The Most Important Lessons On Setting Healthy Boundaries You'll Need During The Pandemic, And For The Rest Of Your Life
Surprised at how hard it is to say "no" at the expense of your well-being? It's time to fix that
When someone comes to us with an explosive rant after a long day about how their off-duty, super important me-time was interrupted by incessant messaging from a boss/workmate/teacher/family member, what do we say?
More often than not, we tell them, "Just stop replying already!" It's either that, or we advice them on how to politely end the conversation or in more extreme cases, we simply ignore whatever request they're asking of you and deal with it the next workday.
The next question we have for you is, would you honestly follow your own advice if it were you experiencing the same?
Yup, we thought so.
No matter how we choose to deal with this situation, it's always leaves us stressed out and bothered. Being able to set clear and reasonable boundaries to protect yourself from burnout and fatigue sounds like a lovely idea—and ideally, it should be the norm—but we can all agree that it's become rather difficult to do so. With the pandemic changing the way we relate to each other in virtual spaces, create daily schedules, make sense of working and living at home 24/7, and draw lines between leisure and responsibility, setting boundaries is a gray area that all of us need help with.
To help us kickstart the process of setting healthy boundaries, we turned to Ms. Remedios Moog, De La Salle University's university counselor and national secretary of the Philippine Guidance and Counseling Association, Inc., the accredited and integrated professional organization of the Professional Regulation Commission (PRC).
She provides advice on setting boundaries for different groups most affected by our new normal—working people, students, parents, front liners, and then for everyone, in general.
Advice for professionals/individuals that are now on a full-time work from home setup
The biggest downside to becoming indefinite work-from-home employees (or employers) and business owners is that we have zero experience in making sure that in a day, we know when work starts and stops, and when me-time officially begins. For so many, it's just a mess of combining the two together with no clear boundaries, and the result is constant tiredness and misguided, unproductive multi-tasking.
Ms. Moog has two pieces of advice that can help address this.
1. First, you set your own rules, if possible. This applies whether you're part of a work team or you're a boss and it means properly disseminating a formal message that states when your work hours are and when (and how) they can reach you at this time. Send it via email blast to all the parties concerned, or send it your group chat—or both. Make it an official announcement and not just a casual reminder, so it's clear that these are boundaries of yours that have to be respected. (You can include a clause that you are still reachable for emergencies and for "right now" matters, but otherwise, you're abiding by your rules).
2. Secondly, it helps to turn things into a ritual when you're done with work for the day and when it's time to shift gears so you can unwind. Ms. Moog says, "The 'pocket card' about caring for yourself in the face of difficult work for the current COVID-19 health crisis developed by Dr. Beth Hudnall Stamm is a helpful tool to correct the habit."
She adds that the card helps you to:
- "Make this a conscious process, talk to yourself as you switch
- Use images that make you feel safe and protected (work-mode) or connected and cared for (non-work mode) to help you switch
- Develop rituals that help you switch as you start and stop work
- Breathe slowly and deeply to calm yourself when starting a tough [task]."
Advice for students
Students are also not having a great time learning virtually. Not only does online school mean they're missing out on valuable time investing in friendships and experiencing their youth, they're also forced to stare at a screen for an unnatural length of time, day in and day out, and remain productive and engaged. Ms. Moog's advice can be followed by students themselves, or be heeded by parents who want to give their kids a break from time to time.
They can learn the difference between managing time vs. managing energy. (Adults can learn from this, too!). "Students have the same 24 hours a day, however not every student has the same energy to perform tasks. Managing energy is the best way to get more done faster and better," she explains. The issue is setting boundaries with themselves.
The difference between the two is that time management is traditionally understood to be doing more in a shorter amount of time. This adds unnecessary pressure and working under this mindset can drain the fun in things (time-conscious students might want to get a task over with ASAP with no regard to how much they learn or immerse themselves in an activity). If you do this all the time, burnout is almost a sure turnout.
On the other hand, there's energy management that's essentially being mindful of your mental, emotional, and even physical limits, and then acting accordingly when they've been reached. The goal is not to keep pushing these limits; students that do this might finish homework faster, but they crash harder and need much longer recovery times when they decide they're too pooped to do anything more. An energy efficient student knows when it's time to take a break, reward themselves, or keep going—a practice that aids in building academic stamina.
Think of it as a marathon; you want to keep going at a steady pace and have a drink or energy bar to keep your energy till the finish line. You don't want to break out into an intense run from the beginning, because there's no way you can sustain this.
Advice for parents who are pulling double, even triple, duties these days
How the pandemic has affected parents working at home, caring for children, and tending to the household needs no further explanation. It's a tough spot to be in, because parents can't get away from these responsibilities, often at the expense of me-time.
Hence, the central piece of advice Ms. Moog gives to moms, dads, and other primary caretakers is to treat me-time as if it were as important as all the other non-negotiable responsibilities—because it is! Self-care is a legitimate priority. If it's not met, all the other priorities (you know, the ones you believe take precedence over self-care), will suffer because you'll be too fatigued, cranky, or unfocused—or all of the above—to get them done.
"Creating balance is important. Balance means making sure to have time to do the things that make everyone happy and fulfilled. Thus, 'me-time', as part of self-care activities, is essential," she states.
She also introduces the concept of mental load, a.k.a. cognitive labor. Even though you might have never heard about it before, for sure, you've probably had at least one experience relating to it before. Mental load is closely related to the burden of managing household tasks; in a family, one person might carry the heaviest load because they're in charge of overseeing the smooth and overall functioning of everything that happens at home. Moms often disproportionately carry the most mental load, but dads, or any head of the household, can, too. If a family has gotten used to just one person carrying most, if not all, of the mental load, it can be challenging for this load-bearer to reset boundaries.
"Conversation is significant and the manner in which the women [or men] discuss this with men [or women] matters a lot. Using 'I' statements in the conversation will help the other understand where the person is coming from," Ms. Moog points out.
"Responsibilities in the home must be communicated and evenly distributed especially in this time of pandemic, wherein most of the couples are working from home with their children having their online classes at home as well. If this will not be discussed it may cause burnout to the one who carries it all," she adds.
The whole world is changing because of the COVID crisis so perhaps we can take the time to change the way our homes/families operate, too. Now is an opportune time to have these conversations that "normal" pre-COVID life might not have had room for.
Advice for front liners, the world's heroes
Being a front liner and setting boundaries might appear like two things that can never exist together, but they can. And more importantly, they should. Medical and non-medical front liners are basically the people running the planet these days, so all the more that they should know when they've served others enough for the day, and when it's time to serve themselves.
Ms. Moog offers practical tips for front liners here:
1. Focus on what you can control. We realize that the expectation to "perform" as a front liner is at an all-time high and it can be easy to be disappointed in one's self if things don't go as planned. This is not helpful, nor is it healthy. Front liners are heroes, yes, but they are human heroes, which means they do not have the power to control the course of events. Tragedies still strike and mistakes are still made, and we (not just front liners) have to accept that. We do our best at all times, but we also acknowledge that our best does not account for all that that happens around us.
2. Pat yourself on the back for things you did well. Setting boundaries and self-care are usually thought of as completely detaching from work, but that's not always the case. We can disconnect from responsibilities when our shift ends, but we can celebrate what we did well during the day any time we want to. In fact, front liners especially should focus on the good stuff that transpires at work. It can help keep them motivated and inspired, especially on extra stressful days.
3. We know the basics of self-care: sleep well, eat well, exercise whenever you can. Ms. Moog has things to add to that list. She says front liners can also, "vary the work that you do, do something pleasurable, focus on what you did well, learn from your mistakes, share a private joke, pray, meditate or relax, and support a colleague."
4. There's also a little something called a self-compassion check that can be very helpful if and when you ever feel pressured to do more, despite already stretching yourself to breaking point. Ms. Moog explains that it's comprised of three statements to quietly recite to ourselves whenever we need reminding:
- "This is the moment of suffering" (to acknowledge and validate your feelings of discomfort, rather than pushing them away and minimizing them).
- "Suffering is part of living" (to understand that you're not isolated in your experience, and that many people around you share this "common humanity")
- "May I be kind to myself" (to be a safe, caring, and regenerative space for yourself)
Take these tips to heart and share them with your friends, family and colleagues who you know need them the most!
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