People from your past pop up all the time. Whether they’re former colleagues, people you met at networking events, or even acquaintances from your college years, old contacts may surprise you by reaching out to reconnect. This kind of gesture can often be exciting and flattering—though, sometimes, that’s not the case.
Every now and then, you might receive an invitation to coffee from someone whose presence you haven’t exactly missed. Think: that one-sided relationship that left you feeling used and underappreciated. And if you’re worried that old flame will come back to burn you, there are smart ways to remove yourself from the situation before it becomes a problem.
Relationships shouldn’t be a one-way street. If you’ve had one that’s historically felt that way, then it’s understandable that you might not jump at the opportunity to be BFFs when that person reaches out again randomly. Before you really shut it down, as well as prevent future relationships like this from popping up again, it can be helpful to take a step back first. Try to stand in that person’s shoes and understand where he or she is coming from.
Sometimes, what’s happening can be the result of simple miscommunication. Each time you do this person a favor, don’t say, “Let me know if you ever need anything else!” unless you actually mean it. Saving face with courtesy comments like these might actually be giving this person the green light to do exactly what you’re hoping to avoid. And if you’re not careful, you’ll turn yourself into a walking doormat just by trying to seem polite.
I reached out to confidence coach and Muse writer Steve Errey to get his take on this sensitive issue. “When you know a relationship is one-sided, and that saying yes will drain, frustrate, or perhaps even damage you, you have every right to make a choice that serves you well,” he says. “Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that turning him down makes you a bad person or a selfish one; it doesn’t.”
And there’s absolutely no harm in being more deliberate with how you use your time in ways that are meaningful for you. “There’s a huge difference between being generous with your time and attention where it’s appropriate and being a bottomless pit or a people-pleaser,” Errey explains. If you’re worried about going down that slippery slope again with an old contact, you’re completely justified in shutting down the situation before it even starts. And to do so, you have two options: Be honest or deflect.
Be straightforward about your position if you can’t help at the moment, if you feel this person always asks too much of you, or if you think he doesn’t return the favor. Of course, it’s also important to recognize that at the end of the day, a relationship isn’t a transaction either. Know the difference between expecting reimbursement and feeling used. And if you’re sure that this person has always been self-serving from the start, then it could be helpful to just let him know where you stand.
This sort of conversation might be best face-to-face, and your overall message can be simple: To be honest, our last few interactions didn’t sit quite right with me. I love to help out whenever I can, and I appreciate you keeping me updated every now and then—but I’m worried that’s all our relationship is turning into.
It may be hard for him to hear, but it could clear things up in your relationship or, if anything, how he treats people in general. Knowing where you’re at will help this person realize that you may not be the best avenue for achieving his goals. And as an added plus, if he values your relationship on top of that (but just has a bad way of showing it), you’re also providing insight as to how the situation could be improved.
You don’t have to go into all the dirty details if you don’t want to. Sometimes, the best way to save face might be to leave what’s buried be—and exit gracefully while you still can. According to Errey, “Other people have the right to ask for something they need, just as you have the right to say ‘no.’ This doesn’t have to be a big dramatic moment of two clashing sides.”
If you’re simply not confrontational, or you believe your life is just fine with the people currently in it, it’s OK if you don’t want to rock the boat. Stopping this person in her tracks doesn’t have to be a huge deal. Errey recommends using simple bite-sized phrases to get your message across without doing too much explaining. It can be as simple as letting her know that now’s not the best time for you to get back in touch. “I’m so sorry, that won’t work for me right now” or “Thanks so much asking, but I’m going to have to decline” will do the trick just fine.
Saying “no” to someone can be hard, even if it’s the best thing you could be doing for yourself. Just the idea of looking cold or uncooperative might push you to say “yes,” but do your best to stand your ground.
“Trying to make everyone think wonderful thoughts about you will drive you crazy, and it’s all about the pursuit of external validation in order to feel good or worthy,” Errey says. “So make a decision that’s based on the fact that you’re already worthy and already good enough.”
If a self-serving contact from your past is trying to reconnect, ask yourself what about your behaviors might have encouraged her to want to rekindle that one-sided relationship. How you handle the situation ultimately is how you communicate to that person—as well as yourself—about whether or not you will tolerate that behavior.