Why we all need plenty of emotional space over the festive season
For many of us, Christmas adds a whole new element of crowding to our lives
Reading a book with the big, eff-off headphones on – whether anything is coming through them or not – will give people a clear signal that you want to be left alone. Photograph: iStock
Human beings have a hunger for space – that’s why lots of people go back to work (when that’s possible) with a surge of relief after getting an overdose of togetherness at Christmas.
Or they wave their extended family away with a sigh of “at last” – and no doubt the departing family is heaving a similar sigh.
You have to get through Christmas first, though, before you get your space back. And even after Christmas, depending on what Covid restrictions are in force, you might not get that much yearned for space.
The important point about space is that it’s an actual need, like belonging, achievement and play. Without enough of it, people get frustrated and cranky. Deprivation of freedom is, after all, an established punishment in society.
The sort of space we need is, really, emotional rather than physical. How much of it we need varies from one person to another.
In pushing people together with family or with others who share living accommodation (students, for instance) and in forcing those who can to work from home, the pandemic crowded our emotional space.
For many, Christmas adds a whole new element of crowding to their lives.
The result could be a lot of tetchy exchanges and sulking. I’ve noticed in my work that when people get irritable, it’s often a lack of that sense of space that’s behind it.
This holds true outside pandemic-time and outside Christmas, also. If it wasn’t a basic need, we could all live happily in dormitories and save ourselves a fortune.
Finding enough space doesn’t have to mean voyaging across the ocean alone on your wee boat. It can be as simple as going for a walk on your own. In a city, wearing a pair of those big headphones can give you an excuse for walking obliviously past people you don’t want to talk to. (In the country, you would just seem mad or rude).
Sitting in a cafe reading a book or looking at Instagram or even The Irish Times on your phone will also buy you some space.
What if, for some reason, you can’t get out of the house? Retreating to your bedroom, if you have your own, is one way to get space unless you live in a family that gets offended if you are not sitting there being endlessly fascinated by them. (That’s why it can be helpful to have established yourself as a bit odd at an earlier stage of your life – it buys you freedom).
Reading a book with the big, eff-off headphones on – whether anything is coming through them or not – can also do the trick.
While what we’re really looking for when things get overcrowded is some space in our head, removing yourself physically is probably the surest way to get this.
But even sitting by the window for a few minutes, observing your thoughts passing by, can help to give you a feeling of spaciousness. What I mean by observing your thoughts is to let them pass by without getting yourself caught up in the story they’re about.
A thought such as “I wish the in-laws weren’t descending on us today” can, if you develop it (“They’re so insensitive, don’t they know there’s a pandemic on? And what’s more ...”) leave you feeling very stressed out indeed.
So, if you’re taking your window break, you observe the thought that you wish they weren’t descending and let it stop at that. A trick lots of people use is to put each thought on to an imaginary leaf and let the leaves flow down a river, carrying the thoughts with them. Or imagine the leaves being scattered by the wind or – good if you’re angry – by one of those leaf-blowers that’s disturbing my peace as I write this.
I am well aware that some people reading this will see few if any family this Christmas and have more emotional space than they want.
That’s also something to bear in mind when we complain about being too close to too many people.
– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (email@example.com).