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Right Distance: My Favorite Somatic Tool

In a previous post, I mentioned right distance, and I want to explore this concept a little more because, in my experience, it's one of the most important and overlooked elements of being in relationship with ourselves, with others, and with...well, everything.

Essentially, right distance is about finding the amount of space we need in order to be in relationship with something else. And space can be physical, attentional, energetic, etc. Even if we do not have a lot of physical space, we can create other kinds of space, and even if we have a lot of physical space, we can bring ourselves closer. As a therapist that doesn't meet in person anymore, I have no doubt that our bodies can sense each others' presence even if we aren't physically together. We can co-regulate from hundreds of miles away. When right distance is explored intentionally and purposefully within relationship, it can offer powerful boundary repair.

Right distance refers to the felt sense of boundaries. And for folks that have experienced injuries within intimacy, relationships with other humans may feel rife with danger, which can lead to boundary confusion. Connection to others is vital for our survival, and yet that same connection can cause such harm - we need to be close to humans, but closeness leaves us vulnerable. For some folks, "right distance" might mean "as far away as possible", whether that means emotional distance, physical distance, mental distance, or otherwise (this might be called "avoidant attachment" by some). For others, "right distance" means "close, all or most of the time" (anxious attachment). Sometimes, these seemingly opposed needs live in the same person (disorganized attachment). We all have varying expectations about what right distance is supposed to look like in particular relationship structures, but our bodies often tell a different story, which can be confusing to ourselves and others.

A couple of personal examples:

When I was seeking romantic or sexual partners in my teens and early-to-mid-twenties, I was (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) seeking relationships that I knew would offer some form of distance, whether that was physical distance, emotional unavailability, or basic incompatibilities. I wanted connection, but I needed that connection to feel distant enough that I wouldn't feel overwhelmed or engulfed by it. My body's assumption and fear was that if I let someone too close to me, I would lose myself entirely. So I learned that if I kept people at a distance, while still getting some of the connection that I craved, my body's security system would feel safe enough - I could get the comfort that I needed without any of that icky vulnerability.

Relatedly, when I was around my parents before I cut contact with them, my body was doing its best to create distance with the tools that I had at the time. I would become a shell of myself, I would pull away from touch, I would toggle between fawn and fight and flight and freeze responses. All of this was unconscious and outside of my control. Parts of me desperately wanted to be close to my parents, and it was confusing to feel so at odds with my own needs.

I name these examples to honor the wisdom here:

Whether we're aware of right distance or not, our bodies will create it for us.

Part of what felt so powerful about making the decision to cut contact was that I was claiming agency over this unconscious mechanism. By identifying what right distance actually meant for my body, as opposed to what all three of us thought it should look like, I released my body of the exhausting and costly job of protecting me from them, and those resources could be placed elsewhere. I have since been able to soften into secure attachment because I have a better understanding of what right distance looks like for my system.

Where I once felt the double bind "I want connection, and connection is dangerous", I now feel the paradox: the more space I am given, the closer I feel and the more willing I am to share intimate parts of myself. Distance is what allows me to be in close connection.

Right distance is also relevant in our relationship with ourselves. I am currently in an Internal Family Systems training, a modality that focuses on the idea that we are each made up of many parts, and teaches us how to meet and work with the protective and exiled parts of ourselves and our clients. Although right distance has not been explicitly mentioned in the training, I believe that it's absolutely vital to this process. Without this element included in parts work, we run the risk of violating our parts' boundaries, remaining mental in our relationship to them, or not meeting the needs of the parts that can't communicate verbally. We have to be able to pendulate in and out of our inner worlds, to give ourselves space and time to simply exist without constantly analyzing or "working on our healing" - in essence, we have to give ourselves right distance from our own process.

I am also exploring right distance from the material and the IFS training itself. There can be the expectation in learning spaces that we are meant to take in every bit of information, and that our teachers know the "correct" way to use a modality. But I have found the training to be lacking in body awareness, and I can feel the impacts of this on my system. Right distance from this training means that I am not leaning very far into the community, and I am utilizing only what works for me and leaving the rest. I am allowing myself to disconnect from the experience as much as I need to - not because I don't want to learn, but because I value my own body's needs over the expectations of a learning environment. My anger has been my teacher in recognizing my own boundaries here - I am angry at the treatment of therapists and the perpetuation of systems of override in therapeutic trainings. I am choosing to honor that anger by stepping as far back as I need to, and trusting that I will receive exactly what I need, without overwhelming my system.

Exploring right distance requires going slowly, negotiating, and speaking up when needed. It can be tough to describe right distance without actually feeling it, so I encourage you to try the below exercise when you have some time to explore it with intention. There's a lot more to say about right distance, but I'll leave it at that for now.

If you have any response to what I've written, or to this exercise, I'd love to hear them!

Right Distance Exercise:

Always, always, always, start with finding your current resources. Ask yourself what's feeling supportive right now? Maybe it's the feeling of your body meeting the seat. Maybe it's a breeze or a plant or a smell. Notice what's feeling stable or neutral or comforting, externally and/or internally.

Remember you have choice. Start with "no" - you can stop right here. You don't have to do this exercise. How would you know if it's a "no"? Do you feel urgency or annoyance? Do you feel closed off? Is your attention drifting off already?

Notice if there's a "yes" or a "maybe". How do you know? It might feel like an inkling of interest, curiosity, or longing. It might feel like an opening up or an easing into your seat. Is there anything your body needs to feel more supported in this exploration?

If and when you identify a "yes", choose something in your environment that's somewhere on the spectrum of neutral to pleasurable - maybe a stuffed animal, or a plant, or a piece of furniture. Notice your physical distance from this object. Notice what happens as you are bringing more attention to this object.

Then, you can play around with physical distance or attentional distance. You could move towards or away from the object, or move it towards or away from you. Or you can just bring your attention closer and further away.

Remember to stay with sensation.

Start by pushing the object away, within your space or using imagery, until it feels "too far". Ask yourself, how do I know it's too far? what are the sensations of too far? For me, it can feel like ache, empty, hollow, cold, dull, tender, or pulled.

Begin bringing the object closer until it feels "too close". Somewhere in there, you might identify right distance, or you may need to feel the pendulum swing in the other direction to really identify where right distance is. Either way, bring it too close. Ask yourself, how do I know it's too close? what are the sensations? For me, it can feel like contraction, jittery, frozen, numb, hot, constricted, tense, frantic, pressure, suffocation.

Then begin to feel for right distance. Ask yourself, how do I know it's right distance? what are the sensations? For me, it can feel like easing, calm, warm or cool, open, spacious, flow, cozy, alive, loose, quiet.

Stay with sensation.

None of it needs to make logical sense, just let yourself get curious.

Then, maybe, try this again with an object that brings up some discomfort. Or maybe even a person. You don't even need to be in the presence of the person for this to work - you can use imagery. What happens in your body when you imagine this person is next to you? What about if they were a mile away? Across the ocean? On the moon? Can you find the right distance and let them stay there for a while?

Then ground back into the present moment, check in with your resources and supports. Stretch, or place a hand over your heart, or take a sip of water, or connect with your pets/plants.

And maybe, if this resonated with you at all, keep practicing.

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