How many times have your said that? How many times have you heard it from others?
We often experience situations that blast through our comfort zones causing a sudden adrenaline rush with anxiety or fear. People, too, can get too close for comfort. Each of us has a personal comfort zone that, when encroached upon, can cause a wide range of uncomfortable feelings. We all have and need that invisible protective shell around us. We all have and need boundaries.
Boundaries take two distinct forms - physical and emotional. Physical boundaries have to do with the personal space around us. Emotional boundaries have to do with the extent to which the actions of others have an emotional impact on us. Our boundaries may change over time and will vary with respect to different people and different situations.
Our personal space is a very important part of how we interact with others. Personal interactions tend to be more positive, productive and successful when the parties are comfortable with the situation. Discomfort can arise simply by an unintentional invasion of another's personal space. In the early sixties, anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined the word "proxemics" to describe the study of how personal space is used in interactions.
Throughout the animal kingdom we see examples of the selective use of personal space. As an example of social interaction we may note that birds tend to line up uniformly on a wire. Deer will tend to spread out over a territory and over population can lead to sickness and starvation. The herd of zebra can be comfortable seeing a lion but will begin to flee if the lion gets too close.
This distance may change in different situations. I can get pretty close to a Canada goose in my back yard and yet it can be very difficult for a hunter to get that close in the wild. While I would be very cautious of a bear in the wild, I am much more comfortable in the protective confines of a zoo.
We tend to keep our distance from strangers but will allow those we know to get much closer. Someone who grew up in the country like me can be very uncomfortable having a lot of people in close proximity. Those who come from more crowded environments have a different perspective.
Cultural differences can have an impact on individual comfort zones. North Americans, Northern Europeans and Asians tend to prefer more distance and little if any touching. South American, Arab and Mediterranean cultures tend to be more comfortable with closer proximity and may appreciate physical contact.
Even situational expectations can affect our perceived need for space. I might be disturbed by a stranger suddenly walking up to me. However, I can be comfortable when close to a number of strangers while in line for a movie or in the stands at a ball game.
Emotional boundaries are best defined as the limits placed on how much impact the actions or opinions of others can have our own feelings and self esteem. The limits are established by saying "no." This may be "no" to abuse, "no" to unreasonable demands, or "no" to offensive, belittling or hurtful comments. It can be an outward expression. "No, I won't do that." It can be an inward expression. "No, I don't believe that."
It is important for us to set boundaries. Without a firm grasp of our own boundaries, we are like a ship without a rudder pushed and pulled by every wave of opinion or manipulation that rolls along. Generally, those we care the most about can most easily impact our emotions. But we choose who to allow to impact us and to what extent. The key is in our ability to make those conscious rather than unconscious choices.
In both forms of boundaries, we need to recognize the common links. First, boundaries are established through and driven by trust. Boundaries are dependent on the level of trust we have but significantly influenced by our desire to establish trust and be trusted. Second, we can only overcome the problems associated with boundaries through an understanding of how our perceptions of boundaries differ. Finally, understanding is best facilitated through open, honest and direct expression of the boundaries.
It is important to find a positive way to advise others of your personal boundaries and when you are uncomfortable. I have always liked a simple three part statement. When you..., I feel... So would you please... Here's an example. When you stand too close to me, I feel very threatened. So would you please back up just a bit? Here's another. When you point out my mistakes in public, I feel embarrassed. So would you please discuss them with me in private?
You can't assume that others will be comfortable telling you about their boundaries. In the interest of positive human interactions you need to be aware of the impact you are having on others. Avoid threatening , intimidating, abusive and manipulative actions or statements.
Watch facial expressions and body language for telltale signals that you are too close for comfort. Discomfort can be expressed through widening of the eyes, furrowing of the brow, tightening or biting of the lips, leaning away or stepping back, tense or tightening muscles and a rigid posture.
We all want and need appropriate boundaries. Acknowledging ours and being sensitive to others' are essential to good relationships and a productive workplace.