Why do some people recoil when offered a hug?
If you hate being hugged, the world can be a challenging place. You never know when someone you’re meeting for a quick coffee will approach you, arms open wide, coming in for an embrace.
Your options are limited: you can awkwardly dodge the gesture, stick out your hand for a handshake, or submit to the unwanted bear hug.
So why is it that some people love a good hug, while others abhor them? According to experts, it may have something to do with how you were raised.
“Our tendency to engage in physical touch—whether hugging, a pat on the back, or linking arms with a friend—is often a product of our early childhood experiences,” says Suzanne Degges-White, a professor of Counseling and Counselor Education at Northern Illinois University. A 2012 study published in Comprehensive Psychology found that people who were raised by parents who were frequent huggers were more likely to be huggers in adulthood. The study concluded that, “hugging is an important element in a child’s emotional upbringing.”
Our tendency to engage in physical touch — whether hugging, a pat on the back, or linking arms with a friend — is often a product of our early childhood experiences. In a family that was not typically physically demonstrative, children may grow up and follow that same pattern with their own kids. On the other hand, some children grow up and feel “starved” for touch and become social huggers, who can’t greet a friend without an embrace or a touch on the shoulder. Whether you grew up in a family that was always hugging or was brought up in an environment that lacked touch—these factors can leave a lasting physiological impact.
Self-confidence and social anxiety may affect attitude.
It’s been found that people who are more open to physical touch with others typically have higher levels of self-confidence. On the flip side, people who have higher levels of social anxiety, in general, may be hesitant to engage in affectionate touches with others, including friends. Anxiety is about being unsure of yourself and uncomfortable in social settings. The fear of someone actually “reaching out” to you — figuratively and literally — may exacerbate your discomfort through their attention and focus on you in the group.
Darcia Narvaez, a professor of psychology at University of Notre Dame, says that there are two main ways that not being touched can affect a growing body: it can lead to an underdeveloped vagus nerve, a bundle of nerves that runs from the spinal cord to the abdomen, which research shows can decrease people’s ability to be intimate or compassionate, and can lead to an underdeveloped oxytocin system, the glands which release the oxytocin hormone that can help humans form bonds with other people.
As proof, Narvaez points to a group of Romanian orphans, who were at the center of a 2014 study on the lasting impact of neglect on developing minds. Romanian orphans who were adopted had malfunctioning oxytocin systems, according to the study. “They were hardly touched in the orphanage and so did not display the rise in oxytocin— ‘the cuddle hormone’—well-cared-for children have when sitting on their parent’s lap,” Narvaez says.
Without this hormone, it can be harder to pick up on social cues and even be more sociable. So hugging and touch are incredibly important for youngsters—even if you don’t particularly like them as an adult.
Sense of self, self-esteem, and body issues may play a role.
While many of us think that a massage is the answer to our prayers after a rough week, there are also people who cannot even imagine allowing a stranger to touch their body in such a manner. They may “give in” and try a massage, but they keep their bodies so tense that they barely even feel anything. Then there are other “touch-avoidant” people who get brave and try a massage, and then are bewildered as they find themselves overcome with emotion and start crying right there on the massage table. The same thing can happen in yoga — touch-avoidant folks can find themselves “experiencing” their bodies for the first time, feeling absolutely “in” their bodies, and find themselves dissolving into inexplicable tears.
There’s something scary, to some people, about allowing themselves to be touched that can surprise even them when they open themselves up to experiencing their body and being “in touch” with themselves. If you’ve been raised to believe that you are “ugly,” “fat,” “undesirable,” “less than,” “dirty,” “too (fill-in-the-blank),” or “not (fill-in-the-blank) enough,” the first time you allow yourself to be “openly and honestly” in touch with your body, through massage by a stranger, a yoga instructor’s gentle instruction, the supportive and non-judgmental touch of someone who cares for you, and so on, you may very well find yourself overcome with relief, gratitude, surprise, acceptance, and even regret for having closed yourself off from your own self for so long.
Self-esteem and body issues may also play a role in someone’s hugging predilections. “People who are more open to physical touch with others typically have higher levels of self-confidence,” says Degges-White. “People who have higher levels of social anxiety, in general, may be hesitant to engage in affectionate touches with others, including friends.” And the fear of someone ‘reaching out’—literally and figuratively—can make that discomfort even worse, she warns.
There’s also a cultural component to being hug avoidant. People in the U.S. and England hug and touch way less often than people in France or Puerto Rico, according to a 2010 study by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
Attitude towards social touch can reflect unusual fears.
Some people just don’t like to have their physical space invaded — they may feel threatened by another’s proximity or vulnerable if they allow someone to show them warmth or affection. Some people may be mild “germophobes” (like the comedian, Howie Mandel) who don’t like touching other people’s bodies. There’s even a word for individuals who truly, truly cannot tolerate another’s touch: haphephobic.
Past experiences with negative touch affect attitudes.
If a person has been a victim of abuse or trauma during their lives, they may be especially fearful of social touch or hugs. They may be fearful that a “friendly hug” may be a warning sign that “more” is expected later. In cases where an individual was sexually or physically abused at the hands of those people who were responsible for his well-being and care, he may be especially avoidant of physical touch as an adult.
When a person learns that “touching” is what gives other people the power to hurt her, she may isolate herself and avoid relationships that would normally involve touching, including romantic relationships and close friendships.
Touch Avoidance Can Be Unlearned
Hugging and other demonstrative shows of support and affection are actually essential to our maximum well-being! Our endocrine systems and emotions are wired to respond to human-to-human contact. Not only that, in recent experiments with “robotic teddy bears,” it was found that even a reciprocated hug from a robot could positively affect pro-social behaviors and the willingness to share and self-disclose. It’s the same effect of animals being used in counseling and therapy — safe physical affection with another creature is satisfying and mood-enhancing!
Some of the earliest studies of the benefits of hugs involved newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit. The more time the baby was cuddled and in contact with humans, the better the baby’s outcome. When we give someone a hug, our bodies respond at a cellular level, and we get a rush of positive feelings. Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter that is released during an embrace (along with immediately after childbirth for women and at orgasm for all genders), and it is somehow connected to our desire for social bonding, trust building, and pro-social behaviors like generosity. Hugs lower stress and also ward against some physical illnesses. Not only that, but the more frequent the hugs we enjoy in life, the better our immune systems work, according to research.
As we age, our need for physical touch doesn’t decrease, even if our sex drives do. Isolated individuals or older adults may actually suffer something called “skin hunger,” where they are bereft of physical contact. This can actually negatively affect our physical health as well as increase the likelihood of depression. A warm bear hug really is good for your health — so long as you are totally okay with the person doing the hugging.
How huggers should interact with people who are hug avoidant
The Emily Post Institute, which focuses on etiquette, suggests skipping the hug altogether unless you are closely acquainted with someone. The reason is simple: while you might be comfortable with it, “not everyone else—even those who might go along with it quietly—are,” the institute wrote in a blog post.
The manners maven also encouraged huggers to take note of body language: when someone proffers their hand instead of going in for a bear hug for example, recognize the signal, and then shake on it. The body language of non-huggers is hard to miss, too: If you’re going in for a hug and notice a grimace or a look of horror in the person’s eyes, you might consider aborting the mission.
Samantha Hess—a “professional cuddler” and founder of a Portland, Oregon-based service that teaches people how to enjoy platonic touch—says it’s important to be mindful of other people’s cues. “Everyone has the right to control what happens to their body,” she says. “Many of our clients aren’t comfortable with even a handshake when they first arrive.”
Hess adds that it can take weeks or even months for her clients to feel comfortable enough to enjoy a good old-fashioned embrace—if they ever get there at all.
The scientific benefits of hugging
There is a very real reason to try hugging: it may make you less likely to get sick. In a 2015 study, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University looked at the effects that hugs and other forms of affection can have on the immune system. Specifically, researchers wanted to know if the people who felt loved were less susceptible to the common cold—and they were: 32% of that immune boost came from the stress-alleviating effects of hugging.
“Those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection,” the study concluded.
But if anti-huggers are still unconvinced, they may want to make note of a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control that found that fist bumping is the most hygienic form of greeting—an alternative that requires minimal contact.
How to overcome your aversion to hugs
While no one should ever feel obligated to hug someone, if you want to overcome your hug aversion, Hess’s company has a carefully laid out plan for helping people overcome their distaste for the embrace. “We go over consent and boundaries prior to any touch and reassure them they are always welcome to change their mind,” she explains. “We have 78 cuddle poses we can guide people through so we can find something for just about any comfort level.”
And for those who don’t mind physical touch, but still aren’t sold on hugging, Degges-White suggests pushing through the temporary unease and go for the embrace. “You may very well find yourself overcome with relief, gratitude, surprise, acceptance and even regret for having closed yourself off from your own self for so long,” she says. If your feeling uncomfortable with receiving hugs or are close with people who are and want help addressing this, call for a free consultation to get you on the right path to feeling more comfortable.