‘Live and let live’ sounds great until someone crosses the line or invades your borders. The man sitting next to me on the train this morning was an example, his feet spreading over into my foot space. I could feel myself tense up with irritation, ‘how could he be so annoying?’ In fact, I really dislike it when anyone crosses into my physical, psychological or emotional space uninvited. It’s not that I’m an intensely private person. It’s something about protecting my freedom and control. I get stressed when someone plays their music or TV too loud, when kids kick the football against my house wall, when someone tries to manipulate or force me to do something. It’s as if these things feel like infringements on my freedom, my choices, my sense of autonomy.
Khalil Gibran in The Prophet emphasises the value of space as essential for healthy human relationships. Psychologically, it’s about relating independently from a secure base in order to avoid unhealthy co-dependence or confluence. We could compare it recognising the necessary value of spaces between words and musical notes, enabling us to hear the lyrics and melody. In a work environment it could be about enabling space for people to express their own values, their own creativity, to innovate. It could be about ensuring people have their own desk space or time in their diaries to think. It could be about checking that roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and delineated to avoid confusion. It could be about avoiding risks of micromanagement.
I’m reminded of a group dynamics workshop I co-facilitated with Brian Watts (www.karis.biz). Brian invited participants to stand opposite each other at a distance then slowly to walk towards each other until they felt they wanted to stop. It was fascinating to notice patterns in behaviour, how people felt as they moved towards, where they chose to stop in order to safeguard space. Typically in that group, women would stop at a greater distance to men than men would to women. In fact, a man would often continue walking towards a woman even after she had stopped, causing her to instinctively step back. Men stopped at a greater distance from other men and women stood closer to other women than they stood to men, or men stood to men.
Personal space is also influenced by culture as well as gender and individual preference. Some cultures view such space as more important than others and people within cultures learn where to move, where to stop, where to place and uphold unspoken boundaries. It can create awkward tensions when people from different cultures navigate the spaces between them. My own spacial preferences reflect my personal disposition, my personality traits. The cultural dimension suggests that my ideas, experiences and feelings about space are socially constructed too. If I had grown up in a different cultural environment, I may well have learned to experience and negotiate space and boundaries very differently. Once conditioned, it’s hard to change.
I guess the real challenge lies in how to enter and navigate space in a world where people with different values and preferences coexist and continually interact with each other physically or virtually, occupying the same or adjacent spaces. Perhaps it’s about how to create and safeguard the space we need without isolating ourselves, infringing on others’ boundaries or overriding others’ needs. What are your experiences of space? What are the anxieties and pressures that cause us to avoid or squeeze out space? How can we create space for ourselves and others in our lives, relationships and organisations? What are the psycho-social and spiritual costs of inadequate space? How do we balance space with pace? How can we learn to breathe?
I had strange dreams about mirrors and reflections last night and woke early in the darkness. I lay there for a while, semi-conscious, daydreaming about the brightness of the moon and how it reflects the light of the sun. I prayed silently, instinctively, ‘Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, may my life reflect the light of God’. Then I woke up.
I do think there’s something profound about mirrors and reflection as psychological, cultural and spiritual phenomena. The recent fantasy film, Snow White and the Huntsman created a vivid portrayal of a tormented queen returning repeatedly to seek reassurance in the mirror of legend: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’
The queen’s sense of self, security and value were based on the response from the mirror. It’s as if she didn’t really know who she was, how she was, without reference to its external perspective. According to psychodynamic and social psychological theories, our sense of self is affected by the responses we evoke and encounter in others.
Take, for instance, a young child who gazes into its mother’s face. If it sees consistent expressions of warmth, attentiveness, affection and happiness, it may well develop the sense that ‘I am loved’ and, thereby, ‘I am loveable.’ If on the other hand the child consistently sees looks of disapproval, it may develop a negative sense of self.
Psychodynamic theorists (e.g. Winnicott) call this process ‘mirroring’.Just as a person knows what they look like by glancing in a mirror, a child sees something of itself, learns something about itself, its relationships and its place in the world, by observing what is mirrored in the face of others. It’s a process that continues throughout our lives.
This phenomenon has deep existential implications. Corinne Taylor in her paper, You are the fairest of them all, comments on what may happen if a mother lacks connection with the child and fails to offer mirroring: ‘Perhaps a mother with a rigid face gives the baby the sense of never having being at all.’* Its very existence may feel negated.
Richard Rohr in his book, The Naked Now draws spiritual parallels, inviting us to consider what we see in God’s face, his gaze, as we gaze at him in prayer. It’s as if God is the ultimate, absolute parent figure in whose face we are able to gain a true sense of who we actually are. A distorted image of God will create a distorted image of self.
Projection is a related psychological process whereby we project aspects of ourselves (often aspects we feel uncomfortable with) onto other people or even onto God. I may be aware of and focus on characteristics of others that I’m not aware of or deny in myself, even though others may recognise them as typical of me.
If I grow in awareness of my projections, I can grow in awareness of myself by noticing what I notice in others. It’s another form of mirroring. As a leader and coach, I can draw important lessons too: what do others see in my face; do my responses help others develop a truer and more-loved sense of self; do I reflect the light of God?
Why is it so hard to get to grips with the concept of grace, of ‘unmerited favour’? Why is it so difficult to imagine that God could love us exactly as we are? Why is it that in spite of profound biblical revelation, many Christians still try to earn their way to God by personal achievement, good deeds and hard work, fearing rejection and punishment if they fail to make the grade?
I want to offer some insights from psychological and cultural studies that may shed some light on this. I’m writing from personal experience too. I can get my head around grace at a conceptual level but sometimes feel uncertain, anxious. It’s as if the promise of the gospel feels too good to be true, as if it can’t really apply to me, as if there must be hidden strings attached.
From our earliest childhood, we meet approval or disapproval on the basis of how we behave. A baby monitors its mother’s face for her reactions and learns that smiling, giggling, looking cute and not screaming evoke positive strokes and emotional rewards. The baby develops a sense of who he or she is, of what is socially acceptable and unacceptable, through these earliest encounters.
It gets complicated psychologically and relationally, however, because the baby draws subconscious conclusions from how he or she feels. The parent may indeed feel unconditional love for the child but without language to convey it in a way the child can grasp, the child can only infer from what he or she experiences and, critically, how he or she interprets that experience.
Object relations theory proposes that if a baby feels secure in its relationship to its primary caregiver, if its needs are met in a satisfying and consistent way, the baby is likely to grow up feeling secure in future relationships too. Conversely, if the baby feels insecure, he or she may struggle in future relationships, acting codependent, ambivalent or independent as a form of self protection.
A baby is of course unable to meet many of its own physical and psychological needs. The baby needs the carer for food, for cleaning and nappy changes, for burping when he or she gets trapped air, for wrapping to keep warm, for hugging to feel secure. Approval and attention from the carer feels critical to the baby for physical and psychological survival, safety and comfort.
The same child enters school and finds similarly that certain types of behaviour, paying attention, working hard, pleasing the teacher, producing good results, meet with approval. Other behaviours result in disapproval or discipline. This pattern continues into working life. Performance is monitored and good performance can result in promotion, bad performance in dismissal.
In so many aspects of our lives, therefore, we learn that love, attention and reward are based on behaving well or achieving results in the eyes of a significant other, whether that other be a person, group, community or organisation. We also learn that the converse is true. Get it wrong and you could suffer the negative and painful consequences of rejection or punishment.
We learn to put on a confident face in the office, hoping to convince significant others of our ability and therefore worth to the organisation. We put on a good show in front of other people to demonstrate we are great parents with a model family. We put on a ‘holy’ face at church, hoping to convince others of our spiritual credentials and, thereby, worthiness to belong.
By transference, we project the same expectations onto God. Surely this principle we have learned from birth must apply to him too? Surely the law in the Bible, all those rules and regulations, is the yardstick that God uses to measure our spiritual performance and, thereby, whether we are worthy of his love, whether we are good enough, whether we deserve reward or rejection?
And so we face an existential crisis, self-righteousness if we think we’re good enough and a crushing anxiety if we feel we’re not. I believe this dilemma lies at the heart of why so many Christians struggle with the notion of grace, struggle to experience the freedom the Bible promises to those who believe. It's not so much a rational conceptual issue as an anxiety driven by human experience.
Our early childhood experiences can have quite an impact. One view, known as attachment theory, proposes that every child needs to form an attachment, a secure relationship, with at least one person in order to feel secure in future relationships. The child develops an impression of itself, others and relationships as a whole through the lens of this early significant relationship.
If this primary relationship is missing, inconsistent, broken or abusive, the child can struggle to form healthy attachments or relationships with people in the future. The child nevertheless develops patterns of coping and relating aimed at getting his or her needs met. Without developing such coping mechanisms, the child could experience what feels like intolerable anxiety or distress.
A typical coping mechanism could involve manipulative behaviours, designed to evoke what the child needs from others to feel loved, to feel secure. Conversely, it could involve withdrawing into oneself as a way of defending oneself from emotional deprivation, as a way of not-needing others, as a way of getting by on one’s own. It’s all very complex.
Under pressure or stress, an adult can regress to feelings and behaviours he or she experienced and developed as a child. Sometimes, such behaviours are constructive and helpful. Sometimes, however, they are inappropriate to the adult’s world (e.g. in a family, community or work). A person can find him or herself reacting in ways that feel surprising, uncomfortable, strange-yet-familiar.
Some psychologists have proposed that the notion of ‘God’ is simply a projection of human imagination, a transcendent figure to attach to, the ultimate parental figure, a compensation for some deep unmet emotional, psychological and relational need. It’s as if a person can inadvertently confuse their need for an attachment figure with the reality-or-not of an actual figure.
At one level, this hypothesis sounds quite plausible. If I didn’t have other good reasons for believing in God’s existence, I could be convinced that my faith is a projection, a delusion. However, the fact that a person is able to find security in belief in and relationship with God does not of itself negate the possibility that the source of that security, God, is genuine and real.
The challenge I experience day-to-day is more existential than philosophical, logical. It’s about how to believe, trust, hold onto belief that God loves me. It’s an internal struggle. As a child, the complicating issue isn’t primarily about whether a parent figure actually loves the child, but whether the child believes it is loved and finds that experience reliable, trustworthy and secure.
And so I wonder how my own childhood experiences of love influence my ability to believe, accept and trust God’s love. I wonder how I might live if I truly knew that love, how I might relate to God, others and myself, uncluttered by my need to feel secure. I wonder how freeing that might feel, what potential God could release within and between me and others. It’s an intriguing possibility.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in developing critical reflective practice.