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Not Everyone Wants a Hug

Some people experience severe aversion to being touched.

Source: Kues/Shutterstock

Why do some people recoil when offered a hug?

Early socialization can play a role.

Our tendency to engage in physical touch — whether hugging, a pat on the back, or linking arms with a friend — is often a product of our early childhood experiences. In a family that was not typically physically demonstrative, children may grow up and follow that same pattern with their own kids. On the other hand, some children grow up and feel “starved” for touch and become social huggers, who can’t greet a friend without an embrace or a touch on the shoulder.

1. Self-confidence and social anxiety may affect attitude.

It’s been found that people who are more open to physical touch with others typically have higher levels of self-confidence. On the flip side, people who have higher levels of social anxiety, in general, may be hesitant to engage in affectionate touches with others, including friends. Anxiety is about being unsure of yourself and uncomfortable in social settings. The fear of someone actually “reaching out” to you — figuratively and literally — may exacerbate your discomfort through their attention and focus on you in the group.

2. Sense of self, self-esteem, and body issues may play a role.

While many of us think that a massage is the answer to our prayers after a rough week, there are also people who cannot even imagine allowing a stranger to touch their body in such a manner. They may “give in” and try a massage, but they keep their bodies so tense that they barely even feel anything. Then there are other “touch-avoidant” people who get brave and try a massage and then are bewildered as they find themselves overcome with emotion and start crying right there on the massage table. The same thing can happen in yoga — touch-avoidant folks can find themselves “experiencing” their bodies for the first time, feeling absolutely “in” their bodies, and find themselves dissolving into inexplicable tears.

There’s something scary, to some people, about allowing themselves to be touched that can surprise even them when they open themselves up to experiencing their body and being “in touch” with themselves. If you’ve been raised to believe that you are “ugly,” “fat,” “undesirable,” “less than,” “dirty,” “too (fill-in-the-blank),” or “not (fill-in-the-blank) enough,” the first time you allow yourself to be “openly and honestly” in touch with your body, through massage by a stranger, a yoga instructor’s gentle instruction, the supportive and non-judgmental touch of someone who cares for you, and so on, you may very well find yourself overcome with relief, gratitude, surprise, acceptance, and even regret for having closed yourself off from your own self for so long.

3. Attitude towards social touch can reflect unusual fears.

Some people just don’t like to have their physical space invaded — they may feel threatened by another’s proximity or vulnerable if they allow someone to show them warmth or affection. Some people may be mild “germophobes” (like the comic, Howie Mandel) who don’t like touching other people’s bodies. There’s even a word for individuals who truly, truly, truly cannot tolerate another’s touch: haphephobic.

4. Past experiences with negative touch affect attitudes.

If a person has been a victim of abuse or trauma during their lives, they may be especially fearful of social touch or hugs. They may be fearful that a “friendly hug” may be a warning sign that “more” is expected later. In cases where an individual was sexually or physically abused at the hands of those people who were responsible for his well-being and care, he may be especially avoidant of physical touch as an adult.

When a person learns that “touching” is what gives other people the power to hurt her, she may isolate herself and avoid relationships that would normally involve touching, including romantic relationships and close friendships.

Touch Avoidance Can Be Unlearned

Hugging and other demonstrative shows of support and affection are actually essential to our maximum well-being! Our endocrine systems and emotions are wired to respond to human-to-human contact. Not only that, in recent experiments with “robotic teddy bears,” it was found that even a reciprocated hug from a robot could positively affect pro-social behaviors and the willingness to share and self-disclose. It’s the same effect of animals being used in counseling and therapy — safe physical affection with another creature is satisfying and mood-enhancing!

Some of the earliest studies of the benefits of hugs involved newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit. The more time the baby was cuddled and in contact with humans, the better the baby’s outcome. When we give someone a hug, our bodies respond at a cellular level, and we get a rush of positive feelings. Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter that is released during an embrace (along with immediately after childbirth for women and at orgasm for all genders), and it is somehow connected to our desire for social bonding, trust-building, and pro-social behaviors like generosity. Hugs lower stress and also ward against some physical illnesses. Not only that, but the more frequent the hugs we enjoy in life, the better our immune systems work, according to research.

As we age, our need for physical touch doesn’t decrease, even if our sex drives do. Isolated individuals or older adults may actually suffer something called “skin hunger,” where they are bereft of physical contact. This can actually negatively affect our physical health as well as increase the likelihood of depression. A warm bear hug really is good for your health — so long as you are totally okay with the person doing the hugging.

Intimacy Without Touching Isn’t Easy, but Couples Do Manage

It can be challenging to form close, intimate relationships if touching is something that a person just cannot do, but it’s not impossible. Intimacy is all about honesty, openness, and a mutual willingness to share inner thoughts and feelings. It’s also about acknowledgment and acceptance of one another and each other’s limitations. Finding a way to satisfy a partner’s need for touch while protecting your own need to limit contact can be a challenge, but every relationship will present its own set of challenges, and the “touch-me/touch-me-not” tension is just one more flavor of intimacy puzzles that couples work to solve.

More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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