Space: Why Connecting Can Be Scary

As much as I hate to admit it, I sometimes find myself humming the new Nick Jonas tune without my own consent. Nick Jonas is fine I guess- I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but this song has dug into my skull like an earthworm burying itself to escape the clutches of beaked death. There’s this lyric that reverberates in my head, no matter how hard I try to change the channel:

“cause space was just a word made up by someone who’s afraid to get close…”

This lyric hit me square in the chest the first time I heard it. Being Italian and from the Chicagoland area, “space” is like a dirty word to me. I crave closeness and intimacy the same way Seattleites crave coffee and flannel. It’s in my blood.

Sometimes “Space” Feels Easier

I haven’t always been accepting or welcoming to my very human need for emotional connection with others. I, like many people, put up walls- guarding my internal experience like one of the men in fuzzy hats outside of Buckingham palace. Those guys are fun to look at, but if you try and get past them, there’s going to be trouble.

This guardedness was rooted in the fear of being vulnerable, because that would mean risking emotional harm from others. I had this idea that if I kept my emotions to myself, then no one could hurt me with misunderstanding, non-acceptance, judgment, or worst of all, abandonment. If no one was close to me, then they couldn’t leave me.

This tactic worked for me for a long time-until it didn’t anymore. I felt protected in my bubble of space, except that the wall I built around me was like a playground for my already anxious temperament to run wild. When I went away to college, my anxiety hit an all-time high, and I found myself seeking help for more than regular panic attacks and intense emotional loneliness.

What’s so interesting about when I finally started to share with the people in my life that I was struggling, so many had no idea. This is probably due in part to the one-sidedness of my emotional wall. I would welcome others to be vulnerable, but I would not give the same in return (due to the aforementioned fear of being hurt). “Space” kept me from being hurt by others, but it also kept me isolated with my emotional struggles and as lonely as if I were floating out in space with only the stars to keep me company.

Risking Closeness

It wasn’t until I started to take emotional risks and taking down my walls that this changed. The more I shared about how I was feeling with others (including my anxieties, fears, sense of inadequacy, insecurities, etc) the more emotional closeness and connectedness I felt- a stark contrast to the lonely isolation I was experiencing before. I wasn’t “safe” anymore, but I was definitely happier.

Taking risks didn’t happen overnight. I was really afraid of opening up at first- kind of like when I was first learning to drive on the highway. It took a lot of practice, but eventually I learned to master the racing of my heart when being vulnerable the same way I learned how to check my mirrors when merging in one fluid motion.

What if All Falls Apart?

I don’t want to make it sound like vulnerability/closeness is all sunshine and rainbows- the process of emotional vulnerability hasn’t always gone well for me. My fear of being hurt or being abandoned by others has definitely been realized as a result of me sharing my feelings, including a really messy fallout with a friend whom I sadly no longer have in my life. This was an incredibly difficult experience, and at the same time, a huge learning/growing opportunity for me. It helped me become more aware of how to choose the people that I invite closeness with, and how to not internalize the negative reactions of others as somehow meaning my feelings are not valid.

Overall, I would advocate that the risk of being hurt is worth the resulting closeness of being real and vulnerable with people. It’s definitely messier, and I’m not perfect at it, but I feel more secure and at ease with myself by allowing other people to really know me.

But What About Boundaries?

Boundaries are a constant topic in therapy for most people. For those who don’t know, boundaries are extremely important in relationships because they help you have a sense of your own needs and how to advocate for them while also respecting the needs of others. I have seen that one of the biggest reasons that people want space (other than the fear of being hurt) is because of the risk of “losing themselves” or having poor boundaries with others.

I would argue that too much “space” contributes to poor or rigid boundaries. (What?! How can this be?!)

When we distance ourselves emotionally from others, it can be easy to confuse our emotions for theirs. Have you ever been around someone who is feeling something intensely (sadness, anxiety, etc), and then found yourself feeling the same way for no apparent reason? I like to call this phenomenon being an “emotional vacuum” — when you don’t have a relationship where emotions and disagreements are discussed openly, it becomes very easy to take on the emotions of others and have difficulty differentiating your “stuff” from theirs. This is called having an “enmeshed” or “weak” emotional boundary. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed and constantly emotionally fatigued- making closeness feel like work.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, space can make it so that you can’t relate to others and makes it difficult to understand their emotional experience or perspective. This leads to what are called “rigid” boundaries, which can contribute to a lack of empathy and inability to emotionally connect.

Besides loneliness, too much “space” and rigid emotional boundaries can have really negative consequences, not only for the individual, but also in society. I can’t help but notice through the recent media coverage of politically charged events (i.e. Black Lives Matter, gun control debates, LGBTQ rights, rape culture, etc) that “space” seems to be a key component in the inability for people to perspective take and access empathy for others. When we guard ourselves from our own emotions by not sharing them with others, we are also guarding ourselves from being able to connect with others in their emotional experiences. When we have so much “space,” there is room for hate and rigidness to take solid root in our fear.

How to Have Closeness

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that it is bad to want some space sometimes. It can be highly beneficial to get some alone time to reconnect with your internal experience and have some time to recharge. I am also someone who really appreciates alone time, and am easily overwhelmed if I don’t get some time to myself to process and think without the influence of others.

With that said, I’m inviting you to experiment and play with initiating more closeness in your relationships by allowing yourself to be open and direct about what you are feeling. This can look like being honest with a friend about something they said that has been bothering you (risky, I know!). It can mean telling your partner what you really appreciate about them and what they do to make you feel loved. It can look like choosing to connect with friends and telling them when you are struggling emotionally rather than isolating. It can be as bold as to “out yourself” when you are feeling insecure in a relationship, and ask the other person for feedback about your insecurities.

Whatever it is you choose to do, do so with an open heart and let your defenses down. Call off the fuzzy hat guards and be brave enough to let people into your “space.” You might be surprised at how well people receive you and how much closer your relationships feel.