Personal and Shared Space – Marc MacYoung


Boundaries … some are very real and tangible, like the fence that runs along your property. Others are inside you, determining what you do, what you don’t do and what you will tolerate others doing to you.

What are boundaries?
A great deal has been said about people who have no boundaries and cannot stand up for themselves and how they are victimized by others — sometimes violently. These people have not established those invisible boundaries of commitment to self; clarifying to themselves what they will and will not tolerate. Those are boundaries in their simplest forms.

However, there are another set of invisible boundaries that must be honored, much like that fence showing the limits of your yard. And these are other people’s boundaries. The fence that keeps your neighbor’s dog out, also keeps yours in. Boundaries work both ways. The prevent people from invading our space and they prevent us from invading the space of others.

By *not* knowing our boundaries, not only *don’t* we know when our space is being invaded, but just as importantly we *don’t* know when we are invading the space of others. It is not until we understand this dual nature of boundaries that we can begin to be truly safe from violence.

This is especially true when the issue of ‘defending our boundaries’ comes up. While it may sound absurd, many incidents have escalated into violence because the “victim” invades the attacker’s space. At its most basic level, your right to defend yourself stops at your boundaries. Proceeding beyond this point makes you the aggressor.

Invading, not defending
Popular misconception is that passiveness and “letting people walk all over you” provokes violent attacks. Like the idea that rape happens with a stranger jumping out of the bushes — whereas the overwhelming majority occur between people who know each other — this is a minute issue that has been blown out of proportion by the popular media and culture. This perception has become so entrenched in the public mind that it obscures the realities.

The most significant of those overlooked realities is that most violence is, in fact, provoked, not by the victim’s passiveness, but aggression.

Many people think that protecting your boundaries and being verbally aggressive are one and the same. This is an easy line to cross because at times like this emotions run high, blinding the people involved to what they are actually doing. They think a would-be assailant will be warned away if they make an intimidating strident and degrading production. Against ‘lightweights’ this is true; such people will be intimidated and back off.

Many people do not recognize the danger they are putting themselves in with this tactic.

But what about it’s proven track record? They have used this tactic many times and with success. Assuming this strategy to be effective is, in fact, a mistake. It can earn one the reputation of being unreasonable among more sophisticated individuals. Which causes you long term damage. Furthermore, if you attempt this with a like-minded individual it can easily escalate into a heated exchange of verbal attacks, hysterics and hurt feelings

In truth though, this approach doesn’t often have much to do with why a physical assault didn’t take place. In many cases the potential assailant recognized that the behavior was attracting the attention of people who might successfully stop him. The presence of others, not what the person was doing, is what caused him to decide . In a round about way, it was could be called successful, but not for the reason the defender might think.


What most people don’t realize is that such a production can also provoke a much more ferocious assault – especially from those who habitually use violence. Engaging in this same behavior with such a person while in an isolated area can have disastrous results. As will it if there is nobody present who the attacker feels would successfully interfere with his assault on you. Often the savagery of such attacks does deter people from helping. It is also common that the attacker becomes so upset with the verbal abuse that he decides to attack despite the presence of on-lookers and potential help.

There is a very important issue that must be considered when it comes to how we verbally deal with a potential assailant. Its essence is found in the old Roman saying, “A barking dog isn’t biting.” Loud verbal hostility doesn’t show commitment to protect your boundaries. What it does show is that you are scared and not ready to physically remove someone from those boundaries. Realize that while such behavior might intimidate you, it won’t intimidate someone who is physically violent. By invading “his space” you have also in effect told him you don’t know where those boundaries are. And if you don’t know where the boundaries are, then you also don’t know when it is time to physically defend yourself. And that means he knows that you are vulnerable to assault.

If you are verbally aggressive with a would-be assailant, you’ve just crossed HIS personal boundaries — you’ve upped the ante to where words might beget blows or worse. He probably began with a test to see if you were an easy victim. Your aggressive behavior has ensured that it is a matter of pride and honor that he attack you. Be very aware of this possibility.

A growling dog is more ready to bite than a barking dog. Don’t think that potentially violent people don’t know that applies to people too. Or that it doesn’t effect who they misbehave with.

Personal and shared space
Now let’s look at something else that is tangible, but also can be applied to the concept of boundaries. That is the idea of personal and shared space. Human beings need both to exist.

If you ever have had a roommate, you’re acquainted with one of the better ways to explain this concept.. Personal space can be likened to your individual bedrooms. You have one, your roommate has one. And that space is yours and yours alone. How personal space is used, what is done in there is entirely up to the individual. How it is kept up, who is invited in and who is kept out are the rights of the person whose space it is. Shared space, however, is a space you both used. (e.g., the living room and kitchen). The rules were different in shared space. One of the most significant differences is that everybody must compromise.

Personal space is your space alone. It is your body, your thoughts and your emotions and if you live alone, your home. These are yours and nobody has the right to dictate how you maintain them, keep or use them. In as far as these boundaries go, you are literally the king or queen of your own domain.

Shared space, however, allows everyone there to fulfill life’s extra needs. Basically shared space is any situation were we have to go outside of ourselves or our private area in order to achieve an end or goal. These are areas were we gather, work, socialize, shop or take care of life’s other’s needs. They can also be social groups and their conventions or a relationship. While our personal space is for our own benefit and needs, shared space is for the benefit of everyone there.

However, there are responsibilities and rules that come with shared space. It is through convention and mutual agreement that we operate in shared space. Many of these issues are culturally determined, and we unconsciously adhere to them (see Dr. Desmond Morris, Manwatching) others are determined by a specific group or situation, while specific details are negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

Shared space can come in many levels, tangible publicly shared space can be supermarkets, malls, theaters, parking lots or workplaces. There is a large number of unwritten social rules about how people behave in shared space — so as not to intrude on another’s personal space. How long do you look at a stranger (if you even look at him or her at all)? How closely do you pass on an uncrowded street? A crowded street? Where do your eyes rest in an elevator full of strangers? Even in publicly shared space, we have personal space. Many of the covenants of public shared space are designed not to invade another person’s private space.

Another level of shared space is the workplace. People come to work in order to get something they cannot get on their own, namely money. The nature of the profession, location and management style have significant influence on the “culture” of the workplace. While there, in order for everyone to achieve their mutual needs however, they are expected to conform to certain standards of behavior. These standards are not gratuitous, they in fact, often have been developed over time to avoid what would otherwise be common problems and to allow the greatest chances of mutual success. To achieve our greater needs, we accept and choose to abide by a more uniform standard of conduct. Although not financially beneficial, the same general process applies to participating with a particular social group or organization. Such a group has a certain set of shared standards in order to achieve ends. In such a case, the benefits, while just as critical, are often not obviously tangible.

Your home is a smaller version of this process. While individual family members bedrooms constitute personal space, the rest of the house and property are shared. The standards by which the rest of the house is kept and maintained for the benefit of all is an issue that must be negotiated and determined by all parties involved. One’s right as how he or she keeps personal space ends where shared space begins.

In the most microcosmic version of personal and shared space you have a relationship with someone else. You and the other person, while each representing your own personal space, it is the relationship, your combined involvement, that represents shared space.

The source of many problems
It is a lack of understanding about the differences between personal and shared space that is the source of a great many conflicts, hurt feelings and stress. Some people have no concept where their personal space ends and shared space begins. Others intentionally treat shared space as though it were personal space. In either case you have a violation.

This is where the concept of “boundaries work both ways” become important. One of the most common trespasses is to treat shared space as personal space. To act – although you are in shared space – as though it is your own space. As such, you can do what you want or do to it what you will with no regard to anyone else’s benefit or need. You do not have the right to dictate how things will be in shared space. That power is solely limited to inside your personal space.

A few simple examples of people treating shared space as though it were personal space come immediately to mind. A young bravado who turns his boom box to a deafening and annoying level in a public place is treating a shared space as his own personal domain. Now while his motivations for this behavior are debatable, the nature of the offense is not. He is violating a socially agreed upon standard of behavior. One designed so that everyone can peaceably co-exist and function in shared space. Another example is immediately recognizable by any parent of teenagers. And that is making a mess in shared space and leaving it for others to clean up. Motive, such as laziness, passive aggression, dominance or resistance to personal responsibility, for this sort of behavior can never be clearly established. That this is a clear violation of the rules of shared space, however, is unquestionable. When you look at this subject in this light, it does not take any effort to find examples of violation of shared space from your own life experiences — and quite possibly a great many examples at that.

A more egregious violation occurs, however, when someone tries to extend their personal space, not only through shared space, but into another’s personal space. This goes beyond simple rudeness and selfishness and — depending on how severe the attempt — starts heading into egomania, pathology and/or criminality (sometimes D) All of the above). People who try to control other people’s personal space

Where do your rights start and end?
There is a much talk these days about “empowerment.” Unfortunately, this model of personal and shared space tends to render that concept a moot point. When it comes to your personal space, your boundaries and your power, nobody can take it away from you. Only you can give it up or lose it. You can give it up by holding something more dear (i.e., security or personal beliefs) and sacrificing it to maintain that more valued ideal. Or you can lose it by frittering it away by not acting in a manner consistent with maintaining power. As such, another person is not so much, taking your power away as he is pouncing on an opportunity to get something. An opportunity that you presented him by not knowing your boundaries and what it takes to maintain them.

As stated, your personal space is yours and nobody else’s. Nobody has the right to negate your thoughts or emotions. Nor do they have the right to tell you what to think or feel. Most especially nobody has the right to inflict their desires on your body without your expressed permission. These are your boundaries, your land, your home. And you have the right to do whatever it takes to defend against encroachment into your legitimate personal space. And the harder they push to encroach over that boundary the harder you are justified to push back to keep them off your land.

When it comes to shared space you have the absolute right to negotiate and compromise in order to get what you need. By the same token, however, you also have a responsibility to uphold those agreed upon standards.

What many people do not realize is that shared space is a win/win situation. That is to say *everybody* gets something out of it. In a functioning situation, the division of benefits is equal. If they are not, then something is amiss and the situation needs to be renegotiated. Furthermore since it is supposed to be a win/win situation for everybody’s benefit, if someone isn’t willing to negotiate and compromise, then you have the absolute right to leave and go to where you needs will be met. If that person isn’t willing to compromise, then they don’t get the benefit of your presence.

Git off mah land
Much of what we have said here is the groundwork for understanding where your boundaries start and end. With that understanding you can begin to build a working system to protect your legitimate boundaries. Without that understanding you cannot effectively defend your boundaries – because you won’t know where they are and you will always be fighting shadows. But more importantly without that understanding you will violate the rules of shared and personal space and provoke a self-righteous retaliation from the people you are attempting to protect yourself from. If you violate that person’s space, he or she will turn on you with the same outraged fury — and for the same reason — that you have. It won’t matter who or what started it, or what perceived trespasses they may have visited on you, by violating their space, as far as they are concerned, you are in the wrong. And that is how feuds and long standing enmities are born — or bloody murders done.

As we often say “You have the right to do what it takes to get someone off your property. The harder they push, the harder you are justified to push them back to your property line. However, you do not have the right to chase them down the street, across their front yard and onto their front porch. Nor do you have the right to tackle them in the middle of the street and beat the hell out of them for having trespassed on your property.”

Shared Space distance rules and crime
One of the main sets of rules about shared space involve how closely we approach a stranger. Depending on the circumstances, it can range from five feet or more to inches. In an office lobby, you don’t come closer than five feet to strangers. However, in a crowded elevator we pull in those boundaries, sometimes to mere inches. We unconsciously know what is and what isn’t an acceptable distance in public and for the situation.

An unwarranted violation of these rules is a serious danger sign. For a criminal to be successful, he must break the unwritten social code and get close enough to violate your personal space. He has to do this to control you. A knife at two feet is a threat — from there he leaves you no choice. But if he’s 10 feet away, you can run. He doesn’t have control. Therefore, in order for him to succeed, he has to approach you — and in doing so, break the social codes.

Become a stickler for distance etiquette when you are in public — do NOT let people approach you at inappropriate times. Unless you are in a line, crowded elevator or a crowd, don’t let anyone get closer than five feet. In a deserted parking lot, it’s 10 feet or more. That is your space, and he has no right to be there. If he tries to close, move wide. This will show you if it is an intentional or unintentional invasion. If you move and he continues on his way, it was unintentional. If he again veers towards you, be assured the invasion is intentional.

The time to communicate that you are not an easy target is when the criminal is in shared space. Don’t allow him to violate the distance rules of shared space. Now is the time to show your commitment and knowledge of your boundaries. You are not invading his space, while at the same time not allowing him to invade yours. Your body language and actions will let him know that he cannot safely enter your space. This is where the habits, positioning and awareness of the Pyramid of Personal Safety come into play.

Why is this effective? Because until he actually commits himself to an attack, it is a game of chess. Even though he is up to no good, he has the right to be in shared space. Technically, he hasn’t done anything yet. You can keep him out of your personal space, but you can’t make him leave shared space. A cop or security guard can, but it’s not your job. If you try, you are escalating the situation.

If you do not stop someone in shared space and they invade your personal space, you must either defend yourself or be victimized. By dealing with issues in shared space, you allow yourself the freedom to move and, if necessary, leave the area. If you do a strategic withdrawal, head for the lights and the noise.

The concepts of personal and shared space — both mental and physical — are an integral part of avoiding being robbed or raped by a stranger. However, the reality of violence is that only a minute amount occurs between strangers. Most violence occurs between people who know one another. Awareness of personal and shared space not only prevents domestic violence and rape, but also benefits personal relationships.

Leave a Reply