Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What Is Psychological Space?

How can this key ingredient help in your personal growth?

A few years ago I had a huge epiphany about my behavior. I love playing the saxophone, yet it had been almost 10 years since I played—at my wedding. Where was the disconnect between what I say I like, and following through and playing? As I explored this discrepancy I realized that when I play I get frustrated with mistakes or when I don’t perform well enough. And I realized in that moment that I was doing something I work with clients on, all the time. I was expecting myself to be better than I was. I was expecting myself to play like musicians who have been playing and practicing for years.

As with clients with more important issues, I was holding myself to unreasonable expectations. I was judging my performance prematurely, before I could realistically expect to play well. When I fell short, I became frustrated and disappointed. With this pattern, I lost the excitement of playing or even thinking about playing and wound up avoiding my saxophone.

This is a common theme in the therapy process and reflects what most of us deal with in the real world. This is an example of experiencing failure and not embracing what you love or need to learn; not because you can’t learn, but because you don’t give yourself “psychological space”. And this pattern extends to many areas of your life and interferes with growth and progress.

I refer to “psychological space” as being accepting of yourself and your performance while you are learning something new or trying to improve upon existing behavior. Antonio Salieri, in the movie Amadeus, is awestruck when he says that Mozart is divinely inspired. He is the only one who’s written musical scores that have no correction marks on the paper. “He receives the notes directly from God.”

Unless you are a Mozart, your behavior requires a learning process which frequently feels awkward as you experiment with how to do it. The process involves trial and error in which mistakes are an integral part of the feedback in which you gradually learn what works and what doesn’t in the process of improvement.

But most of us have great difficulty avoiding self-judgment and criticism, if we even think about it. This leads to premature dissatisfaction; we become discouraged, and may give up, or slowly reduce our time engaged in the behavior. Take a moment to think of times and situations where this is true for you: you get frustrated or angry with yourself for not doing better? It may take place at school or at work. Furthermore, this pattern might lead to not even trying in the first place, to avoid this disappointment.

Facing Reality

While most would agree that it’s impossible to expect yourself to be good at anything right off the bat, most of us fall into the same boat as me with my saxophone. We have great difficulty not measuring up to our own unfair internal critic. We judge our performance prematurely, always believing we should be doing better than we do.

Many people I work with have come out of difficult or scary childhood environments that interfered with their learning and development. As adults, they frequently judged themselves for not being as far along in life as others. Here again, this establishes a pattern of negative self-talk that takes the form of not being good enough.

Even if you can’t identify serious childhood traumatic events, if you had a father who could be demanding, or got angry easily, or a parent who was anxious or worried, these circumstances can easily lead to fear, resulting in learning impairment. Childhood wounding that interfered with your ability to keep up with other children frequently leads to negative self-judgment that short-circuits psychological space.

Giving yourself the experience of acceptance of allowing yourself to make mistakes, to be awkward and not perfect. What I’m referring to as psychological space, a necessary ingredient in the process of learning something new.

Most of us have great difficulty coming from this place of self-acceptance. We get caught because making mistakes is not something that we want to accept. In addition, we fear that if we accept less than perfect behavior we will either settle for this lower level of performance, or even worse, become lazy.

Radhika Battan
Source: Radhika Battan

Here is a helpful way to frame what I’m talking about. If we are on a journey through life, at any time we are at a specific place along the path of that journey. Say, point “A”. Typically, we treat ourselves as if we should be further along the path than we are. For example, you might say, “I should have done better”, or even, “That was stupid of me.” These judgments remind us that we expect ourselves to be at point “B”, not “A”. This continually coming up short undermines our confidence and sense of self-efficacy.

But the laws of physics say you can’t be in two places at the same time. If you are at point A it’s impossible to be at point B So, the healthy approach, the self-loving approach is to accept that, “At this moment, I’m at point A.” Perhaps this will be easier if we define acceptance as simply recognizing reality: here is where I’m at. Not that we necessarily like where we are at. So, acceptance is more about not putting yourself down, or being critical for being at point A.

I like to say that the fastest path in getting to point B is through point A. Acceptance helps remove disappointment in yourself, making it easier for you to believe you can do the necessary learning. It takes away the self-doubt that comes from feeling that you aren’t doing well enough.

Adaptation and Learning at The Heart of Resilience

At the heart of resilience is the ability to adapt, to learn and adjust based on experience; to make adjustments as you navigate your environment to get your needs met. Psychological space makes it easier to be present in your experience and to believe that you can learn and grow. Psychological space is a key ingredient to your personal development. I hope you give this to yourself.