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My Space or Yours?

2 September 2009

The Role of Personal Space and Boundaries in Developing Healthy Relationships.

What is a Boundary?

A boundary is a limit we set physically, emotionally or psychologically to take care of ourselves. A boundary is firm yet flexible and changeable. It isn’t a defence or a wall to keep others out; rather it defines our space and reality and clearly informs others of what is/is not okay with us.

  • Where do I end and you begin?
  • How do I know these are my feelings or yours?
  • How can I stay in my experience and not be affected by another’s?
  • How many times have you asked for more space only to be further invaded by someone else?
  • Why is personal space important?
  • What are personal boundaries and why and how do we set them?

These delicate and complex issues come up time after time for people who I work with and so I will be exploring them in more detail in this article.

To horses, personal space and boundaries are a central part of their relationships with each other; it is one of their primary languages. Horses have continual conversations with each other about who can or can’t come into their space. They set boundaries effortlessly and clearly, bearing no grudges and experiencing no feelings of rejection or disconnection.

This makes horses excellent, crystal clear teachers to us two-leggeds on these matters. Insisting that we make ourselves visible and present by setting boundaries that take care of ourselves.

Whilst also requiring that we respect their need for personal space and their physical, emotional and spiritual boundaries in order to have a meaningful and healthy interaction with them; one that involves trust and mutual understanding.

Everyone has an innate need for their own personal space including physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual space. Yet often our experiences as young children are that of others invading our space and pushing their reality, needs and emotions onto us; they define our reality for us. Often we’re physically touched without our permission when we are very young. And of course, as babies, utterly dependent on those around us to meet all of our needs, our physical is repeatedly invaded through this necessity. 

The classic example of this is at a family gathering, an unfamiliar relative arrives and picks up little Johnny, smothering him with kisses. Little Johnny starts screaming and resisting. What happens? Johnny gets told off for being a "bad child", for being unfriendly or even rude to aunt so and so... When in fact, all he is really saying is: “This is my space, back off, I don’t even know you!” The child’s emotions are then likely to be suppressed over time if he stops listening to the non-verbal cues his body gives off which tell him when he isn’t comfortable with someone being so physically close or touching him; especially someone he doesn’t know he can trust yet.

Early childhood, therefore, is where our suppression of our true needs begins and become ingrained into automatic overriding of our needs and preferences.

In my EFL sessions I teach people about our physical need space, in the first instance, with a series of exercises between me and the client, and then between the horse and the client. This is really only the starting point on learning about and practicing personal space and boundary setting however; there is much more to it and many more layers to uncover.

I’ve now come to think of personal space and my need for it with this phrase: “I don’t want anyone else defining my reality for me”. By that, I mean, others telling me how I feel, what I believe in, what I want to do with my time and energy, how to behave, what decisions I should make or how to run my affairs.

This includes the physical invasion of my space, so if my loving partner thinks I need a hug, I’ve enabled him to see that that’s what he feels like in the moment, and to please check with me first if that what I also want, before touching me. Or, if I’m upset, I want to stay in my feelings and feel them, not have them dampened down with a hug, a box of tissues, or a cup of tea. Which actually doesn’t help me, it only makes the other person more comfortable as they feel like they’ve helped and it calms down their own uncomfortable emotions arising in response to mine! And, most importantly, takes away the fullness of my experience from me. Hmm..., I said it was complicated didn’t I?

All of these issues stem from our very earliest experiences with our primary care-giver, usually this was our mother. If our experience of our mother was of someone unable to own her feelings and who attached her feelings and needs onto us, then we experienced that as an invasion of our space, our reality; yet crucially they were not my feelings they were hers. This leads to a very deep blurring of boundaries, especially emotional ones. Leaving us confused about where we end and where someone else begins. And leaving us doubting our sense of self and truly knowing our reality as our feelings get enmeshed with others and resulting in us burying or loosing a connection with our true feelings.

As this is our primary experience of a very intimate relationship this colours our understanding of what all close relationships should look and feel like. Fast-forward 20-30 years, and, guess what? We don’t have a strong sense of ourselves, or of our need for personal space within relationships, or know how even to ask for this from others.

In essence we don’t know ourselves or how to stay in our own reality without being affected by another’s. And most of all, what most people struggle with is being able to say “No” without fearing disconnection, rejection, abandonment and judgement of being “bad” or “difficult”. Remember little Johnny...?

The majority of people work with are unable to recognise their own non-verbal, involuntary physical cues their body is trying to give them that tell them when someone has entered their physical space.

When I take them through an exercise to discover when their body is trying to tell them this, many are astonished to discover their body gives off cues and sensations when people enter their space from a sizeable distance, sometimes, up to 20-30 feet away.

Then they ask: “How is it most people are so much closer all the time and I don’t notice these sensations?” Well, this is because the body shuts down, or rather the link between the body’s sensations and our awareness of them breaks down.

If we are uncomfortable physically and don’t respond to this, what tends to happen is our mind will wander, check out, dissociate on us; as one of my colleagues put it: "the body needs space in order for the mind to stay present".

Here are some common signs of poor or no boundaries:

  • Being continuously affected by others’ emotions and state of arousal, i.e. being unable to stay in your experience without being affected/infected by that of another.
  • Frequent presence of physical symptoms when around others, e.g. headaches, stomach problems, anxiety in the body, etc.
  • Feeling the pain of someone/an animal you’re close to, especially someone you’re closely connected to, e.g. partner, parent, child, sibling, your horse, etc. However, it’s their pain, not yours. *Please note this is not the same as empathy which involves consciously choosing to feel another’s emotional pain in order to understand and best support them. Rather this refers to the unconscious pattern of taking on someone else’s feelings usually to avoid your own.
  • Not being grounded, and not setting your own, frim yet fleible personal boundaries.
  • Focussing solely on others’ needs, feelings, situation, etc. While neglecting your own feelings, needs, situation, etc. And again, especially someone you’re close to.
  • Feeling responsible for another’s situation. For example: How do you feel if your child, pet, partner of parent become sick? Do you feel responsible? Do you feel you have to take care of them? Do you find it difficult during these stressful events to stay with your experience and not take on another’s, and thereby removing their personal responsibility if they themselves don’t have strong boundaries? Let me share a personal example to further illustrate this: If one of my animals is sick or injured, I have a tendency to immediately feel it’s my fault somehow. I can easily believe that the animal isn’t responsible for themselves too. This leads me to feel overly anxious and unable to clearly make decisions about any treatment the animal needs. I believe this comes from my own experiences of having my space invaded when I was very young and being given the issues and feelings of my mother, leaving me feeling disoriented about how I really feel, and feeling I need to take care of her instead. This is a very common and powerful dynamic leading so many people to rush in to “take care” of someone else, often leaving them drained, tired and eventually resentful, and in turn, the other person or animal ends up feeling disempowered and confused. This is a classic co-dependent dynamic.
  • Putting someone else’s needs first before your own, e.g. if you’re tired but still do something for others and, thereby, neglect your needs in the process.
  • Being so overwhelmed by your own emotions/arousal level you can’t empathise with another person; fearing you’ll be swamped by their feelings or situation.
  • Giving advice when it hasn’t been asked for; "fixing".
  • Telling someone what they “should” do, what they need, what they are feeling or thinking. Again, "fixing".
  • Not authentically telling someone how you are feeling, or about a situation that’s arisen because you don’t want them to worry about you, i.e. taking care of another’s feelings by avoidance or keeping secrets. Again, this is usually a roundabout-way of avoiding addressing your own feelings and gives off a general sense of mistrust in others.
  • Not seeking support yourself when you need it. 
  • Having overly rigid boundaries or “walls” to keep others out in order to protect yourself from perceived further pain based on your past experiences, rather than the present experience and avoiding the issue of setting a healthy boundary instead
  • Taking at face value what is said to you or about you, accepting others’ truth about you rather than holding onto your own truth, e.g. being affected by someone’s criticism of you, an attack on you, a projection on to you, sometimes to the point of feeling unwell, stressed or depressed about yourself following such an experience.
  • Always apologising – remember, you only need to apologise once. If the other person doesn’t accept your apology, then it’s clearly their issue that’s stopping them. When we repeatedly or over-apologise we give away our power and fall into taking care of the other person’s feelings about the situation.
  • Always seeking another’s advice, support or help rather than work things out for yourself and feeling your sense of power and worth.
  • Seeking approval of those around you and difficulty stating your needs, e.g. “I’d like to go first”. Rather than: “Well, unless anyone else wants to go first? “Do you mind?” “Is that okay with you?” “Are you sure???”
  • Letting others’ define your reality for YOU in an way.

If most or all of these applies to you it is likely that most of your relationships will be co-dependent and you may feel lost, powerless, overburdened, frustrated, impotent, or tired a lot of the time.

People who come to my equine facilitated learning practise learn how to first set a physical boundary with a large, loose horse. This can be a tremendous boost to self-confidence and belief in one’s ability to take care of one’s self. It then enables people to go back in to their human relationships and learn how to clearly and firmly say NO to what doesn’t serve them. Also, the positive experience of setting a boundary with a horse who then doesn’t leave them or reject them, as is often the fear that people will do, again gives people the affirmation that they can stand their ground and stay connected to another being; in fact, the horses insist on this. When people set boundaries with the horses, they are present, in their bodies, congruent with what they are feeling and clearly communicating what is/isn’t okay with them. The horses happily engage with this as they feel safe and can trust the person.

When we don’t do this the horses prefer to stay away from us. In our human relationships this is the norm, no wonder so many of us experience so much difficulty in our relationships, so much conflict and manipulation seeming to take place. We don’t know where we stand with people and we end up feeling unsafe; can you trust a person who is saying yes to you when you can sense they really mean no? I can’t. Can you stay connected to someone who is saying NO yet you can feel they are keeping you out unfairly to hurt, control, or punish you? Again, I can’t. Often our experiences when we’re young can swing between these two very confusing extremes, leading to a real blurring of the meaning of boundaries, a lose of sense of self and a lack of trust in our self to be able to stand up for ourselves due to a fear of being rejected.

A boundary states that we value our self enough to stand up for our self and take care of our own needs, including stating how we feel, what we need and what we don’t want.

Clear boundaries also makes our presence felt by others and requires the energy of our personal power, and, are therefore, empowering to us and our sense of worth.

Which, by the way, is why I think so many of us have difficulty setting boundaries: we lack true conviction about our own worth and don’t have access to our own personal power. This often gets robbed in our very early childhood experiences and society in general which tells us not to be full of ourselves; it’s not polite.

Of course, overstepping someone else’s boundaries happens too, and often for those of us who did experience unclear boundaries when very young, we tend to then also find it very hard to sense and respect others’ boundaries. I often see people with very poor boundaries themselves trying to fix other people, telling them what they need and imposing themselves physically and emotionally on them, and even being completely unable to sense others' boundaries at all. It’s the flip side of the same coin.

When we overstep another’s boundaries, what also tends to happen ,in our mixed up human way, is that we get angry at the person (or horse) who tells us to: “back off”!  Thereby also confusing the innate purpose of anger which is helpful in telling us about someone overstepping our boundaries. It is often at that point when people tip over into a controlling mode as they cannot tolerate the other's clear boundary.

It’s just plain wrong to get on our high-horse, so-to-speak, and be angry with the person who we’ve overstepped the mark with. The most extreme examples being an abuser who insists their victim respects them and gets angry if they try to resist or say no. But this happens at all levels not just in the extreme cases of physical or sexual abuse.

Yet, I now also believe that any invasion of our physical space is a form of abuse. Our body really is our temple, and no one, no matter who or what their relationship is to us, has the right to touch or come into our temple without our express permission.

The hard part, it seems, for us two-leggeds is turning back up the volume on our sensitive body and listening to the subtle cues it’s trying to give us when we don’t wish to have someone be too close to us.

As I said in the early part of this article, if we are uncomfortable physically and don’t respond to this, what tends to happen is our mind will wander, check out; dissociate on us. We are then very likely to say yes to something we don’t want in order to calm ourselves down. In the long run though we end up feeling bad towards our self as we realise we’ve let our self down and not taken care of our self. And it makes it difficult for others to know where they stand with us and ultimately trust us making relationships rocky and unnecessarily volatile.

So how do we set healthy, clear boundaries which take care of ourselves, and let others know what behaviour is okay, or not, with us?

1) Be clear and concise:

A favourite saying of mine that I came across recently is: “The word NO is a complete sentence”. This is a very empowering phrase which cuts right through the overly polite conditioning so many of us experience where we’re actually taught to value others before ourselves, to meet others needs and when we do finally manage to find the courage to utter a very meek NO, we often add a dozen reasons or justifications to this to explain ourselves and our needs. No, just as with the horses, they say yes or no, yes you can come into my space, or no you can’t touch me right now. No explanations or discussion needed, it’s that simple. The horse has his needs, I have mine, sometimes we come together and can mutually experience something, other times we don’t. Just as human relationships ought to be; healthier and clearer.

2) Use the right language:

I coach people to start using the language of personal space and personal boundaries. To clearly and literally state: “This is what I need/don’t need”. Or: “This is/not okay with me”, etc. Sometimes we need to very clearly yet simply say something just once; other times a louder “NO” is required to be heard.

As stated earlier, boundaries require the energy of our anger and therefore our personal power to stand up for ourselves. What’s important is to watch for that initial flash of anger, red-flag, or something not feeling right to you and set the boundary immediately rather than letting the other person repeatedly overstep your boundaries as this will only lead to an escalation of anger, and often results in an eventual outburst of fury at that person, or worse still, an innocent party.

Be clear with others by saying: “I need some space right now”, or “I can talk for 10 minutes but that’s all right now”. Set aside the time and space you know you and your sensitive body needs to relax and recharge away from others and their energy. It’s amazing how just taking time on your own, especially if you live with others including family and children, can give you the rest your body needs in order for your mind to calm down and gain a sense of balance.

3) Know your own needs:

I’ve learnt that I can only be around large numbers of people infrequently, and when I am, I make sure I can leave when I need to, and I can be on my own again to let my body relax and come back to myself and my world. Otherwise I get very over stimulated and can start to loose sense of what feels right to me simply by being within so many other peoples’ energy fields. These are common experiences of Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), and/or, introverted people.

On this note, a word to the more sensitive people: often we do feel what is going on with other people around us and we can take these feelings on board which confuses our sense of what is going on for us. Therefore, I believe it’s important for highly sensitive people, energy workers, carers, complimentary practitioners, therapists, etc, to know how to ground themselves, clear away anything that doesn’t belong to them and protect themselves on a daily basis to stay clear, healthy and energetic.

4) Manage your life to meet your needs:

Often we feel we ought to answer the phone, the door, emails etc, yet often we do so when we’re tired, stressed, busy, or late. Learning how to have clear communication boundaries with the outside world including family, friends and work can make a huge difference to feeling well. I’ve found that taking calls when I don’t have much time or I’m focussed on something else often leads me to saying yes to things I don’t really want to do! So, I’ve learnt to let calls go to my answer phone and then I return the call when I have plenty of time, I’m rested, fed and grounded. Sounds so simple doesn’t it? Yet many of us fall into, again, society’s implicit message that we should be available to others at all times and not to be so selfish! Ha, nonsense. When we take care of our own needs we are SO much more helpful to others.

5) Hold on to Your truth:

Learning how to value yourself and set boundaries enables you to define your own reality and worth. Learning how to stay connected to your feelings, needs and beliefs and honouring your body’s needs is vital regardless of the other person’s response. This takes time, practise and support to do as we often feel very vulnerable when trying to change our patterns and set healthier boundaries. It can be very scary to say no to people when we and they are used to us giving way all the time. It does get easier over time though and with more positive results from being able to do this, but the learning and change processes can be rocky for a while. Ultimately however, holding onto what feels right to you is what’s most important and if feels great to achieve this.

Boundaries are hugely complicated and at the same time hugely simple when we set them appropriately and clearly. In this article I’ve outlined some of the basic elements and common patterns we fall in to including discussing what personal space is and why it’s important, some of the common signs of poor or no boundaries and the problems this can cause in our relationships and to our own sense of well being, what a boundary is and how to set them. And as I said in the first article, all of our mixed up sense of who we are and how to relate to others stems from our very early childhood experiences and in particular our experience of our primary care taker, usually this was our mother. So if we can look at our patterns within this light and have compassion for our self we can then help our self to learn new ways of valuing our self and relating to others in a more healthy and honest way by standing up and being more horse-like with our boundaries.

Thanks to my equine teachers and Linda Kohanov of Eponaquest, I’ve gradually come to think of personal space and boundaries as "The Boundary Dance". A dance where we engage in a two-way, fluid invitation and acceptance in our relationship with each other, taking nothing for granted about the other and being clear about who we are in each moment. When we learn to speak this language with the four and two-leggeds, a beautiful, gentle dance with another being begins.
© Angela Dunning, September 2009. Up-dated 14 August 2017.

Some reflections for you to ponder:

* What are your own Personal Space needs?

* What are the challenges you face in setting boundaries?

* How do you sense when you have overstepped someone else's boundaries?

* What are the first clues in your body when someone has overstepped one of your boundaries? Familiarising yourself with how you feel in your body helps you act more quickly to re-set a boundary.

*Can you tell when your horse is setting a boundary with you? And do you let them?

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