How can I learn to be more physically affectionate with my friends?
July 20, 2021 2:53 AM   Subscribe

Or maybe I should ask "how can I learn to be comfortable initiating physical displays of affection with my friends?" Because I can do it, when it seems really necessary - when someone obviously needs comfort or support - but I feel really weird about it at other times...

This is long, but since I can't respond to questions in an anon thread, I wanted to provide as much info as possible.

What I'm looking for: Strategies for initiating platonic physical affection in a non-awkward way, when I'm not always comfortable doing so. I want to be able to show up in my friendships, in a way that doesn't feel natural/comfortable to me.

What I'm not looking for: Possible explanations for my discomfort with platonic physical affection, or suggestions that I look into therapy (I am already looking into therapy, for various reasons). Also, please accept as fact that this is about platonic affection - there's no sexual component or undercurrent involved.

What I have tried that didn't work: Asking my friends up front if they want to be hugged, cuddled, whatever. It just made it weirder. I know there are potential pitfalls in assuming hug-consent, but for purposes of this question please do assume we're all okay with hugging and being hugged and everybody knows it. Calling attention to it made me more visibly an outlier than just not initiating hugs ever did.

Me: A shy introvert. And I've never been a particularly physically affectionate person. Growing up, my family was warm and loving, but at the same time, not usually physically affectionate. Kisses were for bedtimes or goodbyes, hugs were for scraped knees and nightmares. Aside from that, there just wasn't very much touching. I don't think I missed it, honestly - it was there if I needed it, but I rarely needed it.

My friends: Very physically affectionate with each other and with me. There's a lot of hugging/touching, physically leaning into one another, cheek-kisses, arms thrown over shoulders, around waists, etc.

The problem: It's really nice, and I like it! But I feel really insecure about initiating it myself. I'm not currently in a romantic relationship, but when I have been in the past, I've been much the same - a happy accept-er of physical affection but still feeling weird about initiating it.

What it feels like in my head: Like people are speaking to me in a language I've only heard on TV, and I'm trying to speak it back to them without really knowing how to conjugate the verbs. Or, I sometimes feel like reaching to give a hug or something is sort of... stabbing people in their personal space bubble and just hoping I don't hit an artery by accident. It's not that I feel like I might be rejected - I feel pretty secure in my place with these people. It's more like - I feel like I will do it wrong somehow? Like I'm suddenly in the Big Arena at the Hug Olympics and the judges are scoring me on spontaneity, fluidity, ease of motion, arm and head placement, etc. And the scores are not looking good. I don't think this sense of impending judgement is coming from my friends - nothing they say or do makes me feel this way. I think it's all coming from my own brainspace.

This is only a problem right now because several friends that I'm particularly close to seem to actually need a lot of physical affection to feel safe and happy and connected in their friendships. I want to be able to do this thing for them, and not make them feel like they constantly have to ask me for it or initiate it themselves. But instead, I find myself hanging back when I want to push through, and then beating myself up about it later. I'm holding back in ways I don't want to hold back, and I feel like I'm not giving my friends what they need.

So I guess my question is - what are some ways I can push myself past this awkwardness and learn to feel comfortable showing my affection in a physical way? The affection is there, but my ability to show it through hugs, etc, is lacking. I guess I want to learn to speak their love language more fluently - preferably without highlighting the fact that I'm not a native speaker. (My own "love language" is feeding people, which is definitely appreciated by my friends, but requires a lot more more prep time and planning than hugging.)

I'd especially love to hear from people who grew up in non-touchy homes or situations, who later figured out how to be physically affectionate, but I'll take any suggestions in hopes something might strike a chord. Tips, tricks, self-coaching techniques, magic spells, etc, all are welcome.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
I’ve learned how to do this better over time and the only thing that got me past the awkwardness was to just start doing it. It was weird and new and I didn’t trust it and then I built up enough positive experiences with it that it starts feeling natural.

One thing you might try is using the times when your friends are physically affectionate with you as opportunities to reciprocate in the moment. It (might) feel less awkward to ie put your arm over someone’s shoulder when they’re already doing that to you. It will still feel awk t but possibly less so, enough that you can get past the hump.

I know you said you’ve tried being upfront about it with your friends, but I wonder if you would have better luck finding a close friend you can share all you fears with, then have some intentional practice — put your arm over their shoulder and just sit with your feelings of awkwardness with them. Them not actually feeling weird of thinking you’re doing it wrong will help rewire your brain.
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:27 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


I am not a naturally physically affectionate person so sometimes I say with cheer “awkward hug time!” Before awkwardly hugging.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:56 AM on July 20 [12 favorites]


It seems like at least one of your friends is likely a self proclaimed “hugger.” I would start by just giving hugs hello and and goodbye when you see them. It’s a pretty standard and accepted greeting so it can be a good way to get started.
posted by raccoon409 at 4:12 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


I like raccoon's suggestion of joining in with the huggy friend! For my own part, I think I try to reach out to "elbows and knees" whether that's a [in safe non-Covidtimes] touch on the arm when we're both standing or a pat on the knee sitting together. Hopefully a little outreach like that will lead to them spilling over their physical affection to you, and then you can escalate your touching from there!
posted by london explorer girl at 4:27 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


I feel like I will do it wrong somehow? Like I'm suddenly in the Big Arena at the Hug Olympics and the judges are scoring me on spontaneity, fluidity, ease of motion, arm and head placement, etc. And the scores are not looking good.

Flip your aim and try for a Personal Worst every single time.

By the time the judges figure out what you're doing you won't care about their opinion any more.

Probably best to avoid outright disqualification though, so keep your tongue to yourself and avoid the boob grab and the crotch grind; those would definitely count as cheating.
posted by flabdablet at 4:37 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


I still share a home with my ex-husband. We were very affectionate before we ended things. We are still close but rarely hug or cuddle.

Instead I find myself doing little things:

- squeeze his big toe when he has his feet up
- hold out my index finger until he presses his to mine E.T. style
- hook my index finger around his and initiating a micro tug-of-war
- hold my hand out for a quick free-style handshake
- rub his shoulders or do rapid karate chops on his upper back for a few seconds
- light chin noogies
- hold one shoulder with 2 hands and pretend I am doing a quick chiropractic adjustment while making clicking sounds
- Eyeballz!™ this is just a very short staring contest

He has a set for me as well.

Each of these gestures developed naturally as a way to connect non-verbally. They are situation dependent (having a conversation on the couch, showing me something on the computer, walking by eachother etc.). They usually last just a few seconds but serve to communicate the message "I see you, I like you and you are special to me".

It feels really weird to list all those gestures! The exchanges are some of my favourite things about my friendship with him.
posted by i_mean_come_on_now at 4:58 AM on July 20 [9 favorites]


I think it's legitimate to worry about getting it wrong in these ways, and to worry about what the rules are.

Something that sometimes helps me is to tell myself "Don't worry, you're not fooling anyone. You haven't tricked your friends into thinking you're super smooth. They know more or less how smooth and how awkward you really are, and they've decided they like you."

It's also okay to have your own limits. If initiating hugs feels weird, it's okay to say "No, this feels weird." You aren't required to follow the other person's social expectations at the cost of your own.

And respecting your limits and preferences might also look like finding a small piece of shared ground: "Oh, huh, initiating hugs feels super awkward to me, and not getting any contact feels bad to them, but gently leaning a shoulder against each other feels nice to both of us. Great, ok, I'm gonna be The Gentle-Shoulder-Leaning Friend from now on." People who like you will probably find themselves fond of your signature Gentle Shoulder Lean, because it's the kind of small, sweet affection they always get from you, who they like.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:02 AM on July 20 [11 favorites]


(FWIW, I've gotten to be middle-aged with huggy snuggly friends I've known all along, and I've never really initiated much, and it's gone basically fine all this time. So that's maybe coloring my answers. But yeah, they might very well be used to how you are and not mind.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:10 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


I want to be able to do this thing for them, and not make them feel like they constantly have to ask me for it or initiate it themselves. But instead, I find myself hanging back when I want to push through, and then beating myself up about it later. I'm holding back in ways I don't want to hold back, and I feel like I'm not giving my friends what they need.

So I am the huggiest friend ever and I'm wondering if you've talked to your friends about these feelings? I ask because I can't think of any time that any of my friends has failed to be affectionate enough with me. IME people who are naturally physically affectionate with loved ones don't expect that their loved ones are also going to be super into initiating physical affection.

My bestie is not a huggy person at all, and I love the ways she shows her love for me and I appreciate every hug and touch we share regardless of who initiates it. Also, she is one of the most caring people I know. I get a similar vibe off of you from your question. You seem like the type of friend that everyone would love to have.

So I just want to say please take a moment to reflect on the fact that you are an excellent friend just the way you are. If your friends need an extra hug from you, they should be totally cool with asking you for a hug.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 5:17 AM on July 20 [9 favorites]


This is only a problem right now because several friends that I'm particularly close to seem to actually need a lot of physical affection to feel safe and happy and connected in their friendships.

Why do they "seem" to need this? Because they initiate it a lot with their friends? That just means they enjoy a lot of physical touch, not that they need it in equal parts among all of their friends. That what's nice about friendship, there is really no pressure for every friend to be the perfect friend in all ways - clearly these people value your friendship for reasons besides how fluently you can provide physical affection! I'm like you, I'm not naturally touchy, and I've had a number of friends similar to your friends - with them I more or less assumed we'd have a greeting and parting hug, but that was it. So similar to RobinofFrocksley, I think you might be overthinking this a bit.
posted by coffeecat at 9:26 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Aim to do it like a dork.

Seriously, it take practice, you are going to do it badly, so calibrate your expectations to one level up from slapstick comedy.

Use your words to let them know what is about to happen, and tell them in a playful way. "Coming in for a hug." "High five" "Fist bump" "Hip check." "Affectionate pat". There is a reason why people why people have formal rituals for touching and set phrases. It's to avoid the embarrassment of misses. Mug it up a bit and tell them when you are coming in to touch them. Awkward grins are fine. So is losing your nerve and making it an air hug, or not actually making contact with the pat or the fist bump or the hug.

Look for occasions when you will be in close proximity to your friends such as passing in a narrow hallway to announce "Hip check!" or "Affectionate pat!" Take advantage of times when you will already be closer than normal so you don't have to overcome your inhibition against coming into their personal space.

Look for touches that do not require you to be where either of you are breathing on each other - that is a harder taboo to break, so other types of touch may be easier.

Also consider acts of service that require you to come in close contact, such as holding something for someone when they have too much to carry. This will get you used to coming into their personal space, when you take a bag from their arm or get their keys from their hand to open a door for them, etc. Helping someone into a jacket is a similar sort of act of service that puts you into the range where you touch them and gets you used to physical contact and showing affection.

It is often easy for two people to touch feet or elbows than it is for them to touch other parts of the body. Look for seating arrangements like couches where you can end up with your feet touching their feet, or activities where everyone needs to squinch in close together either so that they can all stay near something such as in front of a fire, or sharing a bench, or where they can all see something, such as a gaming screen.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:17 PM on July 20 [2 favorites]


I'd especially love to hear from people who grew up in non-touchy homes or situations, who later figured out how to be physically affectionate

I don't really have any other tips for you other than to say this part, this part is definitely possible.

As for myself I somehow turned into a more huggy person after going through a long period of intense personal crisis. I don't recommend this method.

Asking my friends up front if they want to be hugged, cuddled, whatever.

I think I probably asked "can I have a hug" many times... asking for a hug is a way to initiate a hug. That's the thing about hugs, both people are being hugged at the same time. You can also say "can we have a hug". Also, there's something about asking for the hug in it's noun form. Try it.
posted by yohko at 11:17 PM on July 20


Here's a weird idea: maybe a dance class? How comfortable are you with your physical body moving in general? Partner dance, specifically teaching lead-follow (not all teachers are good at this part, but there are some good exercises) can help with the idea of touch as communication and with practice there, and dancing is a good way to get more comfortable with where your body is physically too. I also hear good things about martial arts.
posted by Lady Li at 8:06 AM on July 21


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