Reader Q & A: Escape from a toxic mentor

Published: December 27, 2008 | Last Updated: December 27, 2008 By | 2 Replies Continue Reading


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,

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  1. Anonymous says:

    It does not seem appropriate for your therapist to have this undefined mentor relationship with you, and the fact that she has made negative comments and you feel that you have to bring her up or bring a positive spin on the situation and that you feel like you have to validate her feelings sounds like red flags to watch out for.

    Something to consider what if this therapist were to turn on you, which could affect your career, you are grateful that she got you through a hard time but you don’t owe this lady anything, so tread with caution and listen to your instincts with this situation.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I am about to interview for graduate school in counseling. I have been in therapy for about 21 months. During that time my therapist and I have become close (professionally). We’ve had some bumps along the way in our relationship like any other, but I think we have smoothed the majority of those over. She has helped me through a major crisis in my life and I am thankful for that. At my previous session we discussed our relationship and I asked if we were ending due to my insurance and the assignment that she had given me. My therapist said that that’s not what she meant and that she would like to help mentor me while I’m attending graduate school. I was relieved. I’m also feeling a bit odd about that, partly because I am unsure what she means by mentor relationship. She can be quite negative from time to time about people or other things. For some reason at those times I feel the need to bring her up or do a positive spin on the situation. Sometimes I just validate her feelings and don’t say much else. Anyway, I think we need to define our relationship a bit better and I need boundaries clearly defined. She already told me that I could call her with an area of study that I’m struggling with and it’s a subject she teaches. I thought that was sweet. After session though I wondered what she meant by calling her. Did she mean calling her to schedule a session to go over my homework? Or calling her in between sessions so she could help me out over the phone? I have never called her in between sessions and we usually only meet once or twice a month. I don’t want to be the pesky client that calls her at 11:30PM saying that I need help with my homework or other such matters. She has her own life and so do I. I would love her career guidance though.

    Is it ok to have a mentor type of relationship with your therapist?

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