Let’s Make Personal Space

personal spaceA little while ago an amazing poem by a 6-year-old boy circulated on the internet. It is charming for its misspelled words and the last two lines convey this beautiful image, “We danst to the mozik/We made personal space” (spelling as in the original).

These lines so perfectly capture the idea of this small area of space around us that moves with us when we move and whose size depends on the situation we find ourselves in. This physical personal space is something we are unconsciously always aware of and we learn to sense and respect other people’s personal space as well. Its size and shape depends on individual needs, preferences and history as well as our cultural norms. How close can somebody physically get to us before we feel uncomfortable and want to move just a tad away from the person? Who can comfortably hug us and in what situations? Are we able to tolerate or even enjoy being in a tight crowd or do we tend to avoid them, such as I do? Many of us can relate to the experience of somebody who does not have the same sense of personal space and always stands just a bit too close to us when talking. And on the other end of the personal space spectrum can be the longing for a human touch, something I know people can feel acutely, especially when they perhaps live alone or are older and are not being touched unless for medical reasons.

But personal space is not just a physical thing. It also applies to our thoughts and emotions. Strangely, I do not often read or hear people reflect on this. There is an etiquette when it comes to physical personal space, we also know that there can be cultural differences with regard to this and ideally we try to be aware of these differences and attempt to respond to them. “Mind space,” as I would like to call the inner personal space, is less often conceptualized. I wonder if you can relate to these moments when you are riding on a bus, train or plane and are either reading or just thinking and the stranger next to you insists on starting a conversation. That can be a perfectly fine situation and you may enjoy speaking with this person, but for an introvert like me who treasures moments when I can just “be” and do not have to interact it can feel quite challenging. I just read an article about armrests on an airplane and who should be allowed to use which armrest. But I have so far not come across a similar description of etiquette when it comes to mind space on a plane. Should somebody back off of a conversation after the second or third monosyllabic response? Is the appropriate signal to stare out the window or open a book, put in earphones? I have found myself at times directly explaining to people that I was not in the mood for a conversation. Some seat neighbors gave me a friendly smile and understanding nod while others looked either hurt or angry and some just kept on talking. One actually chatted on about how she also liked to be quiet—for twenty minutes. This response at least made for a funny story and I also know that for some people talking is a way to distract themselves from anxiety. If somebody would tell me that they have a fear of flying, e.g. and it helps them to chat during take-off and landing, I would happily comply. They would do me the favor of making me feel good about myself for helping them rather than being guilt tripped for not wanting to be social. Yes, I guess I do have a helper complex, not so unusual for a therapist…

Getting into somebody’s mind space is not just a matter of trying to engage them in a conversation against their wish or making them listen without reciprocating—after all listening is an act of generosity. It also happens when somebody tries to change your opinion even though you indicate that you are not interested in a discussion of the matter. Another mind space invasion is trying to get somebody to share information they do not want to share. And the mind space violation I personally probably dislike the most is if somebody tries to get me to agree with them on something I do not agree with. How often do we hear people make disparaging remarks about other people or groups of people and they expect us to either openly agree with them or at least nod in agreement. They want us to be an accomplice in their negativity or outright discrimination. This can feel like more than just a disrespectful act toward our mind space but actually an attempt at a hostile take-over.

In therapy this personal mind space whose integrity we want to maintain is an important thing to be aware of. It may be a reason why we are hesitant to even begin therapy. As a therapist I balance the request for input by my clients with the respect I have for the privacy and worth of their inner life. Successful therapy does not mean that you have to give up your very own individual sense of what you can share with another person. Ideally, a therapeutic relationship will develop with a therapist who is well attuned to your process of growth and opening up. In such a situation you will feel comfortable over time to discuss the questions you have at your own pace. That does not mean that it will always feel easy to speak about and process these matters, but you will feel respected and appreciated. And there will also be things you may never want to and have to openly address but where you will naturally find your own answers and solutions as you continue to grow and move toward your preferred life.

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