Personal Space

By Greg Baer M.D.

August 16, 2016

Many people are fond of talking about their "personal space," usually the same people who fervently protect their "boundaries." While I don't advocate that we frighten people with our physical proximity, I have learned that what we all want is not more space but more genuine, loving connection.

We talk about personal space because we're afraid. We're afraid of people seeing who we really are and then reacting with disapproval, even disgust. So we keep people away from us emotionally with a wide array of behaviors, and physical distance is only an outward manifestation of our emotional defenses.

Over the years, I have touched people more and more. When people sense that you care about them—when they feel safe—they love to be touched. I can't count the number of people who have told me that they hate being touched, only to giggle moments later at how much they enjoy the actual experience. When you know I care about you, touching simply enhances the flow of love, while physical separation often creates a sense of emotional separation also.

A few days after speaking to a large audience in Texas years ago, the event organizer called and said that he had really enjoyed the event, but he was concerned about how many times I had touched people during the presentation.

"I may have misinterpreted their reactions," I said. "Would you be willing to talk to the people I touched, and ask them how they felt about it?"

He agreed, and a week later he called. "I'm surprised," he said, "and I think I'll have to re-evaluate the way I interact with people. Every person I talked to enjoyed your touching them—a lot. In fact, several of them said it was the highpoint of the seminar for them."

On the whole, we feel isolated from each other, and physical touch is just one way to reduce that undesirable condition. If you wish to try this approach, and if you're not accustomed to touching people, you might wonder how to begin. Allow me to offer some observations.

Most people clearly communicate whether they're willing to allow people to touch them—with their tone, posture, expression, and more. I asked the organizer above, for example, "Did I touch you?" He acknowledged that I did not, and I suggested that he probably indicated in a variety of ways that he would not welcome my doing so.

Just because someone is uncomfortable with touch, however, does not mean that you should avoid touching them. Many people are uncomfortable with the thought of being touched, but nonetheless they are aching to be touched in a loving way. I can't count how many victims of sexual abuse, for example, who have wept and expressed their gratitude that I would touch them and allow them to experience an expression of love that had become unbearably tainted for them.

So, now you've decided that you want to begin touching people more. How do you go about this? As you're talking with someone, stand or sit closer than you usually do. Nothing weird or intimidating, just a little closer than usual. Then, while you're speaking, instead of just gesturing into the air—as we usually do—reach out and briefly touch their arm or perhaps their knee, if you're seated. It's a natural act, as you'll discover as you watch close friends. Even men who are not especially great at expressing intimacy will push, poke, and slap each other when they feel close.

What I'm suggesting here is casual, light, brief—but purposeful—touching. Almost everyone enjoys this, especially if you touch them with purposeful confidence and with no expectation of any return for yourself. Try it. And then observe—casually, not with a piercing stare—the reaction of the other person. Most people warm to touching. If you perceive such a willingness, and if you feel comfortable, touch them again once or twice.

You're not in a hurry here. Relax. You're just experimenting with what it's like to touch people more. Be sure that you're just communicating genuine love, not trying to get any particular reaction, and certainly not to create any hint of sexual connection.

The most destructive disease on earth is fear, which breeds the isolation, anger, and selfishness that are harming people and their relationships everywhere. Physical touch is just one way of creating the kind of emotional connection we all need, the connection that banishes fear.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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