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.