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Touching Trends: Physical Contact Boundaries

By Beau Black 

It’s helpful to know when and how to draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not, and how to hold to it.

Setting healthy personal physical contact boundaries has taken on a whole new dimension in the age of COVID and the #MeToo movement. Although we know now that COVID rarely spreads through surfaces and physical contact, one of the first things to be suspended in its initial outbreak was physical touch. Some have maintained an embargo on touching for various reasons; some haven’t. But we’re all more aware now than we were in spring 2020 of others’ comfort zones and boundaries, and maybe that is a good thing. 

Similarly, the stories surrounding #MeToo culprits and accusers continue to flood the media four years (or more) after they began. They have made most of us more cautious about unwanted physical touch and provided a generally heightened awareness of others’ physical contact boundaries.  

The Wall Street Journal reports on one post-COVID manifestation of these emerging new norms, in the form of a physical version of a trigger warning (but in reverse). Colored bracelets or wristbands signify one’s comfort level with contact in the COVID era: green for hugs or handshakes welcome; yellow for, Let’s elbow-bump instead, and red for, Stay away! Like trigger warnings, they’re welcomed by some and met with skepticism by others.

Setting Healthy Boundaries

Setting Healthy Boundaries - The Meadows Outpatient Skepticism aside, setting healthy boundaries is a necessary life skill and important in various forms of therapy. There are several types of boundaries that can impact us negatively when overstepped — whether physical or sexual contact, work-related intrusions, or others’ behaviors — it’s helpful to know when and how to draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not, and how to hold to it.

Healthline.com suggests we think of boundaries as “invisible bubbles.” Licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) Jean Kennedy says, “Boundaries give a sense of agency over one’s physical space, body, and feelings. We all have limits, and boundaries communicate that line.” But rather than thinking of them as isolating, the report encourages boundaries to be seen as “connecting points” for how they provide healthy guidelines for navigating all kinds of relationships.

As for when to establish boundaries, VerywellMind.com offers the following as good indicators to know when it may be time:  

When you … 

  • Regularly resent others’ requests of you
  • Want to say no, but say yes only to avoid disappointing someone
  • Feel like you’re doing more for everyone else than they’re doing for you
  • Keep people at a distance so they don’t demand too much from you
  • Stress over disappointing other people

What to Expect with Boundaries

Boundaries give a sense of agency over one’s physical space, body, and feelings. We all have limits, and boundaries communicate that line.

Discerning what healthy boundaries are and when they should be established is just the beginning. Often, there’s a relational cost to imposing limitations on someone who doesn’t understand (or perhaps care about) your need to take care of yourself. Accordingly, it’s important to consider in advance what those costs may be, including damaging the relationship. “Often in the real world, boundary-setting involves some negotiation, and it doesn’t always go smoothly,” says Wellness Coach Elizabeth Scott. 

Some questions to consider when setting a boundary, according to VerywellMind.com, include:

  • What is reasonable in this situation?
  • If you were in the other person’s shoes, would this solution or boundary still seem fair?
  • Would a different solution be more of a win for both parties involved?
  • Will making this change/creating this boundary relieve stress or cause more of it long-term?

Tips to Ensuring Success

That last point about boundaries relieving stress, in the long run, is an important one. This is where understanding how to successfully establish boundaries is key. Here are some ways to help you accomplish this:   

  • Be clear

Firstly, make sure your boundaries are clear to all involved. “Vague boundaries don’t work,” says psychologist Nick Wignall. Be specific in terms of both input (what the other person does) and output (what you’ll do in response). Having specific, reasonable actions in mind (“Please don’t … “) and specific responses (“If you do, I will …”) is a good start. 

  • Protect your time and space

Healthline.com suggests cut-off times for responding to work communications in the evening or on weekends and not checking email while on vacation if possible. This may also mean pushing back against that oversharing friend or colleague who tries to suck us into their drama. 

  • It’s OK to say no

Don’t be afraid to say no firmly and without excuse. Can you help me with this project this weekend? All together now, “NO.”

  • Hold firm

It’s just as important to stick with your boundaries as it is to have them. “When you set boundaries but fail to enforce them, you teach people not to respect [them],” says Wignall.

Learning to set reasonable boundaries and hold to them is a valuable life skill, not just for our present, strange circumstances, but all the time. Setting them wisely can help ensure that we’re treated with respect by the people around us and that we respect ourselves in our relationships, careers, and families.

COVID-19 UPDATE