Reader Q & A: Escape from a toxic mentor



Dear Irene,


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?

Signed, Amy


Dear Amy:


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.

My best,


Reader Q & A: Friends@Work


Dear Irene:

A friend and I are about to start different jobs at the same place of business. We'll have different responsibilities and pay but will work on the same team so we will interact fairly often. This will not be a supervisory relationship but I'm anxious about it. I don't want to risk losing a friend (or have difficulty) and I want to do a good job - so does she.

She has less experience on the job and I have more in the field. She'd like me to mentor her when those opportunities present themselves. I'm okay with this but it is a new experience for me off the bat. I'm not sure but my friend seems more relaxed and doesn't understand why I am worrying about things that have not happened yet. I am moving to another state to take this new job. She lives in the state and it's her first job in 15 years. I want to learn what I can and not worry. Do you have any tips?




Hi Stephanie:


It is always a challenge to take on a new job, but this is particularly so when it involves a move to a new location. So you are wise to think about how it will affect your friendship-since it very well may do so.

You need to explicitly (and perhaps, repeatedly) remind your friend (now colleague) that you are anxious about taking on new responsibilities and that you will try to mentor her informally behind the scenes-but as a friend rather than as a supervisor. You need to get settled in to your new role yourself first. She may not realize that even though you have more experience, your job will be new-to-you. Hopefully, this discussion will ward off her leaning on you too much and she will let you set the pace in terms of how much time and energy you have to mentor her. Because she hasn't worked for 15 years, she may not remember the challenges of starting a new job, which can be formidable.

Having a friend who lives in a new state can be helpful to you in many ways. Those first weeks may be lonely and you may want to depend on her for certain things particularly with the holidays coming up. It sounds like your relationship can be one of give and take---as long as you both keep realistic boundaries.

Always remember that you need to put on your own life vest first before you can help others. It's great that you are aware of the potential pitfalls because that means you are less likely to fall into them. Best wishes for a successful move and transition. Let us know how things go.



Reader Q & A: Feeling like the odd woman out



Dear Irene,

I have just come across this website and I must say it is one of the most delightful discoveries I have ever made! I do have an issue with my friends and would be grateful if you could give me your opinion as I have given it a great deal of thought but have pretty much stayed at square one.

I have a group of close friends (four in total). We met at University and since leaving two years ago we talk regularly over the phone and see each other almost every weekend, except for one friend who lives down South and we can't see as often.

Within the group we all have our little roles, mine being the 'listener' or 'mother'. I have always had difficulties opening up so I am also known as the one who 'doesn’t talk about her feelings'. Don't get me wrong, whenever I have needed help or advice they have ALWAYS been there for me and I appreciate that so much.

During these last few months, I have noticed a change. I seem to have lost a lot of patience when talking to my friends. The things I once found so amusing are now things that can irritate me and I find myself thinking that they can be rather 'self-centered' and take me for granted which can sometimes lead to me feeling somewhat upset.

When I try to share this with my friends I get either reactions of guilt from them (which I then feel bad for), surprise (which makes me think I'm I just paranoid) or just get nervously laughed at. After these thoughts I tend to feel really guilty and will usually try to "make up" for things.

I am getting frustrated because I can't seem to solve this issue. Do you think it is just paranoia? I feel so bad for having these feelings towards my friends so if you could give me your opinion it would be great!

Thank you!!
Signed Anonymous Across the Pond, UK


Dear Anonymous:

It is so nice that you have kept your college friendships alive. It’s natural that each woman in a circle of friends would tend to have a different personality. Although you have much in common that initially brought and now keeps you together, you come from different gene pools, with different experiences, and have different personalities.

You mention that you have assumed the role of ‘listener’ or ‘mother,’ in your group providing advice and counsel rather than sharing your own feelings and emotions. This may be because you have a greater need to maintain boundaries and refrain from sharing intimacies than do your friends. For whatever reasons, you are uncomfortable getting too close to these friends.

It doesn’t sound like you have paranoia but it does sound like you may be feeling impatient and more irritable than usual. Perhaps, you are uncomfortable as a member of a close-knit group or perhaps, there are other things going on in your life---having nothing to do with your friendships----that are weighing on you now.

These friendships sound important to you and worth saving. Seems like you have many options; here are a few suggestions: 1) Take small steps to express you own needs and emotions to these friends rather than relegating yourself to the role of an observer and listener; try out the role of being more of an active participant, 2) Try to figure out if there is something else making you less patient than usual, 3) Skip a couple of weeks and see if you feel better next time you get together, or 4) Spend less time with these women and expand your friendships so that you don’t rely as heavily on this one group.

Only you can tell you whether your discomfort is a sign that you have changed and are itching to move on---or whether something else is going on. If you determine to change your relationship with the group, you should seek a graceful way to do it, creating more distance without completely cutting yourself off from these women.

Hope this is helpful.



Reader Q & A: Needy Friends: They just don't understand





Dear Irene:


I have several girlfriends who seem needy to me. While we all go through difficult times, it seems they always have problems. I am unmarried, with a boyfriend who lives an hour away, I am running a business and my household and they have all of the support - husbands, children, family - which is great. But for some reason even with all this support they do not seem to have anyone to go to. I am essentially alone - which is fine and I get up everyday and do what I have to do.


Every single time I talk to any of them they are always asking me to come visit or to go out---one hour away driving from my home after I've worked all day. I don't get it. It is really annoying and upsetting to me. I want these friends to be a part of my life not my whole life.


One seems to think that I should hang out at her place while she complains about her husband and yells at her two kids. The other wants me to sit with her while she - using her words "wallows" - she has nothing to wallow about - nothing bad has happened to her. I feel like these people have no problem always asking for something from me. I am tired of it.


Anonymous Single Person




Dear Anonymous Single Person:


I guess your friends assume that because you don't have a husband or kids, you have no responsibilities to yourself, your business, or to other people. NOT. If this is their thinking, it makes me wonder how you ever managed to surround yourself with "several" of these self-centered people.


I am so happy that you are able to say that you are tired of these lopsided relationships. Identifying the problem, even to yourself, means that you realize you deserve much more. These people are going to continue to act the way they habitually do unless you give them a reason to change their behavior.


As a first step, set some firm boundaries (to them and to yourself) about how often you see them, where you see them, and what you do when you are together. Can you suggest that you get together and see a movie? Go to dinner? Go to a gym? Any of these would offer a more neutral turf and might also offer a much needed respite for your family-beleaguered friends.


If you're tired after a long day, you're entitled to say you that you are---why not ask them to get a babysitter or relative to watch the kids and come see you? Can you tell them that it doesn't help to "wallow" in pity and suggest that you do something else when you are together?


These are a few suggestions but I think you will need to evaluate each of these relationships that you lump together as ‘needy friendships' and figure out what you are receiving from each one. For relationships to be rewarding, they need to offer a sense of intimacy (feeling like you understand her and are understood) and a sense of reciprocity (like you are getting as much from her as you are giving). I'm not sure that these "friendships" you have described offer either.




Reader Q & A: Good boundaries make good friendships


Dear Irene:

Hi, I have a friend who doesn’t have very good boundaries. I live in a small town. I am a fairly private person who is social but also like my alone time. This friend has stopped by my house when I don't answer the phone and once she comes over, doesn't leave until really late.

I have no idea how to tell her nicely that it is now time for her and her children to leave. I really value our friendship, but she and her children are very intense and I don't want to spend every waking moment with her. I think she would spend all the time with me if she could.

Any advice? I want to be able to get together with her without being with her for the rest of the day. Also, she seems to get irritated with me and think something is wrong when I don't do what she wants or don’t see her for a couple of days.




Dear Anonymous,

The most satisfying friendships are built on a foundation of balance and reciprocity. It sounds like your relationship isn’t balanced; your friend covets more of your time and space than is comfortable for you. Yet, you allow her to show up at your home uninvited---and permit her to stay past her welcome. That’s a recipe for a fractured friendship to come!

Sadly, she doesn’t have the sensitivity to sense when you’ve had enough of her or to read your nonverbal cues. In cases like this, you need to be more explicit and tell her something like, “I hope you won’t take offense but it’s getting late and I have an early appointment in the morning” or “I have to get the kids to calm down before bedtime.”

Another tactic might be to schedule your time with your friend so there is a beginning and an end that it is set firm. For example, you might say “I have about four hours before I need to take care of stuff. We’ll have to wrap things up by 2PM” or “Why don’t we meet at the park for an hour or two?”

Acknowledge (to yourself) that you may have boundary issues as well. You need to start to establish ground rules so you don’t wind up feeling angry and abused. Since you really seem to like this friend, it’s worth the risk of explaining how you feel. Tell her that you treasure her friendship but need more alone time for yourself and your family.

Admittedly, I have only heard a little slice of a long story and I suspect your discomfort over this boundary may be just the tip of the iceberg. I suspect that there are other ways in which she is insensitive to your needs and that you feel like you are giving more than you’re getting. Let us know what happens.

My best,



Reader Q&A: Self-centered friends with hefty needs


One of the most popular posts on my blog has been one on the topic of needy friends. An anonymous poster recently wrote about her “friend,” whom her husband labels as an “emotional vampire” who is sucking away all her energy. Read on…


Dear Irene,

This site has been a real help to me. As a woman I think we gear ourselves to try and help those around us. I am in the middle of a relationship with a 'needy' friend.

Her husband is never good enough (tho he tries!) Always yelling at her children (tho they try!) and complaining to me all the while. The kind of person who ALWAYS asks for some sort of favor when you see them, childcare, to borrow stuff etc.. She asked if she could store around 2 bags of yarn in my garage and showed up with twenty 30-gallon garbage bags full.

It's causing stress between my husband and myself (we typically have a great relationship) and my children. If I don't answer her phone calls (there are MANY during the day) she usually shows up at my house. My husband calls her an emotional vampire who is sucking all my energy away. I have started saying no to her (the last favor she asked of me, when I said I didn't have time she started to yell!) but I stuck to it and will try to continue to do so. It's hard though- because I have to see her at the kids school- but I just need to stay strong and do what's best for my family first.




You haven’t expressed anything positive about your friendship with her but even assuming there is, it sounds like you need to set some boundaries and stick to them! It's great that you recognize your own priorities and there's nothing wrong with telling her that you like your privacy and feel uncomfortable when anyone pops in unexpected. Multiple phone calls are too much if you feel like they are too much.

I understand the potential discomfort of bumping into her at your kids' school but if you handle it calmly and graciously, without attacking or blaming her, you'll establish some needed distance. On the other hand, she sounds so self-centered that she might not even notice the change in her relationship with you and will decide to pounce on easier prey.

Good luck and let us know what happens.




Reader Q & A: Saying NO to the Queen of Favors


Dear Irene,


Someone please help. E-mail me a response. I have a friend that is about to be my sister-in-law; her wedding is in two weeks. She takes and takes and TAKES from me because I can’t say NO!

I’m fed up and don’t know how to tell her. She has me sending out invitations, baking and decorating her cupcakes and the groom’s cake for the wedding, helping her with the music and there’s no telling what else is yet to come. If I try to say NO, she twists it and keeps pressuring me until I give in. Oh, and I’m her maid of honor. We had to pay for our own dresses and my husband had to pay for his shirt---that’s over $100.00 already. I paid to give her a luau shower and I helped out with the bachelorette party.

The last straw was when my husband didn’t pay for his shirt because we spent over $50 (the price of the shirt) on necessities for the cakes...he just wanted to call it even. Now she is calling me, crying and upset trying to get me to pay for the shirt!!!

Signed Megan



Hi Megan:

This is just the beginning of your relationship with your once-friend who morphed into a sister-in-law---so you need to set realistic boundaries for the future about what you feel comfortable doing for her and what you don’t. For example, you shouldn’t feel like you have to spend more money on her than feels comfortable for you or that fits within your budget---no matter what she thinks she deserves or is entitled to. She may think that now that you are relatives, she can ask you for anything and everything.


As time passes, if you keep acquiescing to every favor the Queen of Favors asks of you, as you have seen, she will continue to ask for more. You may need to speak to your brother to give him a heads up and to ask for his help in giving the message to his bride-to-be that you are starting to feel like a patsy. You don’t want to blindside him and create conflict between the newlyweds by taking on his wife without letting him know.


That said, weddings are always times of great angst for brides and their families. I think that now isn't the time to begin to say NO for the first time or to try to change your sister-in-law-to-be. Be gracious until the wedding is over and let her enjoy her special day. Then stick to your guns.


Hope this is helpful.





Reader Q & A: Should friends have open-door policies?



Not sure how I will find this once I post it, but here is a good question about women and friendship. If you are busy with work/play/school/other responsibilities and have a totally different time and life schedule, is it okay for a friend to drop by anytime without calling?

I have a friend/maybe had, that feels a friend should never have to call ahead to visit. She says her door is always open. We had a blow-up over that very issue. She was upset that she spent gas to come here and didn't get to be invited inside. I had left with someone, taking their transportation, not my own, so she assumed (car is there-pets are there) that I must be home and not answering.

I say, even if I had been, that is okay too, to not want company unannounced. My apology and an offer to give her money for gas led to a response that any friend would welcome me as I do them, open door. And she said though I did say sorry to get on with my life and if I want to visit her I do not need to call ahead.



Dear Anonymous,

You’re asking about whether it’s okay for friends to drop in on one another. There's no right or wrong: It depends on their relationship and how each friend feels about it.

In your case, it sounds like you may have an out-of-sync friendship. You seem to be on a fast-track, juggling multiple responsibilities; your friend has enough spare time to take a cruise to your house not knowing whether you’ll be there or not (even though the price of gas is nearly 4 bucks a gallon!) One of you is a casual type and thinks it is perfectly okay to drop in on a friend unannounced; the other would always call and expect to be called if the situation were reversed.

What concerns me more than these differences is that your friend is unwilling to accept the boundaries that make you feel comfortable, and she doesn’t trust or believe you when you tell her something.

Seems like your communication problems ended in what must have been an uncomfortable blow-up. These are your options: You can apologize when cooler heads prevail; you can make believe it never happened and visit her to “patch up” the friendship, or you can let go of the friendship---if it feels toxic and makes you feel uncomfortable.

Whatever you decide to do, hopefully, this unpleasant experience has taught you something about yourself, about your friend, and about the complexities of friendships.



On Lipstick Jungle: The boundaries of friendship aren't always black and white

The fourth episode (called Bombay Highway) of Candace Bushnell's hot new TV series Lipstick Jungle raises an important set of issues that many women grapple with during the course of their friendships with one another.


What should a friend do or say, if anything, when her Bestie does something illegal, immoral or hurtful to herself or to others---or something that clearly conflicts with her own moral or ethical values? Can they still remain close friends or will it eventually alter the nature of their relationship?

On Lipstick, Nico Reilly (played by Kim Raver) plunges into a steamy affair (behind her professor husband's back) with a young stud named Kirby. There are hints that her husband, too, might be having an affair but he comes across as a pretty decent guy.


Nico, a high-achiever like the other women on the show, has such strong needs for affirmation that she never considers the potential ramifications of her lusty indiscretions for her marriage or her career---let alone her own self-esteem. Her friends Wendy (Brooke Shields) and Victory (Lindsay Price) are a bit taken aback and seem puzzled by this out-of-character behavior. They accept it to Nico's face but talk about it disparagingly behind her back.


This scenario isn't far-fetched---nor is it only the stuff of Hollywood scripts. When I surveyed women for my friendship study, women of all ages told me stories about friends with addictions who they painfully watched destroying themselves; ones who were abusive to their husbands or children; ones who lied to their friends and let them down; and ones who committed crimes. They struggled with the feelings of dissonance over these once-close but now fractured friendships.


Is it the duty of a good friend to support whatever path her friend decides to take? Or should she dissuade her friend from jumping off a cliff? Should she ignore, isolate or overlook behavior she doesn't condone? To step in, how egregious does the behavior have to be?


Although the answers aren't clear-cut and depend on the people involved, what has transpired, and how discrepant the friends' values have become, it is truly a myth that, "Good friends stand behind you, no matter what."


Lipstick, along with Cashmere Mafia, is one of a genre of TV shows that depict women's friendships---like I Love Lucy, Laverne and Shirley, Kate & Allie, Cagney & Lacey, Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Friends, Designing Women, The Golden Girls, Sex and the City, and Desperate Housewives that came before them. What women love about watching these shows is that they raise issues in Technicolor that are often just beneath the surface of our own lives.

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