Protecting and Respecting Spaces (Chapter 8)

Here’s chapter 8, the last chapter of my unfinished book. Thank you to all who read it. I hope you enjoyed it. Now I can put it down.


“…it’s important to be in balance. To not let fear get in the way of things, to not worry so much about protecting yourself all the time.”
– John Frusciante –
Many behaviors stem from a need to protect your home (and its surrounding areas), as well as your internal boundaries. These needs can bring up feelings and emotions that are unnecessary automatic defenses, established at a time when they were needed to see you through something difficult. Or, they may result from completely reasonable (yet unmet) expectations of respect from people with whom you interact. The past can help explain some of the “why’s” behind your reactions, and may be enlightening to consider—especially for those of you wanting to better navigate your physical and emotional surroundings.

Aural Intrusions

Noise is something I try to protect myself against, regardless of the environment I’m in. Still, noise manifests in my life daily, in different ways: the neighbor’s kids running around and being encouraged by their screaming, cooing parents while I’m trying to peacefully sunbathe in our back yard, my husband blaring music videos while I’m trying to write, colleagues chatting loudly in the hallways or on speakerphones when I’m needing to concentrate on something complex, and so on. While I might chalk this aversion up to “getting old”, I also think that whenever something (like true “peace and quiet”) is scarce, you just end up craving it more.
But in the spirit of being more emotionally accepting of whatever comes into my physical environment, the fundamental question to ask is, “why am I so sensitive to noise?” That’s an easy one: noise occurring in my house growing up was never a good thing. It was most often at night when trying to sleep that I would hear noises that sounded like my parents fighting. When I was around twelve years old it became my job to leap out of bed, run downstairs, and “break it up”. I felt that if I threw myself into the middle of the argument, no one would end up getting hurt. So now, especially at night, I feel an overwhelming need to respond vigilantly to any little noise I hear. What’s worse is that as an adult, all the feelings of anger and resentment that I felt toward my parents for putting this responsibility on me comes out too. My emotional sensitivity to noise (and how I respond to it) can make the most easygoing roommates crazy!  Like any undesirable habit, I logically recognize this behavior is no longer necessary and that I need to change, but in practice it’s not so easily done. Check out the “Thought Experiments” below for some of techniques I have tried to lighten up about auditory intrusions.
Thought Experiments
  • Whenever you’re distracted by a noise in one of your environments, repeat an affirmation. As long as it is positive, addresses your issue, and speaks to you, this statement can be one you find online or make up yourself. (For example, “I am safe and so are my loved ones; there’s nothing I need to respond to right now.”) Observe how using the affirmation changes how you feel.
  • Notice which areas of your body (your closest physical space) respond to different noises. When you identify parts that are tense, take a deep breath and “send” your breath to them. Try to consciously relax them for just a few moments. Afterwards, take notice of whether the offending sounds seem as bothersome.
  • Search your heart for a time in your life where noise (in general or a specific one) was disturbing to you emotionally. If you find one, see yourself in that situation by visualizing it in your mind. Ask the younger version of yourself what s/he’s thinking and feeling in response to the noise(s), and provide reassurance about how things are different now.
  • Take the aversion out of noises by turning them into a “listening” meditation—focus on the sound thoroughly rather than trying to avoid it. See how much subtle texture you can find in the sound, and observe what really letting it in does to your perception of it.

Invading Creatures

Our first spring in the new house, I was eating breakfast in our little kitchen nook, which has a nice view of the back yard. This yard is intentionally small, consisting of a deck, some grass, and a landscaped area designated by a rock wall and two neighbor’s fences. As I was admiring the flowers we recently added to the landscaped area, I spotted a chipmunk scurrying around in the rocks. “Awww…how cute!” I thought. My husband was suspicious, but I enjoyed watching the little fellow, and was fine with him living in our rock wall. I soon learned from other homeowners that the insane amounts of snowfall in New England the previous winter meant a sharp increase in the chipmunk population, and sure enough this guy was the first of many. The next week, I watched chipmunks dig up the vegetables I was growing on our deck, and saw the holes they were burrowing under it. I sat in amazed infuriation one morning as a chipmunk dug a hole deep enough to toss a half-foot high pile of dirt on top of our nicely spread redwood mulch, popping his head up every now and then as if to spite our hard work. Over the course of a month, these tiny creatures went from cute to pest. But why did such a change in perception happen inside me? A creature like the chipmunk behaves as I’d expect—it doesn’t have a concept of “my home versus your home”—it’s wild, after all!

Well, our home was brand new. Built only a year before, my husband and I are the only ones to have ever lived in it, which implies that we are the only ones who will ever allow it to “degrade” from the state of absolute perfection in which it was handed over to us. I often remind myself (and my husband), upon the discovery of a chip in a wall or the beginnings of crabgrass in the front yard, that the areas in and around our home will never be as it was the day we got the keys. We have to keep things in perspective, balancing our desire for things to work and look nice with the ever-present inevitability of change. Over time, it’s likely that some creatures (that we may not even notice) will do damage. We should prevent or fix this as best we can, and we don’t need to allow these events to cause us emotional stress and frustration too! But because of my father and the environment I grew up in, this goes deeper for me. I clearly recall our second, newly built home, where even minor flaws were promptly detected and immediately followed by harsh words and actions, all of which frightened me deeply. So I know that this seemingly simple situation has the power to trigger some deeper fears about safety in me, based on my prior experiences.
Of course vermin aren’t the only home invaders, and it’s interesting how one’s initial perception of a creature can influence how one receives them. I remember how one of the few neighbors we had near my first house when I was growing up threatened to kill my dog because she wandered through the fence dividing our land. As a child I was upset and still don’t condone his behavior, but I’m not really a dog person, so I can sort of see his point of view.  My husband and I can get really upset when people walking dogs in our neighborhood allow them to pee in the front part of our lawn, leaving all manner of little yellow patches where our nice green sod used to be. In contrast, I am a real cat person. So when three of the neighborhood kitties come to visit the cat mint we’ve planted near the fence (even when they do their business and bury it in the mulch), I feel happy they’ve had some enjoyment from the plants we’re growing, and am always eager to see a new feline face discovering this botanical jackpot. And when my boys howl at the bedroom door in the morning, or repeatedly leap across the bed when we forget to close that door at four in the morning, it’s mostly a forgivable (and sometimes even cute) annoyance.
The way I see it, one has two choices for dealing with invading critters that aren’t technically vermin (which is its own and individual moral dilemma): make peace with the creatures by reassessing how you perceive their presence around your home, or take specific actions to prevent them from invading in the future.

Thought Experiments
  • If you have an invading creature, consider your feelings toward that species, as well as where and when in your life these feelings were established. Is the discomfort you’re feeling around their invasion of your home really about something else? (If the creature is wild, as in the case of our chipmunks, this can reframe the issue into one that is more under your control.)
  • If you have ever felt affection toward some type of animal, can you understand how owners (of even less-than-desirable) creatures might care about them, and not be aware of your discomfort when they trod into your yard? Can you use these feelings to cultivate some compassion and kindness, prior to initiating a conversation with the owner about having more respect for the areas around your home?

Technological Advances

Technology today is really pretty nifty. Telepresence systems are being implemented at companies to foster collaboration while keeping travel expenses down. Long-distance friends can maintain relationships using Skype or Google+ hangouts. But technology like this does raise questions about privacy, particularly if you happen to share a living or working space with another person. For example, the other day my husband and I happened to be working in our shared home office before heading up to New Hampshire for our company’s annual summer outing. Since he’s on a team that’s evaluating a telepresence system, it was a perfect scenario for him and his colleagues to test out some of the features. While I had heard my husband talking with someone via a headset, I was surprised and a bit unnerved when his boss—who I sometimes work with as well— said, “Hey, I can see Jen in the background!” Though relieved I hadn’t been working in my pajamas, I did feel like I should have been given some warning. It reminded of how you tell someone who is in a room and ask their permission before putting them on a speakerphone, but the etiquette here is even more important, since you could be seen. And it’s not just you that’s being seen, it’s also your physical surroundings. With video conferencing like this, you’re essentially letting someone into your house—especially when they can see enough to comment on your new office furniture! Our situation might be somewhat unique, but as technology usage becomes more common, those in shared living and working situations will need to think more about their boundaries, and communicate clearly about what they do and do not feel comfortable with.
The other interesting thing about technology is how the virtual world can intersect and impact people as they try to relate in the real, physical world. Smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices allow us to stay connected to colleagues, friends, and acquaintances all…the …time. As someone who personally owns several of these devices, I must admit to engaging in activities that are probably less than ideal—for example, checking Facebook while my husband and I sit at a restaurant waiting for another couple to arrive. When I’m with someone who does that, and they are online for more than a minute or two, I almost feel compelled to do the same. I think I feel slighted when the person I’m sharing honest-to-goodness physical space with decides they’d rather pop into a virtual space with some of their other friends. I end up wanting to get some reassurance that I have other friends too!  Have you ever noticed how one person doing such a thing causes a chain reaction? One person pulls out their phone, and soon everyone is checking their phones instead of interacting with each other.
People say technology has reduced the quality of human interaction, and that’s probably true. I also believe virtual spaces improve one’s emotional state, and reduce the likelihood of one being inconsiderate: for example, when you happen to be alone, waiting. You have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and you don’t know anyone around you. Rather than trying to strike up a conversation with a stranger—which may be uncomfortable for the shy and undesirable for those in a hurry—you can pull out a device and see what the people you care about are up to. You control the interaction, starting and stopping it when you want. So when you have to stop, you’re not hurting anyone’s feelings. (Ever try to get off the phone with a well-intentioned but overly talkative friend?) Most importantly, even though you are physically alone, you don’t feel lonely. And although you might be missing an opportunity to meet new people, you get emotional comfort from connecting with the friends you and family you already have.

Thought Experiments
  • If you work from home, do you have a designated area for that activity, or do you allow your work to bleed into other rooms? Does the arrangement affect when and how much you work, or your willingness to let others into your life?
  • Notice when and how you interact with people online. Are you sacrificing real-world interaction because you are more enamored with virtual variety? If so, what emotional or mental satisfaction is this giving you? Are there changes you can make to bring more of what you’re missing back into the physical world, to re-establish balance?

Gender Transgressions

I sometimes go out with a group of girls from my West Coast Swing dance community, because we don’t get the opportunity to bond much in that environment. One evening, after having enjoyed ourselves learning a dance outside our normal genre, we decided to check out a nightclub in Allston, a western neighborhood of Boston. I was worried we’d end up with a lot of college-aged kids in a tightly packed, loud place where you’d get bumped into and have your drink spilled. Fortunately it was still early, and the Wonder Bar hadn’t gotten busy yet. At the front under the windows, they had a raised platform area with a long booth that wrapped around in a semicircle facing in, with two round tables and good access to the bar. The space was perfect for our group of ten, and we quickly claimed it.
We were having great fun drinking and dancing in our little area. When the club got busier, a man approached me, and his friend went up to the girl next to me. They were both gentlemanly enough in their approach, but didn’t realize that half of us were married and the other half in relationships. One of the married women on the opposite side of me saw this occur, and yelled across the table for me to “show him my ring!” While I didn’t think it was necessary to flash my diamond, I did it as kindly as I could, and the two men left us. After we left that night, I recalled the incident and felt this woman’s reaction was a bit extreme (as did some of the others). Clearly she perceived the platform area as ourterritory, and was therefore very particular about who came into it. But why would the venturing of two men into our space trigger such a strong emotional reaction? Only she knows for sure, but I’ll speculate for a moment.  Perhaps she believed that socializing with other men in a club was not appropriate behavior for married women, or, she had a fear of participating in an activity that could be perceived as inappropriate by others. Maybe she or someone in her life had been cheated on, and she had strong feelings about any potential beginnings of something similar. Maybe she thought she was protecting us girls in a “mother hen” kind of way—looking out for our best interests. Or maybe she was thoroughly enjoying spending time with us, and didn’t want the dynamic to change with the introduction of these male interlopers. Despite what I’m sure were good intentions, it was her quick assertiveness that felt invasive to me, because her reaction implied that I wasn’t capable of handling myself in that kind of situation!
At the same time, however, I can relate to her strong reactions, and know they’re not always about what they seem. An example of where I am overly protective of my personal, physical space happens when I’m sick. Whether I have a flu or stomach virus, I am not the type of person who likes to be taken care of.  In fact, I want to be left completely and utterly alone. This caused problems when my husband would try to be kind, keep me company, or do things for me—I would loudly protest and plead with him to just leave me be. I don’t have to look far to know that this reaction is directly correlated to how little empathy I received whenever I was sick as a child. Growing up, being sick meant I was an inconvenience, that I were disturbing the peace (for example, by being unable to control my coughing in the middle of the night), and that I needed to be quiet and get well as soon as possible—ideally also without making any mess. Naturally, I developed heightened concern about inconveniencing anyone when I’m sick. I tend to lash out at anyone who tries to help, because there’s also a pride I developed in being independent. I don’t needanyone to take care of me, I can do it myself!
Because I’m aware of all this, I frequently use these situations as a way to practice changing my automatic responses. Whenever I start to feel uncomfortable because my husband is trying to help, I take a deep breath. I acknowledge that being sick is a simple fact of my existence, and it doesn’t make me good or bad—it just means I’m alive.  I remind myself that my husband feels useful and loving when he takes care of me, and try to be open to the idea that his behavior is normal, appropriate, and kind, and that it’s okay to need him sometimes.

Thought Experiments
  • Are there any rooms in your home that you’re overprotective of, or don’t let others into? Any areas of your heart that you throw walls up around? What are you trying to protect yourself against?
  • Question whether your feelings about a threat are accurate, or whether they are simply perceptions created by filtering information through the lens of a difficult prior experience. Are you trying to avoid feelings from the past that are brought up because of a similar experience in the present?
  • Whenever you feel yourself getting anxious over a real or perceived invasion of your personal physical space, pause and breathe. (A favorite of mine, particularly because of the context, is when someone drips sweat on my yoga mat!) Do you find that anxiousness release a little bit?
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