Too Close for Comfort

The weekend before last, a beautiful woman asked me an intriguing question: “I notice whenever I move in close to speak with you, you move back a step. Why is that?”

Hmmm. I contemplated her question as the crowded room buzzed around us. We were on a break during a session in a [fabulous] counseling training program. We had just wrapped an intensive exchange in which our home group had been reflecting on its internal dynamic. She is our group moderator and one of the program leaders—a woman of tremendous insight and empathy whom I hold in high regard. And she really is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen in the flesh.

The answer came to me almost immediately. “Because I want you close, but only as close as I can handle. My internal PR machine depends on maintaining a little bit of distance, so that I can manage your perceptions of me.  If you get a little too close, it might get a little too real. You might see beneath the veneer. You might see things I can’t control and decide not to like me anymore. So that’s why I move back to here.” I took a step back to illustrate.  And I was suddenly struck by a change.  She was clearer.  That is, I could see her more clearly.


“Wait a minute,” I said. I stepped up close to her again and she got a little blurry.  I could almost feel an energy pushing me back as my eyes strained into overdrive in a vain attempt to resolve the image.  I took my glasses off.  My eyes relaxed, she became crystal clear–more beautiful than ever–and I felt completely comfortable in her close orbit.  I wanted to hold that space.

Holy shit.  Maybe it was just my glasses.  I’m nearsighted.  I need my glasses to see things clearly if they’re more than a couple of feet away.  However, I see very close things better without them. Wow. Two completely plausible motivations for an action, which couldn’t be more different from each other.

Which then begs the question: Which one is true?  Does the fact that I realized the issue was with my eyes invalidate the other reason? Is the physical reason true while the spiritual/psychological reason is just made up?

I don’t think so.  My guess is that the immediate physical step back was more motivated by the vision issue.  But it doesn’t really matter.  I was hyperaware that whole weekend of my default M.O. of trying to manage others’ perceptions. Since I was already focused on that aspect of my personality, my English major’s mind immediately alighted upon the backward step as an elegant external analogy for what was going on in my interior landscape.

The eye and the heart each have their own way of seeing. Sometimes they align. Sometimes they don’t.  In this case, they saw different things, but both brought me to the same place.  Approximately one step back.  And now I have some insights to play with that might just allow me to move in a little closer.