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health mind

How to Gracefully Ask for a Little Space—Or Just Say 'No'—During a Pandemic

There’s no time like a crisis to learn to trust yourself, listen to your own needs, and set boundaries with kindness and confidence.
13 April 2020, 2:53am

One of the biggest realizations a lot of us have had in the past few weeks is that simply being alive during a pandemic requires a ton of energy. When your attention span is shot and you’re faced with seemingly endless chores—each one reminding you of your own mortality!—and you’re trying to soak up every moment with your loved ones, there is absolutely no way you can say yes to every request for time or attention that comes your way. After you’ve put some thought into how you want to be spending your time and energy right now, you will probably need to start saying no more often.

The problem, of course, is that saying no to people is hard, even during a pandemic—or, maybe, even more during pandemic. You might feel obligated to FaceTime with the ex who is suddenly trying to rekindle a friendship, or guilty about wanting to say to your parent, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t do two hour phone conversations every single night. Also, please stop texting me about how competent and handsome you think Andrew Cuomo is!!!”

But you also can’t be all things to all people, or exist in a constant state of “I swear to God, if I have to shout-talk about coronavirus on one more Zoom call today, I’m going to effing lose it!!!” There’s no time like a crisis to learn to trust yourself, listen to your own needs, and set boundaries with grace and confidence.

Will the person on the receiving end of the “no” be disappointed? Maybe! That sucks, but it’s also OK; as long as you are acting in good faith and being kind, you can trust that you’re doing the right thing. (Also, no offense to you and your amazing Zoom presence, but there’s a more than zero chance they’ll just kind of shrug and move on.)

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, here’s how to say no in a bunch of different coronavirus-related situations.

Be honest when you’re just not feeling up for another FaceTime catch-up session.

Connecting with friends is good and necessary right now, but there’s no shame in not being in the mood to create a PowerPoint presentation for a Zoom call with your college buddies. It’s fine!

A lot of people default to “Oh I’d love to [do thing I definitely do not want to do] but I’m busy that day!” when their real reason for wanting to say no is simply, “I just… don’t want to.” I’ve never been a fan of the “I have other plans” excuse; it’s high risk–low reward, and I really do believe that honesty is the best policy. But my personal feelings aside, “I have other plans” is obviously going to be harder at a time when we’re all stuck at home with a lot of time on our hands. (Theoretically, anyway—I am finding myself fairly busy with the aforementioned “being alive.”) Sure, you could say you have another call at that time or that you have to work late, but then the requester will likely just ask you what day/time would work better.

All this to say: just be direct about why you can't do it. “It’s a pandemic, I can only do so much right now” is a perfectly reasonable guiding principle, and if someone doesn’t get that, it’s a Them Problem.

What to say:

  • “I’m honestly feeling pretty [burned out/overloaded/worn out] by life and work and chores right now, so I am trying to schedule fewer calls so I can fully recharge in the evenings. So [right now/tonight/this week] isn’t great for me.”
  • “I have actually been doing a surprising amount of long-distance socializing for the past month and am realizing I need to set aside more time for [catching up with family/unwinding/chores/self-care] in the evenings.”
  • “Ahh, thank you for the invite but I won’t be able to make it! I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed by everything right now, and as fun as this sounds, I know I just don’t have the bandwidth.”

If you’d be into chatting with them at some point, you could add “Maybe [next week/later this month] instead?” Otherwise go with something like, “But I’ll give you a shout when I’m feeling more up for a hangout.”

If you get the sense that the person is pretty lonely or isolated, you might try to find an asynchronous way to keep in touch with them (like voice memos or email) that don’t feel like such a heavy lift on your part. But if you’re already stretched way too thin, you don’t have to do that.

Don’t overthink your response to folks who want to break quarantine to gather at someone’s home, or meet up for a “socially distant” walk.

This is such a preposterous ask, you shouldn’t stress too much about coming up with the perfect response. The answer is no.

What to say:

  • “What? Absolutely not. We’re in the midst of a pandemic; I’m stressed about going to the grocery store, so I’m definitely not up for game night with a bunch of people this weekend.”
  • “Ugh, I miss you a lot and would love to see you in person, but I’m not taking any risks when it comes to this pandemic.”
  • “I know you’re [feeling really antsy/dying for some social interaction] and I am too, but we all really, really need to stay inside and isolated right now.”

If the suggested activity is particularly egregious, you could also add something like, “I obviously can’t stop you from gathering with other people, but I have to say—I think this is a really bad idea, and the fact that you’re pushing forward with it despite all evidence suggesting that that’s a bad idea is, frankly, really concerning.”

Lovingly but firmly shut down the relatives who are encouraging you (or guilting you) to come stay at their place.

How you handle this depends a lot on your relationship with the person or people proposing it. If you really do wish you could be with your parents right now, your response is going to sound pretty different than the response of someone who has a strained relationship with their folks, and who wouldn’t quarantine with them in a million years. But no matter who you’re talking to, the takeaway is going to be the same: I love you, but the answer is no.

What to say:

  • “I really wish I could be there to help out around the house and take care of you if you get sick, but it’s just too dangerous. If I were to travel now, there’s a not-insignificant chance that I’d get sick, or get you (or strangers I encounter along the way) sick.”
  • “I know that you’re worried about me, but I’m taking this really seriously. I haven’t been in public in three weeks and I have enough groceries to last me all month. The wisest thing I can do right now is follow the instructions to stay where I am.”
  • “You and I have already talked about this a few times, and nothing has changed since then—we’re still being told to avoid non-essential travel, and I still feel the most safe and comfortable where I am right now. Can you please stop bringing it up every time we talk? It’s just making me feel guilty and stressed.”

If it makes sense, you could also add something like, “I know the reports out of [city] sound grim, but I actually feel good about what [governor/local hospital] is doing. I know it might be hard to believe, but I think I’d be in pretty good hands if I were to get sick here.”

And remember that once you’ve said no, you don’t have to keep discussing it. You’ve given them an answer, and re-stating your case and getting increasingly emotional each time they bring it up can send the message that it’s a topic that’s up for debate, when it’s not.

If a stranger is getting way too close to you in a public space, politely ask them to move.

This is a super reasonable request, so you shouldn’t second-guess whether you have the right to make it. Of course you do! To get the results you want and avoid turning the stranger in line at the pharmacy into your mortal enemy, take a beat, and then summon the same tone you’d use to say, “Oh, excuse me, I think you dropped your wallet!”—warm, bright, friendly, helpful.

What to say:

  • “Would you mind backing up a bit? I’m really trying to respect the six-feet guidelines.”
  • “Could I ask you to wait for the next elevator if it’s not a huge inconvenience? It’s so tight in here, and I’m trying to play it as safe as possible right now.”
  • “Would you mind not smoking on the stoop here? It’s coming right up into my window.”

Even if you’re not feeling super charitable at the moment, do your best to not assume the worst of them. Yes, you might be thinking, Get a load of this absolute RUDE, guess they don’t care who lives or dies!!!!!!! but operating from that place isn’t the move right now.

Gently set boundaries with people who want to unload all of their pandemic-related feelings on you.

The coronavirus has disrupted literally everyone’s lives in a pretty significant way, and it makes sense that people who are feeling extra anxious or isolated are reaching out a lot more. That said, it can be draining or even fairly upsetting to be treated like an empty receptacle for someone else’s feelings when you are also feeling scared and stressed and are barely keeping it together. So figure out what specifically you need the person to do differently, and then kindly but directly communicate that when the moment feels right. (Which, FYI, might mean listening to them vent or talk for a little while first.)

What to say:

  • “Can I request a subject change? This particular topic is really intense, and I’m finding myself getting really [upset/worked up/stressed/anxious] talking about it.”
  • “Hey, I’m finding that [really grim news updates/intense conversations about coronavirus] are making me really [anxious/stressed out/panicky] and I’m trying to limit what I’m reading [during the workday/first thing in the morning/before bed] to avoid constantly spiraling. Would you mind not sending me articles like this
  • “Alex, I’ve already told you repeatedly that I don’t think you have coronavirus. I know you’re worried, but you’ve been doing everything right and don’t have any symptoms. I don’t think my answer is going to change, so I might not be the best person to talk to about this.”
  • “Just a head’s up that I’m trying to limit any distractions during the workday because I’m finding it so hard to focus and feeling really overwhelmed. So if you don’t get a response from me for hours, that’s why.”

And if you can't figure out how to end conversations right now because you have no where else to be, you could say something like, "All right, friend, I need to [wind down/recharge/catch up on chores/stare at the ceiling] for a bit [before I start working for the day/this evening/right now] so I’m going to sign off for a bit. I’ll talk to you [later/tomorrow]!”

If someone is sending you absolute B.S. (hoaxes, racist memes, chain emails that contain no less than 13 different fonts and colors), let them know that you aren't the right audience for it.

First, remember that you don’t have to respond to every silly little thing that makes your phone go beep bloop! Especially not during a crisis! Sometimes, the best thing you can do for everyone involved is simply ignore it, let the conversation drop, change the subject, and/or set up a gmail filter for your relatives’ unhinged and unsolicited emails.

That said, correcting misinformation is really important right now, and there will be many instances when you know, deep down, that you have no choice but to heave the biggest sigh in the world and then address it directly.

What to say:

  • “Hey, I don’t know how you came across this but I’m pretty sure the information in it is [not true/unproven/a hoax]. [Brief explanation of what is true.]”
  • “Lol what the hell? That’s definitely not real.”
  • “Huh, I don’t think that’s [very funny/even true/correct] and it’s also definitely kind of racist.”

By the way, if you are dealing with this a lot, you might find this article about talking about coronavirus with skeptics helpful.

Finally, if you’re really struggling with saying no, remember that setting boundaries is good for everyone.

When you decline an invite or opt out of draining conversations, you’re communicating something important: that being at home doesn’t mean being constantly on and available, and that now is the time to take care of yourself and live according to your values. In doing that, you give people a valuable gift: unspoken permission to do the same.

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Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.