He and I had crossed paths in professional settings several times over the course of about two years. He intrigued me, but our conversations were always brief and superficial. And then, one day, quite unexpectedly, I received an e-mail from him asking if I’d like to meet for lunch. “Of course,” I responded. “Where and when?”
Our lunch conversation was easy and enlightening, and I felt sad when it was time to go back to work. To my delight, I heard from him the next day when he contacted me to say that he wanted to see me again. Me? Really? He said he was interested in a longer-term relationship and wondered if I agreed that we had chemistry. He sensed we shared similar values and life goals and said he felt energized by our conversation.
Like all new relationships, the first few months were exciting. He was happy to see me, and I was happy to see him. While we had a lot in common, we lived in different worlds and learning about those differences was exhilarating as we exposed each other to new people and to new ideas. In a sappy sort of way, we made each other better. It was an ideal mentor-mentee relationship.
And then the relationship turned sour. Some conflict at work made him angry and bitter, and he turned to me to vent his frustrations. Our meetings turned into rant sessions that sucked the life out of me, and I came to dread our encounters. He chose not to take my advice and then had the audacity to express surprise that the behaviors I warned him about led to more trouble. He grew whiny and desolate and began to obsess about his purpose in life.
I didn’t have the emotional energy required to sustain him and felt suffocated by his demands. Over time, it became clear that I had to end the relationship, but how? Because I hate to hurt people’s feelings, I sought advice from others about how to break up with my mentee. The advice I was received was harsh. “Just tell him that you are too busy/this isn’t working for you/he’s become too much work.” “Explain that his toxic behavior is draining your energy.” “Just don’t return his calls; he’ll figure it out.”
I couldn’t imagine myself saying or doing any of these things, so I kept quiet, created more space between our meetings and sent messages to the universe pleading for divine intervention. Not exactly an assertive approach, but it is what I did. Then, a couple of months after I decided it was time to break up, my mentee called to say that he had considered my advice and decided to try something completely different in a city far, far away. Then he actually thanked me for making it obvious that his life here wasn’t working. At first I felt guilty about thinking ill of him. And then I felt freedom!
Have you ever grown out of a mentor-mentee relationship? How did you make the break? How can we prevent a mentor-mentee relationship from going bad?