NO. NO THANK YOU. THANKS, BUT NO. I have to walk my dog. I have plans. I think I’m just going to stay home. I’m not fully vaccinated yet. I’m not comfortable with that. Maybe tomorrow. Raincheck until next week? A year from now, it’ll be different.
2020, the year of our ’rona – for big and obvious reasons – was not a social year and saying “no” has become, for many, a compulsive answer. No one should blame anyone for skipping a year’s worth of birthdays, family dinners and handshakes. The pandemic is continually spoken about in terms of “public safety,” “social distancing,” “quarantine” and “isolation.” And yet, here we are, squarely in a much anticipated “return to normal,” when saying no is where you’re at. Or being told “no” feels like a gut punch.
Since the slow transition to normalcy commenced, Gabriela Berteaud, an associate marriage and family therapist and professional clinical counselor at Shine A Light Counseling Center in Monterey, has noticed that returning to normal is not as easy as turning a switch on and off. Humans are complex things.
Berteaud admits as much. “It’s complicated,” she says. She’s seen some clients, as well as people from her own social circles, thrive while she’s seen others suffer. “Some of my clients are so eager. Some have been doing what they had been before the pandemic,” she says. The inverse: “One of my clients had a panic attack for the first time in a social situation.”
The extreme responses are understandable, Berteaud explains, and she recommends that we remember to hold compassion for each other in this time of transition.
“The vaccine doesn’t make the pandemic go away. For some people, they’re still afraid of spreading Covid to their loved ones if they’re not fully vaccinated,” Berteaud says. “Everyone has their reasons, and every relationship is different.”
At the root of it, saying no, or getting mad or impatient at a loved one for saying no, has to do with rejection.
“Rejection is the idea of asking for something and being told ‘no,’” she says. Hand-in-hand with rejection is being vulnerable, which is exposing a part of yourself and your life that may not be easily conveyed in a one-word answer.
Our “shared” environments haven’t done a great job at priming us for rejection Berteaud says, whether that means facing it or doling it out. Zoom meetings, virtual check-ins, text messages, phone calls and other modes of connection have given a sense of instant gratification, but unlike in-person interactions, they haven’t done much to build our patience and empathy. We’re used to getting responses instantly, thinking out our responses ahead and typing out our thoughts in complete sentences. But in face-to-face conversations, there is body language to be read, changes in tone that can be detected. Technology has kept us all in the loop, but away from some key points in truly understanding each other. “We’re connected, but we’re still a degree off,” Berteaud says.
The way to bridge that gap – if you are the person saying no – is to offer validation, which yes, requires some level of opening up and vulnerability. Berteaud suggests following up the one-word answer with simple statements of what you may be going through, like “I need to make sure I’m OK, first” or “I’m not there yet.”
For those who have to face being told no, keep in mind that asking doesn’t produce a guaranteed acceptance. “Asking is being vulnerable and inviting the possibility of disappointment,” Berteaud says.
If you’re rejected and frustrated, instead of reacting right away, she recommends listening and counting to five before you respond. Again, simple statements and communication are crucial – and it’s OK to respond honestly with your own disappointment, like: “It’s just that I really miss hanging out with you.” You can also take it as an opportunity to understand the other person better: “What is your comfort level right now? Where are you at?”
Either way, navigating rejection is two sides of the same coin. It’s a good reminder that no one is in anyone else’s head all the time – something we learned in a lot of ways through the pandemic.
“We can’t control other people, we can only control ourselves,” Berteaud says. “We are our best advocates. If you’re not comfortable, you can remove yourself from the situation. You’re fully capable if you believe in your own agency.”
In other words, real honest conversations may be the one thing keeping your old friendships and relationships intact: “It’s communication, more than anything.”