During this ongoing global pandemic, discussing our boundaries for safety—especially when they are stricter than the other people’s—is a tough situation. There is tension between the precautions taken by others, safely seeing one another, and avoiding contagion. If we consider traveling, others might judge us. What may or may not justify travel is debatable. The likelihood is high that we know someone who has or had COVID-19; as of June 2021, over 33 million Americans have been diagnosed. The prevalence of COVID-19 alone might change our opinions on how strict to be with our precautions.
The feelings that come with these precautions—guilt, shame, regret, grief, frustration, betrayal—vary due to the precautions others elect to follow compared to our own. We might feel peer pressured into taking off our masks at a small family event, or that desperate pull to hug our grandparent across the parking lot. Holding our own boundaries was already a challenge pre-COVID, but now the world has shifted. The pandemic is an overarching threat that we must heed. Staying firm with our boundaries is more important than ever—a matter of life and death.
Ultimately, our responsibility is to protect one another and ourselves, but how do we tell a friend who wants to fly cross-country to visit that it makes us feel unsafe? That we love them, but please…don’t?
While not always easy, communicating our needs to others can be easier with the right tools. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a research-backed approach created to help balance emotional reactions and logical response so that people can behave and communicate in an effective way while setting adequate boundaries. DBT has an entire module about Interpersonal Effectiveness; let’s put some of those ideas to work in a familiar context.
As is common in the DBT approach, let’s use an example. Say my imaginary friend Josie invites me to a small baby shower for our mutual (imaginary) best friend Samantha who is having her first baby after struggling with pregnancy. It is particularly important to Samantha that I attend. Let’s think about how I can say “no” effectively.
There are three basic things to remember from these DBT skills:
- Describe the facts and how they impact my feelings directly.
- Express what boundary I need and why it matters.
- Know my negotiation points, if there are any.
But what do each of these mean? Let’s take them one at a time.
Describe the facts, and how they impact our feelings directly.
This is where those classic “I statements” come into play. By sharing what I see and know, and how I feel about it, I can lead up to what my expectations will be moving forward.
“I’ve been avoiding physical contact with others, and the CDC recommends keeping at least six feet of distance between ourselves and other people. I feel nervous and uncomfortable about having close contact with people.”
Express what boundary you need, and why it matters.
Here comes the tough part – saying no. It helps to be clear, share where I stand on the situation, and that it’s for the sake of everyone’s health.
“I do not feel comfortable attending the baby shower and will have to refuse at this time. It is important to me to practice precautions to keep myself and others safe by practicing social distancing.”
Know your negotiation points, if there are any.
If there are things I know will change the situation, I can propose them as an alternate solution. This is also a place in the conversation where I can reassert my care and investment in the other person or people.
“I’d be happy to participate in an online baby shower, what do you think about doing a video call? I’d also be happy to set up a registry with Samantha so I can send her a gift to celebrate via mail—that way we can avoid contact while still honoring her.”
So, to sum up my response, I would say:
“I’ve been avoiding physical contact with others, and the CDC recommends keeping at least 6 feet of distance between ourselves and other people. I feel nervous and uncomfortable about having close contact with people. I do not feel comfortable attending the baby shower and will have to refuse at this time. It is important to me to practice precautions to keep myself and others safe by practicing social distancing. I’d be happy to participate in an online baby shower, what do you think about doing a video call? I’d also be happy to set up a registry with Samantha so I can send her a gift to celebrate via mail—that way we can avoid contact while still honoring her.”
Regardless of the situation, it is possible that the other folks we’re talking to will feel rejected or hurt by our boundaries. We can only speak for ourselves, practice respect, and remember that we cannot make assumptions about why or how others make their decisions. A pandemic is hard and stressful on all involved—DBT suggests we remember to take a moment to reflect on our wants and needs, how to engage respectfully, and proceed with consistency. When we use approaches like Interpersonal Effectiveness, we can practice self-respect and feel good about communicating our needs.