– Joachim, could you say…?
– No! I’m leaving in 10 minutes!
The answer came fast as lightning. I was in a hurry, quite stressed and needed to pack the last items before leaving home. I knew I didn’t have enough capacity to both prepare the packing and handle the requests of my partner at the same time.

This was not the first time. I’ve been in similar situations many times before. I’m preparing to leave home and I am occupied doing lots of other things. Suddenly time is tight and I need to concentrate on packing to catch up. Recently, I have noticed that I’m better at protecting my space by expressing my boundaries very clearly. I seem to be able to do this without blaming or judging. (I’ve asked for feedback that confirms my view.)

Physical and mental space

Thinking about the need for space, what comes to my mind is both the physical and mental need for space. When it comes to physical space, my preferred distance to others varies depending on the context. Close friends can get very close, while the distance becomes greater in more formal circumstances. I’ve been to concerts where it’s been so crowded I couldn’t move and it’s been perfectly fine. In other contexts, I have felt unsafe if I’ve been closer than 10 metres from a person who for some reason makes me feel uncomfortable.

When I’m in a hurry or stressed, my need for space, as I described above, becomes extremely obvious. It could also be about other situations when I have been overwhelmed for some reason. Sometimes when I’ve processed something vulnerable or gone through a mourning process, I need time to reflect and digest the experience. It usually works fine to tell people that I need some space in these moments. When things have calmed down or I have processed what was going on inside, I have more mental space and a greater capacity to respond to other people.

Fight or flight

When we are squeezed and our need for space is not met, our nervous system becomes exposed to stress. Cortisol and other stress hormones are released and our bodies get ready for fight or flight. All our energy is used to attack others, defend ourselves or to run away. Our prefrontal cortex, where our reasoning and logical decision-making resides, shuts down. We become “a little more stupid” and make quick decisions without thinking about future consequences.

This automatic system has been excellent for our evolutionary survival as humans. If we hadn’t had this system – like all mammals – we would have gone extinct a long time ago. The downside is that many of us no longer live in the same life-threatening environment as the savannah. Most of the stressful situations we face in our modern world are not life-threatening. However, our brain still reacts as if we met a lion wanting us as their next meal.

Space and sustainability

The more I can take care of and fulfil my need for space, the more present I can be. When stress hormones are not constantly activating my protective system, I have greater access to the rational and logical “human brain”. I will make more sustainable and long-term decisions. This benefits both myself, people around me and, by extension, society at large.

I can support myself and others by creating space and time for recovery. To raise our capacity for perspective taking benefits us – both on an individual and a collective level. In these times of pandemic, war, energy crisis, economic inflation and possible recession, it is easy for us as individuals but also for political and economic decision makers to act out of stress. Sometimes we are in a hurry and need to act immediately to deal with urgent situations. However, I believe that we would benefit significantly from breathing, taking a break and perhaps sleeping on the matter before making crucial decisions.

Do you make sure you have enough space for your well-being?

Leave a comment below or, if you are a Premium subscriber of “The Needs’ Year”, at the online platform: https://empathiceurope.com/online/courses/the-needs-year/modules/week-30/ 


Joachim Berggren (CNVC Certified Trainer)

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On 7 August at 12:00-12:45 CEST, you can participate in a Zoom Talk with me and Kristiina Krank. We will talk about the need for space.

Sign up for the Needs’ Year and you will receive a link to Zoom.

If you read this afterwards, you can watch the recording when you become a premium subscriber. Check the details HERE.

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