Much of the world is still on some form of lockdown, so your loved ones are aware that you, like them, are probably sprawled on the couch in elastic waistband pants Googling how to create a sourdough starter. This makes it hard to find guilt-free excuses for declining a FaceTime call or virtual happy hour invite.
Quarantine has essentially dissolved the normal boundaries that once dictated social etiquette. Before the pandemic, you were unlikely to be surprised by a morning call from a relative or to schedule back-to-back hangouts with different groups of friends. But we’re operating on airport rules now, where cocktail hour is a construct and the dress code is whatever’s comfy.
Initially, pondering months of isolation from friends and family, people needed to feel connected. Now that quarantine is just how we will live for the foreseeable future, how do you disconnect? The Zoom fatigue has set in, and it’s time to learn to deal with it.
“I think at the beginning it was easy to overestimate” how much socialisation people assumed they needed or could handle, said Kathleen Smith, a therapist who focuses on anxiety.
Introverts, who rely on solitude to mentally recharge, may have initially adjusted more easily to life on lockdown. Several weeks in, they’re navigating between a sense of obligation to the people who lean on them and their own need for a little space – in extraordinary circumstances, no less, when communal solidarity feels like a duty.
“In real life, you have plans for the evening with the same people and can focus on them,” said Marissa Karlins, who is quarantined in Queens, New York, with her boyfriend. “But with this, there’s pressure to talk to everyone because you worry that they’re lonely. I don’t want to turn them down.”
Without access to our usual coping tools, everyone “is going to try to rely on each other and that makes sense and that’s normal,” said Melissa Martin, a clinical counselor in Chicago. “But we need to be able to be in a place where we have the emotional energy and capacity.”
So, decline the call and follow up with a text. In general, experts agree it’s better to be honest, more or less, stopping short of, “I just don’t want to talk to you.”
“I don’t believe in beating around the bush,” said Dawn Altman, a psychotherapist. Maybe your phone was off, or you were reading or watching TV. Just say that. Even in the midst of a pandemic you’re entitled to your own space, including mentally.
“In many cases we all are on top of each other now,” Ms Altman said, whereas before the pandemic, parents, for example, might have had “time to just take a breath” when their children were at school. “So I think it’s absolutely imperative that we set some boundaries.” This applies even if you live alone, she added.
If you need some breathing room, Ms Altman advises turning your phone off, or designating certain times of the day to stay disconnected. You can later explain to your caller, “I did miss your call, I’m sorry, but I’ve delegated these two hours today to be device-free.”
Ms Martin agrees, adding, “There doesn’t have to be a huge explanation.” You can say honestly, “I’m kind of stressed out and want some time to just watch Netflix or read a book, so I’ll call you later.” From an emotional-health standpoint, she cautioned, “Struggles can kind of get bigger when we’re hiding them or we’re feeling ashamed that we don’t have the emotional energy to talk to someone.”
Being forthright about why you’re unavailable is not only better for you psychologically, but is also more understandable than a weak excuse, which can eventually make those who are reaching out to you feel as if you’re blowing them off.
“Just speak honestly, because how can anybody be offended by that?” Ms. Altman said. “And if they are, that’s sad for them.”
You can also take your time before responding, to think of how you want to respond, give yourself some space or decide if you want to respond at all.
“Even if they’re asking that you talk right then, you don’t necessarily owe them a response,” Dr Smith said. “So, just give yourself permission to take some time to think about it. If you need to sleep on it, sleep on it.”
What you need emotionally has probably changed since before quarantine, so take stock.
Reanna Kawatha, who is quarantining with family in Detroit, said she’s feeling more fatigued by socialising than she normally is.
“I’m typically pretty extroverted but the past few weeks have been exhausting,” she said. “I’m working full time and living with my family, so it hasn’t been any less busy for me since quarantine started.”
Ms Kawatha added that she’s noticed an uptick in calls from old friends trying to reconnect. “Calls with friends I haven’t spoken to in a while can be stressful because I know they’ll go on for at least an hour, sometimes two or three,” she said, “and it’s hard to make time for that in the evenings after work.”
Differences in environment or temperament between you and your friends can also feel more stark right now. “Sometimes conversations with friends about the situation with COVID-19 can make me uneasy, because everyone has such polarising opinions about it and it can be uncomfortable to talk about our day-to-day as a result,” Ms Kawatha said.
Many in her orbit are dealing with lost income or difficult family dynamics, she said, and these conversations can become emotionally taxing because “there’s not much you can do to help.”
“We all have such limited control over the situation and it’s so hard watching everyone struggle,” Ms Kawatha said. So if she knows a conversation is going to be an emotional slog, she cancels.
If you do back out of a social obligation, Ms Altman suggests a well-timed pivot. She said her own friends had been scheduling near-constant virtual cocktail hours, which she doesn’t really want to do. So when they ask why she wasn’t at the latest trivia night or happy hour or so on, she sidesteps: “Oh, I had something else planned that day,” or, “My phone was off during that time.” It’s the truth “without saying that really isn’t my gig,” she added.
Even so – if we’re really being honest – sometimes it is just easier to say you are overbooked, even if you aren’t.
“My knee-jerk is to just claim multiple Zoom hangs. It doesn’t ruffle feathers, and everyone has generally been chill,” said Joe Tower, a freelancer in Colorado who is quarantining with family. “It’s actually salad days for placaters like me. If you’re the type who can’t say no and prone to double-booking, no one will blame you because in quarantine everyone can relate to trying to OD on contact.”
Such fibs are especially tempting when pleading “mental health” feels like oversharing, or when you’re pretty sure the ensuing conversation is going to be more exhausting than it’s worth.
You are not a mind reader, so don’t assume you know how the other person is going to react. “When we’re more stressed and more anxious, like right now, we tend to imagine the worst of people without a lot of evidence,” Dr Smith said. Still, experts acknowledge that, in some cases, a little white lie isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
If you need a delicate exit from a draining conversation, or you’re suddenly getting calls from a long-lost acquaintance, it’s okay. Go ahead and pretend your delivery order just arrived.
By Kathleen Walsh © 2020 The New York Times