Ask Dr. NerdLove: How Do I Turn A Friend Down?

Hey Doc, 

A few days back, my girlfriend bumped into someone she knew from school but hadn’t connected to since at the subway stop. They chatted for a bit, and then her train came. To her surprise, the guy got on the train with her despite the fact that it was not going in the direction that he was. During the trip, he mentioned several times how lonely he was, and how bitter and angry that makes him. In school, my girlfriend had been kind to this person after his diagnosis with Aspergers, during which time he shared that he had suicidal tendencies. Now, she’s worried that he doesn’t have anyone with whom he can share these feelings. Other than a mutual appreciation of the same TV series, they don’t have anything in common.

This evening, the person sent my girlfriend an email asking to go to a movie together. On one hand, she feels like she has a responsibility to help someone so obviously in need of companionship. On the other, she has no interest in spending any more time with the guy, and has neither the time or energy to become this person’s emotional support system, because she’ll be starting an intensive program in Engineering soon. She doesn’t want to agree to one meeting and give the impression that she wants to be his BFF, but she doesn’t want the guilt of ghosting him or turning him down and later learning that he had hurt himself or others. He doesn’t seem to take hints very well, or he wouldn’t have followed her home.

Should she give him the one hang out he wants, or should she find a way to turn him down gently? She wants my advice, but I don’t know what to say.

What About Bob?

It’s good that your girlfriend is concerned about this guy’s feelings, WaB. But There’s a difference between “being concerned about someone” and “signing on to be their emotional cruise director.” One of the issues that comes up with folks who are in the center of the Venn diagram with “lonely” on one side and “socially awkward” on the other is that they tend to imprint on the first person to be nice to them like an awkward duckling. Which can be sweet at times but it’s also exhausting; more often than not, it means that they’re putting all of their emotional intimacy eggs into that one metaphorical basket. That in and of itself is a problem, but it also means that they tend to rely on that person for all of their future social connections.

And then there’s the fact that this dude is waving some red flags around. Getting on the train going in the wrong direction to keep talking to her… ok, he may not quite get appropriate behavior. It’s still creepy, but it’s a one-off. That plus advertising his bitterness and rage and dropping subtle hints about his loneliness… I can’t really blame your girlfriend for feeling weird about this guy.

Plus: she’s got her own life to live. She’s busy as it is, and her job isn’t to be this dude’s therapist, surrogate or nursemaid. And this guy is already giving signs of attaching himself to her like a lovesick lamprey.

Look, this is a case where there won’t be just one hang-out. If she meets up with him once, she’s going to be opening up the door to even more demands on her time… and she’ll feel guilty not giving it to him. Blame the same socialization that women go through that teaches them to be overly-giving to others, even at the expense of themselves.

The best thing your girlfriend can do is turn him down, gently but firmly. It’s important that she makes it clear that she’s not interested in hanging out with him; a soft “no” like “I can’t, I’m busy right now” will be read as a “…so keep trying.” She doesn’t have to be cruel or harsh about it, but she should be clear that she’s not available or interested in hanging out with him.

The other thing to keep in mind: she’s not responsible for whatever he does or doesn’t do after she turns him down. That’s bullshit that people try to use to leverage others – especially women – into doing things they don’t want to do. Just as Shana Fisher wasn’t responsible for Dimitrios Pagourtzis shooting up the school in Santa Fe, Texas, your girlfriend isn’t on the hook for this guy’s actions. He may be lonely, he may be autistic, but he still is making choices of his own free will. That’s on him. 

Tell your girlfriend the best thing she can say is “thanks but no thanks, best of luck on your search.”

Good luck.

Dear Dr. NerdLove,

I am a screw-up trying to unscrew his screw-ups with women. Several things happened in my freshman year that reinforced my need to get better with interacting with women: I was falsely accused of stalking a girl in my orientation group, I torched a friendship with a female friend after groping her by accident and making her even more uncomfortable in my attempts to apologize, and learned that I had creeped out the girl I’d had a crush on since the beginning of the year. This is compounding on the screw-ups with women I had during high school, and suffice it to say, there are a lot of them. 

I was tired of repeating history, so I went Google searching for advice on not creeping out women, which is how I found your ‘Don’t Be A Creep’ series of articles. I learned about “soft ‘no’s”, “oneitis”, the importance of eye contact and observation of personal space, and a bunch of other helpful stuff, and for a while, it seemed to work. I fully realized some of the creepy actions I’ve done in my past, reached out to the people I could and apologized. I apologized to my crush and became, if not friends, someone she’s OK having around. I kicked porn and masturbation for four months and enjoyed the results. It was a little exhilarating. 

Well, school’s out and reality came crashing in. I had talked a little to my ex-friend, and she said she was open to me texting her, which I tried and got left on read. I had gotten my crush’s Snapchat a few weeks before school was out; it’s going on 3 weeks into summer, and she still hasn’t added me back. I tried to contact a victim of my creepiness and got no response, not even a ‘Read [insert time]’, which makes me believe she blocked my number, a horrible feeling. Porn and masturbation came crashing in, and my streak was broken within 48 hours of being home. I know I’m not entitled to forgiveness or love or whatever it is I’m looking for, but that doesn’t change the fact that the lack of whatever I’m looking for SUCKS. 

Coming home from school made me realize what was seemingly a lot of old feelings going away was just a delayed reaction, and they’ve all come back with a vengeance. That ‘I’m going to die alone’ feeling. That ‘accept your fate’ feeling. That ‘Scarlet Letter, every girl on the planet knows you’ve done some creepy stuff and wouldn’t want to be around you for a million dollars’ feeling. That ‘I’m the only one who feels this way and has these problems’ feeling. I know these are all BS, but yet another thing I’ve learned this year is the huge difference between comprehension and acceptance.

So I guess the advice I’m looking for throughout all of this gut-spilling is: what do I do moving forward? How do I take the blinders off and see the mistakes I’m seeing in the present instead of with hindsight’s 20/20? Is there some way to go from comprehension to acceptance with what’s probably never going to happen? Is there some sabotaging aspect of myself you can see that I can’t? Give me a diagnosis, Doc. Believe me, I need it. 

Needing The Truth

OK NTT, remember that you asked for this. This is going to be harsh, but I promise you: go through all of this and you’ll come out a better person on the other side.

Here’s the mistake you made and are still making: you haven’t processed the fact that apologizing for being a creeper doesn’t make things better if you don’t change the way you act. Apologies are great, but they’re just the start of the process. The next step is to quit behaving like a creeper. Part of this entails accepting the consequences of your actions. You’ve made people feel deeply uncomfortable, and those people may very well not want you around afterwards, even with your apology. People aren’t always going to give you a second chance, and frankly, that’s their prerogative. They’re neither required to accept your apology or give you another chance, and it’s on you to accept this.

And honestly? You haven’t. You’re trying to act like what you’ve done has been erased and it hasn’t. It can take people time to feel comfortable around you again; rushing in like everything’s back to the pre-creepiness status quo just tells everybody that you don’t get why what you did creeped people out. Jumping on your crush’s Snapchat? That was exactly the sort of thing that tells them that you haven’t learned your lesson. This is the sort of behavior that makes people think “this is going to be exactly the same as it was last time.”

It takes time to earn people’s trust back – often months or even years. Some may never want you around again and hey, while that sucks? The only thing you can do is acknowledge their wishes and move on.

You need to take the L right now and accept that things are going to suck for a while as you show through your actions that you’ve learned and are a better person. That may mean that you’re going to have to let these people go and accept that they just don’t want to have anything to do with you going forward. Which, hey, sucks. But it is what it is. You can only learn from this so that you don’t fuck up the same way, next time.

And while you’re doing all this, you should take time to get some help. The answer to getting better emotionally isn’t joining the no-fap movement, it’s talking to a professional. Fortunately, you’re in college, which means you have access to low-cost, or even free mental health services. Make an appointment with the counselor and start talking all of this out. They’ll be able to help you process everything you’re feeling and give you some strategies to not only handle things, but to help move forward in a healthy and productive manner.


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