Love and Boundaries: Coping With the Holidays

The holidays are upon us, which usually means family and friends.

Either way, in the current state of the world you’re bound to have someone in your life who is just not taking the virus (and the precautions to slow the spread of it) seriously. And while you might feel like you have to avoid them or cut them out of your life until the pandemic is over, there are a few things you can try before resorting to more extreme measures.

Since this is a problem all too many of us (myself included) are dealing with, I was recently asked by the Virginia Psychological Association to give advice on how to manage this stressful dynamic. What should you do, when people around you are not taking the virus seriously? Please also see my article on cognitive dissonance which discusses why it’s hard for many people to change their mind. 

Set boundaries.
Remember that setting boundaries is essential for your mental and physical well-being. You can set boundaries around everything from what you will talk about and engage with, to what you are willing to physically do with someone who is not taking things seriously. Setting a boundary with family members and loved ones may feel uncomfortable at first but it is a healthy way to let others know what they can expect from you. When you let friends and family members know your expectations, it’s likely they will feel confused or even upset or angry at first. But it’s important to communicate your needs and expectations in a way that is respectful but firm.

If you don’t want to spend time around people who don’t wear masks in public, tell that person that you really value them in your life and want to spend time with them, but in order to continue doing that you either need them to wear a mask or you’ll only connect with them over Zoom or FaceTime call if they won’t. Or, if you live with family members who aren’t wearing masks in public, tell them you will keep your distance from them (to the extent you can) while you are both at home.

You can only control yourself, you can’t control others, so establishing those boundaries helps to protect your mental health and reduce your stress. You don’t have to take responsibility for educating family members on safety measures, and you can take that energy and time and use it for self-care activities such as exercise, breath work, meditation, sleep, walking outdoors.

Try to avoid getting angry or using critical language when you bring up concerns. I have one patient who has told me that when he sees people without a mask, he becomes enraged. He, and his parents, with whom he resides, have underlying vulnerable health issues, and the apparent selfishness of others not wearing a mask makes him incredibly angry. Unfortunately, people don’t listen to you when you’re angry. Leave out the criticism in your conversations.

In sum, it’s not your responsibility to educate your family members, friends, significant others, or roommates on safety measures. But if you do want to share information with them or discuss safety measures, you can do so in a way that communicates your concern without criticism.

When speaking with a loved family member about concerns such as COVID, it is always best to start from a place of love and support. Ask what you can do to help instead of criticize. When was the last time you felt like doing something someone asked if it was delivered in a tone that was condescending or negative?

It’s much better to say, may I buy you a cute mask, instead of: You’re going to die or kill someone, if you don’t wear a mask. I personally have several really pretty masks that have been made for me by clients who are talented, in addition to my regular PPE.

It’s also helpful to use “I” statements when communicating with friends and family, so they understand where you are coming from. For instance, saying – Hey, I am worried about your health, and so I don’t want to potentially expose you to the virus if I come over, or “Hey, I’d love to come to your baby shower or wedding, but I don’t want to take the risk that I might get you or someone else sick.

Remember, that some people are resistant to change. So know when it’s time to stop pushing them. It isn’t your job to preach to others about what they should be doing; you can only control what you are doing. With that in mind, if you still are not comfortable with how your family or friends are dealing with things, you can respectfully decline to spend time with them physically until things are better.

It IS your duty to protect yourself and your health and well-being. Let them know what you are and aren’t comfortable with, and if that’s a Zoom call instead of an in-person dinner party, tell them. If they really respect you and want to spend time with you, they will do what it takes to see you, even if it’s not IRL.
I’m heading to a zoom baby shower for my niece tomorrow, please be safe.

Happy Thanksgiving week.

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