“Personal Space” is the area around us, our physical body which we prefer not be occupied by someone else. This someone else can be a complete stranger or our closest family member. We all need our personal space in order to reflect on ourselves to grow and to know ourselves better. We usually take it for granted and not give ourselves enough alone time due to our daily responsibilities. We also get defensive and frustrated when someone invades our personal space. Because we feel disrespected and sometimes not trusted. A healthy level of personal space is indeed needed for us to keep our emotions balanced. But what happens when someone goes overboard when their personal space is invaded?
The Journal of Neuroscience recently published an article about the links between anxiety and personal space. According to this study, people with anxiety need more personal space. Meaning as a physical distance between them and another individual. Personal space is considered normal when there is 10 to 20cm distance between the two individuals. But this is even larger with people who suffer from anxiety.
When we suffer from anxiety, we create an invisible shield around our bodies to protect ourselves from external threats. When we feel someone getting closer, we become nervous, we blink our eyes more often, we cross our arms or we leave the situation or the place entirely so we do not have to deal with the unwanted consequences.
People with anxiety tend to avoid crowded places. Most of them would tell you they have claustrophobia. It is because they feel uncomfortable being too close to others, in a physical sense. Think about being at a library, and you see someone sitting at a table. This person occupies one chair, and he has his coat on the chair next to him, and his backpack on the chair on the other side of him. There is a very clear message here that says this person does not want anyone else to sit next to him. Our immediate reaction is to think how rude they are to assume they can occupy three chairs in a public place. But in reality, their behavior might be the result of their anxiety.
You can detect the signs of anxiety when you find yourself in close contact with someone who demands more personal space:
-They do not like to make eye contact when you try to talk to them
-They act like they did not hear you or see you
-They act nervous or agitated
-They make you feel unwelcome
-They may be rude
In reality, people who require more personal space due to anxiety, also deal with low self esteem. This could be related to their body image or their fear of failure and fear of something bad is going to happen to them. Many people who are overly shy, also suffer from the same issues and require more personal space around them.
So when do we exactly go overboard with our personal space? It is not just about how far of a distance someone should stay away from us. It is much more than that. A healthy personal space is formed when we have a balanced mindset about our needs and the needs of others. A healthy personal space is when we manage our time alone and our time with others, including the time we spend outside and we interact with strangers. When we start to see everyone else as a potential threat and a source of danger, we know then that our actions affect and disrupt other people’s tasks, as well as our personal and social relations. A healthy personal space has to be our comfort zone where we feel relaxed and accomplished. But when we see it as a protective shield and as a defense mechanism, then we know we have a problem.
In healthy relationships, there are people that we trust enough and love and care about and we let them get closer to us. But when we keep everyone at a certain distance it means we are refusing to interact with others on a healthy level. At any given moment our personal space might be invaded by others. Because this happens to all of us. The best way to deal with this issue, is to have a clear understanding of our boundaries and ask ourselves if we go overboard and where do we go overboard? We can respond to the other person in a polite way instead of being rude. We can be firm and polite at the same time without being rude. Before saying “no”, we can think twice and see if this is indeed a situation to be avoided or it is an acceptable situation? It does not mean we have to agree to everything, but we also do not have to say no to everything. We can start by small steps and then evaluate how the situation is unfolding.
Zoey Holguin Therapy
Zoey Holguin is a marriage and family therapist specializing in codependency, relationship issues and difficulty with self-esteem and confidence.