Experiencing Personal Growth through Physical Spaces (Chapter 4)


Here’s chapter 4 of the book I started posting chapters of a few weeks ago.

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”
– Anatole France –
The physical spaces you occupy throughout your life can lead to profound changes and significant personal growth in your internal (mental, emotional, and spiritual) spaces, or they can hold you back. If you understand how these spaces are intertwined, you’ll have more angles from which to tackle areas of your life that you want to change. It’s up to you to look closely at the choices only you can make, and determine if any of your spaces are gently (or intensely) inviting you toward a different kind of experience that, whether you realize it or not, you are ready for.

Completely Revamping Your Spaces

When I met Jason, he was being kicked out of the apartment he’d lived in for the past 20 years (at a nice low rent, mind you). His landlord was planning on renovating it for his daughter and her husband, who were soon-to-be parents. Jason was self-employed and didn’t have a lot of money. Plus, one of the reasons we bonded was because we both had lots of unresolved issues from our childhoods—so besides depression, there were other emotions this eviction was triggering in him. One night after (a purely platonic) dinner, I ended up at Jason’s apartment. Not only was it cluttered and dirty (from Jason’s things in the space), but it was also dark, dingy, dusty, and somewhat dilapidated. Jason had also implemented some interesting “workarounds” to make the space better align with his desires. For example, since the real bedroom faced the street and made it too noisy for him to sleep late, his bed was in the center of the dining room.
As Jason and I talked more about his impending move and what it triggered for him, we discovered lack of money as a really sore spot. Practically speaking, he didn’t make a lot and the low rent was a nice balance to that. But why didn’t he try to do something to try and make more money? Why did he feel comfortable living in a space that was in total disarray? That went deep, back to what he experienced growing up. At one point during our conversations—and somewhat for practical reasons—Jason decided that not only would he have to spend more money on his living space, but that he could; he even deserved a nice place to live. He could stop being loyal to his parents by choosing to live in filth. He would just have to make more money to offset what he had to spend!
Several years later, you wouldn’t recognize Jason as the person I just described. He has the nicest apartment in a quiet building with an attentive landlord. It is well organized; the bed is actually in the bedroom, and so on. More importantly, Jason has become a successful, self-published author and public speaker. Jason’s re-framing of this initially negative, unexpected situation about a physical space into a positive intention in his mental and emotional spaces impacted both his professional and his personal life in ways he never expected.
My friend Paige has a different story, but a similar result. She was living alone in a large house in the suburbs. Divorced with a grown son, she resented her living space. She didn’t like being obligated to pay for repairs (when she’d rather spend the money traveling or shopping) and hated that she was so far away from downtown Boston where she could potentially meet new people. Plus, it just didn’t reflect who she was anymore. She had changed, but her living space still reflected her old life, her old personality, her old dreams and fears. Like losing weight and still wearing clothes that were too big, the house didn’t fit.
It took a little while to work through some resistance in her mental and emotional spaces, but the dissonance she felt eventually pushed her to make a change. And once Paige decided to change her physical surroundings, boy, did she ever! Paige sold her house—along with practically everything in it—and started completely fresh with an apartment in a prime location in the city. She bought all new furniture, and decorated it to reflect who she is today and who she wanted to be tomorrow. Paige became a real city gal—walking to whatever shops or parks she pleased, enjoying the Boston skyline from her third floor window, making new friends, and thinking about what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. In less than a year, she started studying to get certified in a new field, and one of her neighbors is now the (fabulous!) boyfriend, who she moved with to California the following year. While all the changes present some challenges, Paige is still happier than I have ever seen her.
Thought Experiments
  • What “big leap” is in the back of your mind that you’re fearful about taking? What is really holding you back? Try to dig beyond the circumstantial for what is really at the root of your resistance.
  • Are there changes you could make to your physical, mental, emotional spaces that would nudge you in the direction you ultimately want to go? Consider taking any step—even a small one—and being open to how it affects your life (and your feelings about your life).

Subtle Evolution through Space Changes

The first house I remember living in was in a town called Wapwallopen, in Pennsylvania. As you can probably tell by its name, this place was about an hour away from a grocery store, and our street address was a “rural route” number. To get to school, I had to walk to the bottom of my street, board a big yellow bus, and ride about a half hour before switching buses in a slightly larger town called Mocanaqua. After another half hour or so, I arrived at school (generally pretty nauseous). Aside from socializing with other children in school, this meant that most of my interactions were with my (mostly unavailable) parents, a dog, and a (frequently missing) cat. Whether I was playing inside or outside, I was usually playing alone.
When I was between the ages of ten and twelve, we squatted in an apartment my grandparents had upstairs from their own house, while a builder was working on a new house for us in a more populated town. While I had my grandparents around to play with for those couple of years, I still had limited interactions with kids my age; I never got together with any friends outside the classroom. So when we moved into the new place, and there were kids galore in the neighborhood, I was very excited at the idea of having regular playmates. That is, until I realized just how much I didn’t fit in.
Although I was the oldest kid on the street, I hadn’t been exposed to much that was popular, and I didn’t have any of the things others did (for example, a grown-up bike). I didn’t know how to play some of the games they played, and I didn’t know what Legos were. I hadn’t ever had cable, so I didn’t know what Nickelodeon was, or any of the TV shows that happened to be popular at the time. I flip-flopped between the foreign world of the one other girl on the street who was close to my age (who exposed me to Chinese food, makeup, sleep-overs, and boys as “interests”), and the younger boys and girls who were still riding dirt bikes, playing in the half-built houses on the street, and doing cannonballs into swimming pools.  I spent a lot of time trying to work through the way I was, and trying to resolve it with the way I was expected to be. Looking back, I believe my mental and emotional development was hindered in my first couple of physical spaces because they were so removed from communities. In this new house, however, I felt that gap distinctly, and rushed to catch up (likely missing some important lessons in my haste).
Perhaps my friend Jane provides a clue: she still lives in the same house she grew up in. When she talks about her home, she admits it hasn’t really changed much over the years. Jane has never experienced a drastic change in her physical space like Paige or Jason did, nor has she evolved through natural space “evolutions”, as I was forced to. Jane has experienced her share of suffering within the walls of her consistent physical space, as she’s watched several cherished family members leave this life and got laid off from her job. Yet she’s still there, in the same house (alone and by herself now), admitting that neither shenor her situation haven’t changed much either. Given these anecdotes, I’m becoming more convinced that people need someamount of movement through different physical spaces to start or accelerate personal growth in their mental and emotional spaces.


Thought Experiments
  • Think back to the physical spaces you’ve occupied over the years. Have you stayed in one place, or many? How do you think that movement (or lack thereof) among physical spaces positively and/or negatively impacted the development of your mental and emotional spaces?
  • What life lessons has your current physical space helped you experience? What transformations has it brought about in you? Are you content with how much you’ve changed and grown, or do you feel as though you could use a push? In the latter case, you don’t necessarily need to move. Brainstorm and explore some new aspects of your current physical space or community, and see what that does for you!
  • If you’re moving in the near future, take a moment to think about the potential opportunities this change to your physical space presents for your mental and emotional growth. If you have any fear or resistance to the change, does that provide you with any clues about the areas where you could really challenge yourself?

Rescuing Yourself from Toxic Spaces

A physical space I keep returning to in my mind and heart, the one I feel almost compelled to return to, is that house my parents built from scratch when I was between ten and twelve years old. There’s something inside me that says I need to do this to really process, accept, and forgive what happened there, so I can let go of my childhood pain and experience real joy in my life.
One evening I was feeling rather spent. I was recovering from one of those terribly clingy summer colds as well as babying a new tattoo, so when I sat down on my therapist’s love seat, I was willing to do whatever she asked as long as it didn’t require much energy. For a few years Bonnie and I had been talking about my parts (a concept from the Internal Family Systems model): for example, I have a part that gets annoyed and frustrated at my rate of “progress”, another part that comes out as sarcastic, thinking all these theories of “inner children” are bogus, and so on. But the theory says that underneath all those parts (which are created to protect a person at a difficult point in their life) is a wise and true Self—a Self that knows how best to take care of you now. So, if I could get all my parts to temporarily step aside, my Self could return to that house and really listen to and acknowledge the twelve-year old girl who suffered there.
Since I was physically exhausted that night, my parts seemed less active, and in my mind I started picturing that physical space. What did the rooms look like and how were they linked? What did the furniture look like and where was it placed? As I moved through my visualization of the house, I paused in a corner of the kitchen—probably because I recently found a photograph of myself at that very spot. What were my feelings? I know I had just stopped crying in the picture, but why? I made some guesses about that, and tried to imagine my Self approaching this little girl. I must say, the experience was a bit surreal; looking at myself from another time, in another place, as if I were someone else. I did something I never thought I’d be able to do—I embraced her, stroked her hair and told her that her parents were gone, and that there really wasn’t anything or anyone left in the house that could hurt her. I removed all the strict boundaries so she could freely play, explore, and just generally be a child. And if anyone did threaten to come in, she wouldn’t have to worry about it—I was there to protect her, and I would. She could relax and go to sleep at night, instead of feeling the need to be vigilant and overreacting to every noise. I would love her and keep her safe. When our visit was over, she (and I) felt a peace we’ve never experienced before.
In this case, a physical space from my childhood had made significant, negative impressions on my mental and emotional spaces, which continued to affect me in my adult life. Yet, I was able to use the strength of these same internal spaces to visualize and acknowledge what I experienced in that place and time. It took me a long time to accept the need and the courage to do this, but when I finally did, I felt more relaxed, confident, and at ease with life.

Thought Experiments
  • You don’t have to have had a challenging childhood to have impressions from your early physical spaces manifest themselves in your mental and emotional spaces today. What experiences from your past might you be holding on to? How do these experiences manifest themselves to you and others in your life who you now share physical spaces with?
  • If you accept the idea that your physical, mental, and emotional spaces are closely intertwined, does this give you any new ideas about how to deal with hardship you’ve experienced? If you’ve tried tackling an issue through an internal (mental or emotional) space, for example, can you turn your attention to a physical one to try and resolve it (or vice versa)? Listen to yourself, and try giving yourself what you need.

Establishing Balance in All Your Spaces

When my husband and I were newly engaged, we decided to sell our individual condos and purchase a single family home. We found a realtor, talked about our requirements, and started looking. After being disappointed by a few older houses that had small rooms or strange layouts, the three of us decided we should focus on new construction. After walking through a few more places, we found a street where three new houses were being built (by the same person who built my condo). When we explored the model home something just clicked—though it didn’t meet all of our requirements, deep down we both felt as though the house just fitus. I think that because the house was very similar to our condos, it felt familiar, and helped reduce the stress we were feeling from all the change we were experiencing in our lives. On some level, we probably feared doing something more drastic!
    Fast forward a few months, after the closing and our initial move into the house. We’d had lots of negotiations about space, and made almost as many purchases. Like many new homeowners, we had a plan to “finish” each room, replacing old sofas, adding accent pieces, and hanging pictures.
One day I was in the guest bathroom and happened to look out into the hallway. Something inside me whispered, “this isn’t your home” and “this is someone else’s house, what are you doing here?” (This was a disturbingly surreal experience I had been having off and on for several months, in different rooms. And it seemed odd to me, given how strongly I had loved the house before it was even finished!)  But when I looked out at the hardwood floor, and the French door that marked the entrance to the third floor, I somehow knew what I was really wondering: “who am I?” I had never expected to be married, or to have a house—like “normal” people. I was the one whose self-sabotaging relationships never worked out. I had gotten very used to being on my own, and liked my independent lifestyle. My very identity was being altered by this physical transition, and subconsciously I was asking myself that question every day. I don’t think it was a bad thing; I wasn’t feeling regret. I was starting to question my underlying beliefs about who I thought I was and where I thought I’d be.
    I also fondly remember one moment when I felt more at ease in my new life. Two summers after we moved in, we replaced our grill (a tiny, Weber Baby-Q I had bought for my condo) with a new one, worthy of the larger deck. My colleagues had given us matching Adirondack chairs as a wedding present, so we put those on the deck too. Then came potted plants—for some reason I got a wild hair to plant some lettuce in rectangular flower boxes, one of my staff gave me tomato plants, and I tried planting sunflower seeds. Finally, an impromptu trip to Pier One that day had us driving home with two little deck tables, the tops of which had colored mosaic tiles that (coincidentally) matched flowers we recently planted in the back. After putting those tables in their places, I sat in one of the chairs to rest with a glass of water, and felt this overwhelming feeling of “done” wash over me. I felt almost embraced, like I sort of belonged where I was. I tried to enjoy that feeling!
At the time, we’d been buying new things left and right, and my husband had given me pretty much free reign to decorate the house as I pleased. I think because my physical space now reflected more of my personality, I started to feel safer. I got really hooked on all the TV design shows and tried to be more adventurous with color, texture, patterns, shine. I collected lots of things to “improve” my physical space, thinking that it would help me retain that contented and happy feeling in my mental and emotional spaces. But in another six months or so, these things lost their power, and I ended up back at that original question: “who am I?
I initially drafted this section from my room at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, which I like to visit when I can. Like many things, the rooms one stays in there are minimalist in design. The beds are essentially mattresses on platforms, low to the floor. When you arrive, you’ll find on it a pillow, a folded flat sheet, a blanket, two towels and a wash cloth—all white. The walls are dorm-room like cinder blocks, and with the exception of a newly painted one in a dark brown accent and a single piece of art hung on one, they are also all white. There’s a white sink, a few mirrors, an oak dresser and one nightstand between the two beds. The closet is a bar with wooden hangers, with some extra blankets and pillows on the shelf above it. That’s it. And this (shared) room might be the size of some people’s walk-in closets, or master bathrooms. Yet, it’s perfect. I never feel like I need anything in this space. I feel relaxed and completely at peace. I have lots of space to contemplate things and just be. The fact that this physical space was in total contrast to my home, where I spent a lot of time and effort decorating, wasn’t lost on me.
There might always be one other piece of furniture, rug, work of art, or accent piece I will think I need to feel happy and whole in my home, but I understand now that acquiring nice things for my physical space won’t ever provide lasting satisfaction in my mental, emotional or spiritual ones. To find my true Self, and to love myself and my new life, I need to balance the time and effort I put into “decorating” all of my spaces.

Thought Experiments
  • How much effort are you putting into creating fabulous physical spaces? How does that compare to the time, money, and energy you spend improving your mental, emotional, or spiritual ones? Is there balance, or are things way out of whack? If there are imbalances, in what ways are they impacting you, and what steps can you take to even things out?
  • Are you using things, or the designs of your physical spaces, to help you avoid or to cope with necessary changes in your internal spaces? Pause for a moment to consider what will make you truly “happy”.
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