Too Much Togetherness: How I Learned to Communicate My Need for Personal Space

“Well, this is a disaster already,” I grumbled. It was one of those evenings where nothing seemed to be going right: It was late, I was tired and hungry, and my pão de queijo batter, despite all efforts, was too watery.

My dad had been hovering near me, watching me as I mixed and toiled. “Why don’t you stop panicking?” he said, accusatorily. I snapped.

“I’m done!” I shouted, throwing the wooden spoon into the pot. “You can bake it yourself, or let it go to waste — I don’t care.” Without another word, I slammed the bathroom door, hopped in the shower, and sulked.

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Though my toddler days were long gone, here I was, at age 20, throwing a temper tantrum in the kitchen over some bread batter. After I had some time to cool down, I reflected that maybe the real issue at hand wasn’t the botched baking: It was my need for personal space.

In my sudden transition from college life — where I lived mostly independently — to moving back home to quarantine with family, I’ve had to adjust to living in a more confined environment. If you’re ever in a similar situation and find yourself struggling for personal space, here are four tips for you.

Share your schedule with those you live with

My family has a habit of walking in my office or urgently calling me over every time they want to tell me something, whether it’s to sample their cooking, share a cute animal photo, or tell a funny story. I’m always grateful when they think of me, but their habit was often a disturbance, especially when I found myself frequently getting interrupted in the middle of important calls or meetings. 

I was able to solve this issue by sharing my work calendar with my family (Google Calendar lets you do this by inputting someone’s email to view all the events on their calendar). I still love seeing cute animal photos and hearing their stories — but now, my family knows to save them for a time when I’m not in the middle of something.

Communicate your needs calmly and respectfully

Confronting people can be difficult, especially when they have good intentions, but you should never feel sorry for communicating your needs. When I had to confront my family about coming into my office, I was careful in my approach. I first made sure that I was in a good frame of mind — well-rested and well-fed — before I talked to them. If you’re feeling intense emotions (perhaps the way I did post-tantrum), I recommend taking some time to cool down before you talk. 

When it was time to have the tough conversation, I made sure to use “I” statements — that is, statements that focused on how I felt rather than focusing on blame. “Mom and Dad, I sometimes feel frustrated when you walk in while I’m having meetings, although I appreciate that you want to share things with me. Could you please save your thoughts for mealtimes or for when my meetings are over?”

Contrary to past conversations where I failed to approach similar situations with thoughtfulness, I’m happy to say there was no yelling or tears. Instead, the conversation was a success! Everyone felt heard, we didn’t argue, and we reached a solution that everyone was happy with. I believe that by communicating your needs calmly and respectfully, you can avoid fighting and hurt feelings.

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Identify social needs and communication styles

I’m a stereotypical extrovert: gregarious, expressive, and sociable. I enjoy variety and social interaction with different people — my ideal Friday evening is a night out with a large group of friends. My parents are the opposite of me: They are introverted and quiet, and feel most fulfilled when they spend quality time with people close to them. Recognizing these needs helped me realize that our conceptions of “personal space” and social interaction are completely different.

My family and I have found great ways to reach a compromise. I get my social fix by talking on interest-based Discord servers or scheduling short FaceTime dates with my friends throughout the week (which I put on my Google Calendar). Meanwhile, I help my parents get their share of social interaction by eating our meals together (and always making sure to put my phone away so I can stay present) or accompanying them on errands like buying groceries.

Some evenings, I bring my laptop to the living room while my parents and sister are watching TV. Those times, though we may not always be talking to each other, are times I always treasure — we all get to spend time together while both doing our own thing, in a way that we all find fulfilling.

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Loreen Ruiz is a freelance writer from the United States. Both a lifelong lover of words and international cultures, she can be found writing poetry, trying out ethnic restaurants, or watching British comedy in her free time. When not on a culinary adventure, she is active in the sphere of social justice advocacy.