Plus, how to handle disagreements if they become emotional.

Jul 08, 2020 @ 3:27 pm
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As states across the country begin to open up, some people are using the opportunity to reconnect with friends they haven't seen in months. But given that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is still at large and no vaccine is available, it's important to continue to set social distancing boundaries with others to keep everyone healthy and safe. Unfortunately, while some people are respecting their loved ones' requests, others are not, leading to arguments erupting between friends and family.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly, there are a few reasons why some people are having a hard time with the CDC's social distancing rules. For one, they're angry and confused over the lack of consistency and reliable requirements regarding social distancing. For another, some people find the rules to be an infringement on their personal rights. So when you display an opposite view on the situation to these individuals, it can "result in a sense of polarization that is often highly toxic as it can create a judgmental dynamic of 'I am right and you are wrong,'" Dr. Manly says. And when push comes to shove, emotions can run high and arguments can ensue.

So how can you set social distancing boundaries with friends without getting into a full heated augment? We connected with a few psychologists to find out how to communicate and stand your ground.

Determine your boundaries beforehand

Before you make plans to hang out with your friends, decide what your own social distancing boundaries are so you're 100% aware of what you want and don't want to allow. "We’re all learning how to navigate these circumstances, and we all have different models of how much or little we abide by social distancing guidelines," says psychologist Dr. Sheryl Ziegler.

When you're aware of your own wants and needs, you'll be less inclined to get into arguments or feel pressured to do something you're not comfortable doing. "This increased level of awareness can be used in a non-judgmental—yet protective—manner as the country begins to open up," adds Dr. Manly.

Talk about your needs over the phone

While it can be difficult to spend time with friends who have different perspectives, it doesn't mean you can't try to make things work. According to Dr. Ziegler, it can be helpful to make plans over the phone to prevent misunderstandings from happening when you meet in-person. "During these conversations, clearly explain your perspective in a compassionate way," she advises. "Clearly communicating our views is the best thing we can do to ensure everyone’s on the same page when establishing ground rules." 

Adds Dr, Manly, "By telling others openly and honestly what your needs, expectations, and boundaries are beforehand, you’ve done all that you can to set the stage for success."

One way to do this, Dr. Ziegler suggests, "is by demonstrating empathy and compassion rather than arguing or blaming your friends... We all have varying comfort levels, but even when we disagree, we need to lead with compassion and support each other." 

Focus on your comfort level, not their behavior

When your friends have different perspectives than you do, it can be hard to find common ground. But rather than explaining how their actions will affect your health and wellness, try to just focus on why you don't want to engage in certain activities during the pandemic.

"During these moments, you could say something along the lines of, 'I’m worried I could be a carrier and I don’t want to expose you or your family,'" suggests Dr. Ziegler. "By saying this, you assume responsibility and won’t make other people feel defensive."

Don't compare yourself to others

It can be easy to question your values and needs when you feel like everyone else is doing things you wouldn't do. But remember that just because other people have different perspectives on how things should unfold during the pandemic doesn't mean your boundaries are wrong.

"This is an entirely new environment, which can be very stressful," Dr. Ziegler says. "It’s natural to question your perspective when others are going back to 'normal' while you’re continuing to practice social distancing. We’re all taking guidance and advice from our trusted sources, and when friends have a different approach, they likely feel validated by their sources."

At the end of the day, you're the only one who can determine the best approach for how you want to live through this pandemic—no one else. And it's important to have self-compassion during such a challenging moment in time. "Strive to not compare your needs and boundaries to others’ standards," Dr. Ziegler says.

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Stand your ground and don't give into pressure

It can be frustrating when a friend doesn't agree with your point of view, but that doesn't mean you should shame or force them to listen to you. What you should do is focus on what you can control, rather than what you can't, especially when you're hanging out in-person. "You can set boundaries by standing six feet apart and reiterating that you’ve determined your comfort level with all of the information available," advises Dr. Ziegler. "You can explain that you understand everyone’s making different choices and has a different position on the issue, but this is where you stand."

Even if you've addressed your boundaries with your friends, it's possible they might still pressure you into doing things you might not feel comfortable with. "It’s often difficult to stand one’s ground when people exert psychological pressure, particularly when we feel as if we are disappointing loved ones," says Dr. Manly.

If you feel pressured, remember that you don't have to do anything you don't feel comfortable doing, period. "If other people try to inflame you or engage in toxic behaviors, simply stay your course with self-awareness knowing that you are doing what is best for you," adds Dr. Manly.

And when others try to manipulate you in social outings, think about responding with a short, consistent message: “No. Please respect my boundaries.” Notes Dr. Manly, "When a simple statement such as this is unyieldingly repeated, even the most persistent people ultimately get the message."

Walk away when things get volatile

When life and death are on the line, it's normal for people to become highly reactive because they're scared, worried, or defensive—especially when discussing boundaries. If emotions get high during a conversation, Dr. Manly suggests to pause, self-reflect, turn into your own needs, and recalibrate.

"The more we practice emotional regulation, positive communication skills, healthy self-awareness, and good self-care, the less likely we are to be thrown off course by people who are volatile and aggressive," she explains.

But if things do get out of hand, the "best (and safest) route is to walk away without saying a word," Dr. Manly says. "When we choose not to feed negativity, peace will eventually grow in that space."

Take a time-out if you feel uncomfortable 

If you begin to feel anxious while hanging out with your friends because the social distancing practices are not what you thought they were going to be, take a temporary time-out from socializing. The next time your friends ask you to hang, Dr. Manly suggests saying this: "I appreciate that you have a relaxed attitude with social distancing practices. I tend to be very cautious, so I’m going to opt-out of gatherings that don’t feel ultra-safe to me. Once all of this is behind us, I’ll be here to enjoy gatherings with you again. Until then, let’s stay connected virtually. You know how much I care about you, and I so appreciate your understanding.”

You might decide to adjust your standards a bit depending on how things feel, Dr. Manly adds, but remember—never do so "in a way that feels unsafe."