I recently found myself at a smoothie place in circumstances that were less than ideal and in violation of recommended health and social distancing practices. I imagine there are others who have also found themselves in less-than-ideal social situations during this coronavirus era and faced a dilemma—what to do. Ultimately, I framed the situation in terms of boundaries, and it inspired me to write a few lines on asserting your boundaries in the untraversed context of a pandemic. Hopefully, my experience will be validating to some of you, and the few tips I bullet in the latter half of the post will be helpful with affirming and asserting your boundaries.
At the smoothie place, I was waiting in line with about four other people, and I noticed that the two people making smoothies nearby were wearing masks as chin guards and talking to each other while they worked. I immediately thought of bodily-fluid particulates being expelled into the air and possibly landing on/getting transferred to my cup. This possibility was not alarming to me, but it was disquieting. Although I considered asking the employees to wear their masks, I decided not to because I felt uncomfortable making the request and didn’t want to be “difficult;” I told myself my smoothie would probably be fine and not contaminated. (It turned out there was a mistake on my credit card account and I needed to leave without a smoothie since I didn’t have cash on hand.)
I later reflected on the situation and my choice not to request that they wear their masks. I would characterize myself as assertive, so what got in the way? Let’s break down what contributed to my reaction and lack of assertiveness to elucidate common factors that influence us and can make being assertive more challenging. When we are aware, we can be more intentional, and it’s easier to develop strategies to overcome specific hurdles.
One of the most significant factors that interfered with asserting myself was uncertainty of the degree of risk in the situation. Was my concern of contracting the virus ridiculous? If I knew there was an absolute, appreciable risk in the situation, it would have been much easier for me to speak up. Knowing there’s much we don’t know about coronavirus, the lack of experience with pandemics, and the changing information about what are and aren’t recommended safety practices contribute to uncertainty. Uncertainty can pose challenges with decision making. Second, everyone else in line was having their smoothies made by the same people and they didn’t say anything. Not to mention, one of the people making smoothies was the manager, so it seemed this was the restaurant’s standard; everyone else seemed “totally cool” with the setup. Was I the only person who was uncomfortable with it? I fell prey to the natural human bias to conform. Lastly, I questioned if I was appraising the situation logically in the moment; I wasn’t sure if my reaction of being concerned about the nearby non-maskers was coming from irrational worry or was legitimate. When we’re already concerned about something, such as contracting or spreading coronavirus, it can skew how we process information, and we might question if our reaction is appropriate and objective—further complicating decision making. Add these together (along with being ravenous) and I balked. These factors—risk uncertainty, wanting to go along to get along, and questioning our reaction—can make determining our boundaries on-the-spot and the decisions we make more challenging. It can be easy to question yourself and not speak up.
But that smoothie and cup were coming into contact with my body (or would have). That’s a significant boundary. Regardless of the reasons, I didn’t protect my boundary. Reframing the situation in terms of my boundaries helped to provide clarity. I’ve often said to clients, “If you don’t protect your boundaries, no one else is going to do it for you;” the same goes for me. Even writing this post, I have the urge to justify my boundary: stating that people are supposed to wear masks, providing scientific data regarding transmission in closed areas, etc. However, I don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why my boundaries are what they are. Neither do you. Someone else approving of your boundaries is not necessary, but someone else respecting them is necessary. Respecting your boundaries can only happen when you make choices to assert them, whether it’s asking someone to pull up their mask, choosing to walk away because there are more people in an area than you’re okay with, not going to a large dinner party, etc. It’s your responsibility to assert your boundaries. Some people might disagree with your boundaries, and that’s okay.
This brings us to how to assert your boundaries in the midst of the pandemic. At minimum, I implore for your boundaries to be consistent with current recommendations by authorities (they might not be perfect, but they are the best we have available). The following are a few strategies to help manage your boundaries in the era of COVID-19:
Remember that you do not owe anyone an explanation to justify your boundaries; a simple “I’m not comfortable with x” is an adequate reason. If someone is pushy or challenges you, you can politely remind them that this is what is comfortable for you, and it’s okay if that’s different from what’s comfortable for them.