As Cities Reopen, We Need Boundaries More Than Ever: Here’s How To Do It

Around the country and the world, COVID-19 restrictions are slowly beginning to lift. Stores and restaurants are opening, people are out and about, and for some, post-lockdown anxiety may be creeping in. That is totally OK: After all, we are still in a pandemic that’s nowhere near being over.

As the world reopens, we’re all being challenged to be proactive about maintaining our boundaries—both in terms of our physical boundaries to maintain social distancing but also in terms of dealing with friends and family members who might be approaching reopening very differently than you are. But it can be hard to tell someone to keep their distance or to say no when your friends ask to hang out with you.

We spoke to a psychologist about how our boundaries are being tested by the reopening process and how to get more comfortable asserting them.

Why can it be so difficult to speak up about boundaries?

Perhaps you’ve already experienced this in the store near a stranger, or even among your own friends and family: Someone gets a little too close, or your friends want to get together for brunch at a newly reopened restaurant. You’re just not there yet, but you don’t quite know what to say.

Everyone’s going to approach post-lockdown differently, so it’s important to honor your own personal boundaries.

“We’re social, tribal creatures,” couples therapist Alicia Muñoz, LPC, explained to mbg. “One of our first survival imperatives is to belong. It can be difficult to speak up about boundaries to both friends and strangers because in doing so, it creates a sense of separation.”

Muñoz goes on to say that if, for example, you had to turn down seeing your mother-in-law for safety reasons, that feeling of separation is threatening on a primal level, as it draws attention to the ways we’re different. You’re identifying a difference of values and worldviews between you, and that can be particularly unnerving.

“At the same time,” she notes, “boundaries help us feel safe because we’re doing things that respect our own needs, limitations, values, and physical and/or mental health.”ADVERTISEMENT

Two keys to remember when setting boundaries.

When you do find yourself in a situation where you have to speak up for yourself and your own needs, Muñoz has two key principles to keep in mind before speaking up:

1. Ask what you can control in the situation.

We can always control our own actions and how we express ourselves. How others react to you is not in your control. Yes, it may be difficult to come up against backlash—but that’s why they’re called boundaries.

“If there’s something you can control, put your energy there,” Muñoz says. For example, you can control whether you practice the CDC’s protocols and how honest you are with others about how closely you’re abiding by those protocols and why… Don’t waste energy on what you can’t.”

Perhaps a stranger gets too close to you in public. While you can’t control them, you could always step away. Or if need be, you may need to speak up, which brings us to the next point.

2. Connect with your intention, and if possible, voice it.

Keeping the perspective of both control and intention can help you voice your boundary in a productive way. Let’s say that stranger is repeatedly getting close to you in the store. Calmly stating your intention of prioritizing safety can help prevent you from “unconsciously slipping into defensiveness or criticism,” explains Muñoz.

Similarly if your friends or family are insisting on getting together, come back to that intention of safety. “Then, go back to step one,” Muñoz says, “see what you can control in the situation, and let your friends know why you’re not comfortable visiting and what might help you feel more comfortable in the future.”

And this goes for all the different types of boundaries, from physical to emotional to personal time. Even intellectual boundaries need to be honored during these times, as you could come across people who don’t believe in wearing a mask or social distancing.

Coming back to control and intention, we can all do our best to stand in our truth and do whatever it is we need to do for ourselves in these times.


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