Setting boundaries in polite “post-COVID” society
If you’re like me, that word used to send a prickle up your spine. Many of us (myself included for the longest time) associate the need for boundaries with something being wrong in one of the relationships in our lives. When it came to my own feelings, I felt it was bad to want alone time, scary to tell someone not to speak a certain way to me, and that I was too uptight when I had terms of how I wanted to be treated by others.
With age and practice, however, I have learned to listen to the inner voice that tells me what feels okay and what doesn’t. I’ve spent time having difficult conversations with loved ones about what feels good in my relationships, and when to draw the line. As most things in life, as soon as I felt like I was really getting the hang of these boundaries, a pandemic came in and swept the rug out from under me. Suddenly, all the roles I played in my life were compounded into one: I was a daughter, friend, student, partner, and intern all at once. I had to learn to live within government-mandated boundaries and make space for new, personal ones. Now, re-integrating into our community and social circles is the next challenge in our pandemic society.
As the stay-at-home orders that dictated many of our daily movements have relaxed over the past months, we are left with the task of setting our own personal boundaries in a post-COVID society. The task of a new work-life balance, easing into a social life that feels safe, and prioritizing ourselves looks more complicated than ever before. Mental health professionals in the community noted that some of us are feeling more comfortable getting out of the house as restrictions have been lifted, while others are feeling more scared than ever.
“Good boundaries make people feel safe. Trust your internal compass and go with the feel-good.”
A conversation with Holly Anderson, a local marriage and family therapist in the Kansas City area, shed some light on navigating our changing social climate and how to honor ourselves during these rapidly-hanging time. Anderson uses a definition of boundaries that popular shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown suggests as, “what’s okay and what’s not okay.” In looking to implement boundaries into our own lives, one of the first things we can do is to listen to our bodies. Noticing what feels good and what doesn’t is our best indicator for where these boundaries lie.
A common misconception about boundaries is that they are not as set in stone as we think. Our comfort levels with certain situations, people, and experiences change. “We have to look at boundaries not as linear but more as kind of a dance. What was okay before might not be okay anymore,” Anderson says.
The process of re-implementing these guidelines into our social practices can be challenging if we haven’t dealt with the task prior to the pandemic. If you are new to boundaries, one way to get started is to “hold space,” Anderson recommends. Having conversations with those closest to you should be approached with curiosity rather than rules. “The key with figuring out how to have a conversation around boundaries is to be curious about the way you work or the way someone else works,” Anderson says.
Speaking with Mary Belle Wright, a licensed professional counselor in the Kansas City area, continued anxiety about getting back to “normal” life was highlighted. Many of her clients have taken the pandemic seriously and feel frustrated with their peers who don’t. For those still wanting to social distance or quarantine, “be clear about it,” Wright advises. “Good boundaries make people feel safe,” trust your internal compass, and “go with the feel-good.”
In addition to what may feel comfortable or manageable with our time, concerns about our safety and the rules we place around certain activities have never been more front and center. The sheer anxiety of figuring this out ourselves is half the headache. In the fight to protect ourselves and our loved ones against COVID-19, some of our boundaries may be firmer than they had in the past. “Make no apologies for wanting to keep yourself safe—this isn’t over,” Wright says.
Introducing more separation and balance into our lives as government restrictions are lifted presents challenges especially when caring for others.
“I have to worry about everyone’s health and well-being,” says Hannah Pence, a math teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District and a mother. “How do I know when it is safe to take my son inside a store or restaurant? Is it safe for me to go inside my parent’s house, since they are still in the high-risk group, due to their age? I wish someone would tell me those answers. But, as it has been through most of the past two months, no one knows. I feel like I am guessing all the time, which adds a whole new layer to the stress and worrying.”
This predicament of having to pick and choose where we feel comfortable going and who we feel comfortable seeing can lead to a lot of tough feelings with those in your social circle as you begin to branch out again. “People’s safety feels different for each person,” Anderson says. “A lot of times there’s a feeling of judgment or shame or blame when someone says, ‘This doesn’t feel good for me,’ but you’re like ‘But this feels good for me!’ So there’s a lot of feelings of difficulty in navigating that,” Anderson adds. One piece of advice she offers: “See these conversations as similar to politics. How do you honor and not judge, but also honor and not judge yourself?”
Caring for ourselves and our loved ones has never been more complicated in the time where every action means so much, but there are so few guidelines on what we can do when, now that the guidelines are relaxed. Boundaries, while long praised for their effectiveness in creating harmonious relationships, may be able to do more than just conflict management: They may be the key to health management.