If you get the heebie-jeebies when someone’s in your space bubble, you might be a highly sensitive person.
The need for personal space is somewhat universal. In 2018, Michael Graziano, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, as well as the author of The Spaces Between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature, wrote about it in The Atlantic. He said, “Everyone has a personal space, an instinctive protective zone. We’re always jostling to maintain our own space and to navigate around others’, and the honeycomb of abutting spaces forms the scaffold of our social world.”
For highly sensitive people (HSPs), this need is likely more pronounced. Our physical environment is very important to us — the more overstimulating, the worse it is (for both our emotional and physical states). So we tend to need our space to recharge and recalibrate to a higher degree than your average person.
Since childhood, I can recall having had greater personal space needs than those around me. When people got too close, or wouldn’t respect my need for personal space, I’d shut down. It would creep me out and give me the heebie-jeebies.
Similarly, on a date once, it was hard for me to focus on what the woman was saying. My brain kept declaring its desire for her to move further away. Something didn’t feel right about her body language and how close to me she was standing, this person I’d only just met.
I’d also experienced the same feeling in my car as a Lyft driver, right after passengers (usually men) jumped into the front seat and attempted immediate conversation with only two feet of distance separating our faces. I felt uncomfortable when they did this — especially late at night. Two feet away from me is too close, too soon.
The Research Behind Personal Space
In the 1990s, neuroscientists discovered that peripersonal neurons are the brain cells that fire when objects are in close proximity to our bodies. To that point, Graziano also said in his article:
“In my own experiments, I came to call them bubble-wrap neurons. They monitor invisible bubbles of space, especially around the head and torso, and when they rev up, they trigger defensive and withdrawal reflexes. In the past 10 years, these networks in the human cerebral cortex have been linked to social behavior. They coordinate the unconscious, hidden dance of personal space, computing a margin of safety and nuancing our movements and reactions to others. The mechanism works so smoothly that we don’t usually notice it.”
Of course, “space”’ can be a broad concept. Beyond physical space and environmental psychology, space violation can take the form of demands on your time or the expectation to be available. Graziano said it’s common behavior, yet usually not done in a calculated way. And a study from 2019 also found that when someone’s personal space is violated, it’s associated with discomfort.
If someone is repeatedly dominating a conversation, for example, that’s (in some sense) a violation of conversational space. It can feel like a trampling or hogging of your emotional energy and bandwidth as an HSP.
We probably all know that person who often dominates conversations, asking very few questions about us and generally using the dialogue as a space for their own venting and need for processing. They can do this in person, as well as via text or email. In a way, they’re energy vampires, sucking our highly sensitive souls dry.
And because we HSPs are so empathic, we might be more accustomed to scenarios like these. Providing a listening ear comes naturally to us, and some people take advantage of it — and they’re probably not even aware they’re doing so. We’re already bombarded with overstimulation, and someone taking up our emotional, and physical, space can easily become overwhelming for sensitive people.
How to Make Room for More Personal Space
Sometimes, making room for more personal space doesn’t even require a conversation. Lifestyle adjustments can help us live in alignment with our needs.
For instance, unless I know them extremely well, I have a hard time taking trips with people, or even carpooling with them. So for a while, I’d take my own car to events so that I could leave whenever I wanted to. Knowing that I had an out (should I have needed it) gave me peace of mind. I’ve heard other HSPs express similar sentiments — since reducing overstimulation and overwhelm is key for us.
Other examples include how I choose tables with a fair amount of distance from other restaurant patrons. If someone is sitting too close to me, I scoot my chair back. I also try to be careful about pacing when it comes to dating, to reduce the likelihood of “too close, too soon” alarm bells sounding. And yet another adjustment I made was discontinuing Lyft driving, in part because the job wasn’t sustainable for someone with personal space issues.
I overheard a Lyft passenger say this once: “To take care of me, I gotta be alone. No one else can be around. Otherwise, I can’t hear what I’m thinking. And I do a bunch of stupid stuff because I’m just so separated from who I really am. I’m like, well, if I can’t hear what I’m saying to myself, my only other option is to listen to what everyone else is telling me to do. F*&% that.”
Like that passenger, many HSPs thrive in places that allow us the space to hear our own thoughts. When we can’t, it’s unnerving. For me personally, it feels like an invisible cord between my mouth and my mind has been cut. Personal space helps me feel more grounded.
Nature is also a common recharge space for sensitive people. I frequently spend time at a redwood grove by my house. I’ve also driven until my surroundings became unfamiliar and I felt as though I’d been transported into a different world. This, too, can help soothe highly sensitive people’s souls in terms of getting more personal (and emotional and physical) space.
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Communicating Your HSP Need for Space to Others
Sometimes, getting our personal space needs met requires a conversation, or explicitly stating it. In other words, being direct. This can be difficult for HSPS, though, since we may feel like we’re being “rude” or hurting someone’s feelings if we’re direct with them. Even though, the reality is, we really wouldn’t be. Being direct is often the best approach and can be done politely.
Otherwise, by not stating our needs — particularly in the direct aftermath of conflict with someone — it can cross the line into stonewalling, which can be painful for the other person. As Steven Stosny, Ph.D., and founder of CompassionPower, writes in an article for Psychology Today, “Different from an occasional timeout to calm down or collect your thoughts, stonewalling is absolute refusal to consider your partner’s perspective. If you listen at all, you do it dismissively or contemptuously.”
Naturally, stonewalling and avoidance are harmful to relationships. As Dr. John Gottman, of The Gottman Institute, said, “The second behavior that predicts divorce with over 90% accuracy is stonewalling.”
We can try to be mindful that stonewalling, and putting up a shield, is not the same as setting boundaries. The latter, and the compassion that comes with setting them, involves deep attunement to one’s inner self and others. Shields are the opposite — they are reactive and autopilot-esque as opposed to proactive and mindful.
It’s a fine balance to strike, because it’s also easy to swing to the other end of the extreme and veer into aggression. If you need more personal space — in any form — consider saying something like the following.
- If you need some alone time, you can say: “I’m going to need a few hours to myself. I don’t want you to think I’m ignoring you during that time. Afterwards, I’ll be able to be more present with you when we spend time together.”
- If you need some physical space, you can say: “I feel claustrophobic when others are too close to me. Would you mind scooting your chair back?”
- In response to the “hogging of conversational space” example above, you can say: “I enjoy hearing about what’s going on in your life, but I’d like to talk about what’s going on in mine, too.”
Notice that, in all of the above, I use “I” statements. That way, you don’t blame the other person for how you’re feeling, but take accountability for it instead (which will make them less defensive if they do take your need for space personally).
How You Communicate Your Need for Space Differs From Person to Person
How you communicate your need for space also depends largely on personal style. For me, the closer I am with a person, the more of an explanation I tend to want to provide them with. I like to help them understand that it’s not personal. An explanation will also help them get a clearer understanding of my need rather than just taking in a vague statement that might sound like an excuse.
Maybe you’re more comfortable saying less, though — especially if this is someone you don’t know as well. In that case, you can keep it brief. Like with anything, practice makes perfect, and it will get easier the more you do it.
Taking space is a need like any other. It’s one that we have to honor sometimes in order to reinstate our equilibrium or go back to functioning as our optimal, most grounded sensitive selves.
When I come back from those getaways I mentioned above, for instance, I feel recharged. I feel more like me. I’m reconnected to myself once I’ve honored my needs, no longer feeling like I’m floating away into the ether.
Taking personal space allows us to become more clear about how we really think and feel, unswayed by how others may want us to feel. Afterwards, we’re better able to reenter into an interaction or situation with a clearer head and diminished reactivity.
We can take space for ourselves, and become more comfortable communicating this need to others. All the while, it will help nourish our highly sensitive souls and help them stay intact — which is the whole goal. It will not only benefit us, but others, as well.
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