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Personal boundaries are always important, but during the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve taken on a new meaning and necessity.

If you’ve been staying indoors, trying to decrease your anxiety around COVID (aka logging off social media), it might come as a shock to find out people you know aren’t taking the same measures.

This makes clear and direct communication even more key right now — and especially with close family and friends who you may have considered “on the same page” with prior to COVID-19.

That means setting boundaries and letting people know what you are and aren’t comfortable doing, and asking them about their precautions so you’re on the same page.

  1. helping you figure out what precautions you need to take if you see them
  2. alleviating your anxiety
  3. being able to plan ahead and avoid surprises
  4. reducing guilt, if you live with anyone who is high risk
  5. reducing the risk or chance of viral spread
  6. practicing community care
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Everyone has different ideas about what being careful actually means and looks like, which means there are many kinds of socialization-related boundaries you can set. Here’s how to figure out your boundaries:

Make a list of what you’re comfortable doing and what gives you anxiety

Start by writing a yes vs. no list of things that make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

It’s okay to get personal about what you think is safe or unsafe. Maybe that’s group activities, even if it’s outside, but you’re okay seeing people outside one on one. That difference is key in setting boundaries during COVID-19.

Writing them down can help remind you what works and what doesn’t when someone invites you to something!

Another tip: Before saying yes, do your own risk assessment and figure out what levels of social interaction you’re actually comfortable with, regardless of what other people might say about how you should feel.

Check the data and news about cases in your area or the area you’d be going to as new information may change your boundaries.

Write questions to help you plan when communication is unclear

Sometimes a “small” hang or camp out is “small” until you show up. To avoid these situations, ask these questions to help determine your next steps:

  • Will everyone be getting tested beforehand, isolating, and only coming if negative?
  • Will we all be wearing masks and distancing?
  • How many people have you been seeing? What about the other folks invited?
  • Would you be willing to quarantine for 2 weeks before we meet?
  • Have you been going to restaurants and bars? Inside or outside?

Let people know where or what your comfort zone is

Everyone has contingencies that could change how they feel, and as a lot of experts have said, it’s not good for anyone’s mental health to stay isolated for so long.

To balance your needs and risk, state very clearly where the line is. Here are some examples:

  • For family gatherings where people are traveling across the country: “I’m not comfortable being inside with so many people right now, even if we’re all wearing masks.”
  • For friend hangouts in the park: “I’m fine with being outdoors with X number of people, if we’re all wearing masks.”
  • For roommate conversations: “COVID cases are still really bad now. Can we make sure we’re not having people over our apartment, and only seeing people outdoors and in masks?”
  • For new relationships: “I’m sorry to hear your test came back inconclusive. That’s frustrating. Unfortunately I live with my grandparents and can’t risk meeting up. If you’re down to quarantine for 2 weeks or take the test again, I’m open to talking about meeting up.”

Remind yourself “no” is how you set boundaries

You’re never required to give any specific explanation, and saying “no” is a full sentence. It’s completely okay to say no and set that boundary without giving more details.

This always goes both ways, BTW! If someone adds conditions in retaliation to your no, there’s no obligation to suddenly change your answer to yes. You can only inform them of your own and accept their decisions, and choose to do what’s best for you.

You don’t have to carry other people’s emotions

People might take it personally, but remember, during COVID-19, boundaries are for your safety as well as others. If you’re a people pleaser, you might feel obliged to remedy anger or any guilt you feel. But a boundary is not a negotiation or a quid pro quo situation.

You’re not doing anything wrong by prioritizing your safety, even if it means choosing to wear a mask, not going to intimate events, or other activities that could compromise your well-being.

The pandemic isn’t really the time to be playing devil’s advocate. If someone sets a boundary during COVID-19, it’s best to respect it. You’re not looking to ruin relationships here after all! In fact, boundaries are actually here to help strengthen them.

We were never mind readers before COVID-19 and it certainly isn’t time to start now!

Depending on how your conversation is going, here are some examples of how to respond and navigate these conversations:

  • If someone’s concerned about safety in a small gathering: “We’re only having X number of people, everyone will be required to wear masks and distance. It will happen outside and we’ll ask people not to gather in indoor spaces! We are also asking people to get tested if possible and isolate before coming.”
  • If someone asks a general question about boundaries: “I’ve only been around X number of people recently and only outdoors, otherwise I’ve been isolating and social distancing. I’m only comfortable with __________. Is that similar to your boundaries?”
  • If someone asks to hang in a place you’re not comfortable being at: “I’m not going to restaurants or bars, so I’d love to meet up and sit distanced at a park.”
  • If someone new asks you on a date: “I’m not comfortable with meeting up at all right now because COVID cases are bad. Do you mind if we just video chat and text for now?”
  • If someone rejects your first invite and you want to accommodate: “I understand your concerns. I’m okay to meet up somewhere outside and see each other while distanced, if that works for you.”

If you don’t trust the other person, or they’ve displayed actions that make your worry, it’s okay to start with tighter boundaries before changing them up. Unlike shoelaces for security, boundaries are easier to loosen than it is to tighten.

And we’re not saying any of this is easy.

For folks who find themselves fighting anxiety when someone disagrees with them, or shows disapproval, the initial practice of having these boundary-setting conversations will be hard. But ultimately, we have to accept that we can’t control other people’s actions — only our own.

You can’t set a boundary for someone else to follow, but you can tell people what you’re comfortable with and ask them to respect that. Focus on what you can control about your own behavior and actions, and try to ask people to respect your boundaries.

At the end of the day, if they don’t, you have a better idea of who you want to spend your time with and whose ideas of distancing and safety don’t match up with your own. And that’s valuable information in and of itself.