What's this touch-o-phobia I have?
October 26, 2011 2:12 AM   Subscribe

Getting a bit obsessive about keeping my personal space personal. Would like to know what is going on.

My young nephews are staying with me and they are fairly rambunctious. That's cool. But when they rub me up the wrong way, they really rub me up the wrong way. Even just brushing against me or prodding or poking me, whether intentional or not, drives me nuts. I can't concentrate on anything else at all - I am completely focused on the physical sensation of the touch or swipe or poke or prod to the exclusion of all else. If they lean on me to go to sleep in the car or want to ride on my back that is absolutely fine. I hold their hands all the time to stop them running out into traffic or to prevent them from getting lost in crowds and I don't mind that one bit, although to be honest I am very aware of what exactly they are doing with their hands at all times when they are holding mine. I don't think it's whether they initiate the physical contact or I do, but more to do with how fleeting or glancing the touch is. But even that isn't it entirely.

In fact, on reflection I think I must have had this 'condition' all my life--I just don't like being touched very much unless it is a good firm handholding / handshake or perhaps intimacy or something like that. I absolutely detest the idea and feel of a massage - if someone creeps up behind me at work and starts to kneed my shoulders in a friendly way, I squirm. I am usually hyper vigilant about maintaining my personal space in crowds or queues, etc, and again, this generally demands all my attention, to the detriment of any conversational skills that I may otherwise bring to bear, to the ultimate chagrin of my long-suffering wife.

What is it that I have and how can I overcome it?
posted by juiceanddoom to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You don't have to overcome it. You just need some space. Thats cool.

I read with the nephews...I think you're doing a good job. Just be conscious of what you are doing, and you will be ok.

Also...they sound like 3-8 years old, so you gotta give them some leeway.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:43 AM on October 26, 2011

I agree with hal_c_on, just find some space. A lot of individuals don't liked to be touched unexpectedly. I am (unfortunately) a touchy person. So I'm big on giving hugs or grabbing peoples arms. I try to be mindful of asking before giving someone a hug. And I'm an adult!
I think this might be an opportunity to teach your nephews about space and being polite and asking before touching. It took me a long time to start asking for permission. Also... no HR complaints. phew.
posted by redandblue at 2:50 AM on October 26, 2011

You might have a larger than average personal space bubble.

You're not alone. I have one too. I saw a picture in a newspaper the other day of an absolutely packed beach in China, and got freaked out slightly even though I wasn't there. When someone touches me, I instantly focus on that to a huge degree, and often lose the ability to think straight. All of my mental ability is focused on dealing with the physical contact. Things like rational thought go completely out of the window.

I don't think it's a condition, as such, but more of a spectrum. Some people have different levels of what they find acceptable to others. I'd guess that positive reinforcement would help you learn to cope with it better. Start small, perhaps by inviting someone you trust to stand a little bit closer than you'd normally want them to, and then wait for the uncomfortable feeling to subside. Do that enough times and your brain will learn that it's OK for people to be at that distance.

Depending on how old your nephews are, you might have a conversation with them about what is and isn't appropriate when dealing with other people. It needn't be a major thing, just mention that not everyone is OK with being surprised or tickled or whatever.
posted by Solomon at 3:21 AM on October 26, 2011

It could be a sensory processing disorder. There's a checklist here -- does any of that sound familiar?

If it does, I'd suggest starting with Sharon Heller's excellent Too Loud Too Bright Too Fast Too Tight, which has background on SPD and some excellent advice on coping skills. Beyond that, it is possible to work with an occupational therapist as an adult.
posted by pie ninja at 4:02 AM on October 26, 2011

I went briefly insane when we adopted our first two children, because they were very tactile and clingy, and I hadn't realised how much I needed personal space. I remember sitting on the sofa with a crying toddler next to me trying to climb onto my lap, while I was crying and begging him just for a moment not to touch me!

It varies enormously how much of a space you want/need, and depends on your culture, upbringing and preference. Within my own biological family, we go from hugging to handshakes, depending on the individual.

Children are more tactile than adults in general. If you're firm and gentle about it, you can probably retrain your nephews to be less hands-on with you, redirecting them to activities like shared reading side-by-side, board games or teaching them simply to ask first for a hug. If they're little, tell them that you have sensitive skin and need them to tell you first, so they don't feel like it's their fault.

I eventually got used to it with my kids, by sheer exposure and forcing myself to pretend it was okay until it was - as I type, I have one teenager sprawled alongside me, another one using my knees as a backrest, and we hug hello and goodbye and all that. I still find it very awkward when other people's children rush me, and have learnt to gently deflect it = I use my arms to hold them at a distance while I talk to them, or will choose to sit somewhere with my bag on my lap so they can't climb all over me, but have to sit on another chair or the arm of the chair.

And oh the massage thing! I had to do spas with massages for magazine articles, and it was a horrible assignment. I can only bear to be massaged by my husband or kids, anyone else is just invasive and not at all relaxing, no matter how professional they are.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:43 AM on October 26, 2011

I'm going to say it's probably not you, it's them. Young boys especially seem to have trouble understanding the concept of personal space. Mine did, anyway, and no matter how much you love them, it can get annoying. I would advise that you take those moments to gently introduce them to the concept. You'll be doing them a huge favor in the long run.
posted by raisingsand at 7:34 AM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have a very similar problem with personal space and get overloaded by moving touch very easily. Pretty much from the get go babysitting my niece and nephew overloaded me with physical sensation, but as they have gotten older I have managed to teach them that I didn't like being climbed on, or sat on or touched too much so we found compromises. I like hand holding so we often just sit on the couch near each other and hold hands.

With me my main problem is moving touch, so if they were say stroking my arm when they were toddlers (which drives me crazy), I'd just gently and kindly say something like that tickles and then hold there hand in mine.

I have always had this, my niece and nephew are now 12 & 10 and while I'll hug them hello or for serious situations, they know that their Aunty loves them dearly, they just know while Mum & Dad & Grandma love being hugged etc, their Aunt will sit and listen to them for hours and show her affection a different way.

Hell I still have the same thing with my husband, who I love dearly, but if he starts stroking my hair or arm or something affectionately when I'm not expecting it I creep out and pull away without thinking. Like with my niece and nephew, we've found other ways to handle touching that work for us there too.

I just think some people overload at touch more than others and it's not something that needs to be fixed as finding a way to do what you want that works for you. My mother said some of my first words to her when I could start to speak clearly was to tell her "no" whenever she would hug me or stroke my hair so my reactions are not unexpected by anyone in my family.

TL;DR Basically, other people have this I don't think it's a problem to overcome, it's just how you are. You can teach your nephews that you don't like being touched like that and find a way to show affection, deal with or play with them that doesn't set your touch sensitivities off.
posted by wwax at 9:42 AM on October 26, 2011

My husband had to show me exactly which kind of touch is tolerable to him. It's very firm. You can show your nephews the same. If they're kids you may have to show them repeatedly and remind them "firm touch!" when they do that clingy strokey picking thing. It's exactly the same way we teach them "soft touch" or gentle touch when they acquire infant siblings or kittens.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:42 PM on October 26, 2011

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