This is the word that’s being used to describe the situation the world finds itself in: sheltering in place and social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. As much as I cringe every time I open up an email and read the phrase “unprecedented time,” I have to admit that the word fits well. We never could have anticipated that the first half of 2020 would bring such a deadly disease and turn our lives upside down.
One of the most challenging facets of the impact of COVID-19 is navigating the different approaches individuals are taking when it comes to social distancing, especially as governmental policies change and develop. Not only have I been working with my psychotherapy clients to help them navigate their struggles with family and friends who are interpreting what it means to social distance differently, but I have also been fielding questions from friends about this same topic. Often, friends and clients express concern that people they love aren’t taking social distancing guidelines seriously enough. I’ve heard from concerned clients whose parents are making trips to the grocery store and stores like Target multiple times a week. I’ve heard from friends who worry that their other friends or roommates aren’t following the recommendations for hand washing and other sanitizing practices. Everyone seems to have their own interpretation of what it means to practice social distancing, and when multiple interpretations are under the same roof, this can be very distressing.
A recent trip to the grocery store perfectly illustrated the different approaches my neighbors are taking towards social distancing. As I waited in line, some of us were wearing masks while others weren’t. One woman put her mask on just before entering the store. Some of us were maintaining a distance of six feet or more between each other while others were standing only four feet apart. One older woman turned around and asked the man behind her to step back a few more feet. A man behind me sneezed and wasn’t wearing a mask, and I found myself involuntarily flinching at the sound of his sneeze. Once inside the grocery store, it was much harder to maintain distance from one another, even with the reduced number of people in the store. Most people were friendly, but a few of them shot dirty glances at others when they got “too close.”
Because COVID-19 has such a powerful impact on so many of us, discussing social distancing differences can be an emotionally charged topic. Like religion and politics, this topic has the potential to hit a nerve and end in an argument if brought up in a confrontational manner. There’s no doubt that this is a tough topic to navigate, especially when it involves loved ones. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you find yourself struggling with differing approaches to social distancing with your loved ones.
First, look inward
When you find yourself gritting your teeth as your friend tells you that she ran to the grocery store to pick up a few ingredients for a cake she’s making while you firmly believe that grocery store trips should only be made on an infrequent basis and once your pantry is practically bare, pause for a moment of self-reflection before you confront her about your concerns. Oftentimes, we lash out at others because of our own anxieties or insecurities. Ask yourself why your friend’s behavior bothers you so much. Remember that we are all coping with the stress of COVID-19 in different ways and how we behave and interpret others’ behaviors are reflections of our own experience. Perhaps your way of coping with the stress of the pandemic is to follow all of the health guidelines to the letter, and your friend’s behavior reactivates your own worries about the spread of the virus. Addressing your own worries or stress first is key to preventing it from getting in the way of having a productive conversation with a friend about her choices. Discussing your different views using empathy will be much more productive than if you are both speaking from a place of your own fears.
When it feels like our lives are out of our control, we often feel very overwhelmed and uncomfortable, and we search for ways to regain a sense of control. With COVID-19, so much seems beyond our control from the stories of suffering, supply shortages, and significant lifestyle changes. For example, it can be incredibly draining to hear the stories of overcrowded hospitals and dwindling supplies, and while it’s impossible for you to single-handedly cure everyone and provide all hospitals with more than enough ventilators, it’s much easier to lash out at a friend for not following your interpretation of what it means to social distance.
We often project and redirect what’s bothering us onto other more “manageable” scenarios. In other words, focusing on “fixing” a friend’s behavior is much easier than “fixing” the pandemic as a whole. Be honest with yourself, and if you are projecting your own feelings of a lack of control onto your friend, try to work through your own experience before having a conversation with her about hers.
Whether you agree with someone or not about their social distancing approach, it’s important to treat one another with respect. I’ve noticed that many social media influencers have started preemptively clarifying that they are following social distancing guidelines in an attempt to cut down on accusatory comments. I’ve also noticed that the accusatory comments come anyway, whether about mask wearing, glove wearing, or other social distancing habits. What’s lost in these exchanges is mutual respect. While we may not agree with one another, we can at least respect one another. Respect doesn’t mean approval—but it keeps us from falling into labeling someone as “good” or “bad” based on whether or not they interpret social distancing in our preferred way or not.
Above all, empathy
If you do choose to bring up your concerns to your friend, starting the conversation from a place of empathy is crucial. Empathy is seeking to understand the other person’s perspective, experience, and emotions, even if you don’t agree with them. Coming from a place of empathy helps the conversation to go deeper and to be more meaningful than coming from a place of confrontation or trying to convince the other person. Even if you continue to interpret social distancing differently, being able to understand the other’s perspective goes a long way in maintaining a relationship despite these differences.
Communicate boundaries clearly
If you do come to the conclusion that your friend’s behavior would compromise your health or the health of your loved ones, communicate any boundaries you need to set in a clear way. For example, let’s say that, every time your friend mentions she is headed over to another friend’s house despite a shelter-in-place in effect in your state, the two of you get into a heated debate, you might set a boundary with her that sounds something like, “I am really glad we get to stay in touch even though we can’t see each other, but I get really overwhelmed when we disagree about what it means to shelter in place. I’d like for us to stay away from that topic from now on.” When stating the boundary you’d like to set, communicate how you are being impacted on an emotional level and state the consequence (i.e. what needs to happen) in order for you to not open up an emotional situation again. Your friend will most likely respond with understanding, especially if your friendship is built on mutual respect.