what, even if you can’t always show up or come to the rescue. So, instead of spreading yourself so thin, I think you should take some time to reflect on who those people are. Make a list and keep it small. Who are the five people in life who you really trust and love who you can count on to be there for you? Those are the people you show up for. Those are the people you invest in. Everyone else is optional.
And, there’s a caveat—if any of the people who make your list acts unforgiving or cruel when you need to set a boundary, they’re off the list! You should only give generously with people who let you have healthy boundaries. And as for the people who aren’t on your list, please consider that it is OK if their feelings get hurt. You most definitely are not their mommy. It’s not your job to rescue them, and ultimately, when they realize they can’t get what they want from you anymore, they’ll find someone else to drain. Social vampires always do.
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