How to Renegotiate Your Physical and Psychological Space

How to Renegotiate Your Physical and Psychological Space

by Allison Hart, M.A. and Psychological Assistant

It’s been several weeks now since Californians were issued a “shelter in place” ordinance that resulted in millions working from home, beside one another, for the first time ever. These drastic and necessary measures happened at lightning speed, leaving most of us without a basic understanding of or ability to prepare for how our daily lives would be affected, for better and for worse. Some of us have more time. Some of us are working in pajamas. Some of us can now use our kitchen throughout the day to eat (or not) healthier meals. There have also been some adjustment issues. In talking with therapy clients and friends, a common struggle among us seems to be renegotiating our physical and psychological space with loved ones. Just a few weeks ago, we each had a routine that separated our lives more categorically throughout the day: we had work time, driving time, decompressing/alone time, and friends and family time. We built our routines around these sections of our day. Most importantly, the people we lived with knew our routines. But now, we are forced to change our routines. There is a lack of separation between work and home life. I’ve found that communication around these changes is key. Some of us are used to putting on our “work hats.” This means we had some control over when we responded to texts or calls from partners, family, or roommates. Now, the very people we live with can walk into our work space, or we into theirs. Some of us are used to pacing around while on conference calls, but now our pacing encroaches on someone else’s mental and physical space. We’ve all lost something here – we’ve lost some control over our space and we’ve lost the time it takes to go between one place to the next. How many of you have finished work at the end of the day and only had to walk to your couch to signal that you’re “done for the day?” We’ve lost time to decompress on a commute – listening to good music or a favorite podcast, catching up on with a friend the phone, or simply enjoying the silence. 

Signs that you need to start negotiating your space

Here are some signals that it’s time to communicate about your personal space and time needs: if you’re experiencing greater irritability, higher tension, or tightness in your stomach and chest; if you’re noticing that the little things annoy you more frequently or more intensely than before; if you’re feeling more claustrophobic than normal; if you’re wishing for silence and stillness or feeling sad knowing you’ve lost something but can’t quite put a finger on what it is; and if you’re wanting more control over your environment than you currently possess. Sometimes you may find yourself overeating to self-soothe while feeling these ways too. These feelings and thoughts are difficult to have. Not only have our lives changed quickly, but we are now pushed to communicate how those changes have affected us. We are forced to learn more about ourselves and the people we live with. How do we want to operate from home? How have our needs changed as a result of this shelter-in-place? What have we noticed that we didn’t know before about the people we live with? How can we talk about these observations and feelings without hurting each other’s feelings?

Starting the Conversation and Adjusting Your Expectations

While I know that most of us are still in shock and have struggled to turn our feelings into words, it’s time to start trying – and it’s okay if you mess it up. There are two types of space we need to maintain for the well-being of ourselves and our relationships: physical and psychological space. 

Physical space negotiations include setting boundaries and rules for interacting in the common spaces we share and learning how to designate personal physical space areas. This may look like having separate workstations, a meditation/reading/zone out corner,  not facing one another nor sitting beside each other when social engagement is less preferred, or creating a personal “I’m decompressing” space and “need to be left alone” space. It’s okay to ask your partner not to talk to you while you’re in “work mode.” It’s okay to pretend you’re both at work, and instead communicate through text message from different rooms as if you’re in the office. This sounds silly, but it reduces pressure to respond to each other just because you’re in closer physical proximity. It’s okay to share that you need some alone time during a lunch break. Sometimes you may be up for conversation on a work break, but other times you might need to be present for your meal, view social media updates, or stream 15 minutes of your favorite TV show. We also need to give ourselves and others permission to have changing needs and abilities every day. I suggest you have an agreement with your people that the number one “rule” is: we get to check-in regularly about needs and preferences and how they might change day-to-day. A golden nugget of wisdom for maintaining your mental health while sharing physical space is to not take things personally – tell yourself that the higher irritability you’re seeing in someone is their response to this adjustment and not to you; tell yourself that this person is allowed to have sensitive days or changing needs, just like you do; allow yourself and others to have wider margins of error because we are all learning new things about ourselves during our quarantine-like experience.

Psychological space is harder to communicate, but it’s just as important. One of you may be overloaded by media and looking for a quiet, rejuvenating day, while the other wants to stream the news in a common area for 24 hours. One of you may be ready to discuss difficult feelings, while the other needs to be in a practical mindset. These are not easy compromises to navigate. Now is the time to make some key statements to each other that honor each of your needs and capacities without turning the other into an enemy:

Example statements to assess psychological capacity/space: 

  • “I’ve noticed that you’re in a space today where you’re trying to take in a lot of information and then share it with me. I woke up today feeling overwhelmed by news and negative information and I really need a break. I know we aren’t on the same page. How can we both get fed today?”
    • Some solutions to this particular problem: wear headphones when watching the news; take your space in separate rooms; play light music in the background to tune out noise from other rooms; instead of watching the news, read it; go on walks and take a seat outside – don’t bring your phone along so you’re not tempted by impulse; plan an activity to do together that has absolutely nothing to do with the pandemic – table games, a puzzle, read the same book and come together to talk about it, take a walk and practice “silence” together by being physically present but not forcing each other to talk.
  • “Are you available to chat right now? It’s okay if you’re not.”
  • “On your lunch break, can you catch up or do you need some space?”
  • “Let me know when you are available, I have some things to share with you.” 
  • “It’s hard to feel disconnected while we are sharing so much space. I’m sorry that this is hard for us.”
  • “I’ve noticed you’ve been more irritable lately. I feel like I’m the receiver of that. It hurts, and at the same time I know this isn’t your norm and I’m trying not to take it personally. Maybe I’m more sensitive too. I just want to remind you that I’m your friend, and I’m here to listen. You don’t need to bottle anything up. If there’s a way I can be flexible to make you more comfortable, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.” 

Giving each other space to feel emotions – or not – is an important temperature to guage with loved ones. It’s important we don’t demand people “be happier,” “snap out of it,” or “join in the misery” if that’s not the psychological space the are experiencing at the time. If a roommate, family member, or partner is sad, angry, or frustrated, let them move through those feelings naturally. Ask if there’s anything you can get for them (water? a cookie?). Ask if they want to be left alone. Ask if they want a hug. If you’re finding it’s difficult for you to see a loved one struggle, that may be a sign that you need to ask yourself what you’re feeling around this hard time. It’s possible that you don’t want to see other people struggle because it’s reminding you that you too are struggling. To maintain your own mental health, you may need to take some action in your own life that depend on your loved one being in the same head space as you. Some simple things you can do are: 

  • Lay down next to each other and speak your feelings out-loud without trying to problem solve them. Sometimes all people need to hear is, “That really sucks. I’m sorry you’re feeling so down.”
  • Remind your loved ones that there is no pressure to hold it “emotionally together” right now, especially if they’ve spent all day working and putting away their negative feelings in order to show up for life.
  • Write a little love or support note and stick it on their door or somewhere in a common space where they can read it when they’re ready.
  • Let someone know that while you want to discuss emotions, you feel tapped out and need to be present for your to-do list. Don’t blame them for being emotional, and don’t blame yourself for feeling numb or in a more analytical state. Once people know our boundaries, they are more likely to see if they can get what they need from someone else – we all need more than one supportive person in our lives and we need to start utilizing our entire social support network at this time. 

Right now, it’s incredibly important to be flexible with one another and ourselves. Everyone is doing the best they can with what they have, and we are all operating on different levels of mental and physical capacity depending on the day. Communication will go a long way in helping each other accept the current situation and adapt to it as smoothly as is possible.  

Allison takes an integrative approach to providing therapy with the goal of meeting her clients where they feel most authentically themselves. If you’re interested in working with Allison, contact us at or 415-632-1010. 

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