Recently we moved from a big house to a smaller place. Downsizing isn’t a funny matter, and the whole move stirred in me some uncomfortable feelings. The suddenly shrunk living space and the negotiating a new boundaries with my family members made me wonder: How much space do we actually need?
Back then, in Soviet Russia the minimum space per head was calculated at 9 m2. So, a family of three, which is my case, would be granted a minimum of 27 m2 of living space (except the service areas). Is it enough? Everything is a matter of comparison.
The decent lodging used to be the biggest problem for every family back then, and it still is. The rent bills often put the biggest weight in the family budget.
Once we have enough food to eat and air to breath, we need some space to move in. To have a roof above our head is a synonym of being safe. The lack of a living space may become a big psychological stressor.
Children need a space to develop. Social workers, when helping children from difficult social backgrounds, become aware of how dramatically does the lack of space and privacy impact their psychological health.
When living in small flats, several siblings sharing the same confined room, they struggle to concentrate, and their levels of anxiety easily go up.
In these cases, social workers try to help them to invent a small private space, even if ephemeral, where they could relax and to stay alone for a while. Sometimes it can be only a balcony, a toilet, a back garden, or even a cupboard.
My grandmother lived in a Kommunalka, and I remember, how stressed and exposed I felt every time I needed to leave the safety of her room to get to the toilet. The unique utilities were located in the middle of an endless dark corridor, and were used at turns by all the members of the seven families who were sharing the flat. One of the lodgers, an impressively big and strong man, was mentally disturbed, and I used to feel scared to death at the perspective to bump into him in the corridor.
Sometimes this private space may be a shoebox size, but we still need it. Do you remember playing with a dollhouse? A tiny, perfect world, where you control everything, and all the furniture and characters have their place, and nobody, except for you is allowed move things around. My daughter usually gets very annoyed if anybody moves anything in her dollhouse. I guess the obsession kids can develop about these toys are linked to this need to gain some control on their living space. When we are small we don’t get a lot of this. When we get older, we learn how to defend our space. If you have teenager children, you certainly got some nice images and inscriptions on the doors of their rooms: “Keep out” etc…
I often find that Facebook pages may also sometimes represent this miniature world where, neatly arranged, all the parts of a life remain under control. Kids seem clean and happy, everybody smile and display their better looks. With a simple click we can put some order into the general picture, to sort friends, to delete an unwanted person or an image. In real life these things usually tend to get slightly more complicated.
When we become decent grown-ups we cannot longer fix this kind of messages overtly on our doors, even if sometimes we would like to do so.
I certainly considered more then once to put something in this vein on my bathroom door: “MEN AND KIDS, KEEP OUT!”
Being an expat and dealing with life far from home, sometimes we need to put up with a flat mate for much longer then other people. When we are twenty it can be fun to share a flat, but when approaching forty, the same situation can easily turn into a nightmare. Inviting a friend over, dating or making a meal can become a source for stress. I don’t mention sharing a bathroom or a fridge.
Our flat mate, even the very best one, can smoke, drink wine or keep smelly cheese in the fridge, if he happens to be a French. It is his right after all, but this behavior may trigger in us some personal idiosyncrasies. Imagine for a moment how you would feel every evening coming home and smelling alcohol, when back then, at your family home your father used to drink, and since then the consumption of alcohol is associated for you with every kind of stressful feelings?
Sharing a space with others, especially when it is small, easily puts our boundaries to the test. In my experience of working with expats, redefining boundaries become one of the most important themes. Often we leave home striving to get free from something, we are looking for some kind of freedom. Once set some good distance between our families and ourselves we often compensate by fulgurate friendships. We tend to go out a lot, and to socialize with frenzy. As result, our boundaries get easily shaken, and our balance challenged.
Living in a reduced space, negotiating multiple friendships at a time can easily result in loosing some of this vital space, - a little gap between us and the world where we can feel safe.
When I think about the importance of personal space, the Schopenhauer’s porcupine dilemma comes to my mind. Whilst the porcupine’s spines keep them at an optimal distance from each other, in order to get some warmth and, at the same time to maintain their boundaries, for us, humans, lacking spines, it happens to be a more complex matter to find the right boundaries.
Published earlier on http://www.internations.org