The Boundary Paradox of COVID-19

By May 27, 2020September 14th, 2020Article

Redesigning our roles, rules, rituals and relations for this context

The COVID-19 crisis has challenged and shifted almost everything we are accustomed to and know about boundaries in our system.

Implicit boundaries which we took for granted have fallen away and others, that weren’t there, that we took equally for granted, have been imposed overnight, some in a draconian fashion, implementing constraints and ripping away our rights to freedom of movement in ways we could never have imagined.

The necessary solutions governments have imposed to mitigate the health risks – ‘social distancing, ‘shutdowns’, ‘lock downs’, ‘self-isolation’ (I hate the language) – have also paradoxically become our problem and our challenge. These solutions are creating not only unprecedented obvious economic fallout, but also an adaptive challenge of boundary management for all of us.

The Simultaneous Imposition and Collapse of Boundaries.

As we moved out of the first few weeks of chaos and reactive panic – the shock and the adrenalin rush of shoring up supplies and scrambling to put in place the digital infrastructures we need – we were then faced with the reality of our adaptive challenge; managing ourselves and our systems in and through this new complex reality on an extended basis.

Observing from the balcony, it seems to me that as a system we are now ‘trapped’ in this paradox – the ‘lock down’ restrictions limiting and confining us within the boundary of our homes, but simultaneously generating the blurring of and collapse of boundaries, inside them.

We can look at this boundary blurring and collapse through multiples lenses – boundaries of time, location, space, systems and roles – and how each of these are intricately linked in a dynamic interplay informing and being informed by each other. Where there were once clear demarcations, life has become even messier and more complex than it was before. I will focus on the Work/Home/School boundary collapse here, but there are multiple other contexts to be explored.

Location and Space Boundaries

Until now most of us left the house to go to work, and children left home to go to school. These shifts in location served as system demarcations. Home, work and school were interconnected but distinctive. Now the office and the classroom are within the boundary of our homes physically and our family contexts systemically. Within our constantly populated homes, space is a commodity filled with ‘unusual’ activity. Dining room tables are serving a new purpose of being office or school desks; Bedrooms, sometimes the only quiet space in the house have become ‘meeting rooms’; work colleagues are getting to peek into our private personal spaces, meet our pets and family.

‘Some of us at times used to push this boundary, and bring work home, but we were largely ‘stretching’ it versus ‘removing’ it’

Even for some of us who have been working from home fully or partially for years and may have developed some muscle and knowledge for how to manage it, we have not had to do it with the inclusion of partners and/or children at home all the time as well. There is no precedent for any of us.

Time, Routine and Ritual Boundaries

With the loss of physical, re-location and movement boundaries, many routines and rituals which accompanied these, have dissolved and along with this, time boundaries have also disappeared. Many of us are now ‘coupled’ to our screens in endless Zoom calls with no breaks in-between, losing track of time – what date or day it is, or even time of day. Without clear demarcations of beginnings and endings to the work or school day – sometimes having meetings in bed or still in pyjama bottoms – this disruption of routines, rituals and time structures (helpful markers) mean our work and home systems are blending and our role boundaries blurring.

System and Role Boundaries

We all take up multiple roles in multiple subsystems through our day. Navigating the boundaries and transitions between these roles is important. Knowing which roles and subsystems we are in and being fully present to them is beneficial. The rituals of morning and evening routines, getting dressed, making school lunches, leaving the house, travelling to and returning from work, differentiate our contexts, systems and roles and facilitate and enable these necessary role transitions. They help us shift from our roles as parents and partners, into our professional roles and back again. We have lost these punctuations and their enabling ‘systemic separations’. We are in now in parent, teacher, carer and professional roles simultaneously which is trickier and much more demanding to navigate. This is being compounded by overload in our professional systems.

Inclusion – in and out – Boundaries

As we try to navigate the new territory of how to interact successfully on a professional level without the accustomed physical proximity, we feel dis-located from colleagues and our response is often to over communicate, to have more meetings, more check-ins, and include more people. Faced with an endless flood of invitations we don’t yet know what to say no to, or in some instances how to say no and draw this boundary. With the compensating ‘more’ solution we run linked assumptions, that if we don’t attend, we’re missing out or being impolite and unresponsive; if we don’t over-communicate we might be seen to be excluding and uncaring. So, in our enforced separation, many of us are now (paradoxically) reeling from over-connection and overload. For those who are most fearful and insecure financially this is amplified. In the context of a looming economic recession and thousands being laid off (sometimes family members) many would assume that saying ‘no’ and setting some limits would be a risk and that being more flexible and available – ‘always on’ – would ensure their being ‘seen’ and remaining valuable.

‘This connection overload is becoming a problem, leading to exhaustion and feelings of overwhelm, which may in turn lead to burnout and mental health issues’

To avoid this and maintain our personal and system health we in fact need new boundaries established – different roles, ‘rules’, rituals and relations – and strong boundary management.

The understanding of boundaries (enabling and limiting constraints) in social systems is a very rich and complex topic needing much more unpacking than I can give it here. However, the simple principle is that healthy (in the main porous and elastic) boundaries are necessary to enable our systems to function in coherence and be in flow. They are protective and create a safety net or container for individuals and systems to operate in. They are also an essential form of self-care and care for others as Brené Brown explains “generosity cannot exist without setting boundaries.”

‘Boundary maintenance is system maintenance and boundaries are essential for system health’

There are no simple quick ‘fixes’ and one-size-fits all solutions for living with the new COVID-19 boundary paradox, but it is one which we will all have to be aware of, learn our way into and design our way through both, personally and systemically.

There are some small moves (experiments) we can try – symbolic gestures and new rituals we can put in place to re-establish boundaries in our homes: we can dress for work in the morning, open the door, go outside, walk around the block; we can structure 15-minute breaks between meetings; develop a family agenda for the day and delineate clear roles and ‘rules of engagement’ for how our family systems will function; close the laptop at 5pm and put it out of sight with ‘out of office’ on; go to sleep and wake at the same time each day in regular sleep routines.

To avoid being in chaos and be more able to be in the ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity we are faced with, one of the most important symbolic boundary moves we can make is to step out of the reactive – the dance of doing – up onto the balcony and observe. To look at and be aware of, instead of fused with, our feelings, sense-making and responding.

‘We need to see ourselves in system – how we are navigating our roles, dropping boundaries or ‘implanting’ them for ourselves and others’

One of the gifts this time offers us is to develop this systemic sense-making and boundary management capability. To learn to see how we individually and collectively are managing boundaries in and across our multiple roles and systems, and get better at putting these in place and contracting for them with others.

We can design our way into new boundary conditions for this time AND use this time to learn our way into healthy boundary management. Adaptively developing this muscle for our own growth and for sustainable system health, is an imperative.