Setting boundaries is always an important (though sometimes difficult) task. Having them in place is like "creating a perimeter of what makes us feel safe," says Kate Borsato, a licensed mental health therapist. But the novel coronavirus pandemic makes setting boundaries even more essential — and also more complicated than usual.
To be clear, you should always follow the most up-to-date medical advice along with state and local guidelines regarding COVID-19 before meeting up with friends or family. But within those guidelines, it's possible that your comfort levels and risk assessment will differ from those of your loved ones'.
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Feeling unsure about how to preserve your comfort and safety without causing conflict? Follow these steps to set and communicate your pandemic boundaries.
1. Determine Your Boundaries
It can be surprisingly difficult to recognize your personal boundaries. Comparing yourself to others isn't helpful. You might find yourself wondering if you're just being a "hypochondriac" or, conversely, if you're not being careful enough.
"The first step is to figure out what your boundaries are, not what everyone else is doing or your friends and family expect you to do," Borsato says. "You need to look inward to understand what your comfort zone is."
Everyone is facing different challenges in relation to the pandemic, so take into account what makes sense given your personal situation.
For instance, if you're at a high-risk for severe outcomes if you get COVID-19, skipping a socially distanced get-together will likely be the less anxiety-inducing scenario for you. You may opt to isolate more if you have high-risk individuals in your family, too.
But if your mental wellbeing is fraying, and staying at home puts you at greater risk for substance abuse, self-harm or depression, you may be better served by spending time with friends, while following safety guidelines to the best of your ability.
Try writing your boundaries down so that you have them clearly laid out and can reference them when making decisions.
"Nobody really knows what the decision-making process is like for you," Borsato says. "Depending on your personal situation, it might be worth taking on a little bit of risk to manage the cost of staying home, and that's perfectly reasonable."
2. Listen to the Request
Let's say your friend calls you to suggest meeting up. The first step is to hear them out and see what kind of hangout they have in mind. There's a wide spectrum between taking a socially distanced walk in the park and going to an outdoor birthday party.
Check in with yourself and evaluate how high the risks are and whether or not they're worth the potential reward. Think about the latest health guidelines, along with your personal situation.
3. Ask for Specifics
You want to get as many details as possible before getting together. Here are some questions you can ask:
- How will we greet each other?
- Will masks be worn at all times or will people take them off while eating or drinking?
- Will we be able to stay six feet apart?
This is also your moment to voice your preferences. Be clear and non-judgmental in your phrasing. For instance, you can say, "I'd love to go for a walk together, but I'd prefer to keep our masks on for the entire time. And can we go after dusk, when the park is less crowded?"
4. Be Upfront
Giving an assessment of your own behavior shows courtesy and also invites others to do the same.
"People's boundaries are going to run the spectrum, and ours might be too strict or too lax or somewhere in the middle in comparison to other people," Eric Patterson, LPC, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "So telling people what you've done and asking if they're comfortable with that is a good idea."
You can tell friends about how you've handled similar socially distanced hangouts. Other background information to share:
- If you've been tested for COVID-19, and when you received the results
- Whether you've been in any crowds lately
- If you've been in close contact with many people or been restricting yourself to the same two or three individuals
5. If You're Not Comfortable, Politely Decline
Saying "no" might be harder than it sounds if the last thing you want to do is hurt someone's feelings or receive judgment. The best way to avoid either scenario is to frame this as your personal boundaries as opposed to an indicator of how you feel about the other person.
"To set the tone for a positive interaction, tell them that you really miss them and want to see them, but that you're still trying to figure out how to do that in a way that feels safe and comfortable," Borsato says. "This way, you can make it clear that the other person is important to you, which is good for your relationship."
Take the lead and suggest doing something that you would be comfortable with — for instance, meeting in the park but maintaining distance and wearing masks — rather than simply responding to your friend’s suggestion.
6. Don’t Judge Anyone’s Boundaries
It's easy for conversations like this to devolve into an argument of "How can you go out at a time like this?" versus "How can you stay home? What's wrong with you?" This serves no practical benefit.
"When people feel judged, it can put stress on your relationship with friends and family," Borsato says.
And more stress is the last thing anyone needs right now! At its core, acknowledging one another's boundaries is a sign of mutual respect, and it shows that you realize that just because someone's lines are different from yours, that doesn't make them any less legitimate.
"It's key to not disrespect someone else's choices," Borsato says. "It's not about figuring out what's right or wrong in general, because that's when people get defensive. It's about communicating what's right for you as an individual."
7. Prepare for Some Pushback
It's worth having a contingency plan in case someone takes it personally when you turn down plans or request modifications. Try showing that you see where the other person is coming from, i.e. "I totally understand why it might seem overly cautious, but this is where I'm at right now."
Most importantly, stand your ground. If you capitulate and end up doing something you didn't feel comfortable with, it might hurt your relationship in the long term.
Part of the boundary-setting process is tolerating the discomfort that comes with having different idea of what's safe, Borsato says.
"Other people might not like it when you set a boundary, but that's not your fault," Borsato says. "So you have to try to let the other person own their reaction. Even if they're unhappy with you, the cost of not setting your boundaries is that you're not going to be happy with yourself."
8. Reassess Your Boundaries as Needed
The pandemic is an ongoing crisis, and the medical guidelines continue to change as we receive new insight into COVID-19, so it's worth checking in on how you feel from time to time to examine whether or not your boundaries have shifted.
"Sometimes people get themselves in trouble by setting a boundary and expecting it to stay that way forever," Patterson says. "Set timelines for yourself — like telling yourself this is your plan for two weeks for example — and then reassess to see if you want to make any adjustments."
How to Politely Remind People of Boundaries
Let's say the worst happens: You establish your boundaries with your friends, go to the socially distanced hangout and, by the end, find people standing way too close to you or not wearing masks.
Re-establishing your boundaries can feel painfully awkward in the moment. Here's how to handle the situation gracefully.
Acknowledge How Awkward This Is
"Begin by speaking directly to the awkwardness of having to set COVID-19 boundaries with friends to begin with," Borsata says. "Say it for what it is! Setting these kinds of boundaries with friends feels disconnecting and weird!"
Borsata recommends leading with something like, "I really hate that we even have to worry about this right now and I wish we didn't," or "It feels really weird to have to worry about being too close to you. It's awful and I wish we could hang out like we used to."
When you start by addressing the fact that it feels cold and unfriendly, it can help you broach the topic with more sensitivity and reduce the likelihood of a defensive response.
Restate Your Needs
Remind people of your boundaries clearly and concretely. Remember to make it about your personal needs rather than shaming or faulting your friend.
For example, you could say, "It's really important for me that we don't enter each other's six-foot bubble. I hope you understand and that we can make this work."
Distance Yourself if Necessary
This is really the hardest part. If your friend continues to cross your boundaries, at what point do you decide that you need to refrain from future get-togethers? Only you can answer that for yourself, and it's a tough choice, but it's a position many of us are unfortunately likely to be in.
"If you clearly communicate your needs with people and they continue to cross your boundary or ignore what you're requesting of them, then you'll need to make some decisions," Borsata says. "Ultimately, we are responsible to know our personal comfort levels during the pandemic and what we need from others in order to feel safe."
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.