I spent the first 15 years of my life wondering why everyone was always in my space. I tried my best to be quiet and stay out of people’s way, but there always seemed to be enough of them pushing into my bubble. They looked at me, talked to me, touched me, and otherwise invaded a boundary that seemed self-evident to me, but obviously not to them. Deep down, I liked people, but was there really that much to go on about?
I then spent the next 15 years of my life feeling angry about how much the world seemed intent on intruding into my space. At the time, I thought of my reaction as some kind of punk-rock-spirited rebellion. The world was The Man, and it was out to wring from me what it could without much thought for my welfare. To bastardize some William Wordsworth, the world was too much with me.
At the time, I didn’t realize that I was an introvert, experiencing a common—but as yet rarely talked about—non-phenomenon I call Extroverts Just Being Extroverts. Most people seemed to want to go to the mall, hang out in a club, go on road trips, and eat falafel together, and they wanted to talk about all of it all of the time. I chose to hang back, stick a cigarette in my mouth, grow out my bangs, and attempt the posture of a disaffected poet. I was ever so charming.
By the time I hit my 30s (I was a late bloomer), I realized that I might be part of the problem. I figured out that the extroverts in my life probably only seemed more aggressive to me because of my larger need for personal space and that I hadn’t developed the skills to express what my boundaries were with any clarity.
For instance, a person would approach me at work and say something like, “This report is great, but I want to chat about an issue on page 21 with you now.” This is a normal request, but if it was delivered by surprise in a hallway or from behind in my cubicle, it sounded like “THIS REPORT…[heavy breathing] PROBLEMS…[did he have tacos for lunch?] NOW NOW NOW.”
Externally, I discussed the report like I imagined a normal human being was supposed to, but internally I battled the urge to curl up in my cubicle and block everyone out for a couple of hours. I felt as though I were under attack.
I tend to be on the farther end of the introversion spectrum, if that isn’t already clear, so I prefer to be approached a bit like you would a nervous cat: don’t stare directly at me, sidle up beside me rather than come at me head on, and speak softly lest I dart behind the sofa.
Trying to behave like an extrovert while desperately wanting something else to happen was not fair to my friendly extroverts. How could they know they had overstepped any boundaries when I refused to communicate what they were? How could we become better coworkers or friends if my response was to shut down rather than to initiate an interaction that worked? It was time for me to develop better communication skills and stop leaving a wake of extroverts behind me wondering what the hell went wrong.
One thing I learned as I matured out of this so-called youthful rebellion was this: if the whole world seems like it’s against you, it probably isn’t.
I began to see that if an extrovert was behaving in a way that felt natural and good to them and most of the other people they knew, they might not be able to see why I was uncomfortable, and maybe—just maybe—it was sometimes up to me to effect the change I needed to be happy. With a little internal fine-tuning and a lot of courage, I decided that I might be able to deal with other human beings in a way that would teach them how to deal with me while still preserving my need for space and alone time. Who knew? I might actually find out that the planet was a pretty hospitable place.
Spoiler alert: the world can actually be a pretty hospitable place.
And I mean that literally when I say “plant your feet.” Take a more solid stance, with your feet set slightly apart from each other. Feeling physically more stable and grounded goes a long way toward a parallel psychological shift.
And remember: most extroverted people are not consciously trying to take over your space, and behaving as though that’s the case won’t help either of you.
2a. Grow security. Know that when you are clear about a boundary with someone, your relationship with that person can become stronger and more secure without inviting more intrusion. No matter how awkward it feels to you at the time—and how much your fight or flight reflex might make you think the consequences will be calamitous—remember that people love clear boundaries. Clear boundaries create clear expectations, and clear expectations allow us to understand each other’s values and communicate in ways that bond us rather than hurt us. They tell the other person that you value them, and they can help you set a communication pace that will let you engage without feeling the need to shut down.
2b. Accept discomfort. Communicating your needs to someone might make you uncomfortable, and that’s okay. Human beings, regardless of where they land on the extroversion/introversion spectrum, generally avoid discomfort because things that are uncomfortable aren’t fun. While it might seem easier to step away from conflict, consider this: when it comes to consequences, it is more desirable to feel uncomfortable for a moment than resentful forever. This has been one of my hardest-won lessons. Rather than feel the discomfort of making my wishes known, I used to back down without a second thought and then hold my overstepped imaginary boundaries against the other person. But if you let a person know what you need, you will be in for some pleasant surprises. Most people want to feel liked, and that starts with them knowing how to interact with you in a way that both of you can understand.
Once more, with feeling:
Setting a boundary is not equivalent to building a wall. Setting a boundary helps you find common ground together.
You’re probably thinking that this all sounds very nice, but how the heck does it play out? Here’s how it played out for me during the first 30 years of my life, illustrated as a simple play:
Joe stops me abruptly in an office hallway, catching me by surprise because I was up in my head having thoughts.
JOE: THIS REPORT…[heavy breathing] PROBLEMS…[heady waves of his taco lunch] NOW NOW NOW.
ME: [shrinking back a bit] Sure, okay.
For hours afterwards, I shake off stress, curse Joe for assuming my time is his time, and relive his close-talking taco breath in queasy slow motion. All of our future interactions are met with anxiety.
Here’s how I learned to handle the situation once I figured out that Joe probably wasn’t that aggressive and that maybe he and I just had different social styles:
Step 1. Own your space
ME: [I see Joe coming, take a deeper and stabilizing breath, and set my feet a slight distance apart.]
Step 2. Express your needs and Step 2a. Grow security
JOE: This report is great, but I want to chat about an issue on page 21 with you now.
I take a step back and hold a folder at an angle in front of me to create physical space.
ME: I have to file this first and have a quick meeting. Can you add it to our calendar for this afternoon?
Step 2b. Accept discomfort
I feel a bit uncomfortable because he is demanding to talk to me right away, but I’ll live. Plus, as a huge bonus, I’ve established a precedent for setting meetings in the calendar rather than surprising me in the hallway.
Step 3. Collaborate (Step 2a. Grow security remains in play because that’s the magic of clear boundaries. They often keep working after they are in place.)
JOE: How’s 3 p.m.?
ME: That works for me!
Now I’m happy to have given myself time to gather my thoughts, and Joe doesn’t seem as imposing.
JOE: Will do.
He smiles. He’s happy to have a solid plan and feels like I value his input.
Like with anything we learn to do well, it takes practice to understand how setting boundaries works and feels, but once you do, it’s much easier to connect and interact with others without incidentally shutting them down or giving up your valuable personal time and space.
Of course, it’s still useful to don the disaffected poet stance now and again—if nothing else, it’s a fun party trick!—but learning how to socially carve out space for myself rather than feel forced to withdraw for self-preservation has been powerful both for my self-confidence and for my ability to connect well, and sometimes more deeply, with people who once seemed alien to me.
I’m rather fond of extroverts these days. And the world—while it’s still often too much with me—is no longer against me.