QUESTION: I've let go of some unhealthy relationships during the pandemic. How do I protect these boundaries as we go back into the world?
DR. JESS: First, ask yourself why you set these limits in the first place. As we slip back into some level of normalcy, people may want to reenter your life, but if you're remembering the "why" behind that distance, it can help you to know how to engage with this person.
For example, if you know this person is toxic and they drain your energy by the time you're finished spending time with them, practice setting a time limit for yourself. Choose to spend only 30 minutes with that person or choose an activity that's time limited so you can honor the boundaries that you set.
Let's say there's a different person that borrows things and doesn't return them, and now that we're returning to some level of normalcy, you've noticed they're starting the habit again. It might be worth having a discussion around how important it is for you to get those belongings back. That can be a way to help with the boundary. While these conversations can be difficult and stressful, sometimes people don't know that they are infringing on your boundaries.
Try to have these conversations at times when you're not feeling emotionally charged, angry, or frustrated by the experience. Both parties should be relaxed, but you don't want to catch the person off-guard either.
You should give the person a heads-up that there's something you do want to talk about. Don't give weight to it, but mention there's something that you've been thinking about that you'd like to share or talk about. I think if you're posing it in that way, it can also help them to anticipate that there will be a conversation.
For example: "I've been thinking about some of our interactions recently, and I just want to talk about my experience and how we can adjust moving forward." If you're still uncomfortable, you can also consider practicing, or role-playing, what you'll say with other people first.
You'll want to anticipate that they might get upset. That is OK too because the goal when setting firm boundaries is that you are protecting yourself, but you're also teaching people about the way that they should interact with you. And so, they may not be happy. I know it can be a scary feeling to think about, but the alternative is that you continue to be mistreated or misused. So take those steps, as it can be harmful for you to continue doing things that are outside of your limits.
Lastly, like the old adage, some friends are with us for a season, so it's OK if you've discovered during the pandemic that some relationships are better left in the past. This time has given you space to reflect on who and what is important in your life. You've also had time to reflect on the types of relationships you want to maintain or foster. And you've also uncovered those that may no longer serve you. For example, maybe you have a group of friends who you would go to parties and drink heavily with. Maybe that is behavior you don't want to go back to. Or, you have a friend riddled with relationship drama and find that the constant back and forth your friend undergoes places unnecessary strain on your own ability to find love. It may be time to cut ties.
Since no one likes to be ghosted, consider having an open conversation with your friend you are splitting from. Try to speak from the change you have made during the pandemic and why it is important for you to maintain that change. You might learn that your friend, who you partied with, is also turning a new leaf and has started on a wellness journey just like you. That relationship may not need to end, but can move to a new one. Instead of cocktails and late nights, you may meet for yoga and lunch.
Like with any break up, creating the distance, following the discussion, may also help. Be firm and gentle about your reason for taking time apart. You also may find that your friend, with boundaries in place, may come to discover their relationship drama may be best shared in therapy.
No matter what, breaking up with friends is hard - but it is also a part of life. Be confident in your self-discovery and make room for grieving those relationships you've left behind. Self-care is the best care.