5 Ways to Protect Your Personal Space

What's the best way to protect your personal space?

Posted Sep 06, 2015

Do you work in an open cubicle? Does someone in a nearby cube talk too loudly on their phone, or talk to you nonstop?

Are you (or do you know) a college student who could be in danger of sexual boundary violations?

Do you have a roommate (or a child or sibling) who “borrows” your clothes without asking, and returns them damaged – or not at all?

Do you have a neighbor who plays loud music late at night or mows the lawn early in the morning? Or whose dog keeps digging up your flower garden or using your front yard as his toilet?

If any of these sound familiar, then you, like many, many other people all over the world, may be dealing with a need to protect your personal space. While some clearly are far more serious than others, all issues of personal space are significant. It seems to me that concerns about boundary crossing have become greater than usual, maybe partly to do with a change in seasons, a return to work and school, and a loss of leisure time. But protecting our personal space, both physical and emotional, is important at all times. Finding ways to balance connection and closeness with personal integrity and clarity is often difficult, so I have gathered tips from a variety of experts on the subject.

What is personal space, and why do we need it?

Dr. Daphne Holt and her colleagues at a number of Boston medical centers, personal space involves a kind of comfort zone that has to do with the distance that we each like to maintain during both physical and emotional interactions with other people. According to research conducted by Dr. Holt and her colleagues, and reported in in the Journal of Neuroscience, part of the neural response to human faces moving towards us – into our personal space – involves the activation of a particular neural network – the parietal-frontal network. There is a defined distance in which we are comfortable with the approach of a stranger. When an unfamiliar face passes that comfort zone, the neural signals begin to fire, creating feelings of discomfort, irritability and anxiety.

Another study from Dr. María Teresa Frías and her colleagues at the University of California Davis shows that there is a correlation between our ability to protect our personal space and our attachment needs. In particular, Dr. Frías and her colleagues found that when we feel securely connected to others, we are more comfortable setting boundaries than if we feel either insecurely or ambivalently attached.

How can these studies help you protect your personal space?

1. Identify and accept your personal boundary needs:

Everyone agrees: if you don’t protect your personal space, you are more likely to feel drained, fatigued and self-critical. You may often feel hurt and angry for what seems like minor infractions from others. And your self-esteem will definitely suffer. But in order to protect your personal space, you have to accept that it’s all right to have it.

We all have different responses to the space around us, based on a number of different factors, including neural activities, attachment security, and, according to yet another study, even the ways that our eyes take in movement and activity near us. You are not bad for needing more space than someone else; nor are you wrong if you need less space. But in either case, it’s important for you to acknowledge your own needs when you interact with others. Try to let them know what you need and why. 

2. Be polite but firm.

I know this sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it is possible. Sometimes we fail to protect our space because we don’t want to seem rude, impolite, or unfriendly. Sometimes we move into someone else’s space without meaning to. But many boundary violations can be avoided if we set limits early on. And yes, you can do it without being rude. Here are some ideas:

  • “Head off advances with your body language,” writes Megan Kaplan of Real Simple Magazine. She suggests holding out your hand for a handshake rather than waiting for someone to get close enough for an uncomfortable hug or kiss. My mother, a real southern lady, used to hold out her left hand to anyone who began to move in for a kiss or a hug. “It’s less formal and more ladylike than a handshake,” she explained when I asked about it. Even if you don’t care about being ladylike, by holding out your left hand, you give the person some skin contact without seeming overly formal. And at the same time you protect yourself from unwanted hugs and kisses.
  • According to Darlene Lancer at PsychCentral, “There’s an art to setting boundaries.” She says that boundaries set in anger or in a nagging way usually don’t work. Instead, she suggests, boundaries are most effective when you spell them out clearly, calmly and courteously.

3. Start with something small

If you have troubles saying “no” – whether it’s because you don’t want to seem rude, or to hurt someone’s feelings, or because you feel guilty, or if you’re worried that the other person will get mad at you, part of the problem is most likely that you haven’t learned to set a limit and stick with it. As with most other things in life, small steps will get you to your goal. (Check out my post “Small Steps Will Get You to Your Goal”).

Try to start saying “no” in small or minor situations. But wait. This doesn’t mean randomly saying no to anything. Choose something that doesn’t feel particularly important, and someone who you feel relatively safe with. For example at dinner, when faced with a food you don’t like, politely say “no thanks” and don’t take the food. If it’s put on your plate anyway, don’t eat it. Quietly push it to the side, or off onto another plate, or if there’s no other solution and you are afraid that you will eat it, push it into your napkin. If a friend wants to make plans to get together, politely ask for a time fifteen minutes earlier or later than she suggests (offering a different time is another way of saying “no”).

  • Tayyab Babar says “To change your ways, you must always start small and in this scenario pick something minor to say no to. This will give you the necessary confidence boost to show you that people can manage without you and that they will not hold it against you.”

4. Know what you mean when you say “yes

Practice telling other people what you want – whether it’s to watch a certain program on television or to eat at a certain restaurant. That makes it easier to say “no” when you don’t want something.

  • Tayyab Babar writes, “If you know what you want to say yes to it becomes easier to say no.”
  • Megan Kaplan says a combination of humor and clear acknowledgment of what you want can protect you from a variety of intrusions – from strangers patting your pregnant belly to dinner companions sharing your dessert.

5.  Stop feeling guilty

Many of us struggle with boundary violations because we are afraid we will be seen as unkind or selfish if we don’t give someone else what they want. But try to remember that you have as much of a right to have things the way you want as they to have them their way. And if that doesn’t work, then think about it this way – if you don’t let someone intrude on your boundaries, you’re saving them from feeling badly later!

And what happens when you set a boundary and the other person doesn’t respect it?

If your clear, firm but courteous limit-setting doesn’t work, Celestine Chua from Lifehack  suggests giving the person a gentle reminder.  If they still ignore your boundaries, it’s time to push back. Don’t worry about being rude or impolite. That’s how the other person is being to you. Just let them know that you are done.

As always, I’d like to hear how you have dealt with protecting your own personal space. Please feel free to leave a comment here or to contact me through my webpage at http://www.dianebarth.net.

Sources and further reading:

http://www.realsimple.com/work-life/work-life-etiquette/sticky-situation...

Protecting Your Personal Space by Deb Elkin, LPC http://www.debelkin.com/PROTECTING_SPACE.pdf

7 Ways to  Set Boundaries Without Being Mean by Tayyab Babar http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/7-ways-set-boundaries-wit...

9 Ways To Manage People Who Bother You  by CELESTINE CHUA http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/9-ways-to-manage-people-w...

Neural Correlates of Personal Space Intrusion by Daphne J. Holt, Brittany S. Cassidy, Xiaomin Yue, Scott L. Rauch, Emily A. Boeke, Shahin Nasr, Roger B. H. Tootell, and Garth Coombs III. The Journal of Neuroscience, 19 March 2014, 34(12): 4123-4134; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0686-13.2014

Individualism and collectivism as moderators of the association between attachment insecurities, coping, and social support by María Teresa Frías, Phillip R. Shaver, and Rolando Díaz-Loving. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, February 2014; vol. 31, 1: pp. 3-31.

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