How to Stay Calm When Your Friend is an Anti-Masker

Kelsey Collins, LMFT 112953 on Dec 27, 2020 in Mood and Feelings

With pandemic fatigue setting in, vaccine conspiracy theories running wild, and many people continuing to travel over the holidays, it’s easy to find yourself frustrated, surprised or confused during what you thought would be a casual conversation.

Maybe a friend shares about her plans to attend a large holiday party, or visit his grandpa in a nursing home after a cross-country flight. A neighbor may be a staunch anti-masker and feel the need to educate you on the dangers of breathing in “poison” by wearing your mask to go get the mail.

The further we get into the COVID-19 pandemic, the more often I’m having these types of moments. At first I could tell myself that there wasn’t enough wide-spread information yet, and maybe people just hadn’t been keeping up with the news. Now we’re nine months in, and everyone has at least heard the recommendations about mask-wearing and physical distancing. Everyone (theoretically) should know better by now.

What to do when we find ourselves at odds with our friends, relatives or co-workers regarding COVID-19 guidelines, vaccine safety, and risk-tasking behaviors? More specifically, how can we get a hold on our own emotions when these topics come up during a conversation?

Today’s post is a quick refresher on mindfulness and grounding, and how we can incorporate some simple strategies into tough conversations.

Before we react at all, it’s important to first engage in some grounding and self-regulation. We have to make sure we’re not reacting out of our own stress or need for control.

Here are a few subtle exercises you can do to re-center during a conversation:

  • Do a quick body scan: Moving from your feet upwards toward your head, notice any areas of tension. Ask yourself, what am I feeling in my body right now? Are there parts of my body I can intentionally tense then relax? (A personal favorite of mine is the foot muscles- easy to tense up and relax without anyone noticing!)
  • Engage in physical grounding: Notice 3-5 things you can physically feel right in the moment. For example, the chair against your back, the breeze blowing against your skin, the glasses on the bridge of your nose, and your feet supported by the ground. This exercise helps bring your physical awareness back to the present moment.
  • Mindfully identify your own feelings: What is coming up for you in this conversation? Notice it, name it, and set it aside to further explore after the conversation.
  • Try mental grounding: Notice 3-5 things you can see, or try to identify as many different colors as you can. If you’re getting really worked up, you can even tune them out and think about what you want to eat for lunch later.

Once you feel a bit more regulated yourself, you still have to face the question of how to respond in the conversation.

Do you…

  • Politely end the conversation and walk away?
  • Briefly disagree but change the subject?
  • Try to engage the person in a longer discussion?

I don’t have the magic solution to this, but here are some questions to consider:

  • What is the level of my relationship with this person? If I engage in a discussion, do I have enough personal authority with them to possibly change their mind?
  • What is the other person’s openness to a discussion or possibly changing their mind?
  • How much information do I have on this particular subject?
  • Where are my energy levels? Do I have the time today?

A stranger at the grocery story is most likely not going to listen to your scientific reasoning about why masks work. Ask yourself, “If the roles were reversed, how much weight would I give to advice from this person?”

The truth is, most of us have a large impact on a relatively small group of people, so if you decide to try to change someone’s mind, it’s best to focus on the people to whom you are the closest and have known the longest.

Usually, our urge to educate or change others (particularly strangers) is an expression of our own anxiety. We feel more out of control these days, and more likely to seek control by managing the behaviors of others. Before you get in a non-productive discussion with a friend or relative this holiday season, try out some mindful grounding exercises first. Remind yourself that you can only control your own choices, and focus on influencing the social circle closest to you, rather than acquaintances, neighbors, or that stranger in the grocery store.

If you’re looking for more mindfulness practice, check out the following apps:

  • Headspace (free for a limited version of the app)
  • Mindful USC (free for a full version of the app)
  • Waking Up (free/reduced rate if you email and request)

Kelsey Collins is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in South Pasadena, CA.

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