Giving and Taking Space with Sepideh Saremi, Psychotherapist and Founder of Run Walk Talk
I first heard the term "giving space" when I met my fav Reiki lady Ms. Aimee Bello a couple of years ago. She used the term to explain why it's important for us to not get too emotionally involved in other people's problems, the basic premise being: other people's problems are their own and the best you can do is not judge them and just be there and be nice. She even had a dope mantra for it: "Not me, not mine."
This was all well and good... until I moved in with my boyfriend. The man is lovely, don't get me wrong, but have you ever tried disavowing your emotional attachments to the problems of someone you are physically attached to almost 24/7? Shit is rough. When they're upset, all you want to do is badger them with good advice and when they aren't in the mood to take it, it's inevitable that you'll feel defeated, at best. You'll get pissy, wonder why they can't just see what you so CLEARLY see, go sulk in a corner and then, finally, you'll remember you do the exact same thing. Because other people are just humans too amd someone else's emotions are NEVER about you. Which got me thinking, there's gotta be some rules when it comes to this ish. There has to be a way to get in a better headspace about what you can and cannot control when it comes to a loved one's emotional battles. (Can you tell I respond well to limits?)
To get the answers I needed, I enlisted the help of an amazing psychotherapist I recently met named Sepideh Saremi. Among other things, Sepideh works primarily with high-achieving people to get them out of their heads and their feelings to lead more productive, fulfilling lives. She does this out of a practice called Run Walk Talk in Los Angeles where she offers treatments that mix talk therapy with a walk or run, in case you process better when your blood is pumping. Sounds fab, right?!
She was kind enough to let me pick her brain about giving space, taking it for ourselves, and dole out some practical advice for how to know when we need to step away. Check out her incredible knowledge below:
What does it mean to give space to someone?
Sepideh Saremi: Giving space is seeing and honoring another person's right to separateness, their boundaries, their individuality - physical and emotional. I think of it as acknowledging the line between myself and another person, acknowledging that they have needs and desires that may have nothing to do with me - and that's perfectly okay.
A person who has space doesn't have to collapse any parts of herself and can live freely and expansively and honestly. A person who can give space is able to sit with herself and doesn't rely solely on others for her sense of self-worth or the feeling that she is safe and okay in the world.
What are the signs of someone who needs space but can't ask for it? What's a supportive way of stepping away when we see these signs?
SS: This is such a good question, and hard to answer. In my work as a therapist, finding the optimal distance or space between self and others is a major theme - and something for which I work hard to help my patients develop language through their negotiation of that space with me. There's a big tension here that goes back to early childhood for many people, related to their attachment style (the way they feel about being connected with others, and whether that feels safe or uncomfortable).
Outside of therapy, I feel really strongly that short of abuse, part of self-care and wellness and being a functional adult is being able to negotiate and assert yourself in relationships and that assertiveness is both a right we need to respect and a responsibility we need to develop.
When we don't have words for claiming our space this often manifests as confusing or even disrespectful behavior towards others.
So if you're in a relationship with someone that's giving you mixed signals about whether they want to spend time with you or doesn't seem happy when you're together or seems to resent you, I think it's a good move to name what you are experiencing, and ask what they need and what would be comfortable for them. And maybe it's not a bad idea also to say how it makes you feel that they're not saying what they need more directly, because the expectation of mind-reading is not really healthy beyond infancy (it sounds so harsh, but it's true).
The problem is that often the same person that can't ask for space doesn't have the self-awareness to know that they need it, or the language to negotiate it. It can create resentment in us when we are made responsible for another person's comfort in this way. So you have to fix this dynamic for a relationship to be healthy.
Why is it important for us to take space for ourselves in relationships?
SS: Taking space for myself is the only way I know to understand what's happening with me, and what I need from others. It's too hard otherwise to listen to my own voice, and too easy to get swept up in what others want for - or from - me.
How can we learn to recognize when we need space for ourselves?
SS: Becoming attuned to our feelings is the first step - resentment, anxiety, anger, sadness, tension, among many other feelings, can all be signs of needing space for yourself, of needing some shift in boundaries. If you have a hard time identifying your feelings, use mindful awareness to notice your physical sensations, which are often clues to our emotional state. In my own practice, I use running both for myself and with my patients to help expand awareness of the body and emotions. Of course, even going through the process of noticing what's going on with you is a way of taking space, which is great.
Image by Olivia Tinnin