How Being Eager to Please a Mentor Can Turn Toxic

Gillian Sisley

There are some people who are placed in roles of leadership who really aren’t cut out to mentor others.

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Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

It’s a huge honour when someone chooses to take you under their wing and mentor you. This is truly a special kind of bond, and should be deeply appreciated by both parties.

A Mentor is described by the Oxford Dictionary as:

“An experienced person in a company or educational institution who trains and counsels new employees or students.”

The piece of this definition to really pay attention to is the requirement of a mentor being an “experienced person”. This is certainly a blanketed term, but one thing is for sure — one must be competent and capable in the aspects in which they are mentoring for a mentee to have a positive, and healthy, experience.

There are some people who are in placed in roles of leadership who really aren’t cut out to mentor others, but do so anyway. In these cases, it’s often the mentee who suffers the most.

I had such an experience when I was in university.

As we dissect what it means to be a “competent and capable mentor”, here are the signs to look out for to identify whether your relationship with your mentor has turned toxic:

#1. They project their own insecurities and issues onto others.

It’s not uncommon for a mentor to see a younger version of themselves in a mentee — that’s often a key factor in why that person has chosen to mentor someone to begin with.

While odds are there’s a bit of ego in that mix as well (I admit, it was always a good feeling when someone would request that I mentor them), their general intentions are often sincere. Finding a quality mentor can play a very important role in a young person’s development and success in their career or a special skill.

That said, we all have insecurities, and that doesn’t just disappear completely when we become adults. We will likely have insecurities most, if not all, of our lives (although, I’m really banking on being an old lady who does whatever the sh*t she wants with a “take no prisoners” kind of attitude).

There’s nothing to say that an adult with insecurities cannot be a quality mentor — quite the contrary, sharing a glimpse of our vulnerabilities with a mentee is a powerful and effective tool for connection, and letting a mentee know they are not alone in their concerns.

However, a dangerous line is crossed when a mentor, aware of their most deeply-seeded insecurities from their past, attempts to project those same insecurities onto their mentee, insisting that they too must face these struggles because the mentor sees a younger version of themselves in the mentee.

I was an executive member of a Christian fellowship in university. My mentor, and fellowship supervisor, was 7 or so years my senior, and I thought she was the coolest person I’d ever met. As part of our leadership team, we all took the Myers Briggs personality testing together. I took the test two separate times, receiving one result identifying me as an extrovert, and the second identifying me as an introvert. Even at the time, I felt that the description which included introversion was better fitting for me — my mentor disagreed, and instead “assigned" the title of “extrovert" to me.

That meant she and I had the same Myers Briggs personality type: ESFJ.

From that moment on, I know she saw a lot of herself in me. Which actually made me feel very honoured, as if we shared a special connection no one else did. I was a massive people-pleaser back then, and would also strive for the approval of my superiors, which just made things worse for me in this case.

Through her mentorship, I noticed that she started labelling me as having insecurities that simply didn’t feel like they lined up with who I knew myself to be: such as having an obsessive need for control. At first, looking to her as a wiser superior, I just assumed my bias wasn’t allowing me to see the truth, so I went along with it.

But then she insinuated, rather boldly, that I had a very unhealthy and deeply-seeded “need for validation from all men".

The evidence of my life was not aligning with her very bold (and very inappropriate) claim.

But still she insisted, and continued to insist, and I realized more and more that when she looked at me she saw herself at 19, and every major insecurity she’d carried at that time, she was now actively trying to project them onto me, whether she realized it or not.

This would, unsurprisingly, become a point of friction in our relationship moving forward. And it would grow to be very toxic.

#2. They lack the ability to lead.

Keep in mind that authority and leadership are not synonymous.

One can be appointed into a role of authority, and yet not truly be cut out to lead. When a leader who is not adept to leading responsibly is in charge of a group or community of people, there will likely be traces of missteps and mistakes left behind by their simple inability to lead properly.

That’s not to say that to be a good leader, you must be perfect. That’s false, obviously, no one is perfect. However, you must be wiser and more informed in the subjects in which you are leading your group. Inability to do so may cause one to sadly give poor advice, make the wrong call, and make mistakes that could really affect their mentees in a significant way.

There were several times I was put into a tough spot, due to my former mentor’s tenancy to give mixed signals, or simply give her permission for something as the supervisor of our university fellowship, and then, later on, withdraw her permission and expect us to pick up the pieces of her mistakes.

It was around this point, that the breakdown of our relationship was becoming difficult to ignore.

#3. They are unclear or misleading when communicating.

Clear, quality communication is key to any successful relationship, personal or otherwise. When communication breaks down, there is a higher risk of misunderstanding and possible fallout.

While both parties are responsible for playing their own part in the Mentor/Mentee relationship, the mentor especially must hold themselves even more accountable, as they may be giving guidance or advice which could significantly impact the mentee’s decisions and future.

I recall a particular event when I was contacted by someone who lived near the university. He had recently moved to our city, was planning to start school in the fall, and was desperate for an authenticate community to join, as he was new in town.

I met with my supervisor and the other executive members, and requested, despite the fact that he wasn’t currently a student (generally, they are supposed to be currently studying to join) if we could welcome him in.

Everyone, including my supervisor, was in full support, and felt it was the right thing to do. And so, as the supervisor went off for a week-long leadership conference (the irony), we held our weekly potluck and invited my new friend to join us in our community with open arms. He was a great time, others really warmed to him.

It’s worth noting that sharing life together and building a loving community was our value system, and our fundamental goal as a team.

One week later, my mentor returns, and calls me over to her place for tea. She says we need to talk.

She begins solemnly with,

So, I have some bad news.

Worried, I reply,

Oh no, is everything okay? Did something happen on your trip? Are YOU okay?

She takes a deep breath,

So, I talked with my superiors at the conference and, you know your new friend who you brought to the potluck last week?

I nod slowly. She continues,

Unfortunately, because he’s not enrolled as a student, he can’t join our fellowship anymore.

I can’t believe my ears.

But… you gave your approval.

Yes, I know. But I have to change my answer. There’s no getting around it. That’s the rules.

But… he already joined. If our values are being an inclusive, everyone-is-welcome community, how does it make any sense that we actively exclude someone so desperately seeking community on a technicality? That’s so wrong.

I’m sorry, but it is what it is. I should have checked with my superiors before giving you approval.

She sure as hell should have. I proceeded to inform her that if anyone was going to have to tell him that he’s “kicked out", it wasn’t going to be me. It should be her.

We went back and forth for an hour or so. I was upset and frustrated, because this entire thing felt so backwards to what we fundamentally believed as a fellowship.

She continued on to “explain to me” that the reason I was likely so upset was going back to my “deeply-seeded need for the validation and approval of men". I denied this as bullshit. She kept saying, “I know it’s hard to accept, it was hard for me too. But once you accept it, you can start fixing it.”

I left that meeting completely furious, and feeling a little betrayed.

She delivered the blow to my friend. He obviously felt rejected, hurt and confused. I felt all of these same emotions for him. He and I remained friends for many years afterwards, but neither of us ever got over the hypocrisy or politics of that situation.

#4: They abuse their power.

The reality of a Mentor/Mentee relationship is that it’s very easy for a power imbalance to be created.

Simply because one has more experience, just not make one intrinsically superior as a person to their mentee. There should still be an appropriate balance of mutual respect present in the relationship.

But sometimes, that’s simply not the case.

The more I challenged my mentor, whether through my belief that we were violating our value system, or the belief that she was misdiagnosing me with her own insecurities, the more tension arose and the more commanding she became over me. Regardless of the hippie-dippie, “I’m also human, I'm not perfect, so please hold me accountable and feel free to challenge me” bullsh*t she would preach, she really responded cruelly to my attempts to hold up the sanctity of the values we as a community held.

The summer after my first year of university, I went away on a summer exchange trip to teach English to university students in China. The purpose of the trip was simply to share our lives together, and create cross-cultural relationships.

The following year, I decided to return, and was appointed a Curriculum Lead, responsible for the supervision of all class curriculum created by other student teachers on the trip. This second time, other members of my fellowship came along as well, including my mentor who, despite never having been before, was appointed the role of Supervising Director of the entire trip.

The summer went very well again, I felt very proud of my accomplishments in my role as a Curriculum Lead, and generally went home thinking:

“Huh. I think I want to come back next summer and continue my work here, through this cultural program. I may even be feeling called to this as my purpose in life.”

The entire team is headed home, and we’re sitting on the airplane bound home to Canada. The flight would be 13 hours, and we were exhausted. It was at this time that my mentor, sitting next to me, decided she wanted to debrief my role as the Curriculum Lead this summer.

“Please not right now, can’t we wait till we’re home?” I plead. “We’re both exhausted and need time to process everything.”

She shrugs me off, and I can already hear her irritation.

No, I think we should do it now.

I sigh, and agree. I mean, I’d done a wonderful job — everyone had said that. So I wasn’t too worried.

Man, was I ever about to get a shock. She begins,

As far as being a Curriculum Lead, you did a fabulous job. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Well shit, if I did a fabulous job, what else was there to talk about?

I want us to discuss the obsessive control issues we diagnosed in you last year.

To be clear, this “obsessive control issue” was one of the many insecurities she had projected on me, but didn’t actually apply to me. No matter how many times I tried to challenge it, she never swayed in her belief, using my objection as a sign that I was “in denial”.

I have to say that I’m disappointed in your progress over this last year, and haven’t seen much improvement during this trip. You will need to really apply yourself to overcome these obsessive control tendencies in this coming year — if I don’t see the improvement I want, I will not be able to, in good conscience, give my approval to the organization necessary for you to return to China next summer to teach.

Mind you — I thought teaching in China through this particular cultural exchange program was possibly my calling in life (and I had mentioned this to her). But because she was unsatisfied with my unwillingness to submit to her untrue accusations of my perceived insecurities, she was going to do what she would to boycott my ability to pursue a very viable future career for me.

Because in this organization, it did require for my fellowship supervisor to sign off on my overall capability to perform the job before I could go.

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I felt absolutely betrayed by her, hurt, and distraught. I couldn’t believe she was threatening to take this away from me.

This relationship had officially become toxic, the damage had been done, and there was no way it could ever be repaired.

When the new school year began, I withdrew as an executive member and didn’t go back.

Walking away from my beloved fellowship community was extremely difficult, but I couldn’t in good faith continue with them under her dictatorship and destructive “mentoring” tactics.

Final word.

Years later, after I had graduated and was running my business, she requested that we meet for coffee, stating that she felt when our relationship broke down, we had never reached a resolution. She wanted to reconcile.

Now 24-years-old, the 19-year-old me of my past who still wanted to please, agreed to go.

I thought I would have a chance, now older and more self-assured, to give her constructive criticism of my experience under her lead and mentorship, and how there were aspects that deeply hurt me.

Instead, she hijacked most of the meeting, pouring out her feelings of sadness, and how my sudden departure was so hurtful to HER.

As I sat there, I was still very aware of the power-imbalance which still existed in our relationship. I didn’t feel that I was in a safe space to be honest with her about the real reasons why I left, and instead referenced some personal issues that I was going through at the time as my excuse.

That entire meeting was simply an hour of myself trying to comfort and reassure she of all of these emotions and feelings of hurt she was dumping on me.

Because when there is an abuse of power in a relationship, that feeling of imbalance may never really go away. And so, I reverted back to the 19-year-old me, eager to please, just wanting for her to be proud of me again.

That time we met up for coffee was all about her getting closure on her terms, and I walked away feeling I had no more closure than when I walked into that cafe. She committed to reaching out again, saying how she wanted to actively work on rebuilding our relationship.

She did send me an email a few months later when she got engaged, to share the good news. I congratulated her, and wrote some life updates of my own.

She never replied to my email, and we haven’t spoken since.

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