Thursday, September 6, 2012

Personal Space

It is said that "good fences make good neighbors,"  pointing to the importance of feeling in charge of your own space. Having a sense of safety and ownership provides a base of operations for taking on the world.  This is even more true when it comes to being in control of your physical space; that area immediately around and including the body.  When boundary violations reach traumatic levels, such personal control is often completely lost.  Intrusion into one's personal space may come in the form of verbal comments about how we look, what we are wearing, or our body type or gender. More physically intrusive boundary violations such as acts of violence or sexual exploitation, may create so much confusion around one's right to manage their own body, or to speak out about injustice or violation, that we are unable to identify our own meanings or sense of reality. From a perspective of interpersonal danger, it is impossible to effectively evaluate and participate in healthy relationships.

Traumatic injury causes damage to our ability to trust our world, our relationships and ourselves.  Without a trusted other to act as mirror, we are left with no validation of our perspective.  Those who have been exploited in interpersonal relationships may feel lost at sea, unable to find safe harbor.  They may look to outside sources as models of how to act and what to feel, but internally they feel like imposters, since those outside models do not reflect their history and perspective.  The trauma survivor may despair at the confusing array of what is OK or NOT OK and how that spectrum may vary from person to person.  What they seek is a method or model that they can count on; one that is based on awareness of the internal self.

If a person's boundaries have been violated, or they have never had the opportunity to learn where such personal space begins, it is difficult to determine when and how to establish healthy boundaries.  When asked for assistance with such self-determination, I encourage clients to consider their physical responses to past examples of overstepped boundaries.  They usually look confused at the question, but eventually describe some physical manifestation related to unacknowledged anger; tightness in the gut or shoulders; rapid heartbeat, etc.  From that point, they need to attend to such signals and to make a mental contract to avoid agreeing to a request while ignoring those feelings; instead taking time to consider if the question is fair, appropriate or desirable before offering a response.  It is amazing what a difference it makes to listen to the body before allowing plans to be made.  This simple attention to the body and delayed response is the key to developing a strong and consistent set of healthy personal boundaries. 

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