Setting Boundaries in a Pandemic
The pandemic presents a unique challenge for all of us. The government continues to impose mask mandates and close businesses, but we are still faced with social situations in which we have to make decisions about what activities we’re comfortable with and how to go about doing them safely. This can be a challenging exercise in setting, maintaining, and respecting boundaries.
What are personal boundaries?
There are many definitions of personal boundaries. A boundary is a limit or line that exists between you and another person. These limits identify where you end, and another person begins. They are rules that dictate how we interact with others. Boundaries can be lax or rigid but ultimately exist to protect you.
In therapy, we often discuss emotional boundaries that protect psychological space and prevent individuals from overextending themselves, burnout, or other negative outcomes. However, boundaries can also be physical. We’ve all had personal experience with the physical boundary of social distancing lately — attempting to keep six feet between individuals not within the same household is a very literal definition of a boundary.
Why should we talk about boundaries now?
Boundaries aren’t talked about enough in our polite society, and they’re often not taught to children by their parents. But knowing how to set and respect boundaries is extremely important for successful interpersonal interactions. During the pandemic, they are doubly important not only for mental health but also for physical health. Boundaries can be difficult to set and maintain for those who are not practiced at doing so, and many people are not used to having to set them. To keep each other healthy and as comfortable as possible, respecting set boundaries is crucial.
Upholding your own boundaries
For those who have difficulty voicing and upholding your own boundaries, you are not alone. It can be difficult for various reasons to trust that our boundaries will be heard and respected. Sometimes doing so can make us feel guilty, but there is nothing wrong with setting boundaries. In fact, boundaries are normal and expected in human relationships. This is particularly true when physical health becomes involved. If you are not comfortable eating in restaurants, for example, then you have the right to voice that boundary and uphold it. You do not owe anyone an explanation for why your boundaries are the way they are. If you have a high-risk condition and aren’t comfortable sharing that with others, you are not obligated to do so.
Practice one boundary at a time
If you’re not used to voicing your boundaries, this can feel intimidating. Start by making a list of what you are and are not comfortable with. Then start small by practicing speaking up. If someone asks you to do something that you don’t feel safe doing, it’s ok to express that you’re not comfortable and suggest something else. You could say something like, “I’m not comfortable eating in restaurants, but we could meet up for a socially distanced picnic.”
If you’re afraid of what setting boundaries will do the relationship — that’s normal. But if setting the boundary protects your mental and physical health, then it’s worth the risk. The important people will understand and adapt to your requests. You may be surprised at how well they respond when you state your needs.
When you voice your boundaries, you are setting rules for interactions. You may have to set boundaries with the same person several times. Should this happen, remember that you are within your right to have boundaries. You may have the urge or impulse to negotiate or loosen your stated needs. Your boundaries are yours alone to determine and not open to negotiation by others. While you can alter your own boundaries, you are not obligated to change them for anyone else until you’re ready.
Respecting others’ boundaries
Respecting boundaries that others set is common courtesy and harkens back to the golden rule many of us learn about as children: treat others as you would like to be treated. It doesn’t feel good when we set boundaries, and someone else violates them. Respecting boundaries set by others is a basic way to respect others’ dignity and autonomy.
This is all the more important during the pandemic. While we know that many conditions make a person high-risk, many of these conditions are not easily identified by looking at someone. This is called an invisible disability or illness. It’s important to consider the possibility that, when someone is setting firm boundaries or seeming extra cautions, they or someone they love may have a high-risk condition that you cannot see by looking at them.
In a pandemic, boundaries protect not only your safety but the safety of others as well.
Reach out to a therapist — boundaries are their jam
If you feel that you need support in setting, maintaining, or respecting boundaries, therapy is an excellent place to unpack difficulties with boundaries. Many therapists offer video appointments, which is covered by most insurances. Telehealth is a safe and effective way to receive mental health support. Feel free to reach out and make an appointment.