As a lengthy, unpredictable and uncontrollable stressor, the pandemic steals our feelings of personal control where it hurts—our jobs, relationships, finances, education, health, recreation and travel. And that’s not the only theft of our personal control that makes things feel out of control. The pandemic also steals three of the most basic forms of personal boundary control:
- Control over the space around our body (personal space) ·
- Control over who we have contact with and when (privacy)
- Control over the physical spaces that serve a central function in our daily lives (territoriality).
To feel in control of our lives, we need to control these basic boundaries.
Personal space is the invisible boundary we claim around our bodies. We space ourselves from others so that we feel safe from physical threat and to reduce sensory overload (the closer people are, the more sensory input they provide). Even in “normal” times, personal space invasions are uncomfortable. Depending on the person and the situation, they can be downright anxiety-provoking and stressful. But these are abnormal times. Controlling how close someone comes is key to increasing our feelings of control over an unpredictable virus. It’s no wonder we’re more likely to experience anger and anxiety in response to invasions and to respond verbally, or that many of us are staying in as much as possible. Meanwhile, the pandemic increases the number of perceived personal space invasions because the stakes are higher, and distances that were previously comfortable are now experienced as invasions.
Personal space distancing is also about relationships. Generally, we maintain smaller distances (under four feet, close enough to touch) between ourselves and the people we care about. But we have also lost control over this aspect of our personal space. We have to interact with close friends and family we don’t live with at distances normally reserved for strangers. It’s an upsetting loss of control for sure.
Privacy is another basic aspect of feeling like we have control over our lives. It’s also about controlling the boundaries between ourselves and others. Reflecting on the nature of privacy, psychologist Irwin Altman said that our desire to be alone and to be with others is dialectical. That is, the forces to be with others and away from others are both present with each stronger at different times. We need to be together when we want to be for love, laughter, friendship, support, and recreation. We need to be able to be alone when we want to be so that we can contemplate, process, and plan, manage our bodies, share intimate moments and information with trusted others, get a break from social contact, work and create, and consume embarrassing or forbidden foods, substances, or media.
I think you’ll agree that the pandemic has challenged our normal ways of maintaining a desired balance between being alone and being together. Solitude may be more difficult to achieve and loneliness harder to alleviate. We can’t easily spend time alone with friends or lovers (intimacy privacy) or be alone among the masses (anonymity privacy) by going to a gym or shopping. *