Perhaps you say: ‘Give me some space to think about that’. Or: ‘I need a breathing space before I can take that on’. So space is very important to us. But how can we understand that need for space? And what can we do to get it? This is an important part of self-positioning – it aims to ‘position’ us as we are now in relation to our past and future and in relation to other people, so the space we occupy is a crucial part of this.

Perhaps you have failed an exam, or lost a job. Perhaps your child or your partner has left you.

When we talk about needing or using space, we do not only mean physical space. We may mean that we want to be left alone, or we don't want someone looming over us while we decide. So physical space comes into it. You don't want parents hectoring you about the exam, your wife worrying about your job loss, or your friends being over-sympathetic. Getting away may well be important.

Mainly, though, when we talk about needing and using space, we mean psychological space, so we are making a metaphorical statement. Talking about space means something to us and the people around us.

Space is emptiness, so part of what we are doing when we are trying to get some psychological space is to empty our minds, empty our psychological inbox of all the things that are taking up our time and energy. You can’t think now of all the things you might have done, or all the things that you also have to do. Concentrate on this one.

We are also seeking some of that time and energy. ‘Breathing space’ or ‘thinking space’ sometimes means just time to take something into our minds and process it. And it may mean keeping our minds in rest to build up the energy to take something on. Think, perhaps: ‘I won;t do it now, but I’ll spend two hours on this on Monday’.

But space is not just emptiness: it is emptiness with a boundary. We’re not seeking forever nothingness, we’re staying in control of the space, because we want to use it, to do that thinking or planning that we can see we need to do. So, clearing psychological space also means putting an edge to the space and taking control of it. That’s why I say: ‘two hours’, not just an out-of-control amount of time on Monday. And a strict time limit so you focus your mind: no going round in circles.

And we take control through our rational minds, our thinking processes. We therefore need to be clear what issues we are taking on, the demands that people are making on us and think through the likely alternative options. We can start working on these issues by thinking about the stimulus that caused us to want space: what was it about what happened that made us feel: ‘I can’t manage that just now – I need space’? Was it your partner leaving, or your feeling alone? Often your feelings and reactions are a more important issue than other people’s actions.

So: the main points about creating and using psychological space are:

• Think through the external stimulus, the pressure that is troubling us. There will be some parts of it that are OK, but there will be some aspects of it that are a pressure for us. Perhaps making a list of points to consider would be good for you.

• Self-positioning oppis lead us to think of both sides of the issue, the good and the bad, the useful and the troublesome, the fundamental and the flim-flam.

• Think about what you need to do to make time and find a place to work on the issue. Perhaps that means finishing something else off. Perhaps it means going to somewhere that feels good to you – your den, a garden, your church. Or perhaps it means some music or television: some people’s minds work better with background noise, and sometimes such stimuli can cut you off from other matters that are worrying you.

• To empty your mind of everyday worries, try doing something repetitive; Catholics say the rosary, Eastern religions use chants. Use a phrase of a song, or worry beads.

• Take time to think of many alternatives to assess; if there seems to be only one answer, think of what its opposite might be. If there are two alternatives, how could they be incorporated together.

• Think what you need to know to deal with the issue, then what you will need to do or what skills you will need, then what changes in attitude you will need. Knowledge-skills-attitudes: the three basics of education.

• Think through a strategy: an end point and at least two steps towards it.

• As soon as you reach the end of your space, take action on your plan at once.

Author's Bio: 

Dr Malcolm Payne is a leading educator and writer in social work and end-of-life care, emeritus, honorary or visiting professor at universities in the UK, Poland and Finland. He is the author of many books and professional and research publications in health and social work. Among his recent books are: The Creative Arts in Palliative Care (edited with Nigel Hartley) Philadelphia/London Jessica Kingsley; Humanistic Social Work: Core Principles in Practice Chicago: Lyceum/Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan and Social Work in End-of-Life and Palliative Care (with Margaret Reith) Chicago: Lyceum/Bristol, UK: Policy Press.