The Long Reach of Childhood

How early experiences shape you forever

Gaining the Power to Change Your Interactions

The "space-between" holds the clues.

The quality of both our positive and negative interactions rests in our being able to understand and acknowledge the true reality that exists between others and ourselves — a reality that is found in the “the space-between." One way of understanding this concept is that in any interaction between you and other individuals, there exists a physical and psychological space, a “space-between” that holds the verbal language — what is said and what is not said — the body language, emotions, beliefs, the echoes of childhood experiences, and the explicit and implicit material existing in each of you that forms the “feel” of the interaction and which, overtly and covertly, is what gets communicated. The sum total of all of this creates the real or imagined reality of the interaction, resulting in how you and others experience what information and/or message is being conveyed in that interaction.

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An example of this concept is the “space-between” in the theater, which refers to the kind of reality the actors are creating in any given scene. When a scene is not working and/or not conveying the playwright’s intent, the director attempts to change the nature of the reality in that space. The director may seem to be working with individual actors, but his focus is on helping the actors change what is being played out between them. The closer the actors get to conveying the meaning of the play in the space between them, the more the audience will experience “the reality” the writer had intended. There is also a “space-between” the performing actors on the stage and the audience. Unlike the movies where performances, once filmed, are unchangeable, theater performances — dependent on the differing audiences each night and the chemistry created by the interaction of the actors and audience — can offer subtle, variable versions of the play’s meaning.

I use the example of the “space-between” in the theater as a metaphor to help individuals change their interactions. Think of it this way: each time you interact with another, a series of “space-betweens” is created, not unlike the unfolding scenes in a play. The more you become aware of the kind of reality you and the other(s) are creating, the more the distortions in that reality can come to the surface. And the more you catch the distortions in “the space-between” — particularly the ones that are yours — the more power you have to create a different reality.

An example of how the concept works is a moment in time in a session with Mark, a young man struggling to break free from some hidden internalized barrier that was keeping him from succeeding in his profession. The initial awareness of the distortion in our “space-between” was mine, based on my sense that Mark was acutely aware of my reactions to him as his therapist as well as of me - as a person. My sense that something felt different with Mark was based on a comparison with how other patients related to me.

The “space-between” soon offered information about how he assumed that I, the other, shared the same hidden distortions and biases he had. That day I was aware that I knew a great deal about his childhood and family history, but little of his world outside the family. On the surface he appeared to have an active social life, with close male and female friends but had never mentioned any significant relationships.

I asked Mark whether he was interested in establishing a long-term relationship. He was quiet for a while and then answered, “I’m not particularly interested in meeting anyone. I kind of like to be free and foot loose.” My continued questions about his social life elicited increasingly vague and evasive answers. It seemed to me that we were dancing around the subject of his sexuality when Mark said, “I wonder if you think I’m gay.”

I told him that the thought had crossed my mind.

“Would it be a problem for you?” he asked. “Because you might be uncomfortable in this territory.”

I felt that I was being given a bias that didn’t belong to me and shared that “the theater is a place that tends to be fairly free of homophobia. I lived in that world for too long not to have worked out most of my biases. I have a feeling that you’re the homophobic one, not me.” His immediate reaction was one of embarrassment, but then he laughed, genuinely pleased with my response.

“I never thought of myself in those terms,” he said, “but maybe you’re right. I remember that we used to live in a pretty rough neighborhood. I was about seven or eight. And the tough boys, the ones that went around strutting, would tease me and call me a sissy and a faggot. I wasn’t sure what that word meant, but I knew it wasn’t a compliment. It was around that time, or maybe even a little earlier, that I began to feel that somehow I was different.”

The awareness of his internalized bias about homosexuality, uncovered in the “space-between” us, offered Mark an opportunity to understand and change the distorted ways he related to both himself and others. He was able to change the “space-between” himself and others, leading to a greater sense of freedom to just be himself.

To maximize the use of the “space-between” concept, keep in mind that you need to play three separate roles. As one of the actors you must be aware of what you are putting into the “space-between.” As the audience, you must recognize the reality that is being created. If that reality is not what you want or mean to create, you may: (a) unknowingly be creating a false or distorted reality; (b) you have a clue as to what the other person might be putting into that space. As the director, you work towards creating the kind of reality you want. In some cases it is important to recognize that the “play” is going to fail and that you may need to do some reshuffling or recasting of “actors.”

Now imagine you have an old friend, one who goes back to early high school days. You become aware that, in the last several years, times spent with him/her can sometimes leave you feeling upset and slightly angry. You begin to notice that you do not experience this reaction when you and your friend are together alone ⎯ only when there are others present. You start to focus on what is happening in the “space-between” and slowly realize that your friend is putting into the “space-between” the two of you and the others, a message of his/her greater importance and expertise. “Echo!” you say to yourself, recognizing the echo of the relationship you had with your older brother/sister who always played the role of “The Older Sibling.” You also begin to realize that you have been a party to this interaction by your withdrawing into the shadows in order to not challenge or upset your friend. You now have a chance of changing what you put into the “space-between” that will ultimately change the dynamics between the two of you.

It is important then to pay attention to what you are feeling and what “vibrations” you are picking up when relating to the others in the “space-between.” Your reaction to the reality being created in that space offers valuable clues to such questions as: does a specific interaction feels different than other interactions under similar circumstances, is the difference due to you or the others; if you are experiencing feelings of resentment, guilt, confusion, anger or sadness, are they in reaction to what the other person is silently or verbally playing out; is the other inappropriately reacting to what you are putting in the space-between.

Start to sensitize yourself to the “feel” of the space between you and others and, as you gain more insight into how and why the reality gets distorted either by you or the others, practice various strategies for achieving the reality you want. The goal is to create a new, more desirable and permanent reality for yourself by changing how you exist in the “spaces-between” you and the others in your world. Richard Buckminster Fuller captured this when he wrote: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever including strategies that can play an important part in the process of breaking free. Hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey. And hope all future “space-betweens” offer you the opportunity to experience the true reality — void of distortions — of your shared interactions.

 

Ditta M. Oliker, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and the author of The Light Side of the Moon: Reclaiming Your Lost Potential.

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