When my Public Speaking teacher talks about personal space, it's hard to understand exactly what she means. Of course, I know the concepts in theory: polite conversation with strangers stays around 2 feet away from them, give or take a little for people you know better or not as much. I know that my boss keeps her distance from the employees respectfully, and I know that I lean in to talk to my sister much more than I would with a classmate I barely know. But our textbook starts talking about physical intimacy in public, and it just doesn't click.
I'm a touchy person. Ask anyone, I am not shy of hugs or a playful shove. I'm fine with both good friends and strangers touching me. The thing is, though, I rarely ever reach out to touch without being prompted. Even when I really want to, to comfort another person or to comfort myself, I have to actually push myself to take action and reach out of my personal bubble.
This isn't new, though. My parents are kind, reassuring people, but kind of awkward with physical affection. I'm so close to my sister that we are often "attached at the hip," but that comes from years of familiarity, and we have always been content to stay in the Venn Diagram of our personal spaces. We hug sometimes, briefly, but for the most part, we resort to messing each other's hair up, or the kind of "playfighting" you're supposed to outgrow by the time you're an adult.
I remember one time, my psychiatrist had prescribed me a new kind of ADHD medicine, and it made me extremely hyperactive. My Dad came back from a coffee run one morning, and I was so ecstatic to see him that I bounded over and kissed him on the cheek. He stood frozen for a second, eyes widened, because it was oddly surprising, coming from me. I don't think I had ever done that before--kissed someone on the cheek. And I really mean I hadn't done it to anyone — not my sister, not a friend — (not even jokingly!), not my 1-year-old cousin, even. I think I did it once to my cat, but that hardly counts.
In that instance, I was so full of energy that getting close to someone was impulsive, a natural thought. I didn't even think about it, I just acted. Almost every other time, though, I overthink it so much that I usually end up staying well within my bubble. If a dear friend is crying in front of me, my brain doesn't know how to respond, even though I know that they would want a hug, or a squeeze of the hand. I just flash a comforting smile, or try and soothe with my words. But I don't move.
That sounds a little cold, but I swear there's no lack of emotion--I just haven't learned how to make my actions instinctual yet. I'm too used to staying in my bubble. It's only recently that I've been branching out, actually. College has been surprisingly full of people that are so, so full of affection — for me, even! They call me endearments like "honey", and "darling" after meeting me twice, they bear-hug me without hesitating, and they always ask if it's alright before they touch me. No other group of friends has made me feel so loved physically; so safe and respected and...worthy of being touched.
I know PDA isn't for everyone. Some people get really uncomfortable with it, for various reasons. I can definitely respect that. But for me, it was radical to discover that I was not taking up as much space as I could in the world. It was joyous to realize that I was allowed to slip into others' personal space, to shorten that polite distance between us. I am very glad that I have learned that my personal space isn't a prison cell--it's a door that can be opened to whomever I want.