Whose Space Is It Anyway?

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With social distancing we have had to learn how to negotiate physical space differently. What can we learn from this?

This post is based on an experience I had recently, whilst under lockdown in London at the height of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

I set off on my early morning dog walk feeling tense, preoccupied and with a restless mind: how on earth was I going to get the dog walked, get a report finished and get myself spruced up, all in time for a Zoom work meeting at 10 o’clock!?

As usual my dog was pulling me along on her lead as we tore along the pavement, propelled forward. The sense of urgency was matched by the sound of anxious traffic ripping past on the busy road beside me. I was consumed, lost in the rush.

Suddenly my dog stopped – she had found something in the bushes and I felt irritated – but something in me clicked and I came to. I realised I could choose to be present in this moment. I began to notice the tension in my body and relax it, and as I did so, I began to feel more present in my body.

I had found my own space, and I was in it.

As we continued along the pavement I felt expanded – I had a sense of more space around me. I realised that I had enough time to get everything done. The cars and the world were there, but they were separate. I was in my own space, and it felt safe, and it felt good.

In this time of social distancing and having to keep two metres’ space between ourself and others at all times, the idea of space has suddenly become at a premium: it has become the means to ward off threat to life.

For many of us – perhaps all of us – the business of managing our own space has become the focus of our daily lives. With lockdown restrictions we are necessarily spending more time in our own space – be that sharing with others in our household, or living alone.

What does this mean for us? What is ‘my space’ – And what happens when I go outside and have to negotiate my space with other people when they are out shopping, exercising or travelling to essential work?

It can feel triggering because keeping our own space has become a matter of life or death. When our survival is threatened our nervous system goes into arousal –  the fight / flight response. We may feel scared, angry or anxious.

At the same time, we are also defending against isolation and many who are facing lockdown alone are experiencing feelings of loneliness. How can we maintain social connection with others, whilst keeping a safe physical space between us?

I realised how important this feeling of social connection was when I set out to find a less-populated route for my daily dog walk recently, wanting a break from the stress of constantly jumping out of the way of others – I was worn out. And so I found myself in an open space which was pretty much devoid of people – and guess what? I didn’t like it! I don’t want isolation – that can be scary too. I wanted to see people; to feel a connection.

I want that feeling of sharing an experience – I just don’t want them in my space, thank you! Hmm…

So how can we manage this? How can we fulfill our need to feel socially connected, whilst also managing the vital requirement to keep our own space?

And how will this translate when we transition out of lockdown? How can we negotiate our space – our safety – once we return to a more socialised, less restricted world?

‘In Therapy’ on Radio 4

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Susie Orbach

Episode 2: ‘Harriet’

Grief, loss and shame emerge in this episode of the BBC Radio 4 series ‘In Therapy’, in which psychotherapist Susie Orbach explores the unique relationship between therapist and client. We hear the therapist at work, eavesdropping on the most intimate of exchanges. To help us with our understanding of the process, Susie Orbach commentates on what is happening in the room, shining a light on the journey both she and her client have embarked upon.

Click here to listen



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