As places reopen and more social interactions become acceptable, figuring out what makes you feel safe and communicating your boundaries is a good place to start.
As more and more places begin to open up, you may feel a bit of relief that the end of the pandemic seems near.
But if jumping back into the way things were pre-COVID-19 makes you uneasy, setting boundaries can help.
This included people from the United States, China, Italy, Spain, Iran, Nepal, Denmark, and Turkey.
“Trauma is an event that overwhelms the mind, body, and soul. COVID-19 was a traumatic event, and one that was experienced around the world,” says Deborah Serani, author of “Sometimes When I’m Sad” and professor at Adelphi University.
According to Serani, people move through a recovery stage after trauma, which entails establishing safety and security.
“So, when it comes to local and global things opening up, creating boundaries for safety is vital. It helps reestablish a sense of security, trust, and comfort as we move forward,” she says.
According to a poll by Axios-Ipsos, more people in the United States are reengaging in social interactions outside the home. The number of Americans staying at home and avoiding contact with others has dropped to the lowest point since October 2020.
As you emerge from pandemic restrictions, everyone will handle situations and interactions differently — from giving hugs and handshakes to attending indoor events and social gatherings, to allowing kids to participate in activities.
“Emotionally, there is a big adjustment to make with managing anxiety and other emotions around the changes,” she says.
Hinkle adds that while physical closeness is always a personal decision, the fact that many people have been abiding by the guidance to stay 6 feet apart will pose a new challenge.
“Some people may want to continue this and others may not,” she says.
Plus, if you plan to socialize in person, you may want to know how big your company’s social bubble is, as well as whether they’ll wear masks, despite their vaccination status.
Serani says a lot of challenges will have to do with reframing your cognitive beliefs about the pandemic and finding your comfort zone.
“Being outside of your [comfort zone] is where you may feel overwhelmed with panic, anxiety, or even irritability or depression. So, by setting boundaries, you can adapt to post-pandemic life,” she said.
The first step to setting boundaries is to figure out what you need to feel a sense of security.
“Is it safety? What kind of safety? Physical? Emotional? Both? How exactly would you define that?” says Serani. “If you can’t describe what you need to yourself, it will be difficult for others to know what your boundaries are.”
If you’re not sure where to start, consider the risks and benefits of common situations.
For example, when it comes to shopping, Hinkle suggests asking yourself the following:
- Do I benefit more or less from going to the grocery store in person versus getting delivery?
- Is delivery an option for me?
- Can I afford delivery?
- What are the benefits of each?
“Asking questions such as these could help guide decision-making,” explains Hinkle.
Once you’ve decided on what you will and won’t do, some ways to set boundaries for yourself and others may include telling yourself:
- I’ll only hug others who wear a mask.
- I’m only going to allow my kids to have playdates outdoors.
- I’ll shake hands, but I’m using hand sanitizer afterward.
Communicating your boundaries to others is the next step.
“Will you say, in the moment, ‘I’m not comfortable hugging right now,’ or will it be communicated ahead of time verbally or via a text or an email?” says Serani.
Either way, she recommends avoiding using “You” statements because they can feel controlling and accusatory. Instead, use “I” statements to emphasize your needs, such as, “I want the kids to play outside, not inside. Otherwise, let’s set a playdate another time.”
Hinkle believes that communication with boundary setting is generally most effective if communicated in person by using phrases like, “That doesn’t work for me,” or “I’m not comfortable with that.”
“Keep your message short, direct, and simple. You do not need to provide further explanation or justification,” says Hinkle.
If you clearly communicated your boundaries, but they’re not being respected, honored, or valued, knowing how to respond can be difficult.
Serani suggests practicing and planning out how to react.
“When you play out these scenarios, you can be ready for many different kinds of responses to your boundaries. Plan for others to be accepting of your boundaries, but also be ready for those who may rebuff your needs. This exercise can keep you from being thrown off your boundary game,” she says.
While you can’t change or control another’s response, you can control how you respond to their response.
“If someone isn’t respecting boundaries, a good first step is to make a clarifying statement and follow-up request such as, ‘Earlier I mentioned I am not comfortable with being together unless we have our masks on. Will you please put on a mask?’” she says.
If being assertive about your needs doesn’t come easy to you, Serani says be kind to yourself.
“Remember that boundaries are a form of self-care. Doing so is not selfish or mean. It’s an empowering way to say, ‘this is what I need to feel safe when I am with you,’” she says.
After setting your own boundaries, recognize others have done the same.
“One major lesson from the pandemic we are commonly experiencing is seeing the difference in choices and boundaries we are setting [versus] our loved ones. It is okay and possible to respect these and not agree at the same time,” Hinkle says.
To understand whether you’re creating boundaries based on healthy caution or fear, start by looking for guidance from:
Hinkle also suggests checking your perceptions and discussing your emotional reactions with trusted loved ones.
Keep in mind that “Boundaries guided by healthy caution are best understood on a spectrum, where they aren’t too rigid or too lenient,” says Serani.
The ability to be consistent and flexible is the best way to set limits for a meaningful life post-pandemic, she adds.
- Can I work around issues, problem solve, or compromise if my boundaries are not being met?
- Do I find myself in an excessive panic, confusion, or feeling insecure, irritable, or in a state of despair managing post-pandemic life if my boundaries aren’t successful?
“Those who have a hard time doing day-to-day things, like going to work or school, taking care of ourselves or others, getting chores done, socializing, may be experiencing what’s called a functional impairment,” Serani says.
If you struggle for 2 weeks or more with adjusting to the post-pandemic world, she recommends reaching out to your doctor or a mental health professional to assess if you’re experiencing an anxiety, mood, or post-trauma disorder.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone’s mental well-being.
As more places begin to reopen and we consider meeting up with friends and family, it can be challenging to know the right way to emerge from our isolation.
A good place to start is by making a list of boundaries that are most important to you, which can help you articulate them to others.
If you’re finding it too difficult to set boundaries as restrictions loosen, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for help.
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, medical news, and inspirational people. She writes with empathy and accuracy and has a knack for connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.