When I volunteered to write an article about interpersonal boundaries back in December of this year, I, like the rest of the world, had no idea that when it came time to publish in May, we would all be experiencing a global pandemic. Thus, the article I originally intended to write would have been very different from the one I am writing now.
Just the other day, I had a conversation with a woman about physical boundaries in the workplace. I had just watched a segment on the CBS “Sunday Morning” show with Mo Rocca entitled “The End of the Handshake?” in which he explored the impact of social distancing on the common ritual for etiquette, business and personal relationships, and how it may become permanently extinct as we have formerly known it. The woman I spoke to expressed a sense of happiness and relief about the potential end of the business handshake, indicating, as a female, her belief that this will put an end to often uncomfortable and/or inappropriate physical boundary violations she experienced in a male-dominated work environment.
It had not yet occurred to me that this could be an unforeseen outcome of the loss of the handshake and, by extension, the social “half-hug” or other social forms of physical contact. Does this mean, then, that the fist-bump and elbow-touch are also on the endangered list? Nobody knows for sure what the “new normal” for physical boundaries will look like after the impact of COVID-19 and social distancing.
While many things have changed, there are still, however, some things about interpersonal boundaries that remain the same. For most of us, it is often easiest to recognize when our physical boundaries have been crossed or violated. Physical boundaries are often defined as “personal space” or the distance we feel comfortable allowing others to occupy as we interact with them. The more we trust others, the closer we allow them to approach us physically. Since COVID-19, we’ve had to learn quickly how to recognize what six feet away from another person looks like and to be willing to stand on a line or an “X” on the floor to help maintain that safe distance between us.
Last week, I was shopping for groceries at Kroger. (Yes, I still go to the store once a week, and, yes, I do wear a mask and gloves.) I had asked one of the young men working there to help me find something and he started coming too close for comfort, so I quickly moved to the other side of my cart to put space between us. This was an example of the difference in each person’s awareness of, and ability and willingness to maintain, these new physical boundaries at such an unprecedented and strange time in all our lives.
Another type of boundary violation that is easy to recognize is one that affects our material boundaries. Examples of this are when our possessions are borrowed without return, damaged, or stolen, or when we feel pressured to lend or give our possessions to others. A current example of a social material boundary violation since COVID-19 can be seen in images of people stockpiling toilet paper, thermometer batteries, disinfectant wipes, and other essentials to the common good.
It is important to understand that boundary violations can occur on a continuum, from slight to serious, and that over the course of our lives, other people will cross our physical, intellectual, emotional, sexual, material, and time boundaries. Oftentimes, the boundary violation is accidental, other times the intention may be hurtful.
During these uncertain times, it is more important than ever that we learn to establish and maintain firm and healthy physical, social, and emotional boundaries. They help us judge what is acceptable and unacceptable in all our social interactions. Without boundaries, our lives and relationships will be chaotic. Establishing healthy boundaries allows us to feel secure and in control of our personal safety. We are all responsible for, and in control of, setting and defending our own boundaries, especially when the health and safety of ourselves, our families, our community, and the world are ultimately at risk.
Cynthia F. Kenny, MA, LPCC-S, CCTP, is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and a Certified Clinical Trauma Professional at The Willow Center.