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Hugs Are Not Always Comforting

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Gina Barreca sums this up nicely and I hope you take the time to read her Op-Ed “Hugs are free, but they’re not for everybody.” before continuing on to read my entry below.


Something that people do not usually take into account, unless someone has taught them this, is that their well meaning hug or touch can actually cause the recipient to absolutely shut down. Not everyone is comforted by touch when they are struggling with something, are hurting or just need comfort in general. It is why I try to teach people to ask the person they want to comfort, how that particular person wants to be comforted. Do not assume that because hugs and warm blankets are comforting to you when you are upset that it works the same for everyone.

For instance I am not a huge hugger most of the time. This is even true with people I know intimately and love dearly. I have learned through the years how to tell people I am not huggable at a given time. In turn, those close to me have learned (because I have gently taught them) to either outright ask me verbally if I am huggable right then or to open their arms and give me a questioning look and then let me come to them, or not. They also do not assume because I have given permission once that it is a blanket permission forever or even that same day. (I love that my people get this!) They have also learned, again because I have told them, that when I am not huggable it’s not a direct reflection on them. It can be anything from I am tired because of a long day, I am having a tough pain day, all the way to I am on overwhelm around people and struggling with flashbacks and can’t stand to be touched by anyone. They love me, listened to what I told them and act accordingly based on what I told them and in return I do the same for them. Give and take in relationships, it’s a miracle! People, especially ones I don’t know, who come at me without asking permission are likely to (gently of course) get my hand in their face/throat or on their chest with a stiff arm to keep them back. (It is usually not a conscious thought as to where my hand ends up it is just reflex and the arm comes up.)

These days a casual hug that sneaks past my sensors doesn’t completely shut me down 99% of the time anymore. However, it is distinctly uncomfortable to me and I do not like it. Also,it is astronomically rare for me to cry, much less in public. So if in the unlikely event you see me crying DO NOT hug or touch me at all. It will shut me down faster than a bucket of ice water over my head. Crying anytime is really hard for me (remind me to thank my bio family for that…again). When you touch me in any way trying to “comfort” me you actually are shorting me out and causing me to miss out on the extremely rare opportunity to process whatever I am feeling via tears. (This is even true most of the time with my darling spouse, so don’t feel special.) This has caused me a great deal of frustration and anger over the years even though I know people “meant well”. I crave the ability to cry when I need to process like a dying person in the desert needs water. So when someone means well, that means very little to me; they entered my personal space without asking because they thought they knew what was best for me.

Let me also say that this does not mean don’t ever comfort someone because you may get it wrong and screw up. (Because there’s always folks who will read this and then say “Well, this just means I can’t ever comfort anyone ever again!”) No. That is not what I said here. It is also does not seem at all to be what Gina Barreca is saying either. However, if you assume that there’s only one way to comfort people and aren’t willing to learn differently it could mean that you’re a jerk. Because if you read the Op-Ed and have read my entry here then there have been at least two people telling you that there is more than one way to comfort people. Willful ignorance and burying your head in the sand is not an excuse to keep doing what you feel most comfortable doing. It is simply being a jerk. It only takes a few seconds to ask someone “May I hug you?”, “Would you like a hug?” “How can I comfort you best right now?” etc.

I can’t say it enough: if you want to comfort someone ask them how they want to be comforted. Even when they are in the middle of being upset. Especially those of us who a hug or touch isn’t just not comforting to us but can be downright traumatic. Trust me, most people would so much rather you ask even when they are upset than assume you know. If you are close to someone; best friend, partners, spouses, children (yes, this even means your kids folks), etc. have the conversation before you need to. I have absolutely asked partners and friends, before they are in a meltdown, how they prefer to be comforted so that if/when the time comes I already have that info. We are human and we may forget in the moment because it’s someone we love and we hate that they are hurting. That’s okay, stop yourself from assuming and ask again. I guarantee you that most of us will be so much more grateful that you asked again! Simple communication like this can make a deep and meaningful impact on those you care about and even those you don’t know well. This is how we make healthy connections and have healthy relationships folks; good and clear communication. Try to leave people better than you found them, especially when you are trying to offer comfort. And here’s the best part, you lose nothing in doing so.

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