By Erin Brandel Dykhuizen
This year, I got into an awkward situation that taught me something about myself. It started when I contacted a breeder about wanting to adopt a kitten (which needed to be hypoallergenic for my daughter). There was a long wait for the kitten, and each time I inquired about the status of the kitten, the breeder told me a bit more about her health problems. Having never met this person, I was uncomfortable hearing the details of her personal life. At the same time, I found myself inquiring about her health in the emails we exchanged with increasing frequency, since I worried that avoiding the topic would offend her. I found it surprisingly hard to stop myself from continuing to engage in interactions that I did not want to be having.
As we adapt back to the world of social interaction, we are increasingly finding our boundaries tested in similar ways. With working-from-home and a lack of child care at times collapsing the work and domestic spheres, we may feel unsure how to reestablish the divide—or how to reinvest in social relationships that have gathered dust or maintain the distance that the pandemic has finally allowed us to create with particular family members who for years made our lives difficult. Many of my clients have mentioned that they have at least some hesitation about not having the justification of a deadly pandemic to keep people at arm’s length. For some of us, the social distancing requirements have provided a convenient reason why we can’t, for example, hang out with that friend who often takes more than he gives, why overbearing family members are not welcome inside our homes, or why we can’t visit a relative out of state who has not been accepting of some aspect of our life or identity.
While it may be easy to judge ourselves as callous for erecting boundaries between ourselves and those who we find to “overshare” or otherwise irritate us, our misgivings can be worth engaging. Boundaries can get at far more than what we deem appropriate to disclose in a particular context — they are also about our own understanding of what is congruent with our values and needs, and how much emotional labor we undertake in our relationships.
Now that we are able to engage in more activities than before, it makes sense that we might be at a loss when we think of how to manage our boundaries with difficult people whom we have not recently come into close contact with. During this mandated pause, we may have also realized that the relationships that we took for granted were never as healthy as we once thought.
How are we to deal with this? First, acknowledge that you may be having feelings about the people that you are expecting to reconnect with, and begin to identify those feelings. This may be harder than it sounds. A lot of us go through life rather disconnected from our feelings.
There can be various reasons for this disconnection: you may have gotten the message that your feelings do not matter, so why bother. Or maybe you think it would be too disruptive to acknowledge difficult emotions — it can be inconvenient to confront unhappiness because that may lead us to think we need to do something about it, which at times feels impossible. It can feel easier to push our feelings away. However, when we disregard the signals that we’re in distress, we miss out on valuable information for our emotional health. Often, those feelings end up coming out in other, more destructive ways, such as road rage.
One way to begin to reconnect with your sense of boundaries is to pay attention to what you feel in your body when you think about a certain person or situation that tests them. You might notice a tightness in your chest or tension in your shoulders. Maybe you notice your jaw feeling tighter on one side than the other.
Whatever you find yourself feeling, consider what emotions you associate with this feeling in your body. It could be anxiety, sadness, fear, frustration, or even anger. Then it’s time to dig a little deeper: in which situations have you experienced this emotion with this person? Does how you responded fit with your values? What do you wish you would have done or said differently? How might that information help you in future interactions with others who test your boundaries?
As we enter this season of increased socializing, it is normal and healthy to reevaluate our relationships. It is also healthy to pay attention to your feelings in relationships and use them to guide you. If you have trouble identifying what your feelings are, you are not alone. It may take patience, practice and/or the help of a professional, but with time you can learn to tap into this vital source of information for leading a fulfilling life.
Erin Brandel Dykhuizen, MA, MSW, LICSW is a psychotherapist living and working in the West Seventh neighborhood. You can learn more about her work at www.erinbdlicsw.com.