Saturday, May 7, 2011

Personal Space - Don't Stand So Close To Me!

When we lived in a small town, one of our neighbours was very invasive of personal space. On one occasion, my husband and I were standing looking out a front window, and saw her talking to a mutual friend. She'd step into his personal space, and he'd respond by backing up a step, to restore his "comfort zone." That would last all of 30 seconds, before she'd again take a step closer. In this way did she slowly back him down the street, while we watched and laughed. She was also a person who had to touch whomever she was speaking to, little pats on the arm, pokes, once she even tucked my hair behind my ear.

I'd mustered up my courage, finally, to say to her, as gently as possible, "Please don't stand so close to me, I find it disconcerting, and can't concentrate on what you are saying."

She was terrifically offended, and stomped off home. I went indoors and called my sponsor. After much discussion, I decided I'd been as polite as humanly possible, it was reasonable for me to ask her to stop invading my personal space, and let it go. I didn't feel close enough to her, to be willing to reveal my history of childhood abuse, and its effect upon my need for a larger-than-usual personal space. I also felt it was irrelevent, because she violated the "normal" distances.
The next time I ran into her, she pointedly stood a good ten feet back from me while we talked. I choose not to comment upon this, and over time, as her offense faded, she seemed to reach a place of acceptance, and even began to make the odd joke about personal space, to which I would warmly respond.

At a recent meeting, I had an interesting experience. A newcomer pulled up a chair to sit beside me, and try as I might, I couldn't bear the proximity. I had to casually move my chair back a bit, to get some "breathing room." He promptly moved his chair closer to mine. I moved again, and again he moved closer. I moved a third time, and this time, he stayed put. Driving home, I was trying to figure out if I'd have been that uncomfortable if he'd been female, and I decided I most likely would have.

I've learned in Al-Anon, that I'm entitled to my need for a bit more room. This need is well-documented in the literature and studies on child abuse. It's a fact of my life, and I accept it, in the same way I accept that I'm most likely going to go to my grave with an exaggerated startle response - leaping into the air and screaming when someone startles me. (My husband has learned to start talking long before he reaches me, in an effort to avoid this - when he forgets, I jump and scream, and if he's preoccupied, my doing so will make him jump and exclaim - and then we have a giggling fit together.)

I didn't cause it, I can't control it, and I can't cure it, so what's my choice, then?

Acceptance. It doesn't have the power to bother me it once did, because in working the Steps, I've achieved forgiveness of the mistakes of the past. It is what it is, and that's okay.

I know that I'm most likely never going to be completely comfortable with people who invade my personal space, whether by standing too close to me, or by wanting more than I can give on an emotional level. If I want to be comfortable, it's up to me to see to my comfort. If that means taking the chance of a minor confrontation, well, How Important Is It? When someone I don't know well hugs me for too long a time, or too tightly, I can find ways to avoid having to be hugged, say something, or let it go.  I dealt with my childhood by isolating and pushing people away - for some, clinging and demanding is how they functioned. Neither way is healthy, neither way is "right" or "wrong."
I work to be accepting of them, myself, and life.


  1. I hate it when people get in my personal space!

  2. I found for myself because I am very sensitive and open to the emotions and feelings of others that when they are too close it feels overwhelming. I think that people are drawn to that openess without knowing it. I now mentally put a barrier of light between me and anyone in my space. A mental bubble.

  3. I also am very uncomfortable when someone is in my personal space. I had a co-worker at a past job, who always stood closer than the customary (for my region and culture - I realize it varies around the world) personal space distance. I could never figure out that she didn't realize I was backing up for a reason - she would always inch closer every time I backed up. I never had the guts to be as staightfoward as you were.
    One time I was standing out in the wind and some of my hair blew into my mouth, and a casual aquaintance standing by apparently felt it was her duty to remove it for me - I was definitely uncomfortable with that. I've also had a customer at work try to repeatedly adjust a barette that was in my hair, even when I was repeatedly yelling "Ow!'I guess that could be described as borderline abusive. Thanks for sharing about this. It's a relief to hear that I am not the only one that has a problem with this.

  4. Interesting to read your post in a meeting today I felt very uncomfortable sitting between two very large men. There were no chairs remaining for me to move. Eventually one left for the restroom I then moved his chair a foot away. I really needed a meeting tonight....

  5. When they touch & press close, either not seeing or not responding compassionately to the signals of the other person's distress, they're likely revealing THEIR HISTORY of having boundaries trampled on, too.

    It's just presenting in the opposite way.

  6. I am not troubled when people get next to me. I don't people to converse too closely though. I find that I like to look into their eyes but don't need to have their spittle on me.