The rules about responding to call outs aren’t working

Privileged people rarely take the voices of marginalized people seriously. Social justices spaces attempt to fix this with rules about how to respond to when marginalized people tell you that you’ve done something wrong. Like most formal descriptions of social skills, the rules don’t quite match reality. This is causing some problems that I think we could fix with a more honest conversation about how to respond to criticism.

The formal social justice rules say something like this:

  • You should listen to marginalized people.
  • When a marginalized person calls you out, don’t argue.
  • Believe them, apologize, and don’t do it again.
  • When you see others doing what you were called out for doing, call them out.

Those rules are a good approximation of some things, but they don’t actually work. It is impossible to follow them literally, in part because:

  • Marginalized people are not a monolith. 
  • Marginalized people have the same range of opinions as privileged people.
  • When two marginalized people tell you logically incompatible things, it is impossible to act on both sets of instructions.
  • For instance, some women believe that abortion is a human right foundational human right for women. Some women believe that abortion is murder and an attack on women and girls.
  • “Listen to women” doesn’t tell you who to believe, what policy to support, or how to talk about abortion. 
  • For instance, some women believe that religious rules about clothing liberate women from sexual objectification, other women believe that religious rules about clothing sexually objectify women. 
  • “Listen to women” doesn’t tell you what to believe about modesty rules. 
  • Narrowing it to “listen to women of minority faiths” doesn’t help, because women disagree about this within every faith.
  • When “listen to marginalized people” means “adopt a particular position”, marginalized people are treated as rhetorical props rather than real people.
  • Objectifying marginalized people does not create justice.

Since the rule is literally impossible to follow, no one is actually succeeding at following it. What usually ends up happening when people try is that:

  • One opinion gets lifted up as “the position of marginalized people” 
  • Agreeing with that opinion is called “listen to marginalized people”
  • Disagreeing with that opinion is called “talking over marginalized people”
  • Marginalized people who disagree with that opinion are called out by privileged people for “talking over marginalized people”.
  • This results in a lot of fights over who is the true voice of the marginalized people.
  • We need an approach that is more conducive to real listening and learning.

This version of the rule also leaves us open to sabotage:

  • There are a lot of people who don’t want us to be able to talk to each other and build effective coalitions.
  • Some of them are using the language of call-outs to undermine everyone who emerges as an effective progressive leader. 
  • They say that they are marginalized people, and make up lies about leaders.
  • Or they say things that are technically true, but taken out of context in deliberately misleading ways.
  • The rules about shutting up and listening to marginalized people make it very difficult to contradict these lies and distortions. 
  • (Sometimes they really are members of the marginalized groups they claim to speak for. Sometimes they’re outright lying about who they are).
  • (For instance, Russian intelligence agents have used social media to pretend to be marginalized Americans and spread lies about Hillary Clinton.)

The formal rule is also easily exploited by abusive people, along these lines:

  • An abusive person convinces their victim that they are the voice of marginalized people.
  • The abuser uses the rules about “when people tell you that you’re being oppressive, don’t argue” to control the victim.
  • Whenever the victim tries to stand up for themself, the abuser tells the victim that they’re being oppressive.
  • That can be a powerfully effective way to make victims in our communities feel that they have no right to resist abuse. 
  • This can also prevent victims from getting support in basic ways.
  • Abusers can send victims into depression spirals by convincing them that everything that brings them pleasure is oppressive and immoral. 
  • The abuser may also isolate the victim by telling them that it would be oppressive for them to spend time with their friends and family, try to access victim services, or call the police. 
  • The abuser may also separate the victim from their community and natural allies by spreading baseless rumors about their supposed oppressive behavior. (Or threatening to do so).
  • When there are rules against questioning call outs, there are also implicit rules against taking the side of a victim when the abuser uses the language of calling out.
  • Rules that say some people should unconditionally defer to others are always dangerous.

The rule also lacks intersectionality:

  • No one experiences every form of oppression or every form of privilege.
  • Call-outs often involve people who are marginalized in different ways. 
  • Often, both sides in the conflict have a point.
  • For instance, black men have male privilege and white women have white privilege.
  • If a white woman calls a black man out for sexism and he responds by calling her out for racism (or vice versa), “listened to marginalized people” isn’t a very helpful rule because they’re both marginalized.
  • These conversations tend to degenerate into an argument about which form of marginalization is most significant.
  • This prevents people involved from actually listening to each other.
  • In conflicts like this, it’s often the case that both sides have a legitimate point. (In ways that are often not immediately obvious.)
  • We need to be able to work through these conflicts without expecting simplistic rules to resolve them in advance.

This rule also tends to prevent groups centered around one form of marginalized from coming to engage with other forms of marginalization:

  • For instance, in some spaces, racism and sexism are known to be issues, but ableism is not.
  • (This can occur in any combination. Eg: There are also spaces that get ableism and sexism but not racism, and spaces that get economic justice and racism but not antisemitism, or any number of other things.)
  • When disabled people raise the issue of ableism in any context (social justice or otherwise), they’re likely to be shouted down and told that it’s not important.
  • In social justice spaces, this shouting down is often done in the name of “listening to marginalized people”.
  • For instance, disabled people may be told ‘you need to listen to marginalized people and de-center your issues’, carrying the implication that ableism is less important than other forms of oppression.
  • (This happens to *every* marginalized group in some context or other.)
  • If we want real intersectional solidarity, we need to have space for ongoing conflicts that are not simple to resolve.

Tl;dr “Shut up and listen to marginalized people” isn’t quite the right rule, because it objectifies marginalized people, leaves us open to sabotage, enables abuse, and prevents us from working through conflicts in a substantive way. We need to do better by each other, and start listening for real.

It's considered rude to point out rudeness

It’s usually considered rude to directly tell a social equal that they’re being rude. Telling someone that they are being weird is perceived as asserting authority over them.

Telling someone that they’re being rude is considered appropriate if they’re someone you’re supposed to have power over. For instance, parents and teachers are allowed to tell children that they’re being rude. Children are generally not supposed to tell adults or other children that they’re being rude (unless they’re babysitting or something.)

Similarly, bosses are sometimes supposed to tell employees to stop being rude — but only if it’s work related. If bosses think that you’re being rude to customers or coworkers, they’re usually supposed to tell you. If bosses think you’re being rude to your spouse, they’re generally supposed to mind their own business.

Telling a social equal that they’re being rude is usually considered rude. It’s seen as asserting inappropriate authority over them. (Eg: you may be seen as inappropriately treating an adult like a child.)

It’s usually considered even ruder to tell someone above you in a hierarchy that they’re being rude. It’s likely to be perceived as implicitly asserting that you’re above them. It’s considered rude to challenge someone’s authority.

Correcting someone’s manners is considered rude in these situations even if you’re right and everyone agrees that you are right. People who say that you shouldn’t have called something rude may completely agree with you that it was rude. They just consider that less significant than your rudeness in pointing out the rudeness.

This gets complicated, because social hierarchies are complicated. And there are sometimes hierarchies that you’re expected to comply with *and* expected not to acknowledge. (Eg: sometimes people want you to obey them but don’t want to think of themselves as the kind of people who have power.)

Another complication is that sometimes people ask you if you think that something was rude. Sometimes they really want your opinion (in which case it’s considered appropriate to give it). But sometimes they want validation (in which case the usual rules about correcting manners usually apply.)

Generally speaking, it depends a lot on your actual relationship with someone. Real interactions between real people are more complicated than any social rules can capture.

This can all be very confusing, and there are no hard and fast rules. It’s very context-dependent. But knowing that it’s a thing can make conflicts easier to understand.

It’s also worth mentioning that it’s not always wrong to be rude. Everyone is rude sometimes, and sometimes it’s absolutely the right thing to do. Sometimes there’s no polite way to stand up for yourself or other people. Sometimes it’s important to do it anyway. (For instance, the Greensboro lunch counter sit ins were extremely rude and extremely important.)

Tl;dr If you’re not supervising someone, it’s usually considered rude to directly tell them that they are being rude. It’s considered even ruder if they are supervising you. Even if you’re absolutely right that they are being rude, it’s usually considered rude to say so directly. It’s more complicated than that in practice, and there are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes it is ok to be rude. Sometimes it’s even necessary to be rude.

Mean people who aren't mean all the time

Mean people aren’t necessarily mean all the time. Mean people aren’t necessarily mean to everyone.

I think most people who are mean are nice to at least some people at least some of the time. It can be hard to understand that they’re mean to other people in ways that matter if you don’t see it.

One example of this is that many men who are awful to women treat other men well. Some men don’t know this. They often assume that a man who treats them and their male friend group well is basically well-intentioned — and may have a lot of trouble understanding why their female friends think he’s dangerously creepy.

That happens in a lot of contexts. Some of which have to do with socially marginalized groups like gender or race or trans status or disability or religion or any number of other things. Some of them aren’t like that.

Sometimes it’s about in groups and outgroups in ways that aren’t otherwise connected to privilege.

For instance:

  • Jesse is mean, but not mean to everyone.
  • Jesse is nice to people who they like
  • Mostly, Jesse likes people who admire them and don’t contradict them about anything important
  • Jesse is mean to people outside their circle
  • People who are in Jesse’s circle and really admire Jesse might have trouble believing that they’re ever mean to anyone else
  • On the logic that “Jesse has never said anything like that to me; I can’t believe Jesse would say that”. Or something else like that.

It’s not unreasonable to base some of your opinions on what’s probably going on in a conflict on your personal experiences with someone. To an extent, it’s *necessary* to do it that way, because you can’t find out what’s going on by disregarding what you know. But it’s also important to remember that the way someone treats you might not be representative.

For instance:

  • If you’ve never contradicted someone, you might not know how they handle being contradicted
  • If someone’s never been mad at you or someone you respect, you might not know much about how they treat people when they are angry
  • Everyone gets into conflicts.
  • Everyone gets contradicted.
  • Everyone is wrong sometimes.
  • Nobody handles this perfectly. Some people handle this more-or-less reasonably; some people handle it horribly.
  • If you haven’t seen what someone does in those situations, it’s hard to know whether their reactions are reasonable

tl;dr It’s easy to misunderstand conflicts by assuming that people who have always been nice to you are always reasonable with everyone. It’s important to consider what you know about someone *and* to consider the possibility that your experiences with someone may not be representative.

but vs. and

I’ve been taught this trick for giving feedback by a couple of people recently, and I’ve been finding it really helpful:

Using “and” instead of “but” can make it much easier to give useable feedback. It also sometimes works in conflict situations:


  • “I really liked your message, but I thought it was too long to follow.“
  • “I really liked your message, and I thought it would have been easier to follow if it was shorter”.


  • “I’m sorry that I yelled, but what I was saying was important. Your dog has to stay out of my yard. He’s been digging up my flowers.”
  • “I’m sorry that I yelled, and what I was saying was important. Your dog has to stay out of my yard. He’s been digging up my flowers”.

If you say but, it’s often heard as “I know I’m supposed to say something nice, but I don’t really want to.” If you say and, it’s more often heard as “I believe both of these things.“

It’s worth considering erring on the side of saying and rather than but when you sincerely believe both things. It often makes a big difference, both in how you think about what you’re saying, and in how it’s perceived by other people.

boredom shields

Anonymous said to :

re: Fights about controversial/personal issues, do you have advice for dealing with people who won’t let a conversation go?

When I say “I don’t want to talk about that" in some form, many people say “but here’s 10 reasons why you MUST talk with/listen to me on this, NOW” in some form. At family functions, it’s impossible for me to leave, and I can’t easily come up with deflections or white lies to end a conversation. (my in-laws do this and it’s breaking my family.)

realsocialskills says:

Sometimes it can work to bore them. If you make your answer inane, boring, and long-winded, it can sometimes derail the invasiveness of the things they’re saying.


  • Them: So why aren’t you married yet?
  • You: Well, a lot of reasons. First of all, my dog really needs me right now. My dog is a pure bred implausible hound. But it’s ok, I got my implausible hound from a rescue and I checked it out and it’s a real rescue. Implausible hounds can run so much faster than believable dogs! Have you ever seen an implausible hound? I almost can’t even believe they’re real dogs.
  • Them: Your sister seems to be getting very serious with that guy she’s seeing.
  • You: Yeah, I had them over the other day and they really enjoyed playing with my implausible hound. I showed them some new tricks I had taught him. It’s amazing what you can teach dogs to do. Did you know they have dogs that rescue people? MY dog doesn’t have those skills but he’s really getting good at finding my keys, at least some of the time, or at least I ask the dog where the keys are and then I find them.

and then just keep being verbose about whatever comes to mind that isn’t the topic they’re trying to make you discuss.

This doesn’t always work, but it’s very, very effective in some situations with some people. (Some of the methods in this post about deflecting fight pickers at Christmas might also be helpful.)

Anyone else want to weigh in? How do you avoid arguments with people who try to pressure you into arguing when walking away isn’t an option?

surviving awful roommates

warpcorps answered your post: School is resuming for a lot of you

how to deal with awful roommates without doing a room change esp if you’re nonconfrontational

realsocialskills said:

It depends on what kind of awful, and what your resources are.

If you can’t change rooms or negotiate with them, probably the best thing you can do is figure out things that you can do without their cooperation.

For instance:

If the problem is that they steal your food or take your stuff, it might be worth getting a lockable container, or putting your stuff somewhere they don’t see it.

If they bother you while you’re trying to study, it might be worth finding another place to study. Other possible places to study:

  • The library (can be good if you like quiet, because quiet is enforced, can also help to focus you since other people are studying)
  • An unoccupied classroom (classrooms can be good for studying and internetting because they are often completely empty, and you don’t have to be as quiet as you do in the library)
  • Outside (Some people find it pleasant to read outside if the weather is good)

If they’re loud, and keep you up at night, it might be worth trying earplugs.

Anyone else want to weigh in? How have you survived bad roommates?

when people bait you into fights about controversial issues

Anonymous said to :

People ask me what I think about something or how I feel about something. If my answer is unpopular it makes them upset or angry. I have told people not to ask me questions if they don’t want the answer, but that doesn’t seem to be very effective. I am thinking about ignoring questions that are like that, but I don’t know how well that will work or if people will get upset because I ignore them. So at this point I am at a loss for what to do.

realsocialskills said:

I think this depends on the context. I’m assuming here that you’re talking about unpopular opinions related to social issues, religion, politics, or other things that are about deeply held values. If you’re asking a different question (eg: if people are asking you whether you like their art), this answer probably won’t be helpful. That said:

It’s not always possible to avoid offending people.

There’s a social price to be paid for having unpopular opinions. Sometimes it’s really important to people that you agree with them, and some of them will push the issue until you say something that offends them. (And, depending on the nature of the opinions, people might sometimes be justified in pushing the issue.) If you have strongly held unpopular opinions, it’s probably really important to work on keeping perspective in the face of other people’s anger.

But, not everybody is going to be hell-bent on pushing the issue, and even when they are, it’s still sometimes possible to avoid the conversation:

Sometimes the best thing is to immediately change the subject, eg:

  • Them: So what do you think of this controversial thing that we always fight about?
  • You: Let’s not go there. Did you see the game last night?

Some subject-change phrases:

  • “Did you see (episode of show you both like)?“
  • “How’s work?”
  • “How are your kids?“
  • “Do you think the weather will be good enough to go hiking this weekend?”

You can also sometimes evade the question by deflecting it to something vaguely related, eg:

Another possibility: expressing discomfort:

  • Them: So, what do you think about this controversial thing we always fight about?
  • You: I’m not really comfortable talking about that. 
  • or: “That’s really personal.“
  • or: “That’s a bit heavier than I like to get at a party; let’s keep it lighter.”

It can also sometimes work to give them a specific warning that they’re treading into potentially offensive territory (although this can also backfire):

  • Them: So what do you think of this controversial thing? 
  • You: I think my answer might offend you. Do you really want me to answer that question, or should we talk about something else?
  • or: “Do you really want to know the answer to that question?“

Another possibility: stating your opinion in a matter-of-fact way and refusing to fight about it:

  • Sometimes just stating the opinion in a straightforward way will deflect conflict
  • This doesn’t work with everyone, but it can be really effective with people who are trying to bait you into an emotionally laden fight
  • It’s sometimes possible to say what you think in a way that makes it clear what you think, and that you’re not interested in fighting about it

I’m not totally sure how to describe how to do this. But, eg:

  • Them: What do you think of the really popular ballot measure everyone else at this party likes?
  • You: Actually, I’m against it. I think it’s harmful to people with disabilities. 

Sometimes that can even lead to a good conversation. Sometimes it gets them to drop the subject. Sometimes it can lead to an argument (which you might be able to refuse to continue; you don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.) It helps a lot if you can take an unapologetic tone that doesn’t sound like you think you’re saying anything objectionable.

tl;dr If people try to pick fights with you on controversial issues, there are sometimes ways to deflect them. Scroll up for more details. 

Thank you for answering my question about telling if someone is annoyed at you or not.
I finally had a chance to talk with a co-worker about my problem person, and she said that this person is having a lot of personal problems, and it’s not me.
During a weekly checkin with my boss (because I’m new), I told her about some strange incidents w this employee, and she said the same thing. I’m glad I didn’t cause any drama by confronting anyone in the heat of the moment.
realsocialskills said:
Thank you for the update. I’m really glad you were able to figure things out.

interpreting workplace standoffishness

Anonymous said to :

Question about a common problem @ work: Sometimes “normal” (not really) people are distant, unfriendly, or even rude because they’re busy or not interested in being friendly. Sometimes they’re like that b/c they have a problem with you and they’re being cooly polite to cover it up.

As an autistic person, how can I tell the difference between a person who is unfriendly but has no ill intentions; versus a person who is unfriendly because there’s a problem?

This has caused me big problems at work.

realsocialskills said:

You can’t always tell, but there are a couple of approaches that work some of the time:

One way is to watch how they are with other people. Are they also cool and abrupt with others, or is it mostly directed just at you? If it’s mostly directed at you, they are probably annoyed with you specifically.

Another way is to ask other people who you work with. Are there people at work who you know like you, and who you get along well with? If so, you might be able to ask them, and they might know what’s going on. Eg:

  • “I feel like I’m offending Bob a lot. Do you think I am, or am I misreading something?”

Another possibility is asking the person. This can backfire and isn’t always a good idea, but sometimes talking to someone directly can go a long way towards solving the problem. Eg:

  • You: I feel like I’m annoying you a lot. Is there something you’d like me to do differently?
  • Them: It’s really annoying when people chat at me while I’m trying to concentrate. Could you keep it to work related things when it’s not lunch time?

Also, there’s a blog called Ask a Manager that you might want to read. It has a lot of really good posts on workplace culture and how to manage conflicts with coworkers.

Anyone else want to weigh in? How do you tell the difference between people who are just generally distant, vs people who have a problem with you in particular?

Perspective in the face of other people's anger

This is a thing that happens with some people:

  • People get angry
  • They tell you off in mean ways that make you feel horrible
  • Or their anger scares you, even if they’re not actually being mean
  • You feel like the way you’re feeling is evidence that you’ve *done* something horrible
  • Or you’re afraid, and feel like you have to grovel for forgiveness in order to be safe

It’s really, really hard to tell whether you’ve actually done something wrong when someone is being mean to you. (Or when you’re terrified by anger or conflict.)

If you’re afraid or hurting, or especially both, it’s hard to have perspective. Especially if you feel like acknowledging that you’ve done a horrible thing might make that person stop hurting you. *Especially* if you’re really good at reading what someone wants to hear.

This is doubly true for people who have been abused. If you’ve been hurt by someone who demanded that you stop thinking in the face of every conflict, it’s hard to think when other people are angry with you. 

There are countermeasures. It’s possible to learn to deal with anger and conflict without falling apart.

Countermeasure #1: recognizing feelings that indicate that your perspective is off, and creating distance

  • If you’re panicking and feeling inclined to make an abject apology, it’s probably time to step back
  • Even if it turns out that you were in the wrong, a panic apology is unlikely to make the situation better
  • Because when you’re panicking, you’re not really capable of apologizing sincerely anyway
  • It’s ok to need time to think
  • It’s ok to realize that you’re panicking and need to back away from the situation to be able to think
  • Someone who won’t let you do this is probably not someone you should trust

Countermeasure #2: considering reversal:

  • Think about what you did, and how the person who is angry at you is reacting
  • What do you think you’d do if the situation was reversed?
  • In light of that, do you think their reaction is reasonable?
  • And do you think you actually did something terribly wrong?
  • (The answer to this might be yes even if you think you would have reacted differently. But thinking about reversal can still make the situation easier to understand)

Countermeasure #3: Think in concrete terms:

  • What, specifically, does the person who is mad at you think you did?
  • Do you think you actually did that thing?
  • If not, do they have a reasonable basis for thinking that you did that thing?
  • Are they understanding correctly? Are they listening to your explanation of what you think you did? (eg: if they think you said a slur and you actually said a different word that they misheard, are they screaming at you and saying you are just making excuses?)
  • If you did do the thing, why are they angry about the thing?
  • Do you think it’s reasonable that they are offended?
  • Do you think it’s reasonable that they are *as* offended as they are?
  • (Think about this seriously, especially if they think you are being racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, etc towards them. Your initial reaction to this kind of thing is likely to be off base. But it is also possible to be wrong about these things, and ultimately, you have to think for yourself about whether you think you’re guilty of what you’re accused of.)

Countermeasure #4: Considering the perspective of someone you respect:

  • Think of someone who you know well and respect as someone who treats people well
  • If you’d done the thing to them, how do you think they’d react?
  • Does that match how the person who is angry at you now is reacting?
  • If you’d hurt the person you respect in a similar way by accident and they were upset with you, how do you think you’d be reacting?
  • Does it match how you’re reacting here? (Eg: are you more afraid? more inclined to panic-apologize? more defensive?)
  • In light of all of that, what do you think about what’s happening now?
  • Do you think that you did the thing you’re being accused of?
  • Do you think it was wrong? 
  • Do you think that the way they are reacting to you is unjustified or otherwise objectionable?
  • Do you think you should apologize? 
  • Do you think they should apologize?
  • (These are all real questions. Considering the hypothetical perspective of someone you know doesn’t give you automatic answers, but it can be helping as a way of getting unstuck when you’re afraid and inclined to panic about something you’ve been accused of. You might find that, even after you’ve stopped panicking, you still think that you have done something wrong and that you should apologize for it.)

Countermeasure #5: Outside perspective:

  • It can help to discuss the situation with people who know you well (especially if they’re not parties to the conflict)
  • Particularly if they are people who you can trust to tell you when they think you actually *have* done something wrong
  • Some friends are mutual check in people for one another. 
  • Some people get outside perspective from therapists. 
  • When you’re panicking, it can be hard to tell from the outside that you’re panicking. Panic in response to conflict can feel like you’re just accurately recognizing that you are terrible or something. 
  • It’s much easier to tell from the outside when that is happening
  • So, if you have people you trust to help you check your perspective, it is tremendously helpful in staying oriented and figuring out what’s actually going on

tl;dr: Some people find other people’s anger terrifying. If you experience that, it can be really hard not to automatically try to fix things by conceding that you are terrible and did a terrible thing. There are countermeasures that can help. It helps to work on noticing how you are feeling so that you can get distance when you need it. It helps to think about what you’d do if the roles were reversed. It helps to think as concretely as possible about the specifics of the situation. It helps to think about what you think someone you know well and respect would do (and what you would be doing if the conflict was with that person). It helps to get outside perspective from people you trust about what’s going on. 

Speaking up is hard

In just about every group conflict I’ve witnessed or participated in, I’ve seen some version of this happen:

  • Some people will speak up about something
  • There will be a conversation that gets heated
  • Someone else will be very uncomfortable with the fact that conflict is happening (despite somewhat sympathizing with the people who are speaking up)
  • And they will say something like, “Wow, I don’t like this tone. Can we all try to respect each other a bit more?”

And I think part of this is that people who aren’t speaking up really often have no idea how hard it is. It looks much easier than it is.

It’s hard, and it’s scary, to say something that you know will result in conflict. It’s hard to phrase things well, it’s hard and sometimes impossible to stand your ground in a way that makes everyone feel respected. Especially if you don’t have a lot of practice.

It’s possible that people who are speaking up really are being inappropriately or counterproductively disrespectful. That is a real thing that actually happens. But it’s also possible that people are doing the best they can, because speaking up is really hard and there’s often no way to do it which won’t be at least somewhat painful or awkward.

If you’re not in the habit of speaking up about anything other than the tone used by others when they speak up, it’s entirely possible that tone isn’t the real problem. It’s possible that the problem is that you haven’t learned through experience how hard it is to speak up, and how complicated of a skill it is to learn.

That is not always the problem, but it’s usually a possibility worth considering in that kind of situation.

Plans, changes, anxiety, depression, and conflict

I have anxiety and depression and probably some other shit I get very scared and panicked when someone says “I’ll be right back” and walks away from me and if I’m supposed to meet someone and they are late or don’t show up. I guess it’s abandonment.
So my question is: how do I keep from flipping out on my boyfriend when he accidentally distresses me, like when I’m supposed to pick him up but he finds another way home. His phone is off so he can’t tell me.
And I guess my other question: is it fair for him to get frustrated and angry with me when I tell him that doing this is inconsiderate? He said he thought he’d get home before I left to get him so it wasn’t intentional, but I still feel disrespected.
realsocialskills said:
This doesn’t sound to me like it’s just a depression and anxiety problem. It sounds to me like either something is going wrong with your communication with friends, or people aren’t treating you well, or a combination of both. It’s hard for me to tell which from a distance.
Having anxiety and depression does not mean that you are wrong every time you are upset about something. Sometimes, you’re going to be upset because something is actually wrong. 
It is not unreasonable to want people you make plans with to either show up or let you know that they’re not going to make it. It is not unreasonable to want people to tell you if they are going to be late. It is not unreasonable to want people you’re supposed to pick up to let you know if they found another ride. Those expectations are normal, and not something unusual caused by mental illness. Most people would be upset if others habitually made plans and failed to show up.
(It might be unreasonable to expect people to refrain for saying “I’ll be right back” and walking away, depending on the context. For instance, that’s sometimes a euphemism for going to the bathroom. So if you’re, say, eating at a restaurant and someone says that, it’s probably not reasonable to object.  But if they’re, say, leaving you in the middle of a crowded park without any clear plans for how you’re going to reconnect, that’s a problem. There are any number of configurations for that; it’s hard for me to tell just based on the phrase.)
It is entirely reasonable to want people to care that they flaked in a way that was distressing. Even if they did it for a reason or thought it would be ok, they should care that they flaked on you and apologize if it caused you distress. They should also be willing to think about how to avoid that problem in the future. In close relationships, people make mistakes from time to time that cause one another inadvertent distress. If someone gets angry and defensive every time you feel upset about something they did, something’s going wrong.
That said, it’s not ok to regularly flip out at people close to you for making mistakes. It’s hard for me to tell from your description if that’s what’s happening. Like, I could see a few possibilities:
Possibility #1: You’re actually flipping out in a way that’s not reasonable. Eg:
  • You: WTF?! Why didn’t you show up?! You’re a terrible boyfriend. You always do this. Why don’t you respect me?
  • Him: I thought I’d get home first. I’m sorry.
  • You: That’s not good enough. You’re awful. Why can’t you be considerate ever?

If this is what’s going on, you flipping out may well be part of the problem (but not the whole problem, because wanting people to either keep plans or let you know that they’ve changed is entirely reasonable even if the way you react is not.)

If actually flipping out on people is part of the problem, then it’s important to learn how to distinguish between how it feels to have anxiety triggered and what someone actually did. If you’re freaking out, it might be best to hold off on talking about what’s going on until you’ve calmed down. It might also help to say explicitly something like “I’m not rational right now; let’s talk about this in a few minutes.” (This is also the kind of issue that a lot of people find therapy helpful for. I don’t know if you’re someone who would find therapy helpful, but it might be worth looking into.)

But even if you are doing things that look like flipping out, that may be misleading. It’s possible that he’s intentionally provoking you in order to make you look unreasonable to avoid dealing with the problem. That brings us to possibility #2:

Possibility #2: He’s accusing you of flipping out as a way to avoid dealing with the thing you’re complaining about. Eg:

  • You: I went to pick you up and you weren’t there. What gives?
  • Him: Chill. I thought I’d be home by the time you got here. Why are you flipping out on me?
  • You: Can you please call me if plans change?
  • Him: Why are you accusing me of being inconsiderate? I didn’t do anything wrong.

For more on that kind of dynamic, see this post and this post.

Possibility #3: You’re responding to a pattern, he’s insisting that you treat it as an isolated incident, and that’s pissing you off. Eg:

  • You: I went to go pick you up and you weren’t there and didn’t call. Can you please let me know if plans change.
  • Him: Oh, sorry, I thought you’d come home first and see that I was already here.
  • You: Ok, but this happened last week too. Can we figure out how to stop it from happened?
  • Him: That happened last week. That’s over and done with.
  • You (raising your voice): This keeps happening! I need it to stop!
  • Him: Why are you flipping out? I *said* I was sorry.

Possibility #4: You both mean well, but you’re setting off each other’s berserk buttons inadvertently. Eg:

  • You (visibly close to melting down): You weren’t there?! You are here? Why weren’t you there?
  • Him (freaked out by the idea that he did something seriously upsetting, also visibly close to meltdown): I tried to be there! I did! I thought it would be ok!

If that’s the problem, finding an alternate way to communicate about problems might solve the problem. For instance, it might mean that you need to type instead of speaking, or use IM in different rooms, or talk on the phone. Or it might mean that you need ground rules about how to communicate in a conflict without setting each other off. For instance, some people need to explicitly reassure each other that this is about a specific thing and not your judgement of whether they’re a good person (sometimes judging people is appropriate and necessary. This kind of reassurance only help if that really *isn’t* the issue).

This is not an exhaustive list. There are other patterns of interaction that could be going on here. But whatever is going on, it probably isn’t just your depression and anxiety making you unreasonable. It is ok to expect people to either keep plans or let you know when they have changed.



I have a friend with depression who frequently cancels plans or doesn’t message me back, and even though I know it’s because she has a limited amount of emotional energy and not because she doesn’t care about me, I end…

monochromatically said:

This is really spot on!

As the “Debra” in a similar situation last year, I’d say that actually discussing the emotional hurt in a non-confrontational, calm manner is an excellent way to work out new levels of expectation in the friendship.

My friend used to always make plans and want to meet up every day for “girly” best friend activities i.e. shopping trips, dinners out & spa outings. None of which I could find the energy for when my depression was at its worst. Our friendship really suffered. She felt like I was trying hard enough for the friendship and that I was being a bad friend. I felt that she wasn’t trying to understand what I was going through and not being very understanding/ listening to me.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that communication is really important. Sometimes, planning events that don’t take much energy is a good way to still hang out ~ make outings that are close by, easy to get to, and not too long. Maybe try to message her and ask if you could come over to her house for a cup of tea etc. Keep it short and simple, and most of all, communicate clearly.

realsocialskills said:

Yes, communication is important.

It’s also hard. Because sometimes, people think they’re communicating about the problem when what they’re really having is more like this conversation:

  • Cathy: It really hurts my feelings when you can’t do things you’re incapable of doing right now
  • Debra: I’m sorry. I’ll do those things. I don’t know why I don’t. I’ll be a good friend now that I know how much it’s hurting you.

And that conversation just make everything worse, particularly when it happens over and over. 

A conversation that would be better:

  • Cathy: It really hurts my feelings when we make lots of plans that you don’t keep. I feel like you don’t care about me when that happens. Can we figure out a different way of doing things?
  • Debra: I really wish I could still make plans and do those kinds of things, but I can’t do that right now. What if we hung out more online?

tl;dr Talking about feelings can backfire. Feelings are not always the primary problem. When there’s another problem, it’s important to talk about that problem as well as or instead of hashing out feelings.



I was conditioned from a really young age to be passive and go along with whatever was happening (mostly because of my dad’s temper. He was never abusive but he was very angry and it was never worth the battle to disagree with him), so now everytime i get into a disagreement or heated discussion with someone I end up crying and choking up to the point that I can’t get a sentence out. Do you have any advice for being able to argue inspite of this?
realsocialskills said:
A few suggestions:
It might help to communicate more slowly when things aren’t urgent. For instance:
  • Some conversations might be possible for you to have over email, but not in person
  • It’s ok to say “let’s move this conversation to email so I can figure out what I think without melting down”
  • It’s also ok to need to pause the conversation from time to time
  • Needing the conversation to be over for a while doesn’t mean you’ve conceded the point
  • Some things are urgent, but a lot of conversations can be slowed down

Learn to use the word “maybe”:

  • It’s ok not to know what you want
  • It’s ok not to know whether you’re ok with something
  • It’s ok to need time to figure it out
  • “Maybe” is an important word, you don’t always have to say yes or no immediately

It might help not to rely so much on your voice:

  • A lot of people who can’t get words out for various reasons can still type
  • You might find that typing is more reliable than speech for you when a conversation gets emotionally intense
  • An iPad can be really useful for this since it is very portable
  • You can use a text-to-speech app (Verbally is a free one, Proloquo4Text is a dramatically better but also more expensive one),
  • Or you can even type in Notes and show the screen to the person you’re talking to
  • Or sometimes typing the thing first can make it possible to say the thing with your voice.

It might help to make less eye contact:

  • If you’re intimidated, looking at someone’s face can make matters worse
  • If you aren’t looking at their face, it might be easier to think and speak
Do any of y’all have suggestions for things that help with this?

billiestiletto said:

I think a lot of this is good advice. As someone who experiences a very similar reaction to what Anon describes, I’d like to add the following:

  • Not making eye contact is a good point. Often I’ll look upward when I’m trying to think of what to say, down when I’m listening and trying to get my thoughts straight, or sometimes look at another part of the person’s body. It can also help to keep your eyes closed for a bit or use something to cover them that you can also wipe your tears with.
  • Typing can be extremely useful - I am much better at handling myself during a disagreement or heated conversation over text or email, sometimes even on the phone - but sometimes in immediate, face-to-face conversations you don’t have the ability to change the medium of the conversation, or it might make you too uncomfortable to ask to change the medium of the conversation.
  • In these situations, sometimes what you can do is excuse yourself for a few minutes to break up the conversation. You can leave and go into the bathroom to take a few minutes to get it out of your system, so to speak; regain your composure and think about how you feel and how you can phrase it when you return to the conversation. You also absolutely can leave, or ask the other person to leave, so that you can have some time to think.
  • Sometimes you can’t get it out of your system and you end up struggling through the conversation regardless, but that’s okay. Sometimes when I get upset it can take me a *long* time to be able to stop crying. It’s okay to have emotional reactions to things that some people think are disproportionate. I know how frustrating it is when you want to converse calmly and rationally but your body is overtaking you.
  • Sometimes half the reason I get emotional is because I am frustrated at myself for getting emotional. It’s a vicious cycle. If you experience this, I’d recommend trying to be gentle and understanding with yourself. Don’t be embarrassed that you’re crying.
  • Silence helps. If you’re too upset to say anything, you don’t have to say anything. You can tell someone if you’re being quiet during an argument, “I’m just trying to collect my thoughts,” or “Please give me a minute to think about what I’d like to say,” something along those lines. It’s possible that may give you enough time to regain your faculty of speech. Acknowledging that you’re upset can help, too. “I’m upset right now, but I’m trying to get my thoughts straight.”
  • Oftentimes, when I’m in a close enough relationship with the person, I’ll explain to them at some point that this is something that happens when I get upset. If they’re respectful, they might notice this when it happens and be a little more understanding and give you space. It also can help people understand that you’re not trying to be manipulative when you start to cry during an argument (I think this is an unfair assessment, by the way, but it happens).
  • I used to apologize when I started crying and try to justify myself with saying things like, “I’m still interested in a rational discussion, but I’m getting upset, so please give me a minute to speak.” You don’t owe them an apology, though. Everybody reacts differently to difficult conversations, and your reaction is OK.
  • People who might accuse you of being manipulative or too sensitive are being unfair. You don’t owe it to them to talk the way *they* want you to talk. I always find it harder to regain composure if I know that someone is getting frustrated with me or starting to become accusatory, so in these situations I find it most important to extract myself from the conversation for a while. If someone brings this up, maybe you can say something like, “If you feel this way, maybe we should finish this conversation later when I’m more together.” That gives you a chance to gracefully leave the conversation and approach it fresh at a later time.
  • In some situations, jokes help. I think it’s important to be kind to yourself, but a bit of self-deprecating humour can sometimes help break through the emotional wall that’s getting you too upset to speak. If you can find a way to laugh at yourself a little, it might not only easy the seriousness of the conversation enough to allow you to calm down, but also help the other person understand that you’re experiencing a reaction you can’t fully control. “Wow, look at me go! I’ve got so much snot coming out of my nose, let me go get a kleenex.” (Crying sucks.) Of course, this depends a lot on the person you’re arguing with, what you’re arguing about, and what their temperament is like.

I hope this helps a little. This post piqued my interest because it’s something I’ve struggled with for years.

Words like “bully”, “tease” or “abuse” are labels. Then someone can say “No, it isn’t!” because it doesn’t match the images in their mind. I think it’s better to describe what happened in terms that can’t be disagreed with, and to describe your own feelings, which others aren’t really in a position to disagree with. For example: “He stood close to me. I felt intimidated. He mentioned my disability in a sing-song voice. I felt humiliated. He struck me, and I could still feel it 30 minutes later.”
realsocialskills answered:
I think it’s important to have a way of talking about these things that isn’t just a matter of subjective feelings.
Because feelings can be wrong, or at least misleading. A bigot can feel humiliated by seeing someone they as subhuman being treated as my equal. A racist can feel intimidated by the presence of a person of color. In that case, the problem is that someone is a bigot or a racist. If they change how they think, they’ll feel better.
In contrast, if someone is experiencing injustice, the solution is for the injustice to stop. And it’s ok to oppose injustice by saying “this is wrong”; you don’t have to soften it by making it about your feelings.
Humiliation feels the same whether or not anyone is wronging you - you have to think about what’s going on and get a lot right to be able to figure out what to do.
Understanding the actual situation matters.
Push come to shove, it matters what’s true, and that’s not always a matter of feelings.
If we want to stop bullying, we have to be able to use words that acknowledge that people actually are bullying others. We can’t just focus on the fact that people feel bullied.

Facebook boundaries

(This is in regards to your recent post about no, boundaries, and pushing people around.) After a multi-year relationship ends, person A still feels intense pain on seeing person B’s face/name on friends Facebook walls. Person B has largely removed themselves from person A’s social circles, but the mutual friends keep them as Facebook friends. Would it be asserting or pushing for person A to politely ask that those friends remove person B from their Facebook due to the pain person A feels?

realsocialskills said:

I think it depends on the situation and the relationships involved. I think that would usually be more like pushing people around, but not always. 

I think that it’s usually unreasonable to expect people to choose between person A and person B in a breakup, unless the relationship was abusive. And asking people to unfriend someone on Facebook is definitely asking them to take sides.

And even if the relationship was abusive, it might not be in your interests to try to convince every single person who knows both of you of this.

That said, if you block someone on Facebook, then they won’t show up in your feed even if they comment on things that you can see. Blocking someone makes them invisible to you for the most part. I think it would be better to try that first.