And she became a hermit, never checked email again, and lived happily ever after except for the gnawing self doubt and failed dreams.
December 2, 2011 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Sticks and stones can break my bones but unread emails make me want to hide in a closet. Please help me get over my avoidance of communication. Bonus: failed therapy attempt; social outcast complications.

So I'm having this problem and I am unsuccessful in talking myself through it.

- I haven't checked personal email or facebook in 6+ months.
- I talked myself into making an okcupid profile and have now deliberately ignored it for a month.
- I made a tumblr for creative stuff and it was going well until a few strangers somehow started following me and I slipped off my self imposed creative schedule and now I'm avoiding it. It's like my hindbrain has internet stage fright.
- I get caught in a loop of ignoring my work email but I manage to get back into it before it becomes an issue.
- I have memails I haven't read. I'm surprised I am still allowing myself to be on this site, except it's about the only thing I find helpful.
- Pretty much any communication except texting and face to face has become something I have to seriously nerve up to attempt, if at all. Even looking through mail.

I can't figure out if I'm punishing myself by blocking any chance of success or protecting myself by eliminating any risk of failure. I tell myself I'm not obligated to silly internet strangers and that does not help me log in. I tell myself there is no tidal wave of phantom anger poised to blast me for my crimes of shirking communication (and if there were, so what?), and still, it does not help me log in. It's not rational. It took me a week to work up to posting this, and I'm using my account deliberately so I don't chicken out on checking back.

Read the gory confession or tl;dr to the bottom:

In the spring, a good friend of a couple of years got upset over a minor issue and passive-aggressively confronted me via email. I didn't understand her communication of the problem and she became more and more upset and then dumped pages of my character flaws, shortcomings and unrelated offenses on me (all the failings you beat yourself up for internally but tell yourself a friend would overlook) and a decision to ban me from the group activity we shared. It was way out of proportion to the problem. We met in person and I apologized for the minor issue, agreed to her wishes, volunteered to take a time out - she hesitated and then decided to stick with her decision to ban me. This also tanked the related small business I was trying to get going. I didn't attack or insult her. I just let her rail on me, as there was no point in getting dragged into something counterproductive to resolution. It must sound like I did something extreme to warrant a ban, when really, former friend took her stress out on me and abused her position of leadership. She's the godfather/queen bee of this activity locally.

Right after this happened I was conflicted: Do I facebook announce my banishment, so I don't have to explain over and over? Do I pretend I voluntarily dropped the activity, which somehow feels the same as saying I tripped and hit my eye on a doorknob? I didn't/don't know how to answer when other people ask why I'm not doing X anymore, or when I'm going to get back to X, because I was super into it for years. Plus it bummed me out to go online and see other people participating in activity, and see former friend being extra chummy with mutual friends.

So I just stopped checking facebook and email. I intended for it to be a short break, but the longer it goes the harder it is to go back, and the easier it is to do without. I did/do dread getting an angry email from former friend telling me I'm handling being banned wrong. I had to share a weekly thing with her over the summer, and she stayed on the opposite side of the room and ignored me except to make snorty noises, which would be hilarious if it weren't so sad. I said hello to her once or twice in passing (I was hoping by seeming approachable she'd find it easier to apologize, if she was looking for an opportunity). I could block her email, but I still faintly hope she might send me an apology. Granted, I haven't been checking my email so it's Schroedinger's apology, and now the giant backup of email is more worrisome than angry email, so whatever.

By early summer I pushed myself into therapy. After two months (6-7 sessions) I didn't get any insights from the therapist. She said some things that seemed victim-blamey. She asked me what I wanted from therapy, saying she wasn't sure why I was there. She said I might be better off working on my own, which honestly kind of hurt. I am reluctant to try a different therapist because I am still way confused by the experience. I don't know what I was hoping for. Was it some sort of clever therapist jedi riddle I failed? It felt like I got rejected from therapy for not having the answers I was hoping therapy would help me find in the first place.

So here I am, in winter, still very stuck. I joined okcupid to meet new people (since I have lost my local social circle), yet the unread messages freak me out. I used to put aside my little internal failings and now the smallest thing trips me up and I expect mental smacks from strangers or friends. Hell, what if former friend is right and I'm just a bad person who deserved ostracization? Maybe that's why the therapy didn't work out? (My dad flipped out on me when I was a kid Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde style. It took me a long time to convince myself that it wasn't me and my friends weren't going to randomly turn on me. I rationally know this isn't related, but emotionally it feels very similar. Maybe I don't know how to soothe that part of myself.)

People out of the loop are getting irritated and coming down on me for being internet incommunicado. I haven't told anyone I can't check email because I'd have to tell them the banning story, and I haven't told the banning story because it implies I am 1) a clueless jerk who did something incredibly rude and/or 2) a whiner making excuses and/or 3) a magnet for bad luck. I've had no good news about my life to share for a long time and I don't like being Debbie Downer. That fun thing I used to do? Got banned. That small business I was excited about? Down the drain. I must seem like a hopeless failure. This one "mistake" I made ripples through my whole life and I'll end up having to make the Admission of Shame to everyone. I mean, my massage therapist asked about activity because she knows I'm involved. Coworkers. Acquaintances. Strangers who come to my house and see paraphernalia from activity. I can't escape having to tell people over and over that I screwed up. "Yeah, it's great, but I don't do it anymore." "Why not?!"

I wish I could say, "Got kicked out for being a punk," and own it. That would be kind of badass. But no. I'm not a punk.

The pertinent question is: Anybody out there been embarrassingly behind on their social communication obligations for some reason? How did you get over yourself and get back on the horse? I just can't seem to find the courage to look at my inbox.

Also, any advice for not being Sad Banned Girl? I have 20-30 facebook friends still involved in the activity I love but can't do anymore, so if/when I check online stuff again I can't avoid nose-pressed-on-glass syndrome. I don't know if I can be involved with activity even in a minor fringe way, given that former friend is the queen bee. My involvement is guaranteed to piss her off. (Though she'd have to work to do worse to me than she's already done.) Besides missing the activity and my friends, I really really hate letting this one person shut me out.
posted by griselda to Human Relations (24 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Is there any way you can do this activity you like with other people than your mean ex-friend? (is it something like choir, that you have to do with other people? Or more like knitting, that you can do by yourself but it's more fun with other people?)

Because it just seems awful that you can't do this thing you really like to do just because of one person's decisions, and it seems like so much of the "OMG can't face email" is wrapped up in issues about this. Can you start your own group?

As for email directly, can you just declare email amnesty, get a friend to delete all the unread email (or---maybe---just decide you're going to take 4 or 5 hours and delete it yourself) and start checking it again?
posted by leahwrenn at 6:42 PM on December 2, 2011

When I'm depressed and really in an OCD kick, I get this way with mail (like, envelopes, ads, fliers from Chinese places, etc.) The way I get through the block is to beg a family member to come and help me sort through it. If I were worried about a particular kind of letter, I'd have them look through the pile and hand me only the things that don't match what I'm worried about. You could do this with a family member or friend - have them sit down at your computer and look through everything (they wouldn't even have to read very much of each thing) and let you know it's safe. I've had a sister listen to my voicemails once or twice, too. It really does help fix the immediate problem.

As for a permanent solution... let's just say I'm in therapy. A lot of it (check out this account's posting history.) It's worth trying again - finding a great match on the first try is unusual. I'm also on medications, which help.

One thing to consider - figure out one person who you think might be the most supportive (knows you the best, is generally a really nice person, hates the queen bee, whatever) and log onto Facebook with the intent to ONLY send ONE message directly to them, asking them to call you or meet you somewhere. Then you can explain the situation to a sympathetic party who already knows most of the context, and may be able to come up with solutions. I was once involved in an activity where the "queen bee" for my entire city (and influential beyond that) hated my guts, and it turned out that basically everyone else was on my side and found her difficult to deal with. You never know till you try.

I'd say MeMail me if you want to talk, but I know you're having issues with that - I swear I'll answer if you do, though. :)
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 6:43 PM on December 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

Anybody out there been embarrassingly behind on their social communication obligations for some reason? How did you get over yourself and get back on the horse? I just can't seem to find the courage to look at my inbox.

Yes. I hired someone - an angel from GOD - to come to my house and deal with my email. I am not even kidding. She read it all. It took about 6 hours over 3 days to sort. She dumped anything that didn't require a response. She replied to all the other ones, split them into Deal With: Work and Deal With: Personal and I dictated replies until we got down to Zero Inbox and I could deal with it. Which I did, with the mother of all Xanax.

Prevously I had declared email bankruptcy with Mefi's help. The Email Angel would have done that this last time if that was what I wanted, but I've never let it get that bad again. It was salvageable in 2010, I just needed help salvaging it.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:47 PM on December 2, 2011 [11 favorites]

My advice for not being the sad banned girl is to stop living your life as though everyone else is the boss of you. I don't mean to be unkind, but I feel compelled to use teen-appropriate language here 'cause you are acting as though you are, in fact, a teenager... it would help to know if you actually *are* one in order to get a sense of where you are in your life.

If you aren't super young, maybe the root of all of this is that you are refusing to own that you have any form of personal agency, rather than your procrastination/avoidance.

I think the main thing of which you are a victim is letting someone else chase you out of town, basically.

Mean girls are no fun, but you really need to find a new activity and to make some new friends. Also, explaining to your old friends that you had some drama with the Queen Bee, and felt you couldn't continue at your old activity without going into too many details would be a great way to feel free of all of this.

The sooner you can take any little step like this to free yourself of the tragic outcast victim narrative you have going on here, the better. That perspective serves no one well.
posted by devymetal at 6:50 PM on December 2, 2011 [6 favorites]

Oh my goodness, how stressful, no wonder you're avoiding that stuff! You are not a loser for this reaction. You're a human dealing with stress.

Have you thought of signing up for a new email address to use at least for now, and telling your friends (that you trust to not trigger your anxiety) to use that one? Or using it to sign up for websites and never talking to people, just to get in the habit of seeing non-drama in your inbox?

When I get behind on twitter, blogging, tumblr, I just start up again when I feel like it. I figure most of my followers have so much noise that they won't notice! It's totally normal to get internet stage fright, I've never really found a solution besides imagining that I'm talking face to face with someone I trust (rather than making Important Announcements to strangers). That kind of hiatus is a much much bigger deal to you than it is to them, most likely.

I've had much less dramatic fallings-out surrounding important activities in my life, and I eventually realized that making the Activity the central piece of my self-worth wasn't truly healthy to begin with. When you talk to your friends, tell them about funny/interesting things you've read recently, recipes you've learned to cook, etc... change the topic or "no comment" if Activity comes up. Let people know that you're going to take this opportunity to find out what kind of person you are when you're not focused on the Activity. You are not your hobbies, or your friends, or your issues, or your stress. You're you.

(If you're willing to check your memail or use some other private communication, I can send you a copy of an eBook that has helped me a lot with this kind of emotional stuff.)
posted by rivenwanderer at 6:51 PM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can you give us more details on this group activity? Your question isn't anonymous, so unless it's an activity that is relatively uncommon, it can't hurt to share.

It sounds like either you aren't being completely honestly with yourself about what YOU did (you didn't mention that either... what DID you do?) or your friend is being a completely unreasonable jerk. I don't see how, as leahwrenn mentioned, being kicked out of this group would make you some kind of social leper and keep you from doing this activity. It seems like it doesn't really matter at this point, and I'm betting that no one cares about this as much as you do (except maybe for your crazy ex-friend). I wish I could shake you as I tell you this, but NO ONE ELSE CARES about this stupid drama. It is meaningless. Stop letting it control the way you live your life.

I think you could use therapy. I'm sorry it didn't work out before, but there are many different types of therapy and therapists. You'll find the right one.

Anytime I'm embarrassingly behind on ________, it's usually because I'm drowning in self pity. I'm also telling myself how pathetic I am for being so behind on _______ and how stupid/lazy/inept I am for it. I snap out of it by realizing that these thoughts are self-harming and foolish, and that I'm tired or staring at the pile of ________. And then I tackle the task, whether it takes 15 mins (mail), an hour (the dishes), a half day (cleaning the house), or whatever. AND THEN I FEEL AMAZING.
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:01 PM on December 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

Therapists are as different from each other as any other people are, and while it makes total sense that you'd feel burned and want to stay away, especially when you have an anxiety problem, expecting every therapist to be an equally good or bad fit for you would be like expecting every person you meet to be an equally good friend for you. Not that a therapist should necessarily feel like a friend, but you'll get better results if you can feel a little bit of a rapport or a sense of promise, which make it easier to disclose everything you can think of and easier to show up and do the work. If the next one doesn't fit either, tell him or her why you think it isn't working, which can be educational in itself, and call up another one.

Also: print this out and ask him/her to read it. If you can describe how you're suffering, a therapist who's more in tune with you can help you understand why you're suffering and what you need to do about it.
posted by Adventurer at 7:15 PM on December 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm kind of the same way in avoiding emails/texts/etc, and basically I end up forcing myself to look at it. I do that by reminding myself that the words have been "said" by the person, so if they're negative, the message sender has already owned the words and they are going to be there/be true regardless of whether I read them or not. However, if I don't read them I can't react to them and could make a situation worse. Usually when I get around to reading a message I find that it is not as bad as I think. The ex-friend of yours sent the type of email you might get .001% of the time. Most of the others are either going to be boring or likely pleasant.

If I'm anxious about a particular email, I will do some yoga or something and tell myself that after I'm done doing this pose, I will look at my email. Then I finishing doing the pose and immediately look at the email. Somehow it works, I think because I've walked away from the computer, allowed myself to avoid for a bit, and then the first thing I do when I go back is read the email I've been avoiding.
posted by fromageball at 7:30 PM on December 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't even remember my first battle with email-anxiety. I remember asking a good friend from high school to sort through my email during freshman year of college, though, so it has to have been at least 10 years ago. Anyhow, yes, I've had this, though generally not due to this kind of social drama. I think it used to be acceptance/rejection things with school or summer programs or stuff that would set it off? And then various minor social avoidance things? And then from time to time, slacking off on work, and feeling behind, and then all of a sudden I'm not checking email because in there is probably someone calling me out for being such a slacker, and dammit, if I could just lock myself in a room and catch up on all the work on all fronts, it would all be better and then I could reconnect to the internet and show everyone that I don't actually suck that bad, right? Sure.

Anyhow, a few years ago I realized that one or two weeks of email avoidance per year was still way too much, and beyond that, just kind of sucked for my stress levels. So I now never, ever, ever let it get beyond 2 days. I think I declared email bankrupcy once, went all Inbox Zero a few times, and now just never let my inbox get beyond a page of (read) items. And I check it every morning on my phone, first thing, when I'm too unawake to question anything. I've had a few bouts again this year since I added a school email account that's unconnected to my other email accounts, and it was stupid, and reminds me that I really need to forward all my graduate school email to another account or synch it with Gmail so I have no option but to look at it on my phone at 7AM as I'm working my way towards lucidity.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:39 PM on December 2, 2011

Oh, and also, with work email avoidance, I've learned: there is never an email from someone calling me out for being such a slacker.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:41 PM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ohhh, sweetie, I am so sorry.

No wonder you don't want to look at your email, or anything else... your life was changed irrevocably by an email. It's totally understandable that, being SO burned (I mean, from ONE EMAIL, a collection of zeroes and ones, you lost a social circle, a business, and a major hobby?) you'd rather not deal with email at all. You got a big ball of SUCK delivered to your house.

I would definitely try therapy again, maybe CBT, to help dealing with your feelings of isolation (and shame, perhaps? I detected a bit). And even though the last therapist didn't help you out, I really think you can find someone that will help you unpack all of the shit that was lobbed at you by that person.

Now... in regards to the hobby. You're going to have to decide, at some point, what to do. Can you do it on your own at all (like, say, painting), or is it something that is essentially a group activity (i.e. roller derby)? Is the hobby itself something that you miss so hard it hurts sometimes? Do you want to strike out privately, find a few trusted close friends, and do it in a group but privately? Or, is it possible to find a place a little further out from where you live and participate in a new circle? For example, in my area (Chicago suburbs), you could go into the city to be a part of either roller derby or the art scene, OR you could head out to the suburbs, and find an entirely different crowd. Your ex-friend is not the Grand Poohbah of the Entire World As It Pertains To Fly Fishing. She might be the queen bee of the local scene, but there are plenty of other (maybe smaller) scenes where she cannot touch. Finally, the last alternative is to try on a couple new hobbies, which can't hurt to keep busy while you work on unpacking the negatives with a therapist and deciding what to do about the hobby.

Finally... I'm going to tell you what to do about the emails, and Facebook, and the rest of it. I would be more than happy to be your Email Fairy and help clean things out, and look for Shrodinger's Apology, but I don't think you would let me. Or anyone. I mean this as gently as I can, but you appear to have taken a massive hit to your self esteem. It's just a gut feeling I'm getting, from reading your post, and if I'm wrong, I apologize for presuming. But, I think you should get to a better place before you start... shall I say, reintroducing emails to your life. I don't know if just bootstraps is going to be enough to end the shame death spiral you sort of have yourself in. That's why I think therapy, and working out some concrete ideas might help.

(Also, if you think you're up for it, I will Email Fairy you, for free, no questions asked. I'll clean out your spam and let you know if there's something important in there. But only, and ONLY, if you feel like you're ready)
posted by mornie_alantie at 9:27 PM on December 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This has gotten awfully long, so here's the short version:

- email: create folders for each person who emailed, deal with each person (not email) by writing generic "I'm back in touch" emails starting with least stressful people and working your way towards the more difficult people. After you have finished this step, go through the emails more slowly to read/react to news etc. Do this in the same order - difficult people last.

- awful "friend" - ditch her, nothing can excuse her behaviour.

- Dr. J./Mr. H. dynamics - work consicously towards eliminating it from your interactions. Drop people who show a tendency of going down that route.

- shame/guilt - work towards figuring out what level is appropriate for the wrongs you feel you have done. Purge the idea of "punishment" from each wrong-doing scenario. Focus on making reparation. Don't allow anyone to use your (legitimate) bad feelings when wronging them as a weapon against you.

And now for the novel-sized rest of my answer:

Re. the email situation:

when I got a depression-related email backlog in the past, I started by creating folders for each person who wrote me an email, and then I just moved each email to its folder until my inbox was clean. This has taken cca one week to ten days. Then I decided which were the lowest stress ones (friends or relatives who are easy-going, or with whom I am not normally in very regular email contact, or people who I am not very close to, so who would not expect me to necessarily answer very promptly), read maybe one or two of their emails, and then respond with a fairly generic "Sorry I have been incommunicado for so long, it's been a hectic few months and I kept postponing my personal emails until I could give them full attention", and then personalise a bit, just one sentence or two, with something appropriate to each person (maybe a response to something they wrote about, something about myself that is particularly relevant to that person, something about a shared interest etc). Work your way up to the more difficult folders (people who are slightly more high maintenance, or who you used to communicate with more frequently), and write similar short emails. To the extent that you think you might at some point feel OK talking to these people about what happened, you could replace "hectic few months" with "rough few months", otherwise, I'd keep the emails the same: mention that stuff has been difficult (this is the reason why you went AWOL - but you don't have to be specific at all, could have been anything from just being super busy to having IBS to suffering heart-break to having unreasonable neighbours who kept stressing you out). Emails which you think might be hurtful to read (for instance from your shitty "friend") I'd leave for now - if they have kept so far, they will keep until later. Once you've dealt with all people (not with all emails) in your inbox like this, you can start going through the backlog more carefully in order to catch up on any news contained there.

When I have done the whole huge email backlog in the past, there were two unexpected benefits from it:

1. You're coming to news late, so outside of the normal polite interchange when news is imparted. Whilst it might be late, and you might lose some points for that, your reactions will probably be more thoughtful, and you will gain many points for this. Exchanges which are embedded in a slightly pre-scripted format (for instance: compliments, or piece of news - positive reaction to piece of news etc.) have less power than a reaction outside its normal context. Example: if I tell you at a party that I like you dress the impact of my statement beyond it being a pleasantry is much less than if I tell you that I really liked your dress at x party and could you please tell me where you got it if we bump into each other a few days later. So, one of the unexpected consequences of my tardiness was that with several friends I ended up having much better conversations about certain things than we would have otherwise, and we grew closer as a consequence.

2. An opposite result: with a couple of acquaintances I felt great resistance sending that initial email, and my heart sank when they responded. This made me realise that I actually didn't really want those people in my life, that I had been so cought up in my own issues (shame-issues, coincidentally) that I hadn't noticed that these people had had a big negative impact on me in the past, and that this was a very good opportunity to dial down those relationships a lot.

I'd also like to say something about the specific situation that led to the curent situation. Basically, you are dealing with an unabashed bully. For whatever reason - feeling threatened, or disrespcted as a power-figure, or just plain for the sake of demonstrating power and experiencing a power-rush, your "friend" let her (social) muscles ripple in your face, and got away with it. Maybe I am being uncharitable here, but even if my reading is exaggerated, best case you're dealing with here is that she is up her own butt, childish, vindictive. This person belongs out of your life. What would an apology from her accomplish? That you are welcomed back out of exile and get the chance to play serf to her feudal lord act?

I'm not saying that you may not have wronged her (maybe you did - you don't say what exactly passed between you, so it is impossible to form an opinion), and maybe she had every right to react to what you did/said. But like this? Unless you are part of a semi-professional organisation and she is the official leader, and what you did either physically endangeres your colleagues, or demotivates them entirely, or is utterly disruptive of your common activity, AND you did it repeatedly and persisted after being called on it, or else unless this activity happens entirely on her own turf, like in her home or her back garden - she had no right in heaven or hell to ban you.

I'd avoid her like the plague. As would I avoid any Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde in my life, with apologies towards your dad. The whole Dr. J./Mr. H. routine (and the bad cop/good cop variant) has been used very succesfully by many oppressores/opressive regimes for a reason - as you can see, it seriously messes up the victim. Don't feel bad though for allowing yourself to become a victim - many people have caved who resisted physical and psychological torture (I've worked on a paper about political prisoners in my country, and they are almost unanimous that this was one of the most effectives means of eliciting collaboration, second only to the most abysmal physical torture and/or prolongued sometimes year-long stints in solitary confinement). Maybe also think about the circumstances and the environment in which this happened. Is this the first time you or someone else have seen her do something like this? Why is her queen-bee status tolerated? Is everyone in the group acting subservient to her? In group activities someone often emerges as a bit of a leader by virtue of being more organised, or more knowledgeable, or more invested in the group's success, or some other thing. Nonetheless, in healthy groups hierarchies tend to be flatter than seems to be the case here. So I'd say that maybe the whole group is slightly disfunctional if she is allowed to dominate to such an extent. Or allowed to make her personal grudges the group's business. If this is the case, I'd say that in the long term you will end up bidding this goup good riddance. Being part of disfunctional settings is a massive obstacle to personal growth (I know this is no great consolation right now, but in a few months, or a year or two from now you'll see it happening).

I've said all of the above because from your post I got two things: you're very vulnerable to the D. J./Mr. H. dynamics (probably because you'e been well primed in childhood), and you feel such shame/guilt over things you have done that you have an unbalanced view of what punishments you should invite (this is probably also due to the Dr. J./Mr. H. dynamics). A good therapist will help with both. But until then, I'd resolve to do this:

1. Be more vigilent re. developing ths unhealthy dynamics with anyone. As soon as you see someone bring out their Mr. H. and being unapologetic about it, walk away. No excuses. No flailing around trying to figure out how you contributed to the change. No overlooking it because if you don't you might lose something you want (a beloved activity, for instance. No giving in to conflict-avoidant behaviour. Just leave and don't turn back. Be more strict with yourself on this for a while, until you are sure you won't fall back into the old patterns.

2. If you wrong someone, don't regard the consequences of your action as punishment. Strive to make reparation. Apologize and offer to make amends. But do not self-flagellate, and do not allow anyone to use (or rather mis-use) some wrong of yours against you. Beyond realising that you did someone wrong and feeling contrite/bad for having hurt them, self-flagellation is useless (instead, you make amends, a extra-nice to them and don't do the same in the future). And using someone's past mistake indefinitely as a weapon against them is manipulative at best. Depending on how badly you wrong me, I can decide that we are done (the two of us tough, not some group of people who do my bidding and you), and reset our relationship to a level that I am comfortable with (circumstances allowing, this can range from no contact to no more "friends" moments etc). Or, if I want to keep my relationship with you, we sort of negotiate a way in which you can make amends which is propotionate to the offense. Anything else is beyond the pale. Using your wrong as an excuse to get rid of you? Wrong. Using your wrong as an excuse to demonstrate my power? Wrong. Trying to bring other people into the "punishment"? Very wrong. Unless you just killed someone, or defrauded me, or some such.

3. Try to be aware of how grievous your wrong was, and try to keep your feelings of shame/guilt commensurate. Otherwise you will always be manipulated by people who take advantage of this imbalance. Be aware that anyone asking for amends which are hugely out of proportion with the wrong either have their own problems - insecurities, maybe past experiences which compound the present slight, but which have nothing to do with you, really - or else are jerks who will manipulate you for their own ends by using your mistake as a weapon.

I'm sorry this got so very long, but something in your post really touched me.
posted by miorita at 7:05 AM on December 3, 2011 [8 favorites]

There's a lot of information in your question, so I'm mostly going to address the therapist issue. Different therapists have different approaches, and they're not all equally good for different problems. You didn't fail this therapist's test, she just realized that she wasn't going to be able to help you, and so declined to treat you. This is a good thing! Think how much money you would have wasted if she had decided to just take you on anyway, knowing all the time that she can't help you!

Anyway, I'm with young rope-rider that you would be better off finding a behavioral therapist. Someone who isn't going to let you dwell a lot on what happened, but is instead going to focus on what you can do now. If you really really don't want to go back to therapy, I'd check out AskMe favorite David Burns' When Panic Attacks. It will walk you through some of what a therapist would do - flooding, gradual exposure, etc. It focuses on social phobia, which is especially pertinent to your case.

Also, if you want the sort of email angel that DarlingBri mentioned, and you live in the NYC area, MeMail me, because I think I have someone who would do a really good job.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:19 AM on December 3, 2011

Let's face it--relationships of any kind are risky. Even email relationships. The only way to be perfectly safe is to totally opt out, as you did, but as you've discovered, perfect safety also has its downsides. Bion (dead, British therapist) says that when 2 people meet, an emotional storm is created.

Even relationships with therapists are risky. Even doing an AskMe is risky, and yet, you did so.
How did you manage it? Chances are, you're not 100% sure how you did it. The risk, from some kind of perspective you took at that moment, seemed tolerable.

Winnicott (another dead, British therapist) says that the thing we think we are afraid of in the future, has actually already happened in the past. In your case, that seems almost obvious. I can't imagine a (so-called) friend treating you worse, and implying (and perhaps convincing you at some level) that it's all your fault--what's more, not the fault of what you did but of who you are. You need to stop believing that this is true. I am offering my perspective to help you with that. Who you are is OK. Even if you've ignored your email. (I have some email I'm ignoring right now, too.) You may ask me, how do I, who have never met you, know that, and I can only assert that I do know it. I ask you to trust me and to take that perspective. It's easier than you think. Now hold on to it for a while. It's hard to do so with all that unread email, I know. Your situation is actually a lot more common than you thought. That's why your question got so many favorites already. We are all vulnerable to the slights of others. Or else we're turned off and defensive, like your "friend."
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:20 AM on December 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone so much for your input - I found something valuable in each answer.

My advice for not being the sad banned girl is to stop living your life as though everyone else is the boss of you.

This is really true, and was something I didn't figure out until after the encounter. I think both queen bee and I were trying to play king of a particular mountain (the mountain of being Right) and neither of us were being our personal bosses. The actual item of conflict was not important - the root of our disagreement was more about entitlement (when we could give ourselves what we wanted instead of trying to get it from the other person). It was a mindset I didn't see I was in. If queen bee and I had the disagreement today I'd handle it differently, but ... that's life.

I just got really hung up on this encounter because it cost me so much, and also because of my past and because it really changed what I thought of queen bee.

I will continue to check back and reread things. This experience is very valuable for me, because I needed to sort of put the worst out there and see that it didn't get me internet stoned or whatever.
posted by griselda at 11:31 AM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, that sounds so stressful. I know there have been times when I've avoided checking emails or voicemails because I thought the emotions that they would trigger in me would be more than I could bear and it took a lot of courage to face them.

I just have a few things to add to all the fantastic advice:

- It might help for you to use some basic methods to calm yourself down when you do look at the emails. You could take five deep, slow breaths before you open your inbox, then take five deep breaths with the inbox open before you look at the emails, then again take five deep breaths when you open each individual email. Do whatever works best for you to calm down, but it sounds like you're feeling panicky and it would help to give your body clear instructions to be calm and support you. A friend could help coach you with this if you want.

- I think the Jekyll/Hyde thing with your dad would probably be a great thing to discuss with a new therapist. It's very natural for your expectations about social interactions to be set by your family and it can take a lot of work to change them -- a good therapist could help a lot.

- And remember that any of your friends or acquaintances who are worth your concern are going to be compassionate with you about this. You haven't done anything harmful or unforgivable.

Please be as kind as you can to yourself. Take care and good luck.
posted by zahava at 3:24 PM on December 3, 2011

When I get emails that I know will be difficult to read (from friends I'm fighting with, for example), I make a point of reading them in public -- on my work computer, on my laptop in a cafe, wherever -- so I don't feel so scared of being alone in the room with their unkind words.

I've even asked friends or my husband to sit next to me and physically click the button to open the mail, so there's someone there to metaphorically and literally hold my hand.

Then again, if you know it'll just be upsetting or angering to read those emails, I highly recommend just deleting them. Don't waste your time and mental energy wondering what was in them.
posted by vickyverky at 4:58 PM on December 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wait, why in the hell do you have to listen to her? Can't you participate in the group if you want to? She's not the boss of you. Why don't you go back to the activity and continue to participate and ignore her. I know this might be impossible and I don't know the specifics but really, if it's something you hadn't considered, why not think about going back if you really want to do the activity. What's she going to do, call the police? Nah..

I have totally been through this email anxiety issue myself, as well as being unduly influenced by growing up around Dr. J/Mr. H types, so I get it. But sometimes if I recognize someone is just being an absurd childish bully and actually doesn't have the right to order me around for any reason at all, it really helps me with standing up to them, because adults bullying other adults and queen-bee behavior is ridiculous and people who pull this stuff are insecure and kind of sad. And afraid of people who don't let it affect them.

Maybe you could just delete the unread messages. In my experience if someone really needs to reach you they will contact you again. I agree with the person that said if you really can't bring yourself to contact a person who's in that backlog, for fear of what they'll say, that they won't be understanding at all.. this may tell you something about that relationship and whether it's worth keeping. (Although your general feelings right now might also lead you to assume the worst.. give people the benefit of the doubt if you can, but if they really are just harsh and lacking empathy when offered an honest explanation of the real trouble you're having, who needs them as friends?)
posted by citron at 7:41 PM on December 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

One more piece of advice. I just thought of this. One pretty simple thing that helps me when I get stressed about incoming emails that I don't want to read, is.. I tackle them after I have already accomplished a number of things and am feeling like this is not so big of a deal, nothing I can't handle. For example, if I've just checked off a few major tasks at work at the end of the day, or I've just cleaned up and sorted the bills for my housemates and it's just one more thing on the list to check off.. Or even if I'm out hanging out with friends and somehow what would really upset me reading it by myself, isn't such a big deal any more.
posted by citron at 7:45 PM on December 3, 2011

I fully understand what it is like to be cornered by someone and character-assassinated, even for hours. This happened to me repeatedly as a child, from other kids (thank God they didn't have PowerPoint!) and also from my alcoholic Dad at times (at worst, blowups about how he was going to leave because I was such a bad kid). I've also had it happen as an adult. I had it happen in a Hobby Essential To My Life situation, but also in a friend situation (interestingly, that one I had coming to some extent, and my opponent later realised her own failings and explicitly tried to improve, but how curious that the conflict would take that form; anyway, I digress). The worst one was in an employment situation.

The fact that this happened so many times in so many different contexts really put it into perspective for me. Number one: I am not a kid any more, so I have the option of banning people who try to hold hellfire preachin' seminars on all the reasons why I suck. There's usually enough warning that I can DTMFA before it gets that bad.

Number two: it is extremely abnormal for anyone to work out their conflicts with another person, child or adult, through the medium of a hellfire seminar on why they're good, right and holy and you're bad, wrong and sinful. It is always worth listening to any feedback you get and considering whether to take correction from it. But this kind of extreme hostility inevitably says more about the hellfire preacher than you. You know this, but it's worth reaffirming.

Number three, it's only in an employment or marriage situation that this kind of thing can do you more than just emotional damage. I am the last person to discount emotional damage, I take it extremely seriously. I would certainly need to carefully consider when're or not to go somewhere where I was going to encounter such an aggressive person. But I don't see that she objectively has as much power as you're giving her. I mean - is the activity like, sports acrobatics and she's the base of your human pyramid or something? If she genuinely has that much control over the resources necessary for you to do that activity, well, okay, that's a problem. It might be worth scoping out another confidant, as suggested above, and seeing whether you could form a splinter group or other faction. But if she doesn't really control all the (for example) gymnastic ribbons moving in and out if New Jersey, how much can she objectively stop you?

Also, how much power could she realistically, objectively have had over your small business? Maybe she did have that kind of power, in which case fair enough, but was there literally no way for you to stand up to her?

I mean, really consider whether she genuinely is your only gatekeeper to your activity and that business. If she is, you're humped. If she isn't, then WHY let some abusive cow run your life like this when she has absolutely no authority to do so?

Why let this vicious c-word have her way with YOUR LIFE simply because she wants it? She isn't living your life, you are.

As for the practicalities: you don't
need to communicate online through any means but email. If MyTwitFace's Fumblr stream overwhelms you, don't use it.

Yes, get someone to sit with you and go through all your back email, and from then on, adopt an Only Handle It Once policy. If the vicious cow hasn't apologised, filter all her emails to trash.

You need to take charge a bit more. Even just a tiny bit, even just finding a new place to do Activity if only in a neighbouring town. You cannot hand over complete power over your life to anyone who chooses to try to intimidate you. Consider what this person doesn't want: she doesn't want you to do Activity any more, so she probably has more to fear from you than vice versa.
posted by tel3path at 12:16 PM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Short version of the specifics: Queen bee decided a certain thing that had previously been okay was not okay, and she told me I retroactively owed her for violating something I didn't know was a problem. She contradicted an email discussion where she agreed I owed her nothing for this same thing. The change was fine for future situations, but I asked her to write up a clear policy so everyone knew what was allowed, so I didn't step on her toes accidentally again. I disagreed I owed her anything for past occurrences. So the specific point of contention was whether I owed her due to the surprise change in policy. QB wouldn't write up a policy, stopped acknowledging the point I was trying to make about the earlier decision, and went on some personal attacks and banned me. The hard reasons she gave me for the ban were because I was tardy in attendance and I wasn't friendly enough to her. This was the first I'd heard of any tardiness problems in 2+ years. QB owns the place where practices are held, so yeah, she can prevent me from participating. I'm not welcome there.

I suspect since I was building my little business and becoming more aware of my personal preferences, QB was feeling like I was a threat. I wasn't a beginner anymore - I was finding my niche and having opinions. I had the most experience and had been with her the longest and the others were happy with whatever. QB probably felt I wasn't showing her the gratitude and respect she deserved for her position, and I seemed like a mutinous element, doing my thing instead of following her, and not being appreciative enough of her previous support/guidance/etc. I can see how she thought of me as a rebellious child, and how I should apologize and bend over backwards to make things right in her eyes, because she was "owed" that as leader to subordinate. But I was more interested in what was fair for both of us, because I thought of us as teammates. So the conflict was not going to be resolved to either's satisfaction.

So who was right/wrong ... not so clear cut - I really should have asked QB to write official policies all along - though I do think QB's personal attacks were way out of line.

It's technically possible for me to start my own small group, but I doubt my ability to do so. My best friend died of a rare cancer a few years ago and it was very hard on me and everyone who knew her. I didn't have insurance at the time and didn't seek therapy. I was just not right for a year and a half, because of that and other complications. My friend wasn't local, so my friends in grief were not on hand and my local friends really didn't get what was going on. I'm still having trouble with insomnia and bad dreams. My tolerance for stress has been very low since and I don't think I'm stable in the way I would want to be to set myself up as a leader. (When I get knocked down, I go down hard. I mean, look at the situation I've got myself in now. This is not leadership material.) I was finding a lot of comfort in a stable, social activity where I could build up my "normal" again. Of course, that's gone now.

Isolation has been a problem for me in the past few years. My closest local friends have moved away. I don't have a SO - I haven't been in good mental shape for one. I live far away from my family in a remote area, where the winters are hard. Subzero temperatures for the next 4-5 months, and right now 5 hours of daylight. It makes the isolation sort of crushing, and very hard to get out from under. Also, because the city is small, my options for replacement activities are limited. There just isn't much going on.

Thanks everyone again for listening and contributing. I appreciate all the suggestions. I continue to come back and reread everything as I digest it and figure out what to do. I am going slow and steady and am optimistic I will work through this.
posted by griselda at 6:03 PM on December 4, 2011

"QB owns the place where practices are held, so yeah, she can prevent me from participating. I'm not welcome there."

So she's really hammered your social life and your opportunities to connect with people.

It sounds like you're just not able to connect with people where you are right now, for various reasons; if your local friends don't understand and you're living in a hole with nothing to do, all I can suggest is that you consider moving, which I know is easier said than done.
posted by tel3path at 12:08 AM on December 5, 2011

Late to this, and the main points have been covered (excellently) above, but I'll just add, because I relate to a lot of what you say:

1) Please find yourself a new therapist! I went through a few before I found one who really clicked with me, who really understood what I was struggling with and what I needed even to begin to feel like I could go forward (before even taking the first step forward). It makes me mad that the therapist you saw left you feeling even worse. Screw that. But don't give up on the whole profession, and DON'T let it make you feel more down on yourself. That was her shortcoming as a professional, not yours as a client.

2) I've experienced the confrontation-by-email and the fear of email that follows. It's awful. I asked my friends never in the future to confront me with a failing by email, but to do it face-to-face. (That isn't necessarily relevant for you, since you're not trying to salvage things with queen bee; but just so you know you're not the only one who's felt this!)

3) (When I get knocked down, I go down hard. I mean, look at the situation I've got myself in now. This is not leadership material.) The first part I sympathize with, personally; the last bit is bullshit. You seem to be articulate, sensitive, and self-aware, all good leadership qualities; and you were doing well with your activity (whatever it was before you were sabotaged. You're struggling with a few things right now that can be managed (see all the great advice above). Don't pull yourself down! Good luck to you.
posted by torticat at 4:49 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Another thing occurs to me.

While you're not looking at email, you're not communicating. You say your local friends didn't really get what was going on... maybe you fully explained it to them, but maybe they literally didn't have the information they needed?

I don't think you should rule out moving because from the sounds of it, Qbie has a disproportionate amount of power because you are in a small remote town. But it might be a less hostile place than you're perceiving it to be right now.
posted by tel3path at 3:17 AM on December 6, 2011

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