When the term “social distance” became a way of life, many people called for the term to be changed to “physical distancing.” The intention behind the phrase “social distancing” is to keep people physically apart in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. Advocates of the term “physical distancing” argued that while we may be physically apart, we can still be “social” through other forms of communication.
Another reason why people might want to use the term “physical distance” rather than “social distance” is because “social distance” is already a term in sociology. And no, it has nothing to do with a global pandemic. Social distance is often used as a way to describe “psychological space.” This space exists between people, cultural groups, and other ideas. In this video, I’m going to break down what psychological space is, where it exists, and how we can use this idea when living in a pandemic (or not living in a pandemic.)
What Is Psychological Space?
Psychological Space, or mental space, is the idea that our perception of the world affects our internal thoughts and beliefs. If we live in a messy place, our mind may be messy; if we live in a clean place, our mind will be clean.
I want to start by saying that psychological space is not an easy concept to grasp. The psychologists who write about it even admit this. John Eliot, author of Models of Psychological Space, says:
“Despite a long history of philosophical and scientific theorizing about psychological space, there currently exists no widely accepted description of this phenomenon. Attempts at describing it have been like trying to define flecks of mica in beach sand: when enough particles are present their existence is evident, but it is almost impossible to describe them as an entity separate from the sand.”
Eliot wrote this back in the 80s, and there are not many other texts that explore this idea. We can, however, use analogies and ideas from Buddhism to define what psychological space is and how we experience it. (You can also check out this infographic posted on Reddit about the difference between psychological and physical space.)
Types of Psychological Space
John Welwood defines psychological space by dividing it into three different types of psychological space: oriented, feeling, and open space.
Oriented space is one of the easier types of “space” to define and understand. Our minds can perceive where we are in space in relation to other objects. We know that we are an inch away from our phone and a foot away from a chair. We are close in space to our neighbors, but far away from someone in another part of the world. This type of space is studied on its own, separate from the larger concept of psychological space.
The next type of psychological space is feeling space. This is a little harder to describe. Have you ever just felt heavy? Like the weight of the world was on your shoulders. Psychologists like Welwood would characterize this as feeling space.
We feel better with an expansive, open space. Expansive, open spaces (even just ones that we think about) make us feel better. It goes both ways. Have you ever felt upset, and decided to visualize an image of a wide-open space? You are using feelings generated by wide psychological space to calm yourself down.
Another way to look at it is to think of the term “headspace.” When you are in a good headspace, things are clear. If your “head” was a room, it would be tidy, airy, and clean. If you are in a bad headspace, things might feel cluttered. This room is suddenly full of things. You do not have much space between you and the clutter that fills up your mind.
Again, this is not an easy concept to grasp. There is no way to measure the feeling of being weighed down by stress or the calm that we get from visualizing an open space. But most likely, you know what I’m talking about.
The last concept within psychological space is open space. It is like an umbrella term that not only covers oriented and feeling spaces, but also allows you to experience them at the same time.
Welwood equates this term to a Buddhist term: empty mind. This doesn’t mean that there is a void. In Buddhism, “emptiness” is a way to explain the state of the world as it is. It is the state of the world without clutter, ego, or anything blocking you from seeing its true wholeness and beauty. This emptiness covers everything, including the things that are physically next to you and the worries that are figuratively following you.
Benefits of Understanding Psychological Space
Psychologists today use the term “psychological space” to remind people of their own space and place in the world. You may also hear it referenced as “mental space.” Sure, you are physically in your home, behind your computer, or in a specific country. But what about where you are mentally? To figure out where you are, you may want to practice mindfulness or self-awareness.
Understanding the Destination
When you understand psychological space, you can envision the type of space that you need to inhabit. You know what it feels like to be clear and uncluttered. You know where you “want to go” in terms of your headspace. This is important. In order to move to a more positive headspace, you need to know what it feels like.
Understanding the Journey
You may be in a space right now that feels cramped. You feel held back. Although you long for a different type of space, you simply aren’t there in the moment. It will take a journey to get you to the “space” where you want to be.
We cannot be in two places at once. We cannot be both five feet and 12 feet away from something. If you want to move into a different headspace, you will have to make the journey there. This may require meditation, patience, therapy, or time. You may also want to dive into topics like metacognition, which is essentially thinking about the way that we think. But with awareness of your psychological space, you can assess where you are, where you need to be, and understand that it will take time to get there.