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Setting & Maintaining Personal Boundaries Is Essential For Pandemic Mental Health In 2021

Asia Ewart

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about the end of many things: the end of office life as we know it, the end of safely learning in schools for the foreseeable future, the end of shopping in stores without waiting on a line first, and the end of normally interacting with family, friends and strangers on the street.

In addition to altering how we live our lives day-to-day, the pandemic also wasn’t shy in wreaking havoc on our collective mental health: namely, with creating and maintaining personal boundaries. In a new world where home is now the office, the living room is now the classroom and worrying how large your friend’s friend’s gathering was, personal boundaries are being crossed in a more significant way. If work-life balance wasn’t on its deathbed before, the chime of Slack at 8 p.m. was the final nail in the coffin. Loved ones pressuring you to join their crowded holiday affairs adds more stress to the everyday than needed. The lines of personal comfort and people pleasing are blurred.

Despite the promising news of COVID-19 vaccinations and plans to “safely” engage in activities from the Before Times, we are still living in a pandemic and it’s affecting many of us in more ways than one. Creating and maintaining personal boundaries can allow some semblance of control in our personal lives.

So, say it with me: “No,” “It’s my day off,” and “I won’t be attending”— and it all starts with pinpointing why you need boundaries in the first place.

“Whether it be in our work or personal lives, [boundaries are important] because they allow us the freedom of choosing what is right and best for ourselves, in a way that keeps us psychologically healthy,” Dr. Mariana Bockarova, a psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Toronto, tells SheKnows. “When boundaries are crossed, it feels uncomfortable and produces negative effects, which can lead to stress, negative thought patterns and, in some cases, feeling (if not being) violated.”

Criticism against how we quarantine, our loved ones unsafely gathering in large groups, and our 9-5s never really ending as we work from home are just some of the unique, but common problems people have faced during the pandemic. How we decide to engage or disengage with issues like these then turns into the very definition of setting a boundary: We can either decide these issues are worth our energy, or move on, avoid stress and protect our peace.

“Relationships don’t work without boundaries,” Darlene Lancer, marriage and family therapist, further explains to SheKnows, adding that, if standard boundaries aren’t in place, “People build resentments and relationships suffer when their rights, needs, and space aren’t respected.” 

As a result, being clear with your personal boundaries is necessary when interacting with others.

So how do we go about creating personal boundaries?

“Reflect on moments where you felt uncomfortable in your life and consider why,” Dr. Bockarova advises. “What would you change if you could go back in time? What could you have done differently? And, if the situation were to arise in the future, how would you prevent it from happening?”

Approaching quarantine practices differently than family and friends has been a recurring source of discomfort for some during the pandemic. While the world initially slowed down when stay-at-home practices began in March 2020, quarantine fatigue, as the Cleveland Clinic described it in 2020, set in after our initial two weeks at home turned into a near year.

With quarantine fatigue came irritability, stress, and anxiousness. Mix those feelings with political debates over the helpfulness of face masks, nationwide individualism and restlessness, and soon, large parties and weddings were being broken up and vacations resumed without a care. Today, it’s common to have a friend or family who flouts the quarantine and regular COVID-19 testing. And deciding whether or not to interact with that person is where personal boundaries are most helpful.

“Boundaries are not easy to set,” Lancer admits. She suggests that anyone who wants to set boundaries first identify their needs and feelings, value them for what they are, have the courage to express them, and then learn to be assertive with them around others. 

Being clear with your personal boundaries is especially necessary when interacting with others. While deciding to set boundaries in your personal life will be liberating to you, they’re not always met with positivity from the peers and loved ones you need to confront. “Some people react to your boundaries with anger or hurt,” Lancer says. “That indicates relationship and communication issues that need attention.”

Gestalt therapist Caitlin Cantor echoes this. “Resist negotiating your boundaries,” she tells SheKnows. “When you tell someone what your boundary is, they may ask you why or suggest you change your boundary. Rather than engaging in that negotiation, just repeat it. Boundaries aren’t up for negotiation.”

After deciding where and how we need to set these boundaries, they also need to be maintained. “Maintaining the boundaries we’ve created means not crossing them ourselves,” Dr. Bockarova says. “Maintaining the boundaries we’ve created also means reinforcing them if others continuously cross them. When our boundaries are crossed, it’s important that we restate what they are, and continue following through with that pattern in order to maintain them.”

Medical organization Northwestern Medicine in 2020 also suggested removing yourself from the company of a person trying to compromise on your boundaries, highlighting the strength in the boundary-setter being “the one to walk away and protect [themselves.]”  

Maintaining the personal boundaries we’ve created for ourselves ultimately leads to our peace of mind, a state of being much needed during the pandemic. That peace of mind, according to Cantor, is a necessity for our mental, relationship, and overall wellness.

With an uncertain future ahead as quarantining at home reaches — and ultimately passes — its one year mark, protecting your peace of mind in personal and work relationships becomes more of a necessity.

“Whatever one’s boundaries are, whether physical or emotional, they are all important,” Cantor says. With boundaries being akin to our personal values, she explains, bending them for others takes away from our quality of life. And if we get only one thing out of 2021, it should be an improved quality of life.

Before you go, check out the best and most affordable mental health apps you can download today: 
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