The Importance of Personal Space
Updated: May 4, 2021
Understanding the origins and benefits of taking time for ourselves
Everyone is talking about it and, at the moment, no one seems to have enough of it: Personal Space.
How is it that we can no longer stand the sound of chewing at the dinner table but are tripping over ourselves to get back into a packed pub? Perfectly illogical when you look at it objectively but absolutely sane in our own minds.
Understanding why we need personal space and how we regulate it can help us to live a more balanced life while reducing stress and improving our relationships.
To start, personal space can actually be broken down into a series of invisible bubbles that radiate from us. They help to identify familiarity to other people and, deep in our primitive brains, also serves to keep us safe. They are as follows:
Intimate Space: extends outward from our bodies 18 inches in every direction, and only family, pets and one's closest friends may enter. A mere acquaintance hanging out in our intimate space gives us the heebie-jeebies.
Personal Space: extending from 1.5 feet to 4 feet away. Friends and acquaintances can comfortably occupy this zone, especially during informal conversations, but strangers are strictly forbidden.
Social Space: Extending from 4 to 12 feet away from us is social space, in which people feel comfortable conducting routine social interactions with new acquaintances or total strangers.
Public space: This is open to everyone
But how do these personal bubbles arise? We begin to develop our individual sense of personal space around age three or four, and the sizes of our bubbles cement themselves by adolescence (hence why different cultures have a different view of this). Scientific investigation has made the determination that the bubbles are constructed and monitored by the amygdala, the brain region involved in fear.
Now that we know that personal space is linked to a physical structure in our brains, we can stop trying to bend our emotions to accommodate what we “should” be feeling and just accept that this is something that (as human beings) we all need.
Understanding how personal space evolved and where it lies around us, what are some real world examples of how our space becomes compromised and how can maintaining distance benefit us?
There are three models of thinking, which are:
The Overload Model
Information Overload: When others are very close to us, their voices seem louder, the scent of perfume can seem stronger and movements can seem startling. This bombardment of sensory information must all be processed cognitively – at first, draining us down and, eventually, causing us to become completely overloaded. Maintaining space helps us to remain calm and centered, allowing us to make good decisions.
Stress and Aggression: As we learned, our amygdala is central in our need for space. This primitive fear centre in our brains is there to keep us safe. Obviously, the closer someone is to us the more likely an act of aggression can have serious consequences. On the other hand, if distance is maintained then an aggressive act will have less significance. It's ok to take a step back if it allows you to breathe a little bit easier.
Relationships and Communication: Interpersonal spacing can reflect the nature of the relationship between people and is also related to other nonverbal behaviours such as eye contact and body orientation. **wink, wink** Thus, maintenance of personal space zones can be conceptualized largely as matter of controlling the type of message we want to communicate to others with whom we are interacting. If you're feeling uncomfortable then give yourself the permission to get a little bit of distance.
Now that you know that this is something that you need and how it can benefit you, go ahead and take the space for yourself to:
Reflect on your day to catch up with what you’re thinking and feeling
Count your blessings and practice gratitude towards life’s little blessings
Be a little bit more productive by getting some focused time away from everyone
Indulge in the things you love – there’s nothing wrong with cultivating your hobbies and interests
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