Mental Health, Intimacy, and the 4-Stage Hug
I am a mess of paradoxes. One of the biggest concerns intimacy in all its forms: among them physical, emotional, sexual. Just as much as I require proximity and being held, I am prone to recoiling from close contact – especially the often claustrophobic, smothering acts of encompassment: holding and hugging. I’ve devised a solution that works for me. This may be helpful to you too.
You might wish to jump directly to the technique below, but I think the setup and backstory bear reading. To wit:
- I absolutely require human contact and the company of my brothers and sisters to feel fully alive, fully connected – yet I cannot function as a social being unless I obtain vast amounts of time unburdened by even the thought of human interaction. I jealously guard my personal time and space, neurotically avoiding the telephone unless very specific arrangements have been made in advance, etc. By this token, I could never consider for an instant living with anyone or in shared accommodations. The prospect of finishing my days in a nursing home is one too terrifying to ponder.
- I am touchy-feely – yet need a lot of personal space. I am indeed a very tactile person around those with whom I’m comfortable. Yet in the main, I feel best when people stay at a distance of no less than the length of an extended arm. The more anxious I become, the greater the radius, until I can find myself upset even if the nearest person is a good 10 feet away.
- I am extremely sensual and sexual, and fortunately there I have few problems. That’s because anything of a carnal nature is only going to take place with someone whom I trust implicitly, and in circumstances wherein I am in a pretty secure frame of mind. Sure, when I’m stressed, I’m as useful as a bag of marshmallows – but when I’m happy, I’m very, very happy. (Sorry!)
Recently, I’ve been undergoing a few reversals. It’s been a particularly stressful time in that my job has become a little too overwhelming, and my personal safety has felt compromised. In the first instance, I have been attempting to adapt to the pace of preparing muffins in my café. In the second, I have had to take the initiative in dealing with some impossible tenants in my building. Both situations were not just unsettling, they were profoundly disturbing.
As regards the café, I am a master at knowing how to do manual tasks but something of a dunce at doing them. I don’t get the hang of procedures, and my mind only allows me to process and act on one thing at a time. I’m classically social phobic, a champion ‘unitasker,’ and meticulously, painfully slow even at things I’ve done repeatedly. Being in the presence of business-like, no-nonsense colleagues is guaranteed to become an exercise in anxiety and self-hatred.
In the matter of my neighbours, one of those couples in a constant state of breakup and reconciliation, I feel unsafe because the sheer volume and violence of their arguments puts me – and keeps me – in a state of hypervigilance. I’m brought back to the unbelievable situations my father put my mother and me through. Further, the male neighbour is fairly burly, and hence intimidating plain and simple. This brings up memories of being the school punching bag. The whole PTSD thing…. Unable to take their 4 am screaming matches, I delivered a note informing them that I would summarily call the police at the slightest disturbance after 11 pm. It was an absolutely unwonted example of self-efficacy on the part of the least confrontational human being on the planet, and one about which I am extremely proud. It also made me scared sh*tless on account of possible reprisals. My person and space are, as you have seen, sacrosanct.
So I have been running around, not just thin-skinned but positively skinless. Every nerve exposed. Jumping at every sound. Necessitating the 10-foot pole. Grinding to a halt even when doing dishes at the café, panting, panicking, arguing out loud with myself, and being a right nutter.
At a time like that, a body needs hugs. Badly.
But how to obtain them, when proximity brings distress? How to encourage intimacy at this or any other time, when every part of my being seeks to withdraw?
Well, in a flash of insight I devised something that works well for me, and which you might wish to try if you have sensory defensiveness, social anxiety, paranoia, or any such condition that makes it difficult to be touched, held and encompassed. It allows you to ease into a hug, de-escalating as you go.
I call it the 4-Stage Hug. It’s not hard.
The 4-Stage Hug
- Back to Back: Begin by standing back to back with your partner, not touching. Shut your eyes if necessary. Slowly allow your partner to approach (or “back into”) you until your backs touch. If you are anxious, practise breathing until your heart rate goes down. Once you are comfortable, allow your partner to slowly and gently increase the pressure. If at any time you feel anxious, have your partner stop in order that you may breathe into relaxation. When you feel ready to move on, the partner may withdraw.
- Front to Back: The next step is to allow your partner to repeat the above, only with their front pressed to your back. The same procedure applies – and note that at no time is the partner to embrace! Hands at your sides, please! We’re not there yet.
- Shoulder to Shoulder: The same approach is to be followed, only with you and your partner standing side by side. Either one may approach the other, depending on how you feel. Enjoy the press. If you are on very close terms, either of you may wish to lean down and in to rest your head on the other’s shoulder. You may also wish to place an arm around your partner’s shoulders. (I often start with this Stage, going 3, 1, 2, 4).
- Front to Front: By now you should be ready for the hug proper. This shall require your partner to stand still while you approach them, and that you begin by hugging them. This act of taking the initiative is important. It’s empowering, as you are the agent of the conquest of your anxiety. It also means that you can stop the proceedings then and there if that’s all you want. Sometimes hugging someone else is as therapeutic as being hugged! If you want the full-on hug, then allow your partner to reciprocate in so far as you are comfortable.
And that’s that. Who knew a hug could be so complicated?
Well, as a matter of fact, I long suspected. Let’s face it, nothing in life really is simple – especially not the simple things.