Blog 27: Healthy Boundaries and Personal Space

Written by Jim Sheehy

Let me start with a poem I once wrote:


Simplicity insists on radical truth

A soil manured and flecked in joyous interaction

Minds grapple, tease, shudder and rebuild

Hearts simmer, bloom, co-exist and lie in sensitive exposure

Globally connecting with Friends Inc.

Is this the Way …

… Across divides of colour, creed and cultural bias …

… Through fogs of F-off Zones and cracked boundary-settings …

Café chat and mobile link – the half-doors of hosting soul and psyche

Friendship is open all hours, all rooms, all space and clutter


Friendship is a rich term that, for me, includes all I need to experience when I relate with another person, animal or aspect of nature. It’s a lens that can provide a dependable and flexible view as to whether any relationship we have is healthy, or not.  Why?  Well, friendship ticks all the boxes when meeting our own needs and simultaneously satisfying another. 

Because we freely choose to enter and remain in friendship, the connection is natural, the attuning of our voices and eyes effortless, trust implied.  This happens in magical, fluid ways.  My friend affirms, celebrates and protects my personal space.  S/he is interested in my continuously fertilizing the inner soil where the crops of imagination and challenge are seeded, nurtured and harvested.  Why does my friend do this – because the oxygen vivifying the relationship is each other’s personal world.  Unless we each reach across and check out how the friend is in their feeling and thinking world, there is no friendship.  It comes before we overlap and share the craic, the dreams, the eccentricities of the relationship.  When a friendship seems stale, before asking what’s the issue with US, try to breathe and reflect on where am I right now in my alone place.  If that happens to be vibrant for me, breathe and gently ask your friend ‘How are you – really?’ So, we each check out how the PERSONAL SPACE is, and be aware and responsive as to whether I need my friend to be here for me, or s/he for me.  Put in a nutshell, good relations flourish with fluid, strong boundaries – no long-term dependency or co-dependency.  But boundaries will only ever be sound if both persons keep an eye on their own and each other’s personal space.

Take a parent-teenager relationship.  Sure, as a ‘friendship’ it’s hierarchical and there’s far more different than what they hold in common. Boundaries are extremely important if the relationship is to develop. So they check out the personal space.  Is Dad as a man or Mum as a woman in a good place as to their capacity to process the volume of stuff life throws at them?  If they are, then shaping the boundaries their teenage son or daughter are exploring has a better chance of success.  The teenager, learning this stuff, monitors the advances Mum and Dad make and tests the boundaries – ‘Can they contain all that’s freaking me out on the inside and help me learn the art of being proud of who I am in all my uniqueness and ordinariness?’  ‘Can my parent/s model for me sensitive but courageous boundaries and then I practise these skills with my peers.’

Let’s look a little deeper at the 2 components always needing attention so our personal space thrives.  First is identity: do I as a man / woman/ girl / boy know, accept and celebrate the mix of gifts, skills and strengths I have.  Here’s a bunch to help you choose which you possess.  The gifts are genetic – what you inherited in your looks, personality and abilities from both sides of your extended family. Skills are about you striking out on your own and passionately developing what lifestyle enlivens your day – playing an instrument, designing software.  Strengths are the character-shaping qualities you learned as life-experience kicks you in the ass through failure and rejection – courage, kindness, persistence.  So, I’d like you to first write down the gifts / skills / strengths you accept as definitely yours to own and celebrate, then maybe a few qualities that people who know you well and whose opinion you respect say you possess.  Finally, jot down a few you believe are there but dormant and need to be awakened for the next part of life’s journey.

Adaptable          Adventurous          Articulate                  

Attractive          Calm         Caring          Challenging

Charismatic          Charming          Cheerful          Clever                        

Colourful          Confident          Fair          Cooperative

Courageous          Courteous          Creative          Cultured                                

Curious          Daring           Decent            Decisive

Dedicated           Deep           Dramatic            Focused                                 

Friendly           Funny           Gentle            Genuine                                      

Honest          Independent          Kind           Loyal              

Mature          Neat          Observant          Open           

Optimistic          Passionate          Persuasive          Playful

Popular          Practical          Precise          Relaxed

Romantic          Self-critical          Sensitive          Serious                                   

Sexy          Solid          Sporting          Strong          Tidy

Warm          Ambitious         Competitive

Strong-willed          Trendy

Self-acceptance is the hardest challenge we’ll ever encounter.  Because we can envy gifts and qualities others have.  I can be very funny but I have average intelligence and plain-looking. So accepting and celebrating the mix of person I am is essential if my personal space is to be healthy and the boundaries I create are fair and reliable.  After all, if I dump on myself all the time, chances are my body sends out signals and makes it harder for others to like me.

The second component to personal space is a support network.  Draw three circles like this:

The inner, or ‘closest’, circle are people or pets with whom you have a 50-50 relationship with; you receive as much as you give and they are consistently present and trustworthy.  In a teenager’s inner circle, they might have a granny but not their parents.  It can be surprising, sometimes painful, when you honestly populate your inner circle.  There may be nobody!  Some people might not have many people but they might name activities that they are passionate about – music, acting, nature etc.

The second, or ‘closer’, circle includes people and activities that are important because they usually provide variety and stimulation in our lives. So a woman might include colleagues who are supportive in a work setting and a drama society that engages her on winter evenings.  The third, ‘close’, circle includes resource people and activities which are important in the present moment e.g. the consultant when very ill, the teacher who best engages with my severely autistic son. 

Support networks, like aspects of identity awareness, are always changing.  There are times when I am so happy to be ‘just me’ and the people and interest in my life make me smile.  And other periods when I can’t stand being me and life has abandoned me.  This is life for us all, no matter how we try to disguise it, and being relatively aware and comfortable in both zones is okay.  Days we are vulnerable, days we are strong.

So when our friend comes along and the atmosphere is light, we welcome the occasion.  The true friend, when the atmosphere is languid and tortuous, has the wisdom to come away from the ‘WE of shared space and fragile boundaries’ and sit on a rock, look out on the sea and wait for two separate crafts to come into view – the craft called ‘ME’ and the craft called ‘YOU’.  One or both might resemble a yacht and the other a rowing boat with one oar.  Doesn’t matter a damn. None is ‘better or more worthwhile than the other’.  The hour sipping coffee, choking back tears and rippling with laughter, is the US of Friendship, the sea which upholds and welcomes both craft without bias, non-judging and non-shaming.

If you enjoy the material, please get the word out there among those you care for.  You can contact me with comment or suggestion via Facebook at Jim Sheehy Therapy and on Twitter @jimsheehy2017


Take care,

Clarifying Disclaimer:  While the material I am presenting is well-researched and suitable for the general population, I believe each person’s issues and needs are unique.  I encourage you to seek medical and/or therapeutic support if you struggle with an issue or condition that negatively and seriously impacts your life.



Contact me:

Jim Sheehy M.Ed. MIACP
Co Donegal 
F94 WV99

087 2137922


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