Touch Is a Touchy Topic: Hugging is for Others, Not for Me

Since I established the theme for this month’s carnival of aces, I have already received two comments about people who have received unwanted non-sexual touch from people in the family: here and here.

I haven’t had a problem with this with my dad’s side of the family. My mom’s side of the family … well, they have a habit of kissing me on the lower cheek, which I’ve never liked. I can forgive relatives who I see less often since I don’t expect them to remember my preferences, and for all I know, maybe their kids loved getting kisses from them. I am much more irritated when my mom does it, because she does know better. One time my mom kissed me on the cheek and said “I know you don’t like kisses, but you are so cute I can’t help it”. If that were said in a sexual situation…

Anyway, returning to this quote from the previous post:

5. Hugging boosts self-esteem. From the time we’re born our family’s touch shows us that we’re loved and special. The associations of self-worth and tactile sensations from our early years are still imbedded in our nervous system as adults. The cuddles we received from our Mom and Dad while growing up remain imprinted at a cellular level, and hugs remind us at a somatic level of that. Hugs, therefore, connect us to our ability to self love.

First of all, hugging does not boost my self-esteem in the long term. I’ve learned that hugging is a code that somebody does not want to hurt you and is not your enemy, so when somebody sends me the message ‘I don’t want to hurt you’ and ‘I am not your enemy’, it can temporarily boost my self-esteem. But I think, in the long run, it makes it harder for me to practice self-love.

A few weeks ago, my mother declared that I was ‘radioactive’, and that she had to avoid me because I gave her too much stress. I then explained my side of the story, which was basically listing the things she had done to provoke me, and then she said ‘I’m radioactive too’ and that, ultimately, I hadn’t chosen her, and she hadn’t chosen me, and that we are in some ways incompatible. I think this gives you a hint of how difficult my relationship with my mom has often been.

Sometimes, when my mom perceives me as being too difficult, she totally withdraws a self-defence mechanism. This often happens at a time when I am already upset, and having and her totally abandoning me to ‘protect herself’ (i.e. claiming that I am the one hurting her without acknowledging that she or another party might be hurting me) rarely fails to make me feel even more upset.

One of the tactics I have discovered to deal with this situation is this: offer a hug.

As I mentioned in this post, I feel like my mom feels very disappointed that I am not the source of endless affection that I think she hoped for, and a big part of that is that I don’t offer hugs as much as she wants. When I do offer a hug, she wants to stay in it for a long time, because to her, it seems like water in a desert. Thus it has a become a tool I can use to manipulate her in this power-uneven relationship (and yes, though the power-unbalance is not as great as it was when I was a little girl, it is still in her favor).

So why haven’t I wanted to hug my mother more often? When I was much younger, she would pressure me a lot more to engage in hugging. Eventually, she gave up, but the impression had already made when I was very young that hugging was something my mother wanted to make me do even if I didn’t want it. Afterwards, I would only offer to hug my mother when I felt I was backed into a metaphorical corner, which felt like indirect coercion to me because I would feel (even if not necessarily true) that my mother was the one who backed me into the corner in the first place.

I sometimes initiate hugs with other people, but it is almost always from a place of insecurity. It wasn’t just in elementary school that I was taught that Hugging Is Good and that We Must Hug More – I was also ‘taught’ this in high school and college (though not middle school), and believed it to some extent. I knew hugging was a way to raise my esteem in other people’s perceptions, and to keep friends closer. Even more insidious, I had internalized the message that social expectations were repressing people’s natural inclinations to hug, and that hugging was a way to express our true selves.

This focus on appeasing other people and preventing/diffusing external hostility had a bad effect on my ability to love myself. If you depend on others to validate yourself, even when they do validate you, they can always withdraw, and thus you are never entirely secure.

The least huggy period in my life was the time I spent in Taiwan. It was also the most emotionally stable period in my life. I think this is because I had a greater level of autonomy that I ever had before. It was much easier to avoid situations which would make me feel bad, and I was much less likely to get into a situation where I felt compelled to hug.

I have thought about this much more conciously while writing this post that I ever have before. Tentatively, I want to tell myself that I am never required to hug anybody ever again, and that if I do hug again, it should be in the spirit of giving – a gift from myself to someone who actually likes hugging, with no strings attached. However, I don’t know if I can stick to that committment when I feel emotionally threatened again.

The next post will continue on the theme of family, because family is complicated and there is a lot to say.

5 thoughts on “Touch Is a Touchy Topic: Hugging is for Others, Not for Me

  1. Pingback: December 2014 Carnival of Aces Roundup | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  2. “One time my mom kissed me on the cheek and said ‘I know you don’t like kisses, but you are so cute I can’t help it’.”

    I feel like this idea is present in media a lot–there will be a character who doesn’t like hugs (Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in Doctor Who, April in Parks and Rec), and the other characters will know that but insist on hugging them anyway, because they’ve decided a hug is called for or necessary or even that they can’t help it. It’s just awful, though, that anyone would knowingly disrespect another person’s boundaries in the name of loving or caring about the person. If you really want to show your love for them, do it by honoring their preferences, not by selfishly forcing something on them because you like it. It seems like most people can’t understand not liking hugs (or other forms of nonsexual touch), and that makes them think it’s okay to force those forms of touch on others.

    • “If you really want to show your love for them, do it by honoring their preferences, not by selfishly forcing something on them because you like it.”

      I wholeheartedly agree.

  3. Pingback: Violation of [small, “insignificant”] boundaries | cinderace blogs

  4. Pingback: What is “knowing” no? | The Ace Theist

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