CYC-Online 7 AUGUST 1999
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Personal space

John Hudson

John Hudson examined aspects of the relationships we establish within the space of the children and families we work with

The late George Lyward is said to have remarked that the most important characteristic for one who sought to help others was “to remain vulnerable".

It may seem perverse to give the same advice to residential workers whose living and working situation is already fraught with risks from difficult and demanding residents. But an understanding of the risks involved in “remaining vulnerable" may enable us to understand the problems of making relationships, and of dealing with what happens when they turn sour. One of the things which happens as a relationship develops is that those involved allow each other to enter their personal space. The idea of “personal space" is useful because it can be defined literally as the physical space around a person, and can also be used figuratively.

Power or trust
Entering someone's personal space involves either power or trust – or a mixture of the two. In societies where it is acceptable for certain people to exercise power over others, e.g. masters over slaves, nobles over peasants, no issue is made of what, in a more equal society, would be seen as an abuse of power. But even in societies where entry into another's personal space is usually reckoned to be a matter of mutual trust, there are situations where it is useful for one person to be in control of another, e.g. parents of their children, and situations where it may be necessary for someone performing a job to enter another's personal space with impunity, e.g. doctor and patient, police constable and suspect. To protect the patient and the suspect, written codes cover the conduct of the doctor and constable as they enter the other party's personal space. But this does not always prevent exploitation of the situation by the “weaker" party who may accuse the other of unethical or illegal conduct.

For the residential worker fewer such written codes have existed; thus staff who undress, bath, caress or smack a resident have no formal protection from a resident's allegation of common assault. But, as mentioned above, even those who have the formal protection of a written code cannot always be protected from allegations of abuse. So a resident who tantalises a member of staff to get them to hit out, or leads them into an improper situation, can always turn round and accuse the member of staff of misconduct. The only way for a residential worker to protect him- or herself from such situations is to make sure he or she never enters a resident's personal space this carries the risk of double deprivation for the resident. It also limits the capacity of the staff member to comfort the heartbroken or control the panicking resident.

Just being close to someone can enable them to regain control or offer them support in a crisis. Standing three feet away and saying “Stop it" or “I feel very sorry for you" is hardly a substitute. Some will say “You cannot afford to take risks – the personal consequences are too dangerous." Others will say: “But I never give it a second thought; I just do what I feel is natural in the situation." Perhaps others feel as I do – that it is very difficult to be natural when one is conscious of the risks, but sometimes essential for the sake of another to take the risks.

Worth the risk
One reason for the variety of opinions may be the variety of perceptions of what residential care is all about. For example, someone who sees residential care as short-term or residual provision is unlikely to see any point in taking risks to make relationships, whereas someone who sees residential establishments as therapeutic environments may take great pains to enable relationships to develop. Then again residents appear to need varying forms of relationships, some apparently perfectly happy with the most casual relationships within the home, others craving more than a 40-hour week can ever offer. The other side of the coin is that residential workers vary in the scope and depth of the relationships they can offer.

One way in which we can look at the forms of human relationship is described by Dr Eric Berne in his book Sex in Human Loving where he demonstrates how relationships can be viewed in terms of casualness/intimacy and what they mean to each party. One point emerging from Dr Berne's description is that sex is not confined to those who have a more intimate form of relationship – nor does having a more intimate form of relationship necessarily mean that those involved are going to end up in bed.

At the other end of the scale physical violence can occur between people at every level of relationship. Thus despite calls for greater staff supervision, there may be no reliable predictor of staff violence or sexual misconduct. I started by referring to George Lyward's comment about “remaining vulnerable". I have indicated two ways in which staff can be “vulnerable" in another sense. Anyone who enters another's personal space becomes vulnerable, and though some people have professional or administrative immunity, this is never a complete protection from allegations of misconduct “and nor, for that matter, does it protect the person whose personal space is being invaded.

The residential worker who tries to offer a more intimate relationship to a resident becomes vulnerable to criticism from those who do not believe that such relationships have a place in residential establishments, and from colleagues who may suspect the motivation or the depth of the relationship. But for those who do enter a resident's personal space, not to undress or bath or medicate them administratively but as a matter of care and affection for that resident, who are prepared to be open and honest about their relationships with residents, colleagues and superiors, there is another risk: that of finding out more about themselves than they had bargained for.

While there are residents for whom a casual “professional" relationship is sufficient, there are also others who are only going to be helped by a more intimate form of relationship. But if those who expect to enter another's personal space while refusing access to their own; if they expect the outward signs of a more intimate relationship while preserving a more casual relationship themselves, then these relationships become “crooked" “to use Berne's terminology.

The essence of being vulnerable is being open enough in allowing another to share one's own emotional personal space – that one can be moved by the other reaching our deepest feelings or grieved at any withdrawal from the intimacy attained. But even a casual relationship involves taking some of the steps towards a more intimate form; we need both to support those who are reaching out for a mutual relationship at whatever level and to care for those who fall.

This feature: From Social Work Today, 9, (12): 'No Easy Road'.

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