Never thought I'd write but... years ago, when I started my current career, I was befriended by an older woman. She and I bonded and have become very, very close over the years. In the past few years, though, I've started to think of her as "toxic" - she's very negative about others, events, the profession, etc. and when she talks, it's like that old fairytale about the frogs and snails falling from her mouth. In one joint venture, she created problems that have taken about a year to clean up.
I've been pulling back: not sending as many e-mails, not calling, not spending time with her at meetings, etc. I don't want to hurt her, but I don't want my reputation to be hurt nor can I take the constant negativity. Any advice?
It sounds like as your own career has blossomed, you may have grown apart from—or simply outgrown your friend—who you once saw as a wise mentor. During this period of time, she may have also changed. It sounds like she is more jaded and negative about her work than she was when the two of you first met.
It’s great that you are aware of the growing schism between you and that you have instinctively done the right thing by pulling back from the relationship. You are also wise to be cautious about not alienating her since she is part of your professional circle.
My advice would be to try to establish better boundaries between the personal and professional relationship. Do acknowledge her and say hello at meetings but don’t get into extended discussions. Send her work-related questions or information if you need to, but don’t send her personal emails or plan after-work dinners.
Unless she is clueless, she will probably recognize that you are pulling back. If she asks you why or confronts you, come up with an excuse that allows her to save face. Remember that she helped you become the person/professional you are today. You might say that you’re working on a relationship, working on a book, or realizing your own need for more down time.
Taking the time to write this note suggests that you are sensitive to your mentor’s feelings, as you should be. Because of that, I’m confident that you won’t do anything to provoke a backlash or damage your own professional reputation. If “frogs and snails” are spewing from your mentor’s mouth,” it’s likely that others will recognize her toxicity and won’t question your motives for backing off. They may be thinking, “Why didn’t she do it sooner?”
I think you are doing all the right things and hope your escape goes smoothly.