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Colleague, Mentor or Friend? How To Avoid Feeling Used

Published: September 2, 2021 | Last Updated: September 2, 2021 By | 2 Replies Continue Reading
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Whether you are a mentor or friend, you may need to set boundaries or you’ll wind up feeling used and depleted of energy.


Hi Irene,

I’ve worked for several years in a highly visible and competitive profession. I’m often approached to be a mentor, and am usually honored to help new colleagues achieve their goals.

Along the way, some of these people have attached themselves to me very quickly and want to turn our business relationship into a social friendship. One woman, for example, emails me constantly and invites me to lunch to pick my brain. I was shocked to hear recently that she tells other colleagues that we’re “best friends.” In most cases, our social time invariably turns into another major mentoring session, with me sharing professional contacts or advice.

I often end up feeling drained and used by people like this — and unsure of how to avoid these situations without hurting feelings. Some of these people can be very flattering and manipulative. How do I set boundaries, from the start, when this happens?




Hi Meg,

This is an interesting question that often becomes thorny for many professionals with special expertise or experience. How much advice/mentorship are you obligated to provide to a colleague? Is that obligation different if the person asking for advice is a friend?

Whether it’s a mentor or friend, or even a colleague, if you are feeling drained and used, a personal boundary has been crossed—for you. Perhaps the requests are too frequent, too persistent, too invasive, too time-consuming or too draining in some other way. Given how you feel, you need to convey your discomfort as kindly as possible and change the way you are behaving.

You can communicate your discomfort in a way that isn’t mean or offensive. Here are some suggestions:

  • If you both work in an office, it may be easier than if you work 24/7 (or close to that) out of your home. Explain that you need to confine the dialogue to the office. Decline offers to grab coffee or lunch or to meet after work. Additionally, you might want to tell the person you need to focus on your own work and don’t have the time to take on the role of being a mentor.
  • If you freelance or work from home, you can tell the individual that you are too busy to talk on the phone, meet for lunch or have lengthy email exchanges. Once you clarify what you can or cannot do, if the person still persists, you can simply make yourself less available. You aren’t obliged to respond to every request.
  • You can mention that you are having “time management” issues and need to be more careful about how you use your time.
  • You can refer the person to a website or book, or establish a rate for consulting based on your area of expertise. You can let mentees know that a first consult, for a half-hour, is free but beyond that you charge an hourly rate and need to find out more about her expectations.
  • Flattery in the opposite direction may also be effective: You can tell the person directly that you have helped as much as you can and that you think she can now follow through on her own.

When I raised this question to a group of writer colleagues, in addition to offering some of the suggestions above, several people questioned whether you are finding this more rewarding than you admit, especially if it keeps recurring. You may need to evaluate and curb your need to give advice.

Finally, “friendship” is a relationship that should be reciprocal, not at every moment but certainly over time. That you allow yourself to be placed in these uncomfortable situations over and over, and wind up feeling used and manipulated suggests that these one-sided relationships aren’t true friendships, and you might want to back off.

Hope this helps.

Best, Irene

Prior posts about the boundaries between mentors and friends:

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Comments (2)

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  1. Sheryl says:

    Such good advice. It can be a very thorny issue!

  2. Amy says:

    Whenever I’ve mentored or been a mentee, there has always been a social component. That said, I’ve never mentored more than one person at a time due to my own time and energy constraints. I’m work in a noncompetitive field where colleaguality and collaboration is part of the profession.
    I agree with what Irene says about setting clear boundaries and limiting the number of people you extend yourself to. It’s your perfect right to keep these relationships strictly professional without a social component.

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