The importance of our personal space
There is an invisible space around each one of us which we call our personal space. It is that which separates us from other people. When we are well-regulated we feel safe and able to occupy that space and connect with other people should we choose to do so.
Sometimes other people invade our personal space intentionally or unintentionally. If we have experienced trauma we may be particularly sensitive to people getting too close. Here is a scenario:
You are a female talking to a male who beckons you to come closer so that he can explain something to you. You are in a small space and he is insistent that you pay attention to what he is saying. When you try to speak, he quietens you with a dismissive and passive aggressive tone. He tells you that he is right and you are wrong and you just need to be quiet. He is now far too close to you physically and you can feel your heart rate rising, your voice trembling and rising panic. You want to tell him to stop or to stand away but the space is so small you are unable to do so. You feel trapped. Finally he stops and moves away from you. You feel relieved that he has now left but are aware that you feel very dysregulated and upset.
It is important to acknowledge that this is just a vignette and could happen with many variations to it. The genders could be different, the relational dynamics could vary, there might be other people present, it could be at work, at home, in school to name just to name a few places.
What did you notice?
Some of the things to notice are the feelings of fear and wanting to escape. Also the dominance of one person over another. I would be curious as to whether the dominant person noticed their relational style or were unaware of it. I wonder too what might have happened if the other person had asked them to stop and made it known that they felt frightened.
If you are triggered how do you self-soothe?
As you reflect on this encounter I wonder how you might regulate yourself and what thoughts might go through your mind. Perhaps you are reminded of other times when you have been on the receiving end of aggressive behaviours. It may be that you have been triggered and find that you can't think straight and just want to be left alone.
It is crucial that we self-soothe by being kind and self-compassionate to ourselves and not add to our distress by being critical and saying things like 'well I am just overly sensitive.'
How close is too close?
It is important that we are able to choose what personal space feels safe for us and to be able to express this if we feel that people are getting too close. Sometimes we can step away and at other times it may be necessary to ask another person to move further back from us.
Therapy and personal space
In therapy, personal space is really important. As professionals we ensure that there is at least two meters between us and our clients. We want to be able to reflect on deep things but not to invade clients with our physical or emotional presence.
Emotional personal space
All humans also have emotional personal space. This is part of our internal self and world and contains all the things that we have experienced and the impact of those things on us. It is a private place and we will only share parts of it with people we trust. We may have consciously or unconsciously pushed these experiences away or down because the memories and feelings are too painful to acknowledge or perhaps because we believe that we need to 'be strong.'
Boundaries are important. If these have been violated we may think we don't have a right to establish them or know how to do it. We need to be able to say 'no' if we are being asked intrusive questions about things that we don't want to talk about or share. If the relationship is healthy your voice will be heard and respected.
Creating and allowing space
In therapy we create and allow space - there may be times of quiet which allow the other person to be in touch with themselves. In the space we are better able to reflect and think and notice what is happening in the here and now.
The therapist will remain fully present in this space and be careful about when to be quiet and when to offer their reflections. The therapist will check how you are and what you need in the here and now.
One question at a time
It is important to ask only one question at a time and to allow the other person time to think before they respond. Insisting on an immediate response or badgering them to hurry up or belittling them may lead to overwhelm and a sense of shame. It may also cause them to shut down because they fear that they may not be heard or may get the answer wrong.
Thinking about relationships
In your personal and professional relationships do you feel able to inhabit your personal physical and emotional space. If you are feeling dominated, invaded or unable to express yourself it would be worth exploring the reasons for this and ways to address this. Do you sometimes feel undermined and that your voice is silenced? Perhaps a professional could help.