How to say “no” to gatherings you’re not comfortable with

A good portion of my energy these days is spent ruminating on what to say when invited to a family or friend in-person gathering. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to balance this fine — but extremely important — line of physical distancing, or social distancing.

We all know the safest thing to do in any situation is stay home or participate virtually if possible, but those conversations can be a challenge to navigate.

And I’m not the only one! I find that my text messages as of late are chalk full of group chats with the same wonderings. How do I say this without hurting their feelings? Will they understand? Will they judge me? Will this create family drama? Why aren’t they taking this more seriously?

I decided to stop guessing, give my mind a break and turn to an expert for advice.

Enter Eli Mandel, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with more than 8 years of experience in the mental health field. In his current position, Eli assists physician residents and fellows at Baylor University Medical Center to help them maintain their well-being so they can best serve their patients.

Here is the insightful Q&A I had with Eli. Hopefully, these strategies and conversation tips can help you equip yourself with your own strategy of “saying no” — even when it’s hard.

How should I say “no” when I am uncomfortable with a gathering?

If you feel uncomfortable attending a gathering you’re invited to, remember that you have the right to decline. Often, keeping your explanation short and sweet is key, so try not to feel like you have to convince others about why you can’t attend.

Remember, there are still so many unknowns with COVID-19, so getting into a debate with someone who disagrees with you likely won’t go anywhere productive. You can let them know that you’re disappointed to miss out and that you’re hopeful you’ll get to socialize soon, but for now you aren’t comfortable with that level of contact.

“Explore."

Hint: Keeping it about you makes the other person less reactive. Try to avoid statements that place the blame on them.

How do I ask my friends or family what their “quaranteam” looks like right now? (i.e. how strictly they have been following physical distancing)

There are a lot of unknowns that factor into the option to socialize, and the extent to which someone else is distancing may not always be identified. If you are comfortable asking someone else, try disclosing your own physical distancing practices first.

For example, “I’m trying to keep my interaction with others pretty low and I’m only seeing people in small groups outside at a safe distance. What about you?” Telling your own plans first helps to make others less defensive and lays the groundwork for the idea that you aren’t yet comfortable with all social activities.

What is the best way to deal with family or friends who don’t understand?

It’s important to maintain the mindset that everyone will have a physical distancing plan that is unique to them and their situation. We each have different health histories, living environments and priorities, so having the expectation that someone else will have practices that mirror yours may be unrealistic.

If you and someone else differ in approach, try to be respectful of their distancing practices while maintaining your own. People may be confident about their decisions, but no one can be 100% sure what the answer is right now. You can try saying things like:

  • “I really appreciate the invitation and I’m sad that I can’t be there. I’m trying to avoid (big groups, indoor activities, etc.) for the time being.”
  • “I wish I knew what the right answer was, but since there is no definite strategy, I’m trying to keep a pretty low profile and limit my interactions with other people. I’m hoping that can change soon, but this seems right for me right now.”
  • “Thanks for thinking of me. I’m not comfortable with that amount of contact yet, but how about a (movie viewing party, video call, virtual dinner, etc.) instead?”

How do I set social boundaries?

Before you can set boundaries with others, you need to know what your boundaries are for yourself. Deciding in the moment, like during a conversation with a friend who has invited you somewhere, won’t set you up for success. When we do that, we’re adding different pressures into our decision making that may not have existed otherwise.

Instead, take some time to think about what feels right to you, and even brainstorm different scenarios that could come up. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you feel comfortable eating inside a restaurant with friends?
  • What about outside with family?
  • A small gathering in a backyard while practicing physical distancing?

Thinking about these things beforehand will help you be more prepared when you receive an actual invitation and make you seem surer of your decisions. If you start wavering back and forth, people will try to convince you to do what they want (with good intentions, they want to see you!), so try to communicate in a way that displays honesty and confidence to decrease external pressure.

Related: To go or not to go? Weighing the COVID-19 risk of common activities

How can I stick to my boundaries despite peer pressure?

If you were someone who had a hard time saying “no” or had family or friends who weren’t respectful of your boundaries before COVID-19, chances are that’s still the case. The difference is, there probably weren’t many health risks before.

With the growing number of cases in our communities, it’s even more important to set and maintain boundaries to stay safe and protect others. The best way to do this is to communicate what your boundaries are and do it often. Allowing others to guess what you are comfortable with rather than putting it out in the open may result in boundary breakage.

You might have to repeat yourself multiple times, especially if you’re close to someone with different physical distancing practices. But doing so in a respectful and honest manner will help maintain your own distancing preferences.

We’re all doing the best we can to cope with the many challenges our world is facing right now. Next time you begin to feel stressed about social gatherings and decision making, take a deep breath. Always keep in mind that your health comes first.

And remember that anytime you do decide to leave your home, wearing a face mask is the best way to protect both yourself and those around you. Read more about face masks and how they make a difference here.

For more resources on living well during the pandemic and beyond, subscribe to the Scrubbing In newsletter.

About the author

Brett Unell
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Brett Unell is a wellness coordinator at Baylor Scott & White Health. Brett has more than eight years of experience in the health and wellness arena. A Dallas native, she began her career as a fitness instructor and later became a personal trainer with the National Academy of Sports Medicine. In 2017, Brett joined the Baylor Scott & White Health wellness team. Brett truly believes wellness is not a destination; it is a way of life. She enjoys connecting with her clients to help them reach their lifestyle goals. Brett's passion lies in inspiring others to take charge of their health and wellness. She believes that with behavior changes, everyone can find what works for them and create lasting changes in their health, energy and mindset.

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How to say “no” to gatherings you’re not comfortable with