We all know what it feels like to have our physical boundaries crossed. There you are, in line at the mall, purchasing clothes you will probably never wear. Another shopper comes up behind you and gets so close you can smell what they ate for breakfast. They just can’t help themselves, their sense of personal space is that of your family pet. They are so up your butt you wonder if they don’t see you. You even start to wonder, am I invisible?
Personal boundaries are those invisible comfort zones we have for ourselves. Everyone’s is different. Personally, I like as much space as is possible since I start to feel your presence about a half mile away. By the time you are in speaking range, my body starts to get into defensive mode - arms begin to rise, right leg slides back. It’s nuts, really. Quite unnecessary. But what can I say, better safe than sorry.
I’m not a hand holder at church and I particularly do not appreciate the social practice of kissing (or hugging, for that matter) upon greeting, unless you’re my mom, my guy, or Richard Gere (google him). Others, god bless them, couldn’t read social cues if their life depended on it. You know them. They come in for a lip landing even as you hold your nose. They’re the ones on the train who choose the seat next to you, even though the car is empty. Then, to make matters worse, elbows rubbing, they start to talk. Ugh. What is that?
Anyway, the thing about personal boundaries is we have to know what is right for us. And we have to communicate that information to others. Without appearing rude or antisocial, although there’s a time and a place for everything, we need to let people know where we draw the line. Especially for those who don’t seem to understand the human gap law, we need to let them know the deal. My line strategy is to wait for enough space ahead of me to take a subtle step forward leaving one foot slightly behind. Not really “moving forward” just readjusting my stance. Then I twist around and give the reckless intruder a wink and a nod. It’s simple and usually does the trick.
And then there are those social affairs where people (i.e. guys) seem to think because you are both in the same room, they have a right to kiss you hello. Yeah, no. Like just because you are both invited to your third cousins step brothers sisters’ wedding doesn’t mean you get to smooch. I don’t even know you! And for real relatives? I don’t care. If someone makes you uncomfortable, you are allowed to determine the boundaries you need. You can still maintain “proper manners” –if you must – and do what’s right for you. So, I say, insert defensive stance. As they approach, you can step back with one foot and put out your hand to either to shake (if you choose) or wave. This is the same hand position used in self-defense and it sends a clear boundary signal to STOP.
Try it: Standing, imagine creepy third cousin making his move, now slide your dominant foot back about 6 inches back on a diagonal and wave. It’s totally smooth and highly recommended.
Let’s take it a step further. Now, you are in a situation where someone means you harm. As emphasized in Taking Flight For Girls Going Places, because you are aware of your surroundings 20-30 feet in all directions (page 18 – just sayin) you see them coming. If you are sitting, you stand up immediately. Because you have already determined all possible exits (again, 18), position yourself to head in that direction for a safe escape. As they approach, you position your feet so you are able to gracefully walk away toward the exit, sprint like a cheetah, or strike (kick), if the situation warrants. With feet about shoulder width apart, slide your kicking foot slightly back. Raise your cupped hands to protect your face from any incoming blows and give them the message to stop. At this time, use your voice to let them know you mean business. Say whatever you choose – “STOP,” “GET BACK,” “LEAVE ME ALONE,” or “@#$% %$#”\.” Whatever works for you.
Now is not the time to be polite.
What is your personal comfort zone?
How do you feel when someone is in your personal space?
Your warning signal that your boundaries are crossed comes from within - so you must stay in tune with your gut. Trust it and follow its lead!
Do not dismiss your inner voice. It can save your life. Even if you are with someone you know, or someone who has never given you a problem in the past, you must honor your inner wisdom and follow its lead.
And, while we’re at it, this applies to emotional boundaries as well.
If for any reason you feel uncomfortable, listen to that feeling. It’s telling you something and it’s wicked wise. It can be your personal alarm that your space is being invaded and you need to adjust your position. Whether that means a little fancy footwork at the mall, changing seats in the theater, or hightailing it out of a threatening situation – you have the right and responsibility to yourself to set clear boundaries and be comfortable in your environment.
Kathy Greene Lahey, LMSW, AC, is the author of Taking Flight For Girls Going Places, a preventive tool to help independence-bound girls stay safe, confident, and empowered.