Boundaries and the Huggy Sunshine People

It is late in the year and blog activity has dropped. It’s a good time to get out all my disgruntled posts, much to the detriment of accidental readers and disappointed subscribers. On the positive side, I get to start 2014 with new drafts, new ideas and hopefully, a fully vented spleen.

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Seriously, this makes me uncomfortable to even look at – I swear that bear looks a bit lecherous.

You grew up in an affectionate, loving household. People hugged, smooched, shared pajamas, whatever. You go out in the world and discover that despite scientific studies about hugging benefits, not everyone likes hugs. Someone cries foul and you call them a sad, cold fish. How sad, tsk, tsk, when all the world needs is a little more hugging.

I read a CNN story regarding the teen who was suspended for hugging his teacher. I don’t know all the facts, but I did that self-destructive habit of reading the comments following the article. Wow – it is beyond me how people cannot grasp the simple concept that humans are a widely varied and variegated species. If we do not agree, if we do not share the same preferences, if we do not have exactly the same background, this does not, by definition, make us wrong.

I’ve mentioned my aversion to hugging in this blog. It’s a boundary, cultural and sensory issue. I was raised by aloof Brits. Hugging was not a part of our family culture and when it was done, it was an awkward accident for which you apologized, as if you’d accidentally tongued someone when you meant to kiss them on the cheek.

As a boundary issue, it feels too intimate, too riddled with expectation and in some ways, patronizing.  You look like you could use a hug. Really? Are you a mind reader or are you always this presumptuous? And the sensory experience of perfumes, colognes, heat, breath makes me feel like I’m suffocating. I walk around the rest of the day wondering if someone is following me, because I can still smell remnants of someone else on my person.

Now before all you hug-loving people tell me about how happy and gushy it makes you feel inside, please understand that my resentment stems from the hug-lovers who assume everyone gets the same feeling. I know you don’t like hugs, but I’m going to do it anyway. Um…okay. I know you don’t like being leg-swept and punched as you lie prostrate on the ground, but I’m going to do it anyway. It’s an insidious mode of operation. I know what is best for you. I don’t know you or your issues or your experiences, but I’ll take a shot in the dark that I know what you need.

The common complaint is how the world has gone all politically correct. We used to be able to hug without starting a lawsuit. That’s bullshit. Hugging is peculiar to the human race, but in societies where it is permitted, it is an indicator of an established, known relationship – some degree of intimacy. Dogs don’t like being hugged because limbs on top of them indicate a show of dominance. If you don’t think hugs are sometimes used like that in the human world, you’d be wrong.

Scientific studies show that hugs make the body release the “trust hormone”, oxytocin. So does child birth, anxiety and cocaine, so I find this a less than compelling argument. Regardless of the science and popular culture, making physical contact with someone requires judgment, respect and awareness. I am a direct person and it is clearly known by friends and family that I do not like being hugged. Some of them fail to respect my wishes. They’re still alive, but only because I avoid them as much as possible.

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The familiar scent of the pack….all right, who farted? Still, familiar…

This being said, I love hugging my husband and daughter. We’re familiar. We have history. I adore them with a fierce loyalty that can only be ascribed to members of the same pack, who share a common scent. We are sanctuary to each other. Our hugs are not a quick attempt to gain trust, a false sense of intimacy or to impinge upon personal space. I can only explain the difference this way. I love them and feel strongly connected, so a hug doesn’t feel alien and invasive.

I had a friend say that maybe people needed to hug other people in order to express themselves. Perhaps this is true, but in a battle of needs, I think personal boundaries take precedence. What I hear when people hug me after I’ve clearly said I don’t like hugging, is this: What you feel or want or think is unimportant. I need to do this and that is all that matters. What is the opposite of the trust hormone? Whatever it is, my brain is now drowning in it and I’m going to shield my child, while checking to make sure you haven’t cleaned out my wallet.

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The office party took a turn for the worse, when a Free Hugs dude was hired for the entertainment.

It’s a season of extended family mobbing, drunken parties and shoulder-to-shoulder shopping. Unwanted hugging is going to happen. Cross step, placing your leg behind their opposite leg, twist their shoulders and shove them to the ground (a finishing punch is optional). And then say: You looked like you needed that.

PS – This is a tongue-in-cheek post and not advocacy for violence against your Aunt Ida. I’m currently in training for my taekwondo black belt, so many of my metaphors, analogies and similes are a little dramatic. Plus, I’m twisted that way.

40 Comments on “Boundaries and the Huggy Sunshine People

  1. This makes me happy, thank you for writing so eloquently about being a non-hugger. It’s something I’ve always felt vaguely guilty about, like I should be better at it; but I’ve never taken the time to examine my feelings about it. Like you, I’m physically affectionate with my kids and husband, but not so much with everyone else. I’ve also had several friends who have admitted their discomfort with hugs and I don’t think it has made us any less close.

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    • I have some extraordinarily close friendships and the few times there was hugging were extremely awkward moments! I would say if you have two parties that are comfortable with it, go to town, but many people aren’t. And why, specifically, would women be, in our society? We’re constantly fighting for bodily integrity and yet are somehow considered less warm or generous for not letting people cross those boundaries. I’ve tried to write about it with humor, but there is, I think, a more serious undercurrent.

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      • I get what you’re saying, though it’s foreign to me (not hugging). I would respect your wishes, and would get over it.

        But it also makes me wonder how you would handle social dancing. It’s a pass time that I have picked up in the last couple years, and for the people who are trying to get into it, yet come from a background of little to no physical touch… they will have a much harder time adjusting.

        My own opinion, so traverse with care:

        As I’ve grown to love social dancing, I have been amazed by the message coming across… When someone is willing to hold my hand, or… put a hand around my back or against my chest to keep their balance, or… to hug me at the end of a dance… I feel a wonderful sense of intimacy. Not romantic or sexual intimacy… but a brave sort of trust which says to me, “I trust that you are going to treat me properly and I have really appreciated how much of a gentleman that you’ve been… thank you for sharing with me a bit of your life, if only for the few minutes’ duration of that song.”

        And I am communicating the same thing in the physical touch that I give to those I dance with. I find it overwhelmingly meaningful, significant, and kind when a person can show vulnerability in a dance and in a hug. My top love languages are quality time and physical touch. I prefer to be around people who don’t mind giving a hug, touching my arm, and punching my shoulder. I don’t think non-sexual physical touch should be reserved only for our significant others and relatives.

        /rant

        But I would always try my best to respect others’ boundaries, even if they’re diametrically opposed to mine.

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        • Several cultures use the cheek kisses (1, 2, or more) in greeting. That was very new, and initially awkward, to me when I had the opportunity to visit one such culture. But I loved the message that is conveyed with it. It wasn’t a sexualized action in that culture, and just because kisses in America are seen as more sexualized and reserved for privacy or intimacy… doesn’t make mine right or theirs wrong. I had less of a hangup than perhaps you might have had, I am guessing… but still took a bit to get over the awkwardness (especially when my fiance had been standing a few feet away in full view).

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  2. I’m not a hugger, either, and I resent people who force their way into my space, especially men who are just doing it to squash my boobs. The idea that I’ll be a star player in their next solo fantasy creeps me out for *months!* I’ve learned to refuse with a bit of grace, but they still manage to act hurt because I refused them entry into my personal space. WTF, people!?!

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    • It is hard to do it with grace. I tend to use humor, but sometimes people mistake that for permission. My backup plan is to say loudly “What smells?” when they try to come in to land that hug. Backs them up quickly. Not good etiquette, perhaps, but it does the trick!

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  3. ahhahahahah!

    I grew up in a non-hugging family, but learned to hug in high school. I hug people often when I greet them, but only if I have a huggable relationship with them already. This is a good reminder to ask first.

    Especially since I usually smell like garlic.

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    • I think the trick is knowing whether or not a huggable relationship has been established. If there is any degree of uncertainty, perhaps pull back to the shoulder pat. Of course this immediately made me think of folding someone up in an americana (figure four armlock). So if we meet, a nod will do and I’ll be able to think of you as a respectful friend instead of someone I have to take down. Agreed?

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      • Totally. Yep. Agreed.

        I usually start with the side-shoulder-patting thing.

        I nod and smile to people I recognize all the time. They don’t recognize me, however, so it’s a bit awkward.

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  4. haha such a great post! I love hugs with my close friends, family and boyfriend but I draw the line beyond. Unfortunately, I work as a journalist and some of my interviewees don’t always feel the same. More than once in two years I have had strange, often smelly men lunge at me to hug me as thanks for a story – so inappropriate and unnecessary!! Or a kiss on the cheek – this makes me shudder! People need to learn boundaries!

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    • I suppose as a journalist, interviewees can mistake the conversation for intimacy, ergo the hugging. I find it hard to understand why, in this day and age, hugging relative strangers would seem appropriate. I wonder, too, at those of us who can express ourselves easily in writing or verbally, that it makes it even harder to tolerate or understand why people need to be so physically expressive.

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      • That’s a good point, perhaps those of us who feel able to express ourselves through language don’t feel the need to reiterate the emotion through movement, whereas for others, they might feel that a hug says all that needs to be said! But totally agree with you on the hugging strangers front.. Perhaps technology has had an impact on making us all feel closer together, we speak to people every day that we have never met on Twitter and Facebook, they seem like good friends. Maybe that has lowered people’s boundaries?

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  5. Funny, I had a very similar conversation with a friend yesterday. I am astonished at the number of people who impose their will on you and truly believe they are doing you a favour. And you should be happy and grateful. Rubbish!!

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    • That is the hardest part for me to understand. If I say I don’t like something and you do it and I get irritated, why do I have to feel guilty and apologize for my aversion? I’m getting better at disengaging and avoiding scenarios where I’m put on the spot, but really, I shouldn’t have to do that.

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        • Life happens.. and we figure out our own ways of optimally navigating it. There is hardly something that a person “deserves” not to have to face. It all is part of our story… and there should be no sense of entitlement as for what we should or shouldn’t have to deal with. Some things are so terrible to have to have gone through… we didn’t deserve those things, but neither did we “deserve” to NOT have gone through those things.

          Just a thought. Not trying to tick anyone off, honestly. Did that make sense, though?

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  6. And its amazing how many people insist on shaking your hand too. You just never know where that hand was five minutes ago. Could have been typing out its anger in a political blog about how the world has turned all gushy or even worse taking money after robbing poor aunt Alice of her last chocolate chip cookie.

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    • Oh, come on, Don, you missed the “just-used-the-bathroom-and-didn’t-wash” example. I’m not generally a germaphobe, but ewwwww! I can handle a handshake, as long as it’s not the politician handshake (where their other hand goes to the elbow to force you closer). Maybe I should do a post entirely on hand washing. Apparently I have issues…

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  7. It’s good to read how you feel about hugging in general and why. Undeniably I’m a hugger, but an aware one. And I didn’t need to taste anyone’s black belt skills to learn to respect other ways of being 🙂

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    • I can’t imagine you being anything less than mindful when approaching other people. I’m not against the act of hugging per se, I am against this idea that anyone who doesn’t like them is somehow a cold or ungenerous person. I love that phrase “other ways of being”. It takes real skill to see and acknowledge people in all manner of being.

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  8. I loved this post. I have a friend who is an avid hugger and thinks this is the way to world peace. I’ve always felt un-evolved around him and now I understand why. Not that I don’t enjoy a good hug (and I’m told I give good ones), but they *are* intimate. Forcing intimacy on people is never a wise move.

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    • I understand this point of view that hugging would improve the world – in theory. Ironically, those people who think that hugging is the way to world peace are often the ones that see personal hygiene as a symbol of bourgeois oppression, which may hinder their cause a bit. I have often felt that there is something inherently wrong with me that I did not like hugs, but I have gotten over that. I half-joked with a friend after a misplaced hug that “Now, not only do I not like hugs, but I also don’t like you.” She laughed nervously. Mission accomplished and point made.

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  9. When you say “Hugging is peculiar to the human race”, it makes feel sad that anyone could have such a sheltered life. I believe the piece below is the one Sandy Sue refers to. Please note that “asking” presumes listening to and honoring the response. Lastly, will also note that to witness another as different from you is the beginning of violence.

    “21 Hugs-a-Day are indispensable to the health of your tree-of-life . . . be honest, ask for them rather than offer them.”

    One-liner #9 . . . Much as with laughter, there are provable health attributes to hugging. Deeper than that is the palpable love exchange so often avoided out of fear in our culture. Put out roots from your tree; proactively graze for those hugs, there are a cornucopia of choices out there. When a hand is offered upon meeting someone, try making eye-contact with “I’d much prefer a hug.”

    Hugging a stranger is a random act of compassionate action. You say “Can I have a hug ?” . . . then after the hug frequently hear “How did you know that is what I really needed today !!” Many a friendship have become a branch of your tree in this manner.

    One of my faves are police officers . . . my line after their confusion at being asked for a hug; “I’ll bet my love goes through your bullet-proof vest like it isn’t even there.”

    HO TO THE FLOW . . . for only it knows

    Love is . . . .

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    • You really have no need to feel sad on my behalf and the attitude you’ve expressed is one of condescension, doing more to make my point. I have lived exactly the opposite of a sheltered life, which is why maintaining strong boundaries and expecting them to be respected is part of my milieu. Hugs are not the answers to all the world’s ills and many people have other attributes that help make the world a better place each and every day. You have your thing and that’s great, but have enough circumspection to realize that, as my friend from the tiny lessons blog has expressed, there are other ways of being. Not lesser ways, just other.

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  10. I hate gratuitous hugging. And being asked, “Can I have a hug?” is like being asked for a kidney. Can’t we just smile at each other? I want to reserve my hugs for my closest friends and family and pets. That’s part of what made me start hating church – they began that handshaking and hugging thing. Ick. Don’t anyone make you feel guilty about this, Michelle. Sending you a smile – not a hug.

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    • Gratuitous hugging? I think a shiver just went down my spine. As I mentioned to another commenter, I’ve written about this subject with humor, but I find this trend to be startling. I didn’t even cover victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse and how having boundaries is often critical to recovery and a sense of security. There’s just too many variations of human experience to assume hugging is a universal palliative. People are so blinded by their own belief system that they willingly run roughshod over the needs of others.

      I’m sending a smile and warm words your way. Thank you!

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  11. This post should have been saved for today — it’s Festivus, you know! Airing of grievances and all. The martial arts references fit in perfectly with the required “Feats of Strength.”

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  12. Loved the post! I’m a hug/contact *fiend* myself–but I think it’s wildly important, at the same time, to suss out and respect others’ boundaries, because there’s nothing even *I* dread more than *unwanted* intimacy with others. If only all people would pay attention to simple manners and working to read others’ wishes and comfort levels, or, for heaven’s sake, just plain asking what’s okay and what isn’t, when the occasion arises. Sure, we can all make mistakes, but good grief, does it have to be so complicated? Thanks for the great laugh. Now come on over here and we’ll wave at each other across the room with great enthusiasm. 😉
    Cheers, and Happy New Year!
    Kathryn

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    • I don’t even expect people to read my mind. I have no problem saying “I don’t like hugs”, but am constantly amazed when people laugh at that statement and then proceed to grapple me. I have been tempted to shriek loudly and run away, just to make sure they got the message. That will be Plan C. I am glad that we’re not all wired the same, but you are absolutely correct that manners and attentiveness to other people’s comfort levels rules the day.
      I hope you have a wonderful new year, Kathryn – sending a warm wave and smile your way!

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