Because we all know ‘that’ person.
“Can we hug?” I asked nervously. “I don’t think so,” my colleague hesitated.
After 5 years at the company, today was her last day. It felt customary to give her a farewell hug. More so, it felt awkward not to.
While I was clearly comfortable giving her a quick squeeze, a momentary mark of affection simply wasn’t worth the risk from her perspective.
The easing of physical distancing restrictions has led to many complex encounters like this one. Each of us has a different set of rules for what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Public spaces may be reopening and many people returning to work, but COVID-19 hasn’t gone anywhere. All of us are navigating these changes at a different pace.
I have friends who are happy to board a plane, but family members who aren’t yet comfortable leaving the house. I know people meeting in groups for big parties and others who consider eating alone at a restaurant too big a risk.
Some of us are keen to get our lives “back to normal,” socializing with a different group every week, and need gentle reminding that there’s still a pandemic going on.
Others are still patiently and consistently taking precautions.
Wherever you are on that spectrum, you no doubt have circumstances you feel comfortable with and those you don’t. It can feel threatening if loved ones overstep the mark.
Perhaps friends are insistent you join their parties, or family members take offense if you refuse their hugs. Their actions may make you feel unsafe, and you may worry that they’re putting your health at risk.
“Everybody has a slightly different understanding of what is ‘safe’ and ‘not safe’ for them right now, and it’s important to know your boundaries and how to communicate them with your loved ones, especially if they won’t [physically] distance,” says Gillian Fagan, a therapist, coach, and counselor at Acora Therapy.
“Boundaries are the rules and limits that we set for ourselves, physically, mentally, and in our relationships. Most of us do this unconsciously, so not everybody has the same boundaries,” says Fagan.
If specific things make you feel anxious, angry, frustrated, or unsafe, Fagan says it’s time to put boundaries in place with your loved ones.
“To get a better understanding of your boundaries, tune into your own emotions. See how you are feeling,” she says.
This is the starting point for knowing what you need.
1. Define your boundaries
In order to set your boundaries, you first need to know what they are.
“You may decide…not to socialize or only meet people outdoors or with a face mask. Different people will have different boundaries, so knowing what yours are and being consistent will help [when] communicating them with others,” Fagan says.
She also emphasizes listening to your gut.
“Focus on your feelings rather than the different ‘facts’ and practice stating your boundaries. For example, try saying ‘I’m feeling overwhelmed and taking things slow. I’m following the medical guidelines’ to get your point across,” says Fagan.
This helps others understand where you’re coming from.
2. Use “I” statements
You’ve probably heard this advice before and for good reason: It’s a good option for defusing a potentially tense situation.
“When communicating with someone, it’s important to let them know how you feel,” Fagan points out. “When you use ‘I’ statements there is no blame or accusation, and you are stating clearly what is going on for you.”
For example, if a friend is pushing you to eat out at a restaurant with her and you don’t feel ready, you might try saying: “I value our relationship and don’t want this to impact us. I would really like it if you could respect my boundaries.”
3. Remember, it’s okay to say no
If you aren’t ready to go to backyard gatherings or get togethers, you don’t have to give into the pressure, Fagan points out.
You still have the right to say no.
4. State your boundaries ahead of time
Boundaries are a two-way street, and getting to know what’s comfortable for you is just as important as figuring out what feels comfortable for friends and family. It can help to open up a respectful conversation.
“Asking your loved ones what their boundaries are and how you can support them opens up communication without conflict,” Fagan says.
She also emphasizes that consistency is key.
“Be consistent. If you have different boundaries with different people, understand why so you can manage people’s expectations. You might need to repeat your boundaries. Do so firmly but with compassion,” says Fagan.
5. Communicate with compassion
A little bit of empathy and care can go a long way.
“It’s important to have respectful conversations in a nonjudgmental way where everyone can have a say, even if you disagree,” says Fagan.
When discussing your boundaries, remember to ask others about theirs. Show gratitude when they respect yours.
“Small acts of compassion can be really impactful. Say thanks when people turn up in masks [or] share hand sanitizer,” she says. “We need to demonstrate the kindness and trust we desire from others.”
6. Mind your stress
“The only thing you can control is yourself,” Fagan points out. “Stress lowers the immune system, so try to relax and reduce your stress as best you can during this time.”
The best way to relax is to honor your feelings, set your boundaries, and stick with them.
If you need to avoid certain situations or people in order to reduce stress, that’s perfectly fine.
In this time of uncertainty, remember that not everybody will have the same idea of what is safe and what is not.
The important thing is to clarify what feels safe for you and be proactive in setting those boundaries. That way, your loved ones know how to help you feel comfortable and secure.
Victoria Stokes is a writer from the United Kingdom. When she’s not writing about her favorite topics, personal development, and well-being, she usually has her nose stuck in a good book. Victoria lists coffee, cocktails, and the color pink among some of her favorite things. Find her on Instagram.