Exploring A Touchy Issue | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Exploring A Touchy Issue

What is your relationship to touching others and receiving touch?  I don’t mean this figuratively — I’m not talking about “touching people with your kindness” or something like that — I mean skin-to-skin physical contact.

For me, looking at my relationship to touch has been a big source of insight about myself, and the places where I can stand to grow and explore.  One reason for this is that I have very little control over how my body reacts to physical contact.

Most of the time, if I want to, I can walk around holding up a mask, pretending to be tough, always comfortable with myself, or something else.  But there’s no masking the way I respond to touch.

If I’m uncomfortable with a particular kind of touch, my body will subtly tighten up or pull away, no matter how hard I may try to look like I’m okay with it.  That reaction has a unique rawness and immediacy about it.

I wanted to share some questions I’ve been asking myself in this exploration, in case they’re useful for you to think about:

1.    When do I allow unwanted touch?

I think it’s interesting to look at those times when we let someone touch us, even when we don’t want contact in that moment.  Maybe, for example, we let friends and relatives hug us, even when we don’t genuinely feel a desire to be hugged.

When I disregard my own wishes like this, it’s often out of a sense of obligation.  They’re my friends and family, after all — it would be hurtful or childish not to allow them to affectionately touch me.  Because it’s my duty or I want to keep the peace, I let my boundaries be violated.

The trouble is that, when I permit unwanted touch, I tend to feel a subtle resentment toward the person who touched me.  This makes our relationship less fulfilling — not just for me, but also for them, because on some level they sense my irritation.

For these reasons, I’ve been moving in the direction of being clear about when I want physical contact and when I don’t.

2.    Does it feel okay to ask for touch?

In other words, if I would like to hold someone’s hand, give them a hug, practice my massage skills, and so on, am I able to request those things?  Or do I hold back from asking for touch, out of fear of being embarrassed, being seen as “too forward,” or something else?

Personally, when I find myself having trouble asking for contact, it’s often because I’m concerned about being seen as “needy.”  According to the way I’ve seen the world for most of my life, a “needy” person is someone who needs to be comforted by other people to get by, and needy people are distasteful and “childish” because they should be able to take care of themselves.

In the last few years, my perspective has shifted.  I’ve come to see requesting touch as an act of courage, not cowardice.  Admitting I want to be close to someone is a lot harder than pretending I’ve “got it together” and I don’t need anything from anyone.

3.    How do I react when my touch is unwanted?

When someone doesn’t want contact with me, I can usually feel my stomach tighten a bit.  I may also find myself making up a story about the reasons they don’t want my touch that casts me in an unfavorable light — it must have been because I’m unimportant, unattractive, “a loser,” or something along those lines.

I’ve found it useful to take a close look at the story I tell myself when it seems like my touch is rejected.  When I stare it straight in the face, I’ve found, the story starts to look pretty absurd and amusing.  Even as I sit here now, I can’t help but laugh at the notion that I’m a bad person because he or she didn’t want to touch me.

I think a lot of people suffer because they’re not willing to look straight at the painful story they’re telling themselves when they feel rejected.  Instead, they try to distract themselves from the hurt, explain away what happened by telling themselves the other person was just having a bad day, and so on.

It can be difficult to take an honest look at our relationship to touch, but I think exploring that area can be a great source of self-understanding and growth.

9 thoughts on
Exploring A Touchy Issue

  1. Evelyn Lim

    Interesting topic for me. I am not physically “expressive” with strangers. I feel uncomfortable and like you, I do not like my boundaries violated. Maybe it is a cultural thing too. I am definitely more “huggy” with my friends who are non-Chinese. My therapy sessions with my clients used to be “no-touch” but lately it has turned to more “touchy”…okay at least with my female clients.

    Your questions are great ones to ask, in order to start exploring this topic. They are likely to surface what our own discomfort is about. Most certainly, I have become less uptight over being touchy versus non-touchy with a better understanding of myself.

  2. Hilary

    Hi Chris .. I used to be much more withdrawn .. and once I’d joined a committee and was an active participant for a large club I opened up more … family is another matter. With others I am now even more ‘open’ and will put hands on shoulders, or arms when I’m talking to people, ‘fall against them in a show of brief affection’, or give them a hug .. it’s what they need too.

    Family is difficult and I’ve been away … my uncle though said the thing he missed after his wife died was the hug and the touch .. I made sure I gave him some of those – he said I made a world of difference to his life and gave him something to live for – let alone the touch aspects .. just being there and sharing life with him. My cousin couldn’t understand it. My family haven’t ever been great huggers .. and oddly now my mother doesn’t like touch that much .. sometimes perhaps because she’s too hot and I add the heat … or just because – she’s grateful for the welcoming kiss ..

    Strange – but I’m definitely much better than I was .. except with my own family! Takes two there .. cheers Hilary

  3. Sara

    Wow, not to be facetious, but this is a touchy subject for most people, certainly for me. I’m definitely not on a touchy-feely person and treat others often the same way. I approach people slowly and watch for indications they want contact.

    I also have strong natural space boundaries and it bugs me when people violate it. One boss I had used to get right in front of me to talk and one time, I shoved him backwards, instinctively. It was both embarrassing and funny.

    It is good explore how you feel about touch, especially with partners and friends. Its also important to check with people about whether or not they want touch. Some people assume someone wants to be hugged, like when they’re sad. That’s not always the case and I think it’s important to ask. This is really true with children. Adults often violate children’s space without thinking, even if they mean well. Well, that’s my two cents…oops I mean paragraphs on this this interesting topic:~)

  4. jannie funster

    Yes, a bit of a “touchy” subject here indeed, as Sara points out.

    I think hugging friends and family “should” feel good, an extension of our love for them. So why do we feel a little resentful? Is there a course at school we missed taking on this? Is there a book we could read? Should hugs mean love?

    I’m a pretty touchy-feely type with most people. Others I recoil from. Some hidden scents in the air perhaps? The olde pheremone clues at work?

    I think it’s the genuine emotion that accompanies touch that matters. If we mean well we should be received well, just like our words.

    I don’t 100%. A lot of questions from me. :)


  5. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evelyn — I appreciate your willingness to explore what has you react in certain ways to touch — that’s really all this piece is meant to be about. I can get the same way with people I don’t know who want physical contact, even if, on some level, I actually want contact with them.

  6. Chris - Post author

    Hi Hilary — it sounds like you’re wanting more touch from family members, or wishing that they were more open to yours? I wonder if you’ve ever talked about that issue with the family members you want more closeness with. Just food for thought — I don’t mean to give advice, just to have us all explore this a bit.

  7. Chris - Post author

    Hi Sara — I appreciate what you shared about watching for signals that others want contact — it’s interesting how that’s customary for many of us, as opposed to asking whether physical contact is okay for them. The “social rule” seems to be that touch is a taboo subject that we’re supposed to understand without words, and I think that’s a rule worth breaking.

  8. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jannie — I liked what you said about how you can sometimes feel resentful when a family member wants touch — I’ve experienced that sometimes myself. I’ve been moving in the direction of openly talking about this issue with people, as opposed to just going along with what they want. My experience is that, as long as I’m not blaming someone for the resentment that comes up when we touch each other, we can deepen our relationship by having that discussion.

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