May 24, 2022
By Amy Gregory, Therapist, PhD Student
Just over two years ago, the world as we knew it radically shifted in the wake of a novel coronavirus causing the disease now called COVID-19. Health professionals across the globe pushed individuals to isolate from one another, and many governments enacted strict legal boundaries which dramatically limited our social worlds. The impacts of these measures are still being researched, but I saw both personally and professionally that many experienced increased symptoms of anxiety, loneliness, and depression, both in the absence of their loved ones and due to the stress posed by an unknown and frightening disease. However, I am also observing new challenges as these restrictions lift, particularly to the crucial ability to set and maintain personal boundaries.
A “boundary” is an imaginary line drawn to separate “me” from “you.” We set boundaries to define and defend our thoughts, feelings, goals, needs, and even physical space from others. Your boundaries teach others how to treat you; by making clear what is acceptable to you and what isn’t, others know what to expect from you and what you might expect from them. Many behaviours or choices are not clearly “right” or “wrong” – what is acceptable to you is not necessarily acceptable to me, or to someone else.
We begin to learn to negotiate personal boundaries as children:
Many of these boundaries required constant vigilance “pre-COVID” – for example, when is it appropriate to stop thinking about work and begin to rest or to play? When is it appropriate to decline an invitation in favor of rest? During the pandemic, these internally defined boundaries were in some ways replaced by the external rules and regulations design to contain the virus. Many people now find themselves struggling to remember, or to rewrite, how to negotiate and maintain these boundaries for themselves.
What is “allowed”?
In times of social distancing, particularly in Montreal, there were relatively clear limitations on social interactions and behaviours. For some, these restrictions became a rulebook on how to be a “good” citizen. Now that restrictions are lifting, people are having to make decisions for themselves about where their comfort zone lies. On top of that, we are increasingly being expected to adapt to the boundaries of those around us, requiring negotiation and compromise. After two years of intense pressure to protect others, figuring out how to set these kinds of boundaries is not straightforward, and I have noticed a lot of anxiety, guilt, and shame coming up in the process.
If you are finding yourself struggling to make these kinds of decisions, it is important to evaluate your own boundaries first. What is the risk you perceive in a given situation, and how much risk are you willing to accept? What are the possible consequences to your actions, and are you comfortable accepting them? What decision aligns best with your values?
When you have a sense of your own boundaries, it is easier to identify when and how to adapt to others’. Again, there is rarely an objective “right” or “wrong” guideline to making these decisions, so take the time to be intentional, honest, and deliberate in setting your own boundaries with exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
What do I want?
Now that we are allowed to socialize more freely again, I have also noticed a renewed need to balance self-care, work, and play. Removing restrictions has led to an increase of competing demands for our time and resources. Those who felt deprived over the last few years may additionally be struggling with a fear of missing out, or fear of the uncertainty about future lockdowns.
As you rebuild and reacclimate to your social world, it may be helpful to take time to identify and distinguish your needs and your goals. Where possible, slow down your decisions, considering the limits to your personal resources. And also, don’t be afraid to make space for fun! New experiences are important for growth, and free time is when we are allowed to explore who we are and what we want.
Many may also be experiencing burnout. Burnout often results from extended neglect of one’s personal needs, due to intense external demands on one’s resources. If you suspect you are experiencing burnout, we encourage you to consider reaching out to a mental health professional, or exploring the resources available to you.
Finally, it can be helpful to remember that however it looks, many people struggle to identify and maintain their boundaries. Feelings of shame and guilt often come up when we do not feel confident or entitled to our boundaries – most often, boundaries come up when we need to prioritize personal resources (such as time, space, and effort) for ourselves and deny them to others. It can feel selfish, for instance, to refuse an invitation because you are tired, or to take time off work in order to rest.
In moments where you feel ashamed or insecure, it can be helpful to practice self-compassion. With self-compassion, we practice giving ourselves the care, concern, and understanding which we are encouraged to give to others. If shame is suggesting that you are being selfish or lazy, try speaking to yourself as you would a close friend. Would you call a loved one lazy for spending a night in? We are often reacting much more harshly and cruelly to ourselves than we would ever be to our loved ones.
A fuller description of self-compassion, as well as exercises for increasing your own self-compassion, can be found at selfcompassion.org.
Resources for Boundary Setting Support:
Resources for Interpersonal Effectiveness:
Resources for Self-Compassion: