• Dr. Patty Hlava

9 Strategies to Shelter-At-Home with Grace (aka: how not to hate your housemates)

Finding yourself at home with hour family at all hours can create space for frustration, conflict, and overwhelm. Here are 9 strategies to help navigate this unplanned proximity challenge and feel empowered through it all.




Being home with your family is not a completely new experience for you. What may be new for you is being home with your family all the time. This sudden transition has many experiencing the foreign territory of trying to work in a space that we previously used for something else, like eating or relaxing. What may be new for you is having less privacy, less quiet time, and more interruptions.  


Take all these changes to your home environment, add the stress of a constant flow of negative news and uncertainty of how to navigate a pandemic, and you have a perfect formula for frustration and conflict in the relationships that are closest to you.


The best way to maintain positive relationships with those that you’re sharing space is to take care of you so that you can respond in a way that helps support the kind of relationships that you want to have.


When your structure changes, you also need to change. The more quickly you can create new structures that will support your system, the faster you can return to a state of thriving—regardless of what is happening around you. Having structures in place will help you—and everyone in your household—feel centered, connected, and supported. When you’re feeling centered, supported, and connected, you’re less likely to lash out at one another or act from a place of frustration.


The best way that I have found to do embrace change and create new structures is to pause.


Step back and assess your current situation. Check-in with your Self and honestly explore:

  • How are you feeling?

  • What are your resources?


Next, look at what’s most important and make decisions based on that vision.


Right now, the answer to what is most important is quite simple: health. Your health and wellbeing are of the utmost importance, and the health and wellbeing of those with whom you are sharing space are right there alongside it. Everything else, and I do mean everything else, is secondary. Work, school, finances, how well-folded the laundry is—this is all secondary to health and wellbeing.


Health and wellbeing include physical health as well as mental, emotional, and spiritual health. When the structures around you have changed, leaning into this simple truth that your health and wellness come first can serve as a grounding force to sink into.


What’s interesting is that all of these areas of health and wellness are intricately intertwined. You can’t focus on one without affecting the others. The primary factors that will influence our overall wellbeing are:


  • Supporting your nervous system

  • Moving your body

  • What and how you eat

  • Allowing space to digest (food, emotions, experiences, and information)


So what does creating structures to support these look like?



Here’s what you can do:


1-START HERE: YOU

Focus on YOU first. You matter. You are essential. The people in your life both need and love you. You must, above all, take care of your Self first. It’s not selfish. It’s not indulgent. It’s necessary. It’s the “put on your oxygen mask before helping others” principle. If you’re not okay, the others in your home will also not be okay. Putting you first has the added benefit of helping you practice setting boundaries and also encourages others to step into their power and experience the benefits of feeling useful and helpful.


When you start with you and allow yourself what you need to thrive, you are supporting your nervous system and allowing space to digest your experiences and emotions. This reduces reactivity, burn-out, and fatigue. This is also a very powerful strategy for blocking resentment (one of the greatest threats to relationships) and contempt.


Pause, know what you need to thrive and feel grounded, and create your schedules and routines around this. Enlist support where needed (see number 3).


For me, this means less television, more time for meditation, more frequent movement breaks, and more time in nature. I use timers and do 1 minute of movement (squats, jumping jacks, lunges, kettlebells) for every 45 minutes of sitting at my computer. After lunch, I may just sit in the backyard for 5 minutes, or sit at the window and watch and listen to the spring rain. Again—timers are powerful here. It offers structure while allowing me not to have to think about time. I can just take in and receive the experience of what I need for my body and mind.



2-EMOTIONS ARE OKAY: ALLOW THEM ALL TO MOVE ON THROUGH

The rhythms of your household have changed in the past weeks. And everyone in your home is likely to have a different response to this. Some revel in it, others less so. All of the reactions are understandable. Allow some space for emotions to show up and move through. Expect some fear, sadness, grief, anger, and even guilt. Validate all of the emotions—yours and those of others and invite opportunities for resolution. For some, that will look more like writing in a journal and sitting in meditation. Some will have a stronger desire for movement or creative projects. Hold compassion and space for yourself and others and remember that the one thing that all emotions have in common is that they have a beginning and endpoint. They rise, fall, and dissolve. Whatever you are feeling, let it be there and allow it to move on, creating space for the next emotion. Be patient with others as they are riding their waves.


Know what you need to support your emotional health, and encourage conversations with others to do the same. These conversations support digesting the experience together and increase compassion.




3-NEW ROLES: MEET YOUR ROOMMATES


The rules and rhythms have changed. Home is now a place where everyone is—all of the time. You’re using spaces differently. Your kitchen table may now be a home office, classroom, and location for family meals. This shift in space, and general flow means that roles have changed, at least temporarily. During this liminal space—this threshold between what was and what will be—offers an opportunity to experiment with new roles. Consider thinking of everyone in the home as roommates. Yes—your partner, your children, and anyone else who happens to be sharing the space under your roof. For this period of time, everyone gets to take on some responsibility for the space.


Have a meeting and divvy it all up. Kids get to do more chores, everyone washes their dishes, and everyone agrees to keep shared spaces clutter-free.


Create a list of new ground rules for your roommates. Create them together and post them where everyone can see them. Revisit them each week. Discuss what’s working, what’s not, and make adjustments as necessary.



4-BOUNDARIES: CREATE STRUCTURES AROUND SCREENS

I can’t stress this one enough. If you want to ensure that you and your roommates thrive and experience some sense of connection throughout this time, you need to set limits around electronics. Too much time with your screens increases feelings of anxiety, restlessness, irritability, distractibility, and depression. While this may be the most challenging thing you do, setting strict “no-screen” zones and times is one practice that will reap the greatest wellness rewards for you and your household.


Experiment with things like:

  • No TV, news, or media until after everyone has finished breakfast

  • No screens during meals

  • Setting a limit on how many minutes of news is on during the day (e.g., one news program report per day).

  • All screens off two hours before bedtime


Start with one and work your way up from there. Expect resistance—from yourself and others. Be compassionate with yourself and your response to the addictive nature of devices and stay firmly committed to maintaining the structures you’re putting in place. The mental and emotional health of you and your roommates will flourish.


Less screen time means more time for:

  • play

  • movement

  • processing all the feels

  • connection

  • creativity

  • everyone to contribute to keeping the shared spaces comfortable for all

5-COMMUNICATE: LISTEN AND EXPRESS

There tends to be an assumption that others know exactly how you are feeling, and that they “should know” what you need or want support around. This assumption is false the vast majority of the time. While your mind might tell you that how you are feeling is evident to others, most likely, it isn’t. Your roommates are not mind-readers. Let them in on what’s happening for you. If you are overwhelmed, say so. If you are frustrated or sad, clue them in. Ask them how they are doing. As simple as it sounds, saying what you’re feeling, and having someone hear you can be a very healing experience. There is no need or expectation for anyone to fix or change anything. The practice of communication is to share information.


Let your roommates know what you are feeling and state a reasonable request. This dialogue might look like: “I’m feeling overwhelmed and frustrated right now. I need to take 5 minutes and step outside to reset. Can you and the kids clear the table for lunch?


Don’t forget to reciprocate. When you see one of your roommates experiencing a strong emotion, check-in and ask: “Hey—how are you? What are you feeling?” Then listen. Don’t try to fix anything—just let them know that you are there (see #2—all emotions are okay).



6-AWARENESS: PLAY THE “I NOTICE” GAME

When you’re staying in a close space with the same people day-to-day, its typical to experience periods of frustration, agitation, and impatience. You might find yourself thinking hostile thoughts or wishing they were somewhere else, even if only for a little while. This doesn’t mean that you don’t love them anymore; this a common response of your very human mind.


Your mind has what’s called a “negativity bias.” It loves to focus on what’s negative, unpleasant, and painful. When you’re in a situation where you are experiencing little control, your mind will find this uncomfortable, and then it will continue to scan your environment for other things that it can’t control to reinforce how “right” it is about your powerlessness. Your roommates are part of the uncontrollable situation.


The good news is: you have control over your mind. Where your attention goes, so does your energy and your mood! A wonderful way to break free from that frustration and agitation is to play a game. Start actively looking for things that your roommates do that is awesome, or even pleasant.


Whenever you catch one of these moments, say something about it. This act of noticing is an active practice of gratitude. It shifts your focus from one of powerlessness, negativity, and lack to one of openness, connection, and abundance.


By simply letting your roommates know that you have noticed them doing something helpful increases their experience of connection and wellbeing, as well as reinforcing the positive action. This means you’re likely to see more of it in the future, in part because they will know it matters to you and because you are now training your mind to look for things outside of the negativity bias. It’s a win-win!


What does this look like in action? It’s surprisingly simple, yet it takes a little practice to get used to:


  • “Hey, Roommate. Thank you for taking out the garbage. Seeing you do that, let me know that you care about keeping our space clean. I felt supported by that.”

  • “Thank you, Roommate, for holding the door open for me. When you did that, it told me that you were paying attention to me and saw that I could use a hand. I felt loved at that moment.”

  • “Thank you, Roommate, for ________________. I felt _________________ when you did that.”


It’s a bit of a formula that may feel awkward at first, but over time you can find a rhythm with it. What makes this fun is that you’re modeling this for the younger roommates in your household. Every time you do this, you’re teaching them how to look for and notice micro-gifts and interactions that happen every day.


A couple that I had worked in my therapy practice had been doing this exercise for a few weeks when they came into my office one day and shared that their kids had started expressing gratitude to them in this way without being prompted. “My daughter looked up at me one day and said, ‘thanks for making hot cocoa for me, mom. I felt like you loved me when you gave me that. It was really good, and I felt happy you made it for me.’”


7-REWIRE: EXPANDING “I NOTICE” 

The “I notice” game can extend beyond the actions of your roommates too. Practice looking for things that are on the spectrum of neutral to awesome in your surroundings. Remember, your mind is wired to notice the negative. Every time you practice shifting your attention intentionally to something that is even just “okay,” you are rewiring the way that your brain processes the information around you.


Expanding the “I notice game” is the practice of cultivating gratitude; this is the stuff that gratitude lists are made of. It’s not the big and grand gifts of life. It’s the small gifts that are available to us at any given moment, often alongside the darker and challenging stuff. The pleasant and nurturing always exists. It is incredibly powerful to acknowledge it, especially during more challenging times. This practice of expanding your perspective allows you to see the whole picture and invites you to recognize the resources that are available to you. It keeps you in the present moment, where you have the power to respond to your immediate circumstance.


8-NOURISH: MIND THE KITCHEN

A kitchen is a magical place. Seriously. It is where people gather. Regardless of what is happening in a home, people will gravitate here. When struck with boredom, restlessness, agitation, you will often find yourself or a roommate staring into a cupboard or the soft, cool light of the refrigerator.


To help keep a sense of order in your shared space, set some boundaries and limits around the kitchen. If you don’t, a couple of things are inevitable: (1) you will feel as though you are trapped and unable to escape a cycle of cooking and cleaning. There will be no flow to any of your work, play, or rest periods of the day. (2) you will feel overwhelmed by the chaos of this space and succumb to perpetual snacking rather than nourishing meals. This will leave you with fluctuating energy and moods, which is no fun for anyone.


The practice here is simple, although much like the screen-time boundaries, may require a little reinforcement to get going. The effort will be worthwhile. I promise. This one thing will save you time and energy and keep you and your family well-nourished in the process.


  • Set times for meals. Let them be at the same time each day. Enjoy a moderate breakfast, lovely and satisfying lunch, and earlier and lighter dinner.

  • Plan your meals ahead of time and dedicate time each week to doing as much meal prep as possible for the days ahead. Everyone takes part in this. It’s not a one-person job. (someone can wash produce, another can chop or dice, someone can measure grains or mix spices)

  • Everyone is responsible for cleaning up after themselves. Dishes are washed after each meal, and the kitchen is cleaned.

  • Create a Kitchen Closed sign—or a few. Set your kitchen hours. When the kitchen is closed, it is closed. Put your sign on the fridge and the cupboards.

9-EMBRACE IMPERFECTION: BE GENTLE WITH YOURSELF


Going back to number one on this list, put yourself first. One part of that is to be kind and compassionate with yourself. Not everything is going to go according to plans. You, your roommates, and the rest of the world are in a state of transition. Nothing is predictable, and you have little to no control over what’s happening outside the walls of your home or in the hearts and minds of those with whom you are sharing space. The only thing that you have complete control over is how you respond to all of the things—internally and externally.


Remember, you have a 100% success rate of surviving difficult things. You’ve done it before. The odds are highly in your favor here that you’ll get to the other side of this okay too.


Let imperfect be imperfect. Allow yourself space to feel the emotions as they show up and then look for those “what else is also true” experiences.


You’re doing better than you think.


Learn more about how to deepen your self-care practices here.


Ready to take the next step in your journey? The Awaken Program is a program designed to help you find clarity in your purpose, and the skills to create the structures that will allow you to live an empowered life.


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