a medical issue means I have to keep saying no … but I don’t want to over-share

A reader writes:

How do I quickly and dispassionately explain why I can’t participate in a work project (ever!) without putting the other person in uncomfortable position of having to express sorrow for me?

I’m employed in a highly specialized, technical career where I interact with motivated, passionate people who have all kinds of projects on the go. Unfortunately, I developed a chronic illness a decade ago that has me sleeping for 12 hours daily and exhausted the rest of the time. Professional contacts outside of my company have no way to know this and our conversations periodically turn to suggestions from them that I give a conference talk or that we lead a working group or write an article together. This is all impossible for me.

When it’s a one-off, I decline with no explanation. “I wish I could, but unfortunately I’m not available.” This can be perceived as me being uninterested rather than unable, so it becomes a problem when it’s someone with whom I interact on a semi-regular basis and have developed a rapport. Eventually, I need to explain why I keep saying no to things squarely within my expertise and that I’m obviously passionate about. I say something to the effect of: “I’d really love to do that. And also that other thing we discussed last month. Unfortunately, a chronic medical issue makes it impossible for me to take on any activities outside of my direct work responsibilities.” And then I try to change the subject. But, this never works. The person always responds uncomfortably with: “Oh! I had no idea. I’m so sorry to hear that.” Then more awkwardness as I assure them that I’m okay and that they can continue to rely on me in the limited way they always have previously.

How do I present this information as a simple fact, akin to “I have triplets who just turned two” or “I live on the opposite coast” and then move right along with no need for my colleague to express sympathy or to treat me differently in the future?

Yeah, it’s easy to say no to one thing but harder when you want to explain you’ll always be saying no.

I don’t think you necessarily have to explain it’s a medical reason. You could try saying, “It’s a great idea but my schedule is so overbooked for the foreseeable future that I’m being really disciplined about not taking on anything else.” Or, “It’s a great idea but my job keeps me so busy that I’ve accepted I won’t be able to take on any side projects for the foreseeable future. I’m sorry I can’t collaborate with you on it!”

But if that feels off-key in your industry and you think you should divulge a little more, I’d say it this way: “I’ve got a chronic medical thing that means I can’t take on anything extra outside of work. It’s nothing to worry about, just means I manage my schedule a little differently.”

The key is to say it breezily, because people will take their cues from that. The language you’ve been using (“I’d really love to do that. And that other thing. Unfortunately…”) sounds a lot more solemn and sad, and I think might be why you’re getting uncomfortable responses. But if your tone is more matter-of-fact and breezy and “nah, medical thing, but nothing to worry about,” they’re more likely to take it in stride.

You should also try following it immediately with a question back to them. Don’t pause and wait for them to respond to what you just shared, because people are notoriously bad at knowing what to say in those situations. Skip the pause and keep talking. So it might be like this: “I’ve got a chronic medical thing that means I can’t usually take on anything extra outside of work. It’s nothing to worry about, just means I manage my schedule a little differently. But your point about llama villages is so interesting — I’d love to hear how you end up approaching that in the paper!” Other immediate subject changes could include suggesting someone else who might be up for giving the conference talk, or offering a quick thought for the article they want to write, or “you should take a look at what Valentina Warbleworth wrote on that last year — really fascinating,” or really anything even slightly related to the thing they were proposing.

But your strongest weapon here is the breezy language and the breezy tone, because those are enormously effective in signaling how to people how they should respond. And most people like having those cues; it’s easier for them when they can just match your tone and when they don’t need to wonder what to say in response or worry that they’ll seem callous if they don’t sound sufficiently concerned.

{ 139 comments… read them below }

  1. Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii*

    Could you have a “family obligation” reason you can’t participate?

    1. Expelliarmus*

      OP says it’s easy when it’s a one-off, but it’s an issue for regular things that happen

      1. Meep*

        You mean you don’t want to give the impression you live with an abusive person who won’t let you do anything outside work?

        1. Nea*

          This is why I recommend that LW heavily imply that it’s a close family member who has the chronic health issue and needs LW’s aid.

          Which is the truth, if nowhere near the whole truth.

          1. Meep*

            Yeah, this is better than. “Haha. Can’t go out. Family obligations again!” Especially if OP is female or feminine-presenting.

    2. Cold Fish*

      I don’t think OP needs to mention “medical condition” or “family obligation” (which I think evokes just as much sympathy as medical condition). Just a plain, “I would love to but outside obligations have me booked for the foreseeable future.” The listener has no indication if they are pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant obligations, and most people with default to assume neutral or pleasant if said in a matter of fact way.

      1. Midge*

        Outside obligations seems like great language. And reminds me a bit of Alison’s recommended language for when you don’t want to go to outside of work social events. No one needs to know that your obligations are sitting on the couch watching TV, or in LW’s case sleeping and taking care of themself.

        But also, and I know this isn’t what the LW asked about, if they *are* interested in some of these opportunities maybe they could talk with their manager about doing them during their regular work day instead of something they’d normally be working on. I work in higher ed and several members of my team are currently prepping sessions for a conference later this year. I don’t know about everyone else, but I definitely slot that prep into my normal work time. Again, since this isn’t what the LW was asking about, please disregard if it’s off base!

      2. Sled dog mama*

        Yes, just say it in a very matter of fact way!
        I once wished my boss a pleasant trip after he mentioned that he would be visiting a city about a 5 hour drive away over the weekend, his response was “little chance of that, wife and I are splitting up and I’m spending the weekend moving her.”
        Open mouth insert foot.

        1. John Smith*

          Once a colleague told me they couldn’t do a task because they were having chemotherapy at that time. My response was to ask what chemo it was, the schedule, that kind of thing. (having had a couple of family members on chemo, I’ve developed a slight knowledge). Apparently I was the first person not to say “I’m sorry” or similar as a first response and it got him in a way. But it doesn’t take knowledge. It takes humanity.
          Sure I took the piss out of him later for all the jokes he made about my receding hairline and he had some good comebacks.

          Only his immediate family and I were laughing at his wake.

          It comes down to this:

          If you treat a person for what they have rather than what and who they are, you’re not treating them as a person. The world will be a lot better place. And it still allows you to take the Mick.

          1. Tali*

            I don’t think it’s cruel to say “I’m sorry” or “more humane” to ask about the details. Asking about the details might feel too personal or invasive. Expressing regret to first hear someone is very sick might be annoying with repetition but it’s not inherently rude.

            1. JustEm*

              I definitely think it’s a know your audience thing. I would be horrified if someone asked all the details of something like that — my ideal response would be a simple “I’m sorry”

  2. Bluebelle*

    You can also say “I have decided not to accept any outside speaking engagements (or whatever they are) this year.”

    1. MCL*

      I reach out to people to work on projects a lot, and this would give me the impression that I could ask again in the future – I have absolutely circled back to someone a year later. It sounds like OP wants to decline all of these collaboration offers indefinitely. So, while I definitely would leave the ball in OP’s court about what reason they might give (or not give) for declining, a more straightforward, “I’m not taking on extra projects, but I’ll let you know if that ever changes.” is super helpful. I would feel terrible bugging someone in OP’s situation because I misunderstood that they might be interested in the future, and I bet OP would love to avoid multiple convos with the same person.

    2. Anonymous4*

      Maybe it would work better with something like, “I really appreciate your asking me but I’m afraid it’s just impossible this year.”

      And next year, unfortunately, it’s still impossible —

  3. Lizard Breath*

    Or even a vague “condition”, as in “I have a condition that flares up when I take on too much and so I’m trying to be very disciplined about limiting my involvement to things that are in my direct role even when they sound really exciting, like this”.

    1. I'm the Phoebe in Any Group*

      I like this a lot. OP, would something like this, with a subject change like Alison recommened, work for you?

    2. Middle Name Danger*

      Not OP but I’m absolutely using this. It’s not untrue at all in my case (having a flare up now, actually!) just frames things easier for people to digest.

    3. OP*

      OP here. Oh! I like this. Will try it along with Alison’s immediate pivot to a subject-change question. The reason I run into this issue is that I truly love my work (in a super nerdy way) and I’m in a position where I could have a concrete impact if I were well. I get very engaged in conversations with counterparts who share my nerdy obsession for the subject matter. It then feels awful to have to decline their invitations to pursue whatever matter we’ve been discussing.
      This suggestion is good as it’s not a heavy “I’m sick” but it also conveys that I’m unable rather than not sufficiently interested.

      1. Clorinda*

        People will ALWAYS say they’re sorry when you tell them you’re unable to do something for medical reasons, because what else could they possibly say? “Condition” definitely sounds better than “illness” or “disorder,” but you’re still going to get commiseration, so you need a stock answer that is emotionally neutral for you, whatever that may be.

  4. Penguinator*

    To solve the conversational awkwardness, the proposed script has to be broken into two parts, no all at once.
    “I’ve got a chronic medical thing that means I can’t take on anything extra outside of work.” and they say “oh gosh that’s so terrible I had no idea, I’m so sorry”, which is what led to the question about awkwardness in the first place. So then you’ve saved part of the script, and can reply “It’s nothing to worry about, just means I manage my schedule a little differently.” Explain less up front, so you can reply more later and end the conversation gracefully.

    1. Oh No She Di'int*

      Hmm. If I read the suggestion correctly, I think the point of the script is that OP very much should run it all together, and not give the person an opening to respond until OP has reached the “llama” comment. In other words, if you simply breeze right over the medical issue and jump right into “but how about that llama excavation trip?!” people would be less likely to ignore that and climb back over it to bring up your medical issue again.

      1. Despachito*

        I think you are spot on.

        And I find that it is indeed useful to give people cues how you WANT them to react, and if done properly, they mostly will, and probably feel relieved that they do not have to speculate what is expected from them. (omigod what should I say? I should possibly express some concern so as not to look callous, but not to overdo it.. how much of that is appropriate?)

        I actually think that to be able to give such cues in difficult situations is both a kindness to the counterpart AND to the person saying it, because in a lot of cases they avoid awkwardness and get exactly the treatment they want.

      2. short'n'stout (she/her)*

        If I were the person who OP is talking to, I would be grateful for the cue to what to say next. I’m comfortable saying “oh, I’m sorry to hear that”, but sometimes there is this awkward pause while I figure out how to move on gracefully, and answering a llama question would be a nice segue into the next part of the conversation.

    2. whistle*

      I really like this. I get that the point of the original script is to lead people past the expression of sympathy, but a lot of people are going to fit it in there anyway. This allows for that interaction with a planned exit.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Very much agree. While OP can have an ideal script to follow, uh, life is such that sometimes the wrong group of words fall out of our mouths and here we are looking at the very response we wanted to avoid.

        Plan your ideal explanation that you will give OP.

        Then plan your responses for those times when you find yourself facing condolences any way in spite of your best efforts.

        In a different situation, I could predict people to have X response. I developed my reply to that response. This was very hard, it involved a lot of upset for me. In order to give a response to X that I was in line with, I had to process my upset regarding X. So I worked out a response, after a few YEARS. sigh. And a strange and wonderful thing happened. People stopped saying X.

        You know how when you have a sharp response ready for some wise-guy remark, you never get to use it? This felt like a parallel. The people were not being “wise guys” but their comment about X still rattled me. I had to take back my own power.

        There is one thing I have not seen suggested yet and YMMV and all that. Why not just say, “Thanks. I am taking better care of myself and it is paying off for me! Part of it comes from saying no to projects even if they really appeal to me. I like your project a lot but I just cannot take on more.”

        Here’s the thing, as I age, I hear more and more of my peers saying this. Aging, personal commitments and many other reasons cause people to just say, “Hey can’t take on more, very sorry.” I can almost bet, that once you find your voice you will see other people around you copying your example. You may get one or two who even say to you, “You showed me what *I* needed to do myself.”

        1. TeaCoziesRUs*

          I had so many SNARKY, snarling responses ready for breastfeeding in public… wouldn’t you know? No one said a dang word. Grrr.

  5. RagingADHD*

    When I need to disclose my chronic condition, and don’t want to give too much detail, I tell them it is “permanent but not dangerous”, or that “it isn’t going to kill me, it just sucks.”

    That usually addresses the emotional component of well-intentioned concern, when people want to know if they should be giving condolences or checking in on me, or something.

    1. anon for this*

      Me too. I have several chronic issues (the sleep one, the autoimmune one, the endocrinological one, and the food-related one) and they’re all under control right now but if just one is flaring up, work will start hearing about it. I just get upbeat and matter-of-fact and move on, usually saying that I’m accustomed to it and that it’s better than the days when I didn’t know what was happening!

    2. Maltypass*

      ‘Permanent but not dangerous’ Ooo that is excellent wording, I’ll bear that one in mind!

  6. Persephone Mongoose*

    I like Alison’s suggestion for redirecting the conversation from the awkward “so sorry to hear that” bits with a work-related question directed at them, but based on this:

    Eventually, I need to explain why I keep saying no to things squarely within my expertise and that I’m obviously passionate about. I say something to the effect of: “I’d really love to do that. And also that other thing we discussed last month. Unfortunately, a chronic medical issue makes it impossible for me to take on any activities outside of my direct work responsibilities.” And then I try to change the subject. But, this never works. The person always responds uncomfortably with: “Oh! I had no idea. I’m so sorry to hear that.” Then more awkwardness as I assure them that I’m okay and that they can continue to rely on me in the limited way they always have previously.

    It sounds like you’re already doing that with not much success. That’s where I think tone is really going to be the key here. If you are breezy and nonchalant about it, people should take their cues from you and move on. If not…that’s really frustrating. I would then work on accepting that people are always going to be weird about medical info and that “I’m sorry” is the reflexive response to this. It’s not your fault and I’m sorry (blech) you have to deal with it.

    1. Soup of the Day*

      I agree. “I’m sorry” is sort of the reflexive response people give to that kind of thing, and I definitely understand that it gets old after a while, but the other person probably just doesn’t know what else to say. (I’m not even sure what a better response would be!) If you present it as NBD, it’ll probably just be a passing comment and both sides can move on.

      1. Reba*

        Yes, I agree that reframing the response in OP’s own mind would help — it’s absolutely a reflex! You aren’t really going to be able to prevent it 100% of the time. It’s just the default thing that follows even mildly negative news. (Some people would probably feel like they were being rude and callous if they didn’t express something, like “my colleague told me bad news and I just sat there blithely talking about conferences, doh!”)

        I also have a chronic illness, and so I know it can feel demoralizing on top of exhausting to get all these little comments that sound like pity. My suggestion is that you try not to even hear the “sorry,” really, just like Peanuts teacher wah-wah-wah. Then reply cheerfully, even with a shrug, “yeah, so tell me about X” or “mmhmm but I’m still interested in hearing about X.”

        1. Emmy Noether*

          I’ve been thinking about how I would respond and I think I would indeed feel extremely rude if I didn’t say I was sorry. I was raised to respond that way and I believe most people around me were as well, so playing the odds I would always say sorry because it’s less likely to offend.

          Now, if the other person made a point of changing the subject without taking a breath, I’d take my cue from that, but I’d still feel weird and rude inside, because it’s deeply ingrained.

    2. PT*

      It can be really hard to tell what response the person divulging information wants. For every person who doesn’t want to hear “Oh I’m so sorry!” there’s someone who goes around the office saying “Can you believe Lucinda? I told her I was chronically ill and she didn’t show any empathy at all!”

      1. Smithy*

        I think the “I’m so sorry” response is going to be harder to avoid – similar to when you share news that a loved one has passed. In many ways, it’s the most immediate socially appropriate response, and so I do think that this is where tone and being prepared for at least one follow up+redirect is helpful.

        It doesn’t require divulging anything else, but a light tone of “thank you, and what was it you were saying about those llamas” can be helpful. Not that you’re necessary thankful for their response, but it can be a good way to match their immediate socially polite efforts with another immediate socially polite response. When my father passed, responding to the “I’m so sorry” with other breezy statements made things far more awkward and kept focus on that issue. Saying “thank you” worked as more of a polite period on the subject.

      2. RagingADHD*

        I think that’s true of a lot of things. Whenever we are dealing with something sad and painful, whether that’s health issues, grief and loss, or whatever, we have individual preferences about what makes us feel better or worse about it.

        The problem is when we fall into magical thinking that there is a “correct” response that will make it not hurt. There isn’t. It’s going to suck just the same, and other people’s responses are really an insignificant factor. Not people we’re close to – they matter, but we can also have in-depth conversations with them about it. The responses of people on the edges of our lives might help us identify good people to lean on or bring closer into our lives, but that’s all.

        And to compound it, those magical-thinking-preferences get written up and distributed as online hot takes about “10 things you should never say to someone who…” or “Here’s what your friend dealing with __ wishes you knew.” All those articles are just a person in pain screaming into the void, and believing their feelings are a universal rule. In fact, they are often completely contradictory.

        That’s why platitudes and social conventions like “I’m sorry to hear that” exist. There isn’t a universal right answer, so a bland and low-key sympathetic response is going to cover the most bases. It allows people who want to talk about it an opening, and allows people who don’t want to talk about it to change gears. But you can’t expect human beings to hit an emotional speed bump like bad health news and not have any reaction at all.

        Unfortunately, if someone wants zero response they have to give zero information and deal with the fallout of having people assume they are disinterested.

      3. turquoisecow*

        I would personally feel really odd just jumping into llama talk without acknowledging what the person just said about their illness or whatever. Even if I go along with the prompt, I’d feel like I needed to respond in some way first, even if it was just to say “oh, I’m sorry,” or “gosh that sucks,” and if I did say nothing I would feel like I hadn’t been empathetic enough.

        I know OP doesn’t want to discuss the details or anything like that, and I’m not a pushy person so I definitely wouldn’t push them to divulge, but I would feel like I needed to acknowledge what they said or follow up with something like “let me know if there’s anything I can do,” or “let me know if it ever becomes feasible for you.”

        1. Myrin*

          Yeah, that’s exactly why I’m not a huge fan of the “say X and then immediately change the topic” advice that features here pretty regularly. Like, I know what it’s supposed to accomplish and I understand logically that it’s just a rhetorical device but I have yet to find a way to make it sound at all natural – I’ve deployed and seen it deployed a handful of times and it was always, without exception, incredibly awkward and stilted and didn’t actually stop the other person from circling back to it, even if just at a later time (like you say).
          I’ve had more success with interjecting something along the lines of “but let’s not dwell on it – [subject change]” but I’m not super happy with that, either. Might be a me thing, though.

          1. RagingADHD*

            TBH, I always assumed that “Say X and immediately change the subject” automatically included the other person’s response. Because trying to do otherwise is so totally unnatural and not the way human conversation works. It never occurred to me until seeing online comments that other people were trying to literally just talk over the other person’s reaction. That sort of works over email or text, because their response is asynchronous. But it just doesn’t work in person unless you’re talking to sociopaths (which I don’t recommend if you can avoid it).

            “Sorry I can’t do X because I have a health issue that precludes participating outside of work hours.”

            “Oh, I’m sorry! I had no idea. Is it..er, ah,..serious?”

            “Thanks, it’s just something I have to work around. But let’s get back to that slug infestation report. How are the numbers trending?”

            Occasionally I’ll encounter someone who takes another pass at it, but usually it’s a fast redirect (though not literally immediate.)

            1. Myrin*

              You could be totally right! I just assumed from context/examples people meant it literally but it’s quite possible the other person’s answer was mentally included!

          2. Curious*

            The “let’s not dwell on it” seems really clear and really helpful — that is a direction that is easy to follow.

    3. OP*

      OP here. The “I’m sorry’s” don’t annoy me. I just don’t like putting people in the position where they have an obligation to express sympathy. It’s awkward for them. But, I do want to provide some context for why I’m saying no. A simple “I’m not able to take on any outside obligations” often means “I’m not sufficiently interested in this to make the time for it.” This is a totally reasonable thing to say/mean…but it’s not true in my case. I am interested! I’d so love to do the things! I just…can’t.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I am not sure why expressing sympathy is awkward for people. I suppose some people? But definitely not everyone. I think if you let go of the idea that it’s awkward for people to express sympathy and reframe it as some folks have awkwardness and others do not- that might serve you better.

        Personally, I express sympathy or empathy often. I don’t feel awkward about it. I actually mean it as in, “I wish things were different for you!” This can be answered with a quick “thanks” or “yeah, me too”. Once in a while a person will say, “That is kind of you.” or “I appreciate your thoughtfulness.”

        I worked with a person who lost their spouse. When she returned to work NOT ONE single person offered he condolences. Icebergs or freezers are warmer than this place was. I took it as a symptom of a much larger problem, because it actually was a symptom. Working around people who never express any concern is no place I want to be. OTOH, if a person says, “I am doing okay given the givens” then to me that closes the conversation and we just move on.

      2. allathian*

        That clarifies things a bit. You can pause just long enough for the other person to express sympathy, which is a pretty standard response, but continue in a breezy voice if they don’t. The way to maybe make it less awkward for others is to show with your body language and tone that you appreciate them expressing sympathy if they do, but that you aren’t offended if they don’t.

  7. Cheap Ass Rolex*

    I would say also, there’s no reason to feel awkward when someone says “Oh no! I’m so sorry to hear that.” You can just respond with “Thanks, yeah it’s annoying, but I’d love to talk about x, y, z…” etc. Just keep yes-anding the conversation so it keeps chugging along. They are just being polite, so there’s no reason to feel like you’re awkwardly receiving pity or something. Just acknowledge their sentiment and move things along.

    1. Important Moi*

      I think “Oh no! I’m sorry to hear about that.” is a phrase.
      I am sure the speaker means it, but aren’t internalizing it as much as LW thinks.

    2. Smithy*

      Just said it above – but “Thank you” can easily suffice as a complete response on the subject. The awkwardness often comes the more we try to contextualize complicated situations in more brief social settings (i.e. the passing of a loved one and then returning to work).

      Hearing “I’m sorry” is often irritating because it’s repetitive – but it’s generically socially appropriate and for most of our colleagues, that is what they’re trying for (hopefully….). Having that “thank you + redirect” mentally prepared with that tone hopefully helps.

    3. Florida Fan 15*

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with OP’s phrasing if said matter-of-factly. And I think all the wordsmithing of Allison and the other commenters isn’t going to change the other person’s response. If you say anything other “I’m sorry, I can’t”, you’re going to get a response to the reason you give. I get the feeling OP wants to give enough info for them not to think they’re getting the brush but not get a response to the info given, and that’s just not realistic. And really, people aren’t as interested in us as we think. If we sound like something’s a big deal, they’ll respond as if it is, but if we’re nonchalant, they’ll say the polite thing and that’ll be it.

      Just because they say “I’m sorry to hear that” doesn’t mean OP has an obligation to then assure the person they’re okay and continue to rely on them and blah blah. Stick to the wording as is, and when they say sorry, as you said, just say thank you and move on.

      1. OP*

        Yes. You’re exactly right. I want to give the info so they know it’s not a brush off, but also not get the response to the info. And that’s not realistic.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          And getting the undesired response is not about “your failure to prevent them from feeling awkward.”
          You haven’t failed at anything, honest. And probably a good percentage actually do not experience any awkwardness. I hope you can find a way not to put this back on yourself so much.

          Think of a time where someone told you something sad/concerning and you just blurted out, “I am sorry that happened to you!” The thought at the front of your thinking probably was NOT, “Gosh I feel so awkward.” The thought at the front of your thinking was probably more like, “Oh I hope this person will be okay/better in a bit.”

          1. Becca*

            Yes!! So well put. Op also needs to accept that this part of their life will affect relationships they have with people compared to someone who is there physically for someone all the time.

        2. Don't make me think of a name*

          Eh, it’s a little more serious than just not wanting to hear a certain answer, in my experience. When my twins were little I got the same replies over and over again, but it was totally manageable because they were all so positive and validating (eg you’ve got your hands full!). With chronic illness, so many of the automatic responses are actually so negative and invalidating that they do harm aggregated over time (the pity and horror type response or the have your tried X diet /vitamin). So managing people’s responses is about protecting your mental health.

  8. Nea*

    This is one of those occasions where very very specific framing is your friend. “I wish I could, you know how passionate I am about this, but I’m the sole caretaker for someone with a chronic health issue.”

    Every word of that is the truth… but phrased in a way that points awkwardness and pity away from you.

    1. LadyJ*

      I have a chronic health issue and just trust me you never want to lie and never do half-truths either. One if you lie or tell a half-truth the ADA will not be able to be invoked if you need an accommodation or your company realizes that you have x thing and want you gone.

      1. Nea*

        As I understand the letter, LW is asking for a script to use with people who do not have a need-to-know about LW’s specific details and historically have acted poorly when finding out. There’s nothing in this script that is a lie or that prevents LW from invoking the ADA within their chain of command (who do need to know) if required.

        1. Shiara*

          To me it seems like it could risk serious awkwardness if the relationship ever grows closer, or could prompt the hearer to express sympathy in a way that’s even more awkward for being misaimed. Caregiver are often recipients of awkward sympathy sentiments themselves.

        2. LadyJ*

          Just do not lie or engage in half-truths. If the condition worsens or some treatment may be added/needed and HR asks coworkers about work performance attitude, doing things in a timely manner that even well-intentioned lie could bite you in the rear. Stick with I have x condition and it stinks and that is why I am not taking on additional projects. Saying I am the sole caretaker and thinking you are being clever is not a good idea.

          1. Splendid Colors*

            I agree with Shiara and LadyJ. There’s no upside to displacing the illness onto a fictitious family member. Besides the reasons they mentioned, it might *really* come back to bite OP if someone who hears the “caregiver” story to happens to know someone who already knows the truth. Then there will be a confused letter to this blog asking how big a red flag it is if someone tells you they’re disabled but tells a colleague they’re a caregiver for a disabled family member.

    2. Macapito*

      Every word is the truth, but the lie underlying the context and intent of that statement could come back to bite the LW. Does LW really want to maintain the intentional misperception that they are caretaking for someone? I wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t want to get caught in the non-lie and have to try to explain myself.

    3. Tali*

      I would expect that would lead to “oh you’re so kind/brave to take care of them” and that would make me feel even more awkward and uncomfortable.

  9. Ground Control*

    As someone with chronic illnesses that sap my energy, I totally agree with the advice to be up front and matter of fact about it! I’m secure enough at my job to be comfortable doing this, and I see it as a way to normalize invisible illnesses and make people more disability-minded. You can add a chipper “nothing to be sorry about, my body just works differently” if needed!

    1. jsmthi*

      Breaking my usual lurking to second this, because you mentioned normalizing invisible illnesses. This is really important in bringing about changes to ableist workplace norms and making them more inclusive. So for anyone who’s in a position where i it’s safe to do so, to speak about it in a matter of fact way helps the Disabled community. Too many people either think we don’t exist in the workplace or don’t belong there.

      1. jsmthi*

        Having chronic illness is not a shameful thing, but lying to hide it makes it seem so, and discourages others from coming out about it and potentially seeking accommodations.

  10. rj77*

    I, for one, will absolutely read a paper on llama villages.

    Back on topic: you could also do a generic “Sorry! I have other commitments that don’t give me any extra time.” You don’t need to mention that those commitments are sleep/taking care of yourself.

  11. The German chick*

    “Although I love our field and what we do, I have decided not to engage in any extracurricular activities outside my core work duties for the sake of my well-being/work-life-balance. I’ll let you know if my policy ever changes.”

    1. Important Moi*

      And if there is a follow-up question. Repeat (and let go of worry, embarrassment, irritation and anything else).

      “I do appreciate your concern, but I will let you know if my policy ever changes.”

  12. Purple Cat*

    Of course Alison’s script works, but given *everything* that’s been happening the last few years, do you even have to say it’s medically related? I’m not a great wordsmith, but something like “I’ve learned to not spread myself thin and just focus on work and not sign up for extras”.

    Otherwise, part of the issue is that somehow culturally we’ve gotten to a point of people expressing empathy by saying “I’m sorry” has morphed into the recipients (Not you specifically) assuming it’s expressing pity instead. It would be super-awkward if you told somebody you had a chronic condition and they responded with “That’s awesome, I’m sure it’s given you a whole new perspective on life”. All that to say, don’t assume that someone is feeling uncomfortable and awkward when they say they’re sorry, they’re just trying (probablly) to be empathetic, so you can just continue on with “Thanks” and move on to the next topic.

    1. Cold Fish*

      I agree that OP is probably reading a little more into “I’m sorry” that is intended. My own social anxiety often makes the anticipation of the conversation worse than the actual conversation. But conversely, a single awkward conversation becomes magnified and a little distorted in my memory. So when reading letters like this I’m always trying to figure out if the OP is worried about future conversations being awkward or if past conversations have been awkward. I don’t know if it really changes the advise though. Have a good script handy to deal with the conversation at the time and try to remember that most people are empathetic and decent and aren’t trying to make things awkward or uncomfortable.

    2. Shiara*

      To add to your second point, if op opens with “I’d love to but unfortunately…” People are going to respond with “I’m sorry” whether the reason if health, family, or freak act of nature. It’s the phrase people will go to when someone expresses disappointment about something.

    3. Myrin*

      I fully agree with your second paragraph and your last sentence in particular; I also got the feeling that OP might be interpreting what is almost certainly a simple expression of politeness as something more (emotionally) laden.

  13. JSPA*

    “How kind of you to think of me! You could not have known, but unfortunately, I have things going on that preclude those sorts of engagements.”

    If it’s someone you’ve dealt with through work, add,

    “I thoroughly enjoyed connecting with you during project X, and hope future work projects throw us together again.”

    Basically, “this isn’t a personal brush off, you didn’t screw up, I think highly of you, but I’m broadly not available outside of work.”

    They really don’t need to know if it’s your health, caretaking, or whatever else makes these things effectively impossible for the foreseeable future.

    1. JSPA*

      And as to any sad responses, think of it as the implicit praise of someone being sad that they can’t have more contact / more of your time. It’s OK for people to wish there was more of you, to go around! That creates no obligation in you. If you got back a breezy, “oh, no big deal,” that would not actually be better. “You’re one of dozens of people who could fill the role” may feel like less pressure, but it’s also less implicit praise.

  14. Peanut*

    I’ve found that blaming things on the doctor can be helpful. “ I’ve got the chronic thing and my doctor doesn’t want me to travel”. It can sometimes be the ‘my mom said no’ of the adult world. Also let’s people not getting bogged down in the you-can-nevers that abled people often don’t know is often just part of disabled and/or chronic illnesses life. It won’t work if OP really wants to be honest about it but I found a little white lie can speed things along without bringing down the mood

    1. Let me clear my schedule for you*

      This is spot-on. I use this for the reason I don’t drink alcohol. “Doctor’s orders” is a lot easier and doesn’t make someone try to give me one anyway if I say I don’t like the taste. I actually got this from my alcoholic cousin, and it works so much better than any other explanation.

    2. Splendid Colors*

      Unless OP’s doctor is completely out of touch, I presume they have suggested OP should manage their time/energy in this way. So “doctor’s orders” isn’t even completely a lie. I’m sure if OP asked their doctor if they should take on organizing conferences etc. the doctor would tell them this is likely to exacerbate their symptoms and a bad idea.

  15. Zan Shin*

    I have intermittently flaring issues and totally agree with a breezy, casual tone AND with graciously accepting the very human, compassionate expression of sympathy, AND promptly reassuring and redirecting. To lie or invent false scenarios simply – with each verbal reiteration – instills and strengthens ones own self-doubt when self-acceptance is called for and conveyable to others.

  16. Oh No She Di'int*

    I love the first couple of suggestions that don’t even mention the medical issue.

    I don’t have any significant medical issues, but I have a colleague who is constantly recommending that we co-write something or do some other project. I say no every single time. Not because I’m not interested, and not because I wouldn’t want to, but because I genuinely just. Do. Not. Have. Time.

    It’s very common, especially now, for people to have constantly busy lives on an ongoing basis. Personally, I don’t think there’s even a need to make it a medical thing if you don’t want to. Some version of “I’m always too busy like every-freaking-body else” would probably go pretty far.

  17. JRY*

    What about a simple “I appreciate the interest. I’m not able to take on any side projects,” or “My schedule doesn’t allow me to take on side projects.”

    I have a bad habit myself of being apologetic and giving too much explanation for things that really don’t need it at all. I’m finding short, simple and to the point is often the best way to go.

  18. H.Regalis*

    OP, I don’t think that you can 100% avoid people expressing condolences, and I really don’t think it’s that awkward for other people, or an overshare merely to mention a health problem. I think Alison’s phrasing and advice is the best way to go, and with someone you have a professional relationship with, it probably is good to tell them you can’t help with, say, any of the the llama village puppet shows, ever, because of health reasons so they don’t interpret your repeated no’s as lack of interest.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Seconding this. “I’m sorry to hear that” is literally the polite thing to say when someone says they have bad news, of any sort. Don’t take it personally.

      And really, this needs to be an eternal no sort of thing. Like, there’s no point in asking me ever again, I will never be saying yes to any opportunity, no matter what it is. Alison’s phrasing was a really good one about not having time for extra projects.

      1. H.Regalis*

        The way the OP said that makes me think a lot of the Captain Awkward letter where the letter-writer was asking how they could avoid ever being complimented again because they thought they were shit at everything and found it really awkward to have someone say something nice to them, and the answer was, “You can’t. Stay ‘thank you’ even if you don’t agree with the compliment. That is the fastest way to get the exchange over with.”

        Coming up with cover stories for not telling colleagues that you have a chronic health problem seems like a bigger production than just telling them the truth and moving on.

  19. LadyJ*

    Do not lie or tell half-truths because if heaven forbid you need the protection of ADA law then you will not get it. I have a chronic illness and sadly felt it was no one’s business but my own but legally it can become a nightmare. Immediate colleagues none of their business but I would inform HR if you have one.

    1. Daniel*

      I don’t think that ADA or HR really comes into play here. It sounds like all of these requests are from outside her company and the OP doesn’t mention any issues within it. HR isn’t going to be able to do anything about innocent outside requests.

      1. OP*

        Yes, it’s people outside my workplace. My workplace, including my colleagues, know that I’m not well: there would be no way for me to hide it from them. I am fortunate that formal accommodations (e.g., a 30 hour workweek) were provided with no difficulty and my colleagues have been wonderful.

  20. anonymous73*

    I’d actually keep it more vague. “Due to personal reasons…” Keep it breezy as Alison suggests, but there’s no need to specify that it’s medically related. Hopefully most will get the hint, but if they push just explain that it’s not something you’re willing to discuss. Change the subject and move on. It may seem easier said than done, but you have to say something, and set up your own boundaries. Nobody can force you to disclose something about yourself that is nobody’s business but your own.

    1. Fergus the Llama Juggler*

      Yeah I love Allison’s names for people in her replies.

      A few weeks ago she referred to a child as “Fauntleroy” or something like that.

      1. workswitholdstuff*

        I’m guessing that was a reference to ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy….’ famous child character in literature..

  21. LinesInTheSand*

    Are you sure you don’t want to sound uninterested? You are not interested in these opportunities (because you can’t take advantage of them) and you’re sick of having this conversation. I think uninterested is different than dismissive, which you definitely don’t want.

    Can you say something like “I’ve learned through experience that these sorts of opportunities aren’t a good fit for me, but I’d be interested in things like X (if there is an X)”?

    1. ResuMAYDAY*

      That could make the other person work harder to convince OP otherwise. “No, I think you’d be a great fit, and I’d be right there with you. Let’s do it together!”

    2. Attractive Nuisance*

      Yeah, I was confused about this. When I started reading I assumed LW wanted to turn down some commitments but leave the door open for others. But it sounds like she wants to turn down everything forever, which is a simpler situation. I don’t know LW’s industry but I feel like there is an easy way to do this without bringing up reasons at all. “No thanks, I don’t do freelance projects” and then change the subject, or something like that.

  22. MsClaw*

    It seems like some of the concern OP has is that they’ll be seen as generally less reliable if they just say they can’t take on extra.

    My recommendation would be to avoid getting into details at all, and to put it more vaguely as ‘I’m fully booked’ or ‘my time is all spoken for’, ‘I’d love to help, but I don’t have any room in my schedule’ or something like that. There is zero reason they need to know you’re booked to be in bed for 12 hours.

  23. Cupcake*

    I think just saying you have personal commitments that mean you cannot take on those tasks is enough. Many will assume you are care giving, and you are! Caring for yourself. People tend to follow your lead. If you dont share anything that makes them want to apologize, they should be ok with your answer.

  24. Homebody*

    FELT. THIS. I usually will just say “thank you” or “that’s very kind of you”, and then redirect into the project or proposal person is talking about. Even if I won’t be working personally on whatever the project is, I love to hear what people in the industry are doing and it helps to keep me in the loop! Generally, I’ve found that most people just feel bad for perceived inconsiderateness and not necessarily because they want to pry, and once you show them it’s not a big deal, everything is fine.

    That said, are there accommodations at work you could be taking advantage of that might help you get more involved in your industry? Once I disclosed my chronic illnesses to my employer they started setting aside time during the week for me to work on “high concept projects”, which I’ve really enjoyed. Becoming permanent WFH helped me out too…I went from needing 12 hours of sleep to about 9 just from that change. I realize that not every company is this kind so of course YMMV.

    Hope you are doing well otherwise OP!

    1. OP*

      My workplace has been amazing, A 30-hour workweek when things are bad, but easy transition back to full time when I’m able. Flexible schedule. And very importantly: they continue to assign me interesting and important work. Just less of it and nothing with a tight deadline. More informally, my colleagues volunteer to take things off my hands when needed, and they never book meetings for me before 10am.

      I am so grateful for how I’m treated at work.

  25. Anon Today*

    I have found being direct gets the awkwardness handled faster. A few years ago my husband was going through cancer treatment, so I was working from home and generally not able to do more than the bare minimum of my gig. My boss and HR knew the situation, but I didn’t really feel like sharing it around.

    But then GrandBoss decided I should partner with Account Person on Pointless Internal Presentation. Sigh. I tried some of the “really busy” and “family conflict” and “I wish I could” types of things, but AP kept coming back with different times we could meet and on and on and on. So finally I just had to tell her, “Look, I have to take my husband to radiation treatments every day for the next month. Things are looking good for him but I just CANNOT do this thing.” She was totally understanding, and yes, I got the “OMG I’m so sorry!” but then we were able to discuss a workaround for Pointless Presentation and we could both move on.

    Anyway, I get that this example is short term rather than long term, but I think Allison’s point still applies. Be straightforward, accept the sympathy briefly (because people will feel like assholes if they don’t say SOMEthing,), and then immediately shift the conversation to something related to them/their project.

    And if anyone does an actual presentation on llama villages I am so there for it.

    1. BritGirl*

      I think this is a good point, because knowing that you have a thing, can help those people work with you sensitivity. They might ask to use quotes of yours in the presentation or include some of your work and credit you if they understand it’s not that you are collaborating with someone else.

  26. Cremedelagremlin*

    Sometimes, when the true explanation (chronic illness in my case as well) is either the only option or the easiest option, I find that the “breezy” tone followed by barreling forward as though I’ve just made an extremely banal observation that isn’t worth commenting on works well. Any momentary awkwardness is quickly swept under the rug and we all move on with the conversation.

  27. Tink’s Mom*

    When I say “I’m sorry to hear that” I say it as acknowledgement of what you said and an expression of sympathy. I don’t expect a response, just the conversation to go on. So, I suggest you stop responding and just continue with the conversation. If you act matter of fact about the issue, as if you mentioned an appointment, people will be okay with it.

    1. BritGirl*

      Yeah there is no need to feel bad that they are showing basic compassion. Just say thanks matter of factly and move on.

  28. PuzzleObsessed*

    I have lupus, and in my personal experience over the last couple of decades, acting breezily about this just makes people more alarmed. As if they should be worried for me because I’m not worried enough. It’s also really difficult to continue the conversation and not start the whole “have you tried green juices?” thing. I wish I had advice, but I have never been able to get people to skip the pity part.

    1. Middle Name Danger*

      Being vague about what illness or illnesses you have helps with the unsolicited advice, in my opinion. (I never want to hear about pink Himalayan salt again.) As does a quick “under control and not life threatening” however you can breezily work it in. I just say I have a few medical issues I’m managing.

      (I understand Lupus might not be as easy to avoid naming as other things, especially because treatment can have visible effects, this is just what’s worked for me, especially when coworkers have been concerned about the amount of doctors appointments I was leaving early for)

    2. OP*

      Lol @ green juices. It is absolutely astonishing the number of people who think that all things can be cured with kale, exercise and mindfulness meditation.

      Which is not to knock kale, exercise and mindfulness meditation. They’re great! Alas, they are not a cure.

  29. Mary*

    What I like to say is that I have “some medical issues to take care of” that mean I have prior commitments outside of work, which is true. But phrasing it that and basically implying that it’s a series of “appointments” means that people don’t feel the need to offer as much sympathy. I have sometimes straight-up said things like “My calendar is full” because of my medical issues before, which is again, technically true.

  30. LilyP*

    I’m curious about the “or to treat me differently in the future” part in particular — do you find that people *do* treat you differently after these conversations, in ways you don’t like? (Besides not asking you about these kinds of extra projects anymore, which it sounds like you want.) Do people have tips for resetting expectations or reengaging in future interactions if it seems like people are still feeling awkward or treating you with kid gloves or being judgemental or whatever?

    1. OP*

      What a great question. Now that I think about it, the answer is no. People do not treat me differently, other than my colleagues being willing to take things off my hands when needed and my friends forgiving me for cancelling plans.
      How odd that this looms so large in my mind as a concern.

      1. Splendid Colors*

        Because of the overwhelming level of ableism in our society. And the relentless emphasis on productivity, hustle, etc. that your company seems to be avoiding, thank goodness for you.

  31. SofiaDeo*

    People do indeed often treat you differently when you disclose a chronic disease state. I wouldn’t want to mention any medical thing, because many (not all, but many) will treat you differently with any kind of disability, especially “non visible” ones. I would go with a shorter “I wish I could, but other commitments prohibit any extra work for the foreseeable future” sort of statement. Since it’s true (you are committed to your health outside of work) , it carries the ring of authenticity. You are indicating interest, not blowing them off. As well as indicating for them to not repeatedly ask, even yearly. You could add on “if my situation ever changes, I’ll let you know, I would love to work with you on things like this” if you want.

  32. Maltypass*

    I’m seeing a few comments explaining sorry isn’t necessarily said with pity or that OP should reframe what people mean when they say sorry but it really can be a burden on disabled people/people with disabilities. Imagine every time you briefly describe your daily unchangeable circumstances someone replies ‘I’m sorry’, it would annoy you too! It places the burden on you to soothe the other person and that’s what OP seems to be feeling – that the way people are responding is making things awkward and placing the onus on her to make them feel better. It’s a small thing that builds up over time.

    1. BritGirl*

      I think it feels like more in the vein of I’m sorry I didn’t know, rather than pity. Personally I appreciate that or things like ‘I’m sorry you are going through that’.

      I don’t think she has any responsibility to make them feel better. To be honest itt likely they aren’t really feeling much at all and just saying I am sorry to be polite and kind. I mean I live in England, we say ‘I am sorry’ for everything, so maybe that is shaping my perspective here, but I certainly don’t think about it after I have said it.

      1. I'm the Phoebe in Any Group*

        BritGirl, that’s true for you, but Maltypass said it is not true for them and other people with disabilities. A Captain Awkward says, Maltypass is the expert on their life.

    2. Purple cat*

      I appreciate this feedback, so what SHOULD people say in place of any type of “I’m sorry to hear that”?

    3. Tali*

      I think in this instance people are especially going with “I’m sorry” because OP is expressing regret that they can’t do these projects: “I wish I could, but unfortunately I’m not available.” So whatever reason OP gives, it is keeping her from doing what she wants to do–people are going to feel sorry for that!

    4. allathian*

      What would you, as a disabled person, rather hear than “I’m sorry”? I don’t think “I’m so grateful I’m not living your life, it must be utterly shitty” would land any better. And that’s probably what I in my heart of hearts would be thinking if a disabled person explained to me what their life is like.

      1. allathian*

        And what would come out of my mouth is “I’m so sorry to hear that” or some similarly vague expression of sympathy.

      2. allathian*

        I realize that most disabled people would rather not be pitied. But the key here, I think, as a reasonably able-bodied person, is to keep any feelings of pity to yourself rather than express them to the disabled person. And to treat the disabled person as a human being with a right to exist on their own terms.

        When I was working at a grocery store in my late teens and early twenties, we had a regular customer who used a wheelchair. If I was on shift, she always came to my counter, even if it meant a longer wait. Why? Because I treated her like a valued customer and didn’t “talk down” at her. I spoke to her, rather than her carer, and looked her in the eye when I talked to her. I suspect that she’d had a stroke, because one side of her face was paralyzed and she slurred her words. Some other cashiers appeared so uncomfortable that they pretty much refused to acknowledge her presence. I witnessed this a couple times when I came back from my break just as she was paying for her shopping, and felt so bad on her account. But because our store manager was one of those who treated her so badly, I felt like I couldn’t say anything, and I was only 19 at the time…

        Disability is also the one minority group that can anyone can become a member of at any time.

      3. t4ci3*

        What would a disabled person rather hear than “I’m sorry”? How about nothing? Nothing is what the people writing in about this are asking for, but then everyone explains how their feelings are invalid and how important it feels to you to say something.

        1. SofiaDeo*

          Saying “oh, I understand” or “OK, thanks anyway” or something along those lines IMO is better than “I’m sorry”. If someone couldn’t collaborate because they would be on vacation out of the country, or are a permanent caregiver, or have extremely young children precluding outside work for the foreseeable future, no one says “I’m sorry”. This is why I don’t disclose my disability much. I do think people say “I’m sorry” as a shortened “”I’m sorry to hear that” but it often does become awkward.
          So I try not to mention it much. It’s easier all around IMO to do a “thanks, that sounds great, but unfortunately I can’t take on anything extra for the foreseeable future.”

        2. Anon Today*

          I see your point, there are certainly many people who are more concerned with feeling right than doing right by others. But it seems just as likely, if someone says nothing at all, that the speaker would feel they were being treated callously. But reading this, maybe I’m wrong about that?

          I think most people responding here are operating under the idea that unless you know someone well (and then this whole situation wouldn’t apply), you don’t know which way the speaker will feel, so they default to what they believe (maybe wrongly) is the most kind and empathic response — to show that they understand what the person just shared and the importance of it.

          All that said, I like SofiaDeo’s response below of a simple, “Oh, I understand” as it offers acknowledgment without pity.

    5. Koala dreams*

      Yes, some people feel like you and the letter writer. I’m also dealing with health problems that interfere with work and outside activities, and for me the standard phrases is a life saver. I don’t have the mental bandwidth to come up with a new response every time, and the standard “I’m so sorry” is a lot better than what some people come up with on their own. I really appreciate those conversations, where we go through the script and then we can go back to more interesting topics.

      People are different and there is no right or wrong answer.

  33. LGC*

    …the second phrasing is one I really like because it’s true. LW’s job really does keep them busy enough that they can’t participate in outside activities. (It’s no one’s business that there’s a difference between “I’m working 80-hour weeks so I can’t go to your TED Talk” and “I have a chronic illness so I’m sleeping 12 hours a day and managing work when I can.”)

    I think LW hit the nail on the head when they said that people perceive them as uninterested instead of unable. (Okay, LW is likely both, but the “unable” part is more relevant here.) And – I hate to admit – I think a lot of people deal better with people who are unable rather than uninterested.

  34. ResuMAYDAY*

    It takes two people to make a conversation awkward. Alison’s advice is spot on. You can say most anything to someone and keep it from getting awkward by using a breezy tone, speak in a quick clip, and re-route the conversation with a question that presents a new topic. (This is also a good negotiation strategy when turning down a bad offer.)
    OP, do this until you own it.

  35. Macapito*

    “The person always responds uncomfortably with: “Oh! I had no idea. I’m so sorry to hear that.” Then more awkwardness as I assure them that I’m okay and that they can continue to rely on me in the limited way they always have previously.”

    I would ignore the “Oh! I had no idea. I’m sorry to hear that” as if they never said it. Most people say that because they feel like jerks if they don’t say something, not because they feel sorrow for you, and most aren’t really digging for details. It’s an ingrained social convention. It sounds like you’re going with the conversation derail and indirectly encouraging the topic to shift to your medical condition. Instead of assuring them you’re okay and they can rely on you at work, I’d try to respond with something like, “Hey, good luck with that presentation; I know you’ll do great.” If the rare person pushes to reroute back to your medical details, that’s bizarre and inappropriate, and I’d go with, “It’s all good; oh, no, I’ve gotta look over Random Llama Project before [25 minutes from now]. Have a great afternoon!”

    Also, unless it’s going to affect your professional reputation, professional development, tenure, or promotion, what is the negative effect of coming off as disinterested in doing extracurricular industry stuff? I avoid medical disclosures at all costs and don’t see anything wrong with, “Hey, I appreciate the offer, but I can’t commit to that. Thanks for asking.”

    1. Imaginary Friend*

      This. I think that LW can even reply to “Oh! I had no idea. I’m sorry to hear that” with “Thanks! Now tell me about those llama villages, and does that also include alpacas or vicuñas?” That way, they are acknowledging the other person but instantly pivoting the conversation to the relevant thing, which we can all agree is camelid housing.

  36. Nola again*

    I’m in a similar situation in that I have stage 4 cancer and have stopped working. I don’t say I’m never going back to work, since it’s possible that there will be an advancement in medications that don’t have the side effects I deal with now. When I get called about a possible client or project, I say something like “I’m not working right now because of a medical situation, but I can recommend some other people who might be able to help.” Then I move the conversation towards the people I might recommend for whatever project they are calling about. I’ve never had anyone demand more information about my medical status, and they are all really grateful that I’m giving them referrals while I’m not working. It’s the same idea as what Allison recommended. Just have something else to guide them towards talking about.

    In situations where I do tell someone about my medical status, I usually do something similar after they tell me how sorry they are. Something to the effect of “Thanks. I’m doing pretty well with the medications I’m on right now. Let me tell you about this other person I know who is a genius at setting up llama villages….” (Incidentally I so wish llama villages were a thing I could work on.)

  37. anon for this*

    I’ve had some luck with “Oh, that sounds great, but I can’t take on any more outside of work than I already am.” For people I like and want to encourage a warm relationship with, add “If that changes, you’ll be one of the first to know!”
    helps a lot. Or an offer to introduce them to someone else who might be interested is an amazing redirection option when it works.

  38. SG*

    OP. I cannot tell from your letter whether it’s primarily an issue of not being able to commit more time outside of normal work hours, or if you’re is working a reduced schedule and therefore have no wiggle room to shift priorities around, or whether you’d even have the motivation and energy to take on some of these projects if other stuff could be shifted off your plate.
    So this suggestion might not apply to your circumstances, but would it be possible to have a conversation with your manager, wherein you express your interest participating in something like X or Y (i.e. lead a working group or co-author a paper), and explain that you would need to reprioritize or shift some things off your plate to make time. You could then ask your manager whether that would be something they’d consider. It’s often in the best interest of an organization to have a public presence when it comes to collaborative work groups, published papers, etc., and depending on your skill set they may be enthusiastic or at least willing to make room on your plate for projects like this.
    Again, I realize this might not be feasible due to your own limitations or your organization’s culture, but sometimes employers can be flexible and resourceful in ways you wouldn’t expect. (It helps if you have a manager who is willing to think outside the box.)

  39. OP*

    Thanks for your very helpful response, Alison! I love how you’ve changed my very heavy “Unfortunately, I have a chronic illness” to the much lighter “I have a medical thing”. What a great use of “thing”!
    Your suggestion that I immediately follow up with a question seems promising. I do try for an immediate topic change, but it usually fails. I think a question rather than a statement may be the way to go.

    And thanks to all the commenters. Many of you noted that the other person is probably not feeling awkward or put-upon when they say “I’m sorry.” Rather: they just wish me well. This is certainly the case when I express sympathy to someone and I hope you’re right that this is true for most people. I’ve had to “come out” about my medical thing a lot more in recent years and I was slowly inching toward to feel less awkward about it. Then I got blindsided by a letter-writer from last week who did feel awkward and overburdened when someone “overshared” about an illness when declining freelancing work. My letter to Alison was in response to that letter.

    1. Beeker*

      My favorite go-to is the vague and true “my life is very full”. I hope whatever response(s) you decide that people respect your privacy!

    2. allathian*

      Thanks for coming back and commenting on the thread! I’m glad your employer’s been great about this, letting you work full time when you can, and allowing you to cut back your hours when you need to, in what seems like a very matter of fact way. I wish more employers were as understanding as yours appears to be.

      Now I’m wondering, have you ever asked your employer for permission to do some of the extra projects you’d be passionate about, while leaving some of your normal work on the back burner? Have you ever considered asking them?

      In my organization, employees are allowed to use company time to prep for professional presentations at conferences, even when they aren’t directly representing the employer at that conference.

  40. theletter*

    I feel like the pandemic is a useful excuse here – something along the lines of ‘past two years have made me really prioritize my personal time,’ reads as friendly but with no time-box. There’s also the ‘mysterious high-demand clients’ that require all your utilization time for the foreseeable future.

    If you get enough of these requests, changing the subject to ‘my colleague Bob just asked me about that conference, can I forward your contact information to him?’ might be a good way to offer the collaboration they seek with just a couple of emails.

  41. 404_FoxNotFound*

    Fellow chronically ill/disabled person here: one of my go-tos when I’m beyond capacity but don’t want to deal with disclosing any medical info or things likely to invoke pity/sorryness or affect people’s perceptions of me as a capable person is the “I’m very interested in X, but right now I can’t take on things that are [outside of my scope of work/business hours/whatever]”. If applicable I’ll follow up with a “maybe in Z months/after this project is done” if I want the person to keep inviting me, or “let me know how your llama grooming project goes though, good luck!” if I want to be kept in the loop.

    The immediate subject change is a great and very useful tool, as is a few folks suggestions in the direction of “it’s not a big deal but does affect my day-to-day” if I do disclose any surface medical/health related information.

    There’s certainly times when I don’t have big feelings about disclosing medical/disability info in more details, but generally I’ll let others lead on the questions front as they are comfortable while I set the tone of the conversation with my tone of voice. With verbal (or written) tone I can often set boundaries without voicing anything directly about my own boundaries.

  42. Koala dreams*

    The good thing with standard phrases and scripts is that they smooth conversation and make it easy for people to say the right thing. The bad thing is that no standard phrase will be right for everybody, and so sometimes the right thing turns into the wrong thing.

    Since these phrases is so ingrained in the language, it will take some extra effort to avoid. In your shoes, I would take an extra cheery approach. Something like this: Thanks for thinking of me! For health reasons, I’ve decided not take on any outside engagements. I value my work life balance and leave those opportunities to others.

    Good luck!

  43. Avalon Angel*

    I have MS, and agree with Allison’s advice: you set the tone, and most people will follow it. You will get the occasional person who will just plow past any boundaries, but that’s true for any topic, really. Keep upbeat, keep professional, and don’t apologize for being sick.

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