Why do I hate physical touch?
April 22, 2018 3:54 PM   Subscribe

Being hugged by someone makes me cringe. Someone getting too close to me makes me move away subconsciously. What is wrong with me?

All of my life I haven't been a touchy person. I grew up in a home without much physical touch that wasn't abusive, and I was never the one to initiate a hug with a friend or family member. At most it was a pat on the back..

I'm in my early 20's now, and this has been really effecting me. Dating is a nightmare because I get extremely anxious when they want to hold my hand or cuddle. There have been times I force myself, and this ends up with me outbursting in tears just simply cuddling during a movie.

My mom had me countless therapists for this growing up, but their only solution was to find someone to be patient enough with me. I really hate being this way. Some nights I come home from a date where they're curious why I keep sliding away on the couch that I just get drunk and cry. I don't get it.

Of course, I have had relationships, and there have been times I was not like this. Occasionally I'm okay jumping in with a guy (who usually is a douche good at charming me), and being affectionate with them. My last relationship was extremely unhealthy because it was very toxic but I didn't want to leave him because he was one of maybe three people I've been okay actually hugging me and me missing that.

Any advice here? I've thought maybe I'm more into girls, because I believe I'm bisexual, but I'm even more awkward around females. I grew up without a father in my life, and I wasn't sexually abused growing up. Just received some black eyes and bruises..

I'm at the end of the rope here. I don't even know if I can date. It seems impossible for me because someone avoiding being closer than at least three feet is not fun. The guy usually starts to think I simply don't like him, and no one seems to understand why I can't just hug someone without panicking and hardly breathing.

Negative or positive, I really need help. All advice appreciated. Thank you.
posted by Deal to Human Relations (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Wait, what was the source of the black eyes and bruises?
posted by yarntheory at 4:10 PM on April 22, 2018 [26 favorites]

Childhood therapy is not really the same as adult therapy, because children don't have the developmental capacity for introspection the way an adult does, so don't tell yourself that there's no point in trying now because it "didn't work" when you were a kid.

If you have the ability to see a testing psychiatrist (they are expensive if it's not covered by insurance), it might be worth exploring if you have sensory processing disorder or maybe even are on the spectrum, because discomfort with touch can be a facet.

But discomfort with touch can also be discomfort with intimacy, and that's a real thing that happens to lots of people, and there are techniques (usually CBT, or CBT/ACT) that a therapist can coach you on that would help. You may need to pair that kind of talk therapy with medication for a while, so you can get out of your own way long enough to implement the things you're learning in therapy.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:12 PM on April 22, 2018 [12 favorites]

have you tried therapy as an adult, in which you make the choice of who you see and when/how? if your only touch experiences growing up were bad/abusive, of course it's going to cause a reaction in you. please talk to a therapist, and if you feel like they're not right for you, it's completely okay for you the kick them to the curb and try a different one. also, it's okay for you to make changes on your own time. don't let anyone push you, and don't have a deadline in mind. small changes work well, and then you can ramp up as comfortable.

i hope you're able to get past this.
posted by koroshiya at 4:13 PM on April 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Ive been in therapy even as an adult and am on two anxiety meds..
posted by Deal at 4:24 PM on April 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

You mention you have been OK with touch from a few select people (even though they may have turned out to be stinkers). At the risk of sounding dense, I have to ask: are you just not especially attracted to most of these dates?

I ask because I am kind of like that — I’m not a very touchy person except when I’m genuinely attracted to someone AND comfortable around that person. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve felt that way about in my whole life, and I’m 36 now! It’s like this composite score of being into them and trusting them. When I was single, it got REALLY QUIET sometimes.

I have some (non-sexual, non-family, non-partner) abuse in my distant past, and I wasn’t raised in a very hug-oriented family, so my bubble is defined differently from touch-happy people. It may have gotten nuanced as I got older, but I still cringe when (say) my in-laws or coworkers want big squeezy embraces. I used to feel guilty and think I was broken or uptight. I no longer think that. And I hope you won’t blame yourself for this, either.

None of this is to imply that the problem isn’t a big deal — if you truly want to be dating and it’s in your way, then it’s a big deal. Your feelings are valid and it’s worth exploring with a therapist (for grown-ups, as noted above). But whatever is going on, you’re not to blame for it, and some of it might just be that your preferences are very, very specific.

And if you feel pressured to be touchy with people who just don’t make you Feel that Way, just so you don’t Hurt Their Feelings, that’s a pretty common problem in our messed-up dating culture, especially for women. Everyone tells us our attraction levels don’t matter and we should give “nice” guys a chance. If you’re one of us laser-focused-attraction types, that won’t work for you.

Good luck with this. Please give your own feelings as much respect as anyone else’s! I’m sending you a warm salute from arm’s-length, in my mind.
posted by armeowda at 4:25 PM on April 22, 2018 [17 favorites]

I know at least two women like this. One is on the spectrum, and the other I don't think has ever been diagnosed with anything. Neither of them likes the kind of casual touchy-feely things that people seem to expect of women in particular - the hugs hello/goodbye, casual reaching out to touch on the arm, etc. The reason I know that they are like this is because I pay attention and respect their discomfort with touch. I don't know if it's explicitly because of that, but both sometimes initiate brief hugs, and I sometimes ask or offer if the situation is one in which I would normally do so, with absolutely no hard feelings if they say no thanks. One has told me about times she has told someone else about a difficult time she's been having and the other person has offered a hug, and she's said yes because she knows it will make the other person feel better to have their hug accepted - so the fact that she can say no to me is actually really lovely. Both of them have (male) partners and children, so it's absolutely possible to still have meaningful relationships.

I don't think I'm particularly on the spectrum but I don't really like casual touch from people I don't know and feel comfortable with, so that might be part of why it's easy to respect their boundaries. From people I do know and love, I adore touch - but a bit like a cat, stroke stroke stroke - enough now, stop it or I will bite you. Okay, I don't really bite people, but that's the kind of thing.

I guess what I am trying to say is that there doesn't have to be anything wrong with you, it doesn't have to be related to a history of abuse (as far as I know my two friends were not abused, and I wasn't; though like most people on the planet we all have complicated family dynamics). Whether or not you are on the spectrum, it may be helpful to seek out resources for people who are - books, websites, therapists - because I am sure that people on the spectrum who do have touch issues have also developed some good strategies for managing their boundaries in a world that is more oriented towards casual touching.

And a note of hope on the relationship front: with one of the friends I mentioned, when she first met and started dating her current partner, she told him she was on the spectrum and he immediately started to research it so that he could be a better fit with her and not overstep her boundaries. They have really good communication and talk about things and it works. So it is possible to find someone who isn't an arsehole that you can feel comfortable with, please respect yourself and hang out for one!
posted by Athanassiel at 4:55 PM on April 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Look, I've been married for 13 years and even still I sometimes hate it when my husband tries to rub my arm or cuddle up to me in certain contexts. I have really sensitive skin and at least 50% of the time it just doesn't feel good. Also, i grew up with a codependent parent who didn't have a lot of physical or emotional boundaries, so I think I am very protective of mine.

Clearly this is distressing you but I also want you to know that it is TOTALLY normal and if you don't WANT to change this about yourself, you don't have to. Some people just like their space. It's still possible to have sexual and romantic relationships even if you don't like physical affection.
posted by Brittanie at 5:01 PM on April 22, 2018 [11 favorites]

There's absolutely nothing wrong with not wanting to touch or hug someone, regardless of whether it's never or until you feel a level of comfort and trust with that person. I grew up in a hugging family and have no history of physical abuse and right now there's probably a grand total of 10 people I'd feel comfortable hugging, outside of my closest family. And those ten people I've known for at least a few years. This proximity/touch thing fluctuates for me -- sometimes I'm more comfortable with it than other times.

I think you need to give yourself some space and acceptance in the dating thing. Are you honestly interested in dating right now? What aspects of it interest you? It's absolutely OK to not be interested in dating.

In my 20s and my early 30s, I forced myself to date because that's just what people did. It was supposed to make people happy and I'd wonder why it made me so unhappy. Turns out, after

- years of awkwardness and unhappiness and sobbing at VERY inopportune moments,
- personally undertaking an uneasy though mercifully brief marriage,
- years upon years thinking hey I maybe I prefer women and that's why I'm never happy with men only to find out that I was just as miserable with women and in new and terrible ways,

...that I was ace or at least super-super-super demi. And finally I was able to relax! And I'm happier now that I've ever been.

I wish I had known that in my 20s, and then I would have gotten myself a soft little puppy to curl up with and saved lots of very nice people and myself years of grief and awkwardness.
posted by mochapickle at 5:08 PM on April 22, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'm not formally diagnosed as on the spectrum but had help from an OT as a kid for sensory issues and continue to have them as an adult, but since I know I have sensory issues, I can manage them. So what I'd ask there is, pardoning the phrasing here, but is there anything else about your daily life that is... well, weird? I don't mean in a bad way, just in a "I know other people aren't bothered by this" kind of way. Do you dislike some particular food textures, or do you need either silence or a ton of noise to get anything done, or do you find a lot of conventional clothing very uncomfortable?

If this is literally the only area in which you find yourself routinely uncomfortable, it could be a good thing to talk about a (more competent, geez) therapist with, at least as far as working out what you really want in the way of relationships and physical contact and why you might be anxious about it. But if you've got broader sensory issues, there are different things you can do to work on that--searching for "sensory diet" will give you at least some basic ideas. It kind of sounds like this might have more to do with past history and guys being disrespectful of your bodily autonomy than a sensory integration problem, but I just thought I'd throw it out since it isn't a thing that gets routinely talked about.
posted by Sequence at 5:21 PM on April 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I am just not much of a hugger. I hug my relatives when I see them (about once a year). I hug my old, old friends when I see THEM about once a year. I had a happy LTR where we had lots of sex, but even then sometimes I was like, please stop rubbing my back.

The only response I have is (a) you sound within the range of non-touchy normal and (b) in terms of dating, try waiting for someone whom you really, really like, not just someone you happened to have dinner with. Therapy might help you be less anxious...but I think you're pretty close to "normal" already. Just an opinion from a non-touchy internet stranger! :)
posted by 8603 at 5:34 PM on April 22, 2018

If most of the physical touch in your childhood home was abusive, which I think is what you are saying here, that 100% could be a contributer to both your touch aversion and your ability to be okay with abusive people (douchebags) touching you.

And if you were getting therapy as a kid without adequate protection from abuse, it's unsurprising that it was ineffective.

I really want to urge you to find a gentle trauma-aware therapist to help you work through this, even if that does not ever change your touch preferences, because you deserve to have tools that let you feel safe enough not to break down from being touched even if you still dislike it, or learn that you have some sensory processing issues, and never become a "touchy" person.

By the way, it's okay to have boundaries about touch and to enforce them whenever you feel the need to. It's okay not to let people touch you.

You deserve to feel ok.
posted by windykites at 6:04 PM on April 22, 2018 [21 favorites]

Also like it can take a while to find a therapist you click with who actually is helpful, unfortunately.
posted by windykites at 6:08 PM on April 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

First off, not liking touch is only a bad thing if you are uncomfortable in your dislike and want to touch more.

So, if you are happy with your lack of touch when everyone respects your boundaries and you don't want to touch more that is 100 percent OK, don't touch more, enforce your boundaries and be you.

If you want to actually touch more, there are ways to go about that. It is hard, especially if your not in a relationship that respects your baseline already, and is willing to be patient with you. It's possible and does happen.

Therapy may or may not help.

I, as a sexual abuse survivor, have touch issues. I want to touch more than I do sometimes. I also have a partner who is respecting and let's me take the lead when I want that. If i decide it's too much, I'm free to stop and go about my normal day. Over time I've gotten much better about what I tolerate.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:13 PM on April 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you've been entirely comfortable with a few people touching you, and just not others, and been this way since childhood, I'm kinda thinking it's not likely due to trauma or abuse.
I am personally this way, but it's more of a combination of external and internal factors and I don't find it to be a problem myself, even though others find it problematic.
For one, it could simply be your biology telling you who is and isn't compatible with you. Don't negate the influence that pheromones and hormones have on our bodies.
Perhaps you also have sensory issues at play. I've found for example that I'm pretty sensitive to the way people smell, (and if it's not good, then I have a huge problem with it transferring to me), the way their bodies feel, their body temperature, the pressure/rate of the physical sensation, how fast they move (Well, this one is a trauma realted trigger), etc.
By their general approach and mannerisms I can usually also tell in advance whether it would be an enjoyable experience or not.
All of the above equates to a very large chance of aversion, but at the same time, makes it all the more so appreciatiable when all goes well and I'm comfortable with it.

If you're okay with it being a rare occurrence, then that's ok too. If it truly botheres you(and not others), then only you are likely to be able to identify the reasons why. Maybe also try having a pet that enjoys physical affection, this can get you more comfortable with both seeking out and recieving positive experiences with physical touch.
posted by OnefortheLast at 8:06 PM on April 22, 2018

Also, it's not indicative of a problem for it to just take more (or less) time than other people to become comfortable with others in your physical space. If they are essentially strangers (dates with new or newish people), if you've been single and absent of regular physical contact for some time, or if it's someone you don't see very often, or don't have a close relationship with, it's also ok to either not be comfortable with those people touching you at all, or to take some time to warm up to it becoming a regular thing from a specific person if it hasn't been before.
It might be better for you to state your boundaries with setting the pace for this ahead of time with others, before you get to the point of tears from feeling violated with them
posted by OnefortheLast at 8:30 PM on April 22, 2018

Social and cultural influence can play a big part on your inner dialogue about this too.
In some countries west of the pacific(particularly India, I've been told by more than one source), it would be grounds for immediate dismissal and a grand social violation for a man to touch a woman he is not married to on a date without first requesting permission for the act.
Define your own terms and your own "normal" in dating. Someone worth dating will NOT want you to feel uncomfortable, to force yourself or to feel like crying.
posted by OnefortheLast at 8:47 PM on April 22, 2018

Why do I hate physical touch?
I grew up in a home without much physical touch that wasn't abusive,
I wasn't sexually abused growing up. Just received some black eyes and bruises..

Black eyes and bruises are the result of abuse. You are physically defensive for a reason. It is very difficult to trust someone when you have been hurt this way. I'm so sorry this has happened to you. I hope you have an excellent therapist.

You did not deserve to be hit as a child, or now. You deserve affection, respect, love, patience, kindness. Tell anyone you date that you have experienced violence and need patience to be able to develop the trust for physical contact of any sort. That may cut down on potential dates, but you need someone who will respect your boundaries and needs. I wish you the very best.
posted by theora55 at 9:17 PM on April 22, 2018 [24 favorites]

Your aversion to touch is 100% normal given the abuse you endured as a child. I am so sorry that people hit you. You might check out "The Body Keeps The Score" by Bessel van der Kolk. A great deal of this book is devoted to the neurological changes scientists have observed in people who have survived trauma, so it's less self help, and more self knowledge.

Seconding finding a therapist who is an expert at trauma.
posted by purple_bird at 10:31 AM on April 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Tell anyone you date that you have experienced violence and need patience to be able to develop the trust for physical contact of any sort

I know askme isn't the place to be argumentative but I just want to suggest that if you take this advice you proceed very very cautiously because disclosing your trauma history to people who haven't proven themselves trustworthy can be retraumatizing if they don't respond well, and can actively encourage predators to view you as potential prey.

I do agree that informing potential partners that it takes a long time for you to be comfortable with touch is a good idea, though I want to remind you that if they don't understand or respect this boundary, they are the problem, not you.
posted by windykites at 11:05 AM on April 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

Is it purely psychological or is it also physically uncomfortable to be touched? The latter could be fibromyalgia.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:29 PM on April 23, 2018

+1 aversion to touch resulting from physical abuse. If your primary caregiver (especially your mother) spent more time physically hitting you than (s)he ever did touching you in a nurturing way, then your brain has likely been clocked to detect all incoming touch as threatening. Don't be ashamed of that because it protected you.

Maybe this isn't you, but it's definitely me. It's embarrassing. I have embarrassed myself in front of friends often, because I cannot handle unexpected instances of touch, especially when it comes from behind (the direction I was often hit from). When I was in my 20s, I thought it was something about myself that needed to be fixed. Now that I'm in my 30s, and I see how power-heavy unsolicited touch truly is, I'm becoming mean about it, especially towards other women who just Don't. Seem. To. Get. It. (if you can't see on my face that I don't like you touching me, don't play the "buuuuuuut I'm a woman!!!!!" or "buuuuuuut I'm a mother!!!!!" card when you are promptly asked to remove your feelly intrusive hands, tyvm!)

By the way, when you finally date someone you are actually attracted to, you will feel much more naturally motivated to learn how to navigate these boundaries. So really, don't waste your energy on partners who you're not feeling it for. Don't waste tears on dating partners who can't be bothered with patience for this feature of yours (they'll be horrible for you in bed anyways). You are not broken. Your early life experience has simply led you to experience touch as an unnecessary expense in human interaction, because it was an unnecessary expense in many of your previous human interactions. Keep working on your trauma baggage. If you're not clicking with any available therapists, then educate yourself on recovering from trauma by reading whatever you can find on the subject. Keep dating as you feel you have the energy to, become your own expert on what trauma recovery looks like in relationships, and keep your dating standards high -- because when you find it, you'll feel it, even without touch... your whole intimacy-sensory system will come online, all on its own, and You. Will. Know. It. That you've found someone worth feeling touch for. Good luck!
posted by human ecologist at 9:41 PM on April 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Everyone deals with trauma differently. I have a host of issues, but this is not one of them. My sister, on the other hand, cannot stand to be touched, physically comforted, hugged, etc. It drives her up a wall. Find a therapist you click with if it bothers you. Good luck.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:28 AM on April 24, 2018

So I was raised in a home without much touch, and never really liked being hugged as an adult. I didn’t realize until going to therapy for something totally different that not getting hugged as a child is not normal. Not sitting on laps is not normal. Most families express affection toward their children by hugging and touching and snuggling them. It makes children feel safe and supported. Not getting that kind of affectionate input as a child is a form of neglect, even if you weren’t being physically abused (though it sounds like you probably got that too, and I’m so sorry about that).

This kind of neglect can cause some weird reactions to physical affection. It can make it feel uncomfortable, too intense, inappropriate somehow. It can make you incredibly sad, because finally experiencing it makes you realize how long you’d been going without, and how much that hurt.

This is a normal response to an abnormal upbringing. It’s not fair that you have to experience it, but it’s not uncommon. It’s even expected given the circumstances. You’re a totally normal person who lived an abnormal childhood, and you’re reacting the way most people would. So maybe talk to that therapist about touch and your childhood a bit more. This isn’t uncommon. And hey, I got better at this. You can too.

SIDE NOTE: I noticed you mentioned past toxic relationships being the ones that were safe for touch. Sometimes that’s a thing people seek out, because the cycles of abuse justified the touch in a way: affectionate touch eventually gives way to abuse. And to someone unused to or uncomfortable with affection, that feels right, because your body has learned that seeking affection is wrong and maybe you deserve punishment for it. You don’t. You can find less toxic relationships. Be safe out there.
posted by a hat out of hell at 10:17 AM on April 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

Dating culture has been completely screwed my entire life. You're supposed to want to get your skin all up on some potentially totally wrong-for-you stranger's scary, alien skin almost immediately, before you have any idea who the person is. It doesn't allow for you to even begin to discover whether you want to do that, much less yearn to do that. Very seldom in my life has there been sufficient time allotted to yearn for and then get skin-to-skin contact with a potential partner-type person. The only intimate relationships that have lasted for me have been the ones where circumstances permitted a long, slow build, so that by the time I got physical contact, I knew I wanted it. People who want to snuggle and cuddle and hold hands before MONTHS have passed are all succumbing to the dominant but wrong, and in fact totally fucked-in-the-head, culture. Whatever you discover in therapy, you are not wrong about this.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:51 AM on April 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

(Well, wait, "all" is a little sweeping. Maybe some people do know right away. But people who don't are not weird.)
posted by Don Pepino at 11:54 AM on April 24, 2018

The way you describe touch in your childhood is that it wasn't present much in the family home, and that you had black eyes and bruises. It sounds as if you are describing physical abuse, whether it came from your peers (peer abuse) or family. Either way, it sounds as if you did not have positive, loving touch, and that being touched usually led to negative consequences for you (those "black eyes and bruising"). If so, I can completely understand why that circumstance would yield to an instinctive fear of being touched.

I would suggest that you look into therapy specifically for trauma survivors. Psychology Today has a directory of therapists where you can narrow it by specialties. Just make sure that the person you see has a specific specialty in trauma. Therapists may say that they treat patients with trauma, but you are looking for someone who deals with trauma as a specialty.

There is also a 'cuddle party' movement. The physical contact there is always non-sexual and is not necessarily actual "cuddling" -- it can simply be holding hands. Going in without any counseling beforehand would probably be a bad scene for you, but in conjunction with therapy, they may prove to be a place where you can practice desensitizing yourself to the trauma of your past -- desensitization is a common way of lowering the pain that is associated with past trauma. And, the process of permission is VERY clearly taught and enforced, at a level even moreso than "real life" -- nothing would happen, not even touching one's hands, that you did not agree to.
posted by WCityMike at 2:02 PM on April 24, 2018

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