We are living in dystopic times, to say the least. To be in the present is to live mentally in the future, fearing the consequences of a pandemic whose potential for destruction is vast. For now, many of us are doing our best to heed the warnings from other countries further along this path, and we are in social isolation, only leaving our houses when it is essential.

The fear is palpable and the loneliness is real, but in these times there is also beautiful solidarity to be found. Mutual aid networks are popping up around Boston and other places nationwide. Neighbors who didn’t know each other before are on group text chains, asking what everyone needs and how they can help. In my neighborhood, people are singing together from their porches every day at 6pm.

Still, the social isolation presents paradoxical mental and emotional challenges. We are deprived of the comfort of interacting with our friends and the reassurance of physical touch, and yet at the same time many of us are dealing with the reality of being at home with roommates or family members, which deprives us of the luxury of being alone. We are lonely, and we are bombarded.

Additionally, the fact that the virus is so contagious puts us in a position where we have to act in ways that may feel paranoid or abnormal.

This unique situation presents unique challenges for setting and maintaining personal boundaries. It may even feel like our ability to set them is eroded, since boundaries are about putting ourselves and our comfort first and this is a time when we need to be thinking about the collective. But in fact, being able to set clear boundaries now is more important than ever in order to PROTECT ourselves and our community.

Here are some examples of limits you might be setting (or wanting to set) right now:

  • “Can you walk further away from me?”
  • “Please keep your distance.”
  • “No, I am not comfortable with outside visitors coming into the house.”
  • “I don’t want to talk about the virus right now.”
  • “Can you have your phone conversations in your room, since we all share this space?”
  • “Can you either stay at home or at your partner’s place, since bouncing between them carries more risk?”

Setting boundaries is always difficult, and that’s even more true when the request feels like a breach of social norms. People are more likely to respond negatively to a request that feels unreasonable to them or one that feels controlling. It may also be hard to ask someone to do something that limits their life and that may not seem like it directly affects you, like your roommate having a friend over.

There are several things to remind yourself of in this situation:

  1. You are not crazy for asking. The request may feel abnormal now, but these are not normal circumstances.
  2. People who are trustworthy respect your boundaries, EVEN IF THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND THEM. Understanding the boundary is not essential to respecting it. Compassion and respect for your autonomy is. The person you are setting the boundary with doesn’t need to believe exactly what you believe about the pandemic in order to work with you to make sure you feel safe/comfortable around them.
  3. You are doing the right thing. According to experts, social distancing/social isolation is the only way to “flatten the curve” and prevent hospital overwhelm. It is not only reasonable and good for you to set boundaries for your own safety; by doing so you are doing your part to protect your community. In this way, boundary setting right now is being a good bystander.
  4. You and your physical health matter. You and your mental health matter.

In conclusion, give yourself permission to ask for what you want during these difficult times. It’ll help you stay healthy and sane, and it’s good for the rest of us, too.