Practicing Healthy Boundaries through COVID-19…and Beyond!

Drawing a line in the sand

While the concept of boundaries in relationships may be widely recognized as an important aspect of healthy relationships, this may be something we’ve all thought more about in recent months with COVID-19 as we’ve had to reevaluate and redefine the boundaries of who we allow in our physical space on a daily basis.

This has, no doubt, brought discomfort for many individuals and families as differences about how we view the pandemic and the most appropriate behavioral response, come up in everyday interactions. Let’s face it, opting out of the family barbecue or inviting people over for a family barbecue, going back into the office or not going back into the office, dining in or continuing restaurant takeout, are all uncomfortable decisions when we think important people in our lives may be offended or judge our decisions in these unprecedented times (not to mention the fear of possibly putting the health of someone we love at risk just by living your life!).

The reality is that is where many of us find ourselves- a time when the boundaries we maintain on a daily basis really do seem to directly impact the physical health and emotional wellbeing of both ourselves and our loved ones.

Webster defines the word boundary as “something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent.” When we talk about boundaries in relationships, we are referring to limits on how much our world intersects with another’s- the extent to which we share daily activities and information, and how much we allow the other person’s behavior and life choices to impact ours and vice versa. This is based on the core idea that every individual has needs and wants that differ from others and should be honored in certain times or situations. Being able to do this and communicate this to others clearly sets us up for healthy relationships. When this happens, there is a healthy respect and balance between honoring and nurturing the relationship as well as the individuals within that relationship. Problems in relationships often arise when patterns form over time that do not feel balanced or mutually respectful to each person’s distinct needs and desires.

When boundaries are unclear or nonexistent in a relationship, the risk of resentment, burnout, or emotional numbing for one or both people involved is high. Signs a boundary needs to be set or shifted include a pattern of behavior from another person that leaves one feeling repeatedly taken advantage of, frustrated and hurt. This can also be the result of one person having expressed his or her needs, expectations, or emotions but is left feeling repeatedly disregarded or dismissed by the other.

Feeling ignored, dismissed or unheard gives rise to frustration and resentment. If you find yourself hesitant or distressed around contact with a person for fear he/she will not follow through as planned, feel unable to trust someone’s word or count on them to do what they say, or you feel like a broken record in verbalizing your negative/hurt feelings to the point you’re about to or have given up saying anything at all, then some intentional boundary setting may be in order.

Sometimes these signs seem so clear, and the necessary response so obvious. Sometimes we know we should put some distance between ourselves and the other person, or maybe even break away from the relationship all together. But why is it so dang hard to set and keep boundaries sometimes?

To answer this you must reflect on the possible outcomes of taking this step- both for yourself and the relationship. It’s important to acknowledge the realistic “worst case scenario” and how you would feel if that came to pass. Would it be the end of the relationship all together? Would it have negative consequences for you, the other person, your family or friend group? Would these consequences potentially last for a long time?

There is always a risk involved when drawing a line in the sand with another person. If these outcomes feel very risky or uncomfortable then these are likely the very reasons it feels so hard to follow through on a boundary. I believe that, in many cases, the worst case scenario will not come to pass. In many cases, it’s likely the other person cares about you, values your relationship and will work with you to address the issue in a productive way. However, the reality is you just don’t know before you do it- and it feels risky because it is (otherwise, you’d have done it already!).  Once you set the boundary, the ball truly is in the other person’s court and you have no control over what he or she does with it. In my work with clients in couples therapy, I have found that people are best able to set and follow through with difficult boundaries when they come to terms and accept that the risk of ongoing damage to themselves and the relationship if they do not set the boundary is worse in the long run than the risk of setting it.

If you come to the stage of feeling ready to set a boundary, especially a hard one or one that’s a long time coming, it’s important to predict and prepare for how you will likely feel once you communicate your boundary to the other person. While the long term goal is improved psychological, emotional and relational health and wellbeing, these are feelings you may not experience right away. Expect and become comfortable with the idea that you will feel bad and guilty at first- that just means you’re not a robot! In some cases, you may also experience sadness or even grief if the outcome is the dissolution of the relationship, possibly a significant relationship in your life. You may also experience discomfort when the person/people impacted react to your decision. You will then have to decide how you share this with others and how much people need to know about how, why and when you made the decision you did (ugh- more boundaries to set!) Setting healthy boundaries is the most caring thing you can do for yourself and your relationships, but in the moment it may not feel caring. At. all.  The caring part is communicating essentially, “I will not allow resentment to continue to build by continuing to allow behavior I experience as damaging or hurtful.”

So, you’ve thought all of this through and  you’re ready to set the boundary- now what?

Communicate why you’re making the change to the other person as clearly and kindly as possible. Explain what will be different and why. The best time to do this is not during a fight or when you feel emotionally charged as this may be interpreted as an overreaction when things calm back down (possibly how it’s gone in the past and the change hasn’t lasted). In this conversation you are setting a precedent to refer back to when the issue comes up again- notice I said when, not if (e.g. “remember I said you needed to call before coming over? I’m sorry but I have errands to run and cannot visit right now”). Reiterate this message and follow through consistently with whatever you said you would do when a violation occurs. Consistency is hard but really important to keep you from sliding back into the longstanding unhealthy pattern. And again, at this stage it’s very normal and to be expected that you’ll question yourself (Am I making too much of this?  Is it worth all of this turmoil? ). Remember, these are all the questions that kept you from doing this in the first place.

Anticipate realistic outcomes/response from the other person. They may not understand or see your perspective. They may turn the situation back on you in some way, express hurt or retaliate (e.g. “Fine, then I just won’t visit you in the future”), or even cut the relationship off with you. Or….it may go better than you think! I have heard many clients share unanticipated positive outcomes, or at least that the other person didn’t respond as badly as anticipated. And despite some unavoidable guilt, people almost always feel empowered and less resentful when they know they’ve honored their needs and clearly communicated this to another person.

Assess the situation and decide what’s realistic and sustainable. The reality may be that the risk of losing connection with that person is too great and/or you’re not ready (yet). If that is the case, give yourself permission to set the issue aside for a period of time when you don’t have to stress about whether to set the boundary or not. I promise you it will come back front and center if it’s a real issue that needs to be addressed head-on. One good thing about boundaries is they are not set in stone.

I often use this Venn diagram to represent boundaries with clients, and that the overlap can shift over time. If you feel the need to set a certain boundary for a specific reason (like, say, a global and controversial pandemic), you can monitor how it goes with the given space/overlap, reassess this periodically and adjust the space when you need to or when circumstances change.

Boundary Venn Diagram

These are truly challenging times and it’s important to tend to your health and wellbeing so that you can effectively care for those closest to you. We all have an elevated level of stress right now and need all the mental, physical and emotional “bandwidth” we can get to continue to cope well with the stressors we cannot change. I believe I speak for most of us when I say that 2021 cannot come soon enough, but the reality is that the uncertainty we’ve weathered through 2020 will likely continue for…ummmm…I wish I knew how long!

For some, putting off setting boundaries and striving for balance in relationships until life “returns to normal” may be setting the stage for a greater physical, emotional and mental toll than is healthy for anyone right now. As is the case with change in any area of life, it takes practice. Starting small and being consistent helps to strengthen the “muscle” of boundary setting over time- a workout you can do whether you have returned to the gym or not!

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