It’s pretty ironic, but, for many of us, personal space is a rare commodity in the time of social distancing. Many of us are sharing homes with roommates or a significant other, and the alone time once afforded to us by conflicting work and social obligations has been (temporarily) suspended. So as we all do our part to shelter in place to fight the spread of COVID-19, we all still need to create personal space boundaries, no matter how much square footage we’re working with—and luckily, psychologists have brainstormed a number of ways to make that happen.
“Having a personal space is essential for two reasons,” says Amelia Aldeo, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety disorders at Together CBT in New York City. “First, it can help us reduce and manage distractions. By controlling the environment, we get a greater sense of predictability, which can lower our anxiety and stress.” Many people get caught in a cycle of distraction and anxiety, so nixing that dynamic is greatly beneficial. Dr. Aldao’s second reason that a space of your own is crucial is that it can help you feel like you belong. “This is super important in general, but more so in these days, when many of us have been displaced from our usual places of work and have had to find alternative arrangements.”
“Your sense of self helps you know when someone else is intruding on you.” —Aimee Daramus, PsyD, clinical psychologist
Clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, adds an existential reason to insist on having a sense of place in your own home: It gives you a sense, and “your sense of self helps you know when someone else is intruding on you,” she says. For example: If you have a tiny corner that’s yours—and only yours—in the living room, you’re more likely to notice when someone’s leaving their dirty plates out to make them your problem.
So how do you create personal space boundaries in a living space that barely has enough space for your newly assembled at-home workout station? Not to worry—it’s possible. Check out the five tips below.
5 ways to set personal space boundaries when you barely have room to move
1. Designate headphones to mean silence
“If someone has their earbuds in, don’t bother them unless you have to,” says Dr. Daramus. Assume that your roommate invested in those fancy noise-canceling headphones for a reason, and even if they’re not turned on, know that wearing them stands for a stop sign of communication.
2. Remake the floor plan of your space, specifying new purposes for each room
Before the COVID-19 crisis, the kitchen may have just been a kitchen, and the bathroom may have just been a bathroom—but no longer. “I’ve heard of people taking calls in the bathroom to have more privacy. It’s maybe not ideal, but it’s better than needing to talk over your roommates or spouses on their calls,” says Dr. Aldeo. Maybe you turn closet into a focus room, designate a Zoom-call corner in the living room, and designate yoga to the hallway.
Just make sure you’re keeping your bedroom sacred. “Other people like to work in their bedrooms, particularly if they have roommates, but it’s very important to not do work on our beds. Because when we do so, we start associating bed with work and this can sometimes exacerbate sleep problems,” she says.
3. Assign everyone a seat—even though you’re not in kindergarten anymore
If you’re working communally in the living room, Dr. Daramus says it might help for everyone to have a chair that they know solely belongs to them during working hours. “It might help to avoid sitting in someone else’s favorite chair or to have a favorite seat of your own if every person doesn’t have a room of their own,” says Dr. Daramus.
4. Create a shared google calendar
In a sense, the people you’re quarantining with are also your colleagues. Meaning, it can’t hurt to send each other calendar invites so all of you are well aware of Suzie’s Zoom trivia happy hour and Brian’s pitch meeting. You can even book rooms throughout the living space (now that you’ve assigned them out), depending on your schedule.
5. Look for uncharted nooks and crannies
Your apartment probably has a spot or two that you either never use, or don’t use to its full ability. This could be a coat closet or a Harry Potter–style broom cupboard that’s just waiting to be transformed into a phone booth or office. “If you have a balcony or terrace, that’s a great option also, particularly now that the weather is getting nicer,” says Dr. Aldeo.
You’re seeing plenty of the people you live with, so here’s how to stay connected to those you don’t. And, when you leave your home office for the day, consider learning something new with these online classes.