Okay, so you are staying home to save lives all around the world (You Rock! for that).
This situation has been on for days or maybe weeks?! One thing is certain – it is a new situation that we are adapting to. Of course, you might be a stay at home all day type of person – but now your roommate is also with you, all the time. Whether it is your roommates, your family, your partner, I think I can safely say that it’s the first time you are with them without being able to take a longer break than grocery shopping.
No matter how much you appreciate or love someone, it can be a complicated situation to be in. First the general coronavirus situation and the constant bombardment of catastrophic news makes us anxious, stressed out, irritable etc, but then to be 24/7 with someone inside a house or an apartment is a whole new challenge.
So, what can you do to make this time pass as smoothly as possible?
First of all, you need to have your personal space clearly defined. I already hear you saying, “but we live in one room, I am not going to sit down in my bathtub”, why not? Now is time to be ingenious.
We call “personal space” the physical distance between two people and it can be applied in a social, work or family/roommate environment. This personal space is your own bubble, your personal shield, the place for your aura to expand, this layer of emptiness where you can feel the soft air around you… You got it, it is the space between you and any other human being.
In this situation I will call this personal space your safe space because each one of us will need a different one according to their own personality or emotion on the moment. Sometimes your safe space will be in your head and you will be able to sit down and meditate even when someone is in the same room. Sometimes you will need to put yourself in a different room and put your headphones on to be sure you see and hear no one – in this moment even the bathtub will do, as long as no one bothers you.
I would recommend you to have a place that is just for you, a place you feel good, no matter how pissed off, sad, frustrated or mad you are. This can be on your bed, an ottoman in the corner of the room, your yoga mat, you gaming chair … And make it clear that if you are sitting, lying or even standing there, it means you don’t want to be disturb!
Then you need to set boundaries and to do so, you need to communicate.
And there we are, COMMUNICATION, you’ve heard that word so many times but who really knows what it means?
Let’s begin with why you might not be the best when talking about communications skills. Have you ever heard about cognitive distortions? This is a fancy term to say: thoughts that cause you to perceive reality inaccurately. When it comes to communication there are many cognitive distortions that can impact your skills.
What are the common Cognitive Distortions?
- Catastrophism: The perception of catastrophic events without any justified reasons for it.
- Attribution errors: Here there’s 3 options. 1) To believe that others are the cause of your emotions and / or problems, 2) To believe that you are responsible for the emotions, behaviors or problems of others and 3) The tendency to believing that we cannot change.
- Requirements: Inflexible beliefs about how one should be: you, others and even life. You’ll recognize these thanks to terms such as « should », « should not », « should have », « shouldn’t have », « always … », « never … », etc.
- Distortions in the way you process information: It could be to overgeneralize, drawing general conclusions from any single fact. You could also have the tendency to label everything, it is black or white, there’s no middle ground. One that happens very often in couple is to believe you can read one’s mind, that you know how the other person feels and why they behave the way they do – when of course, you don’t (or you are a medium and if so skip this part ). The last one here would be to take personally something the person said or did believing it is in reaction to you.
- Rationalization: The tendency to undermine or even to deny your own problems, rights and / or preferences. You will hear yourself say things like « I don’t care », « it doesn’t matter », when in reality, it really does.
What can you do to enhance your communication skills and fix your cognitive distortions.
First you need to work on your conversational skills. This is your ability to interact with someone or with a group of people.
Know how to start a conversation, choose the right place and time for you and for the other person.
Listen carefully to what the other person says, ask questions, show you are interested in what the person has to say.
If you are interested in what is said, but have no questions, you can still encourage the other person to continue speaking.
You can show that you are actively listening by highlighting something that has been said and / or by showing empathy towards the other person.
Remember, sometimes the other person doesn’t need you to fix their problem, just to be there, listen and show you care. This does not mean that you can’t give your opinion about what has been said, it just means that sometimes we can also learn to listen and say nothing – you’d be surprised how rare it is.
Be direct and honest, but remember, we have been taught to fix people, to share recommendations, to say what we think etc. In a context as complex as the confinement sometimes, there’s really nothing more to say than to just acknowledge the person’s feelings or thoughts. Then, find the appropriate time to finish.
Do not interrupt.
I see you coming and saying “I know when and how to talk” or, “the problem is when I’m mad at someone, the problem is when there’s a problem”, right? Conflict resolution seems like a completely different world, so what should we do? When a conflict arises it is the time, more than ever to be assertive. Here is the magic formula, it is called the behavior–feeling–proposal process. It is an easy technique that can solve difficult situations.
First, describe the behavior that has produced the negative feelings you feel. The earliest you open the conversation the best. When one keeps something inside, one tends to make it bigger than it really is, because it has been going in circle in our head for a while and it has got the time to bother us mentally many times over and over. This will also allow you to be less in the attack mode during the conversation, which will allow the other person to be less in the defensive mode.
The next step is not the easiest, but it is important.
You need to express to the other person how these behaviors make you feel.
Yes, you heard me (read me) you need to express your feelings, like this:
When you did _____ it made me feel ______*.
*fill the blank with: irritated, annoyed, anger, disappointed, frustrated, etc. (You have the wheel of emotions to peak at if needed).
The last step is to make a proposal that can improve the situation and your feelings.
You can ask (nicely) the other person to change the problematic words or behaviors now or to work to change it in the future. Understand it might not be as immediate as you would like it to be. Change takes time. You can also propose an alternative to the conflict, find something that will allow a solution to the problem. If there is no obvious solution or maybe no possible solution or possible change, then it is time to compromise.
It is okay to make mistakes and it is even better to accept, recognize them and to apologize.
As a final note, I would recommend the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson. It explains what the brain is capable to do to avoid the hard truth – I am wrong. The best thing one can do is to learn to see when they are wrong and to just say, “I am sorry, I was wrong / I made a mistake”. And STOP it right there. Don’t add any reason, excuse, nothing. It won’t be easy at first, but it might change your life and your relationships.
Roca, E. (2007). Habilidades sociales, autoestima, e inteligencia emocional: materiales complementarios para prácticas y talleres. ACDE.