I Hate Hugging: Getting Over the Fear of Intimacy

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” ~E.E. Cummings

I was a shy kid. My mom said that when I was in pre-school, the teacher asked all of the kids to hold hands and I said, “No thanks, I’ll just hold my own.”

That may have been the beginning of my aversion towards human contact. As a kid, I remember grandparents, aunts, and uncles giving me big horrible hugs. If I didn’t blatantly push them away or wiggle free, I stood there stiff as board, until the torture was over.

They thought this was adorable and would laugh and laugh. No one thought to seek professional help. They probably thought I’d out grow this, but I did not.

It became more apparent by middle school. I don’t know what went on at your junior high, but at mine, girls were constantly touching!

They were hugging multiple times per day, playing with each other’s hair, giving one another backrubs, and playing that weird arm tickling game where you plant a garden and watch it grow. If you’re curious what this actually is, don’t Google “girl’s tickling each other.” That’s not it!

I remember the nervous rides to Chaparral Middle School. My mind would race. Who was going to try to hug me today? What would I do? What would I say? I decided: I’d just go along with it, but I wouldn’t hug back, I’d keep it quick, I’d never initiate, and I definitely wouldn’t like it.

I didn’t fool my friends for long though. They started to notice my lack of interest. They made comments like, “You have to hug back girl!” or “Come on, give me a real hug!”

I wanted to vomit. I tried harder for a while. I tried acting like a warmer, more loving person, but it just felt fake.

I let my discomfort build until one day I finally exploded, which is the case with most of the issues I’ve eventually had to face.

My friend Laura picked the wrong girl to hug that day. I pushed her away and yelled, “STOP HUGGING ME! What is the matter with you?” Then addressing all of my girlfriends I pleaded, “Why do you always want to hug? Can’t we just keep to ourselves?”

At this point, I should probably put fears to rest and mention that I was never inappropriately touched. By anyone. No uncle. No neighbor.

I actually wasn’t touched much at all, which may be part of the problem. I come from a close-knit family; growing up they never missed a single soccer game and today they never miss a single funny email forward. We’ve just never been close in the physical sense.

We weren’t a very affectionate family and the little bit we did have was awkward; there was a lot of side hugging.

I also don’t remember my parents being outwardly loving with each other, besides once a year on their anniversary. They’d engage in this dramatic embrace where my dad would dip my mom and peck her lightly on the lips. I, of course, would turn away in disgust.

After my outburst, back at junior high, my friends’ feelings were hurt. At first they gave me the cold shoulder, but I liked that too much.

So they started teasing me. If someone outside our inner circle went in for the hug, they’d warn, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Melanie’s not a hugger!” I was embarrassed but relieved.

This continued through high school, but when I went away to college at San Diego State, I had to explain my beliefs all over again.

“No Hugging” was a difficult policy for my sorority sisters to wrap their pretty little minds around.

Luckily, I waited to reveal this until large quantities of alcohol were being consumed. They just laughed it off and then against my will hugged me anyway. “I am not kidding!” I cried, as I was squeezed between Victoria Secret Miracle Bras, way too much Mac Make-up, and an overload of Pleasures perfume.

From that day forward, whenever we went out partying (so every night but Monday) this became a running joke. My sorority sisters would send people I’d never seen before in my life over to hug me. These strangers would wrap their arms around, sometimes even double-teaming me! I was living my worst nightmare!

Looking back, I think my hugging repugnance was not about how it felt. I was just scared that I was incompetent in this area.

I felt everyone was naturally warmer than me; that they knew something about life and relationships that I didn’t. A few years after college, it became as clear as Alkaline water that I had a life-limiting fear of intimacy.

In my usual fashion, this was brought to my attention by an eruption of emotion. I had been taking an acting workshop to enhance my stand-up comedy.

After I performed a monologue, my teacher in the most loving, supportive, artsy-fartsy way, suggested I be more vulnerable on stage.

“Well, that’s not going to happen!” I declared in the most defensive way possible. I then proceeded to run out of the theater, get into my car, and drive away. “No one was going to tell me to be vulnerable! How dare he! I will never go back!”

But I crawled back the next week to try and wrap my mind around this outlandish concept he spoke of.

Shortly after that—through an interesting chain of events—I started working with a spiritual advisor, well okay a sponsor. Every time we’d meet she’d give me this big bear hug. I tried to explain my position on hugging, but she wasn’t hearing it.

Instead she grabbed me even tighter and whispered in my ear, “I am going to love you until you can love yourself.”

Ewwwwww gross! What have I got myself into?

But like with the acting class, something kept me going back for more. And it wasn’t just her; everyone in our spiritual development classes (okay Twelve Step meetings) would wrap their arms around me.

They showed me more unconditional love than one person should ever have to endure.

But little by little, I started to soften to their hugs. The transformation was so slow and subtle that I didn’t even notice it happened. Until, one day when I attended an off-site work conference with my company.

I was running late, but luckily there was a complimentary valet. I tossed him my keys and he pointed me in the direction of the convention room. I turned one corner and then another. It was further than I thought. My boss was going to kill me!

As I turned the next corner, I was so relieved to see Derek, my friendly co-worker who everyone loved. I rushed over to him and that’s when it happened—I threw my arms around my colleague and pulled him in tight. Oddly, he stiffened up and pulled away.

Just then, my mind flashed to the mandatory sexual harassment video we had recently watched. I think this was one of the scenarios! Darren looked stunned as we found our seats.

As I sat there in the conference room—bright red—it dawned me just how so far I had come. So far that I was now accidentally hugging co-workers (who were only opening their arms to usher me inside).

I laughed and felt this comforting warmth fill me. I guess I was capable of connection. I guess I wasn’t inadequate after all.

None of us are. But intimacy doesn’t come naturally for a lot of people. Many of us have to work for it. Or better, work to break down the defenses that keep closeness at an arm’s distance.

So, we’re the ones sitting in the front row at Marianne Williamson talks. We’re the ones cutting out inspirational images for our vision boards. We’re the ones pouring these new things called feelings into journal after journal. We’re the ones buying ourselves flowers.

I have proof that all of the work is worth it though. And, I am marrying this beautiful person in a few short weeks.

We all laughed, but maybe Stuart Smalley had it right all along. So, please repeat after me: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone It, people like me!”

Oh, and co-worker Derek never did file a complaint.

Photo by deneers

About Melanie Reno

You may recognize Melanie Reno from “Comedy Central,” but she doubts it. Melanie produces and hosts the female storytelling show, “That Time of the Month.” Her goal is to become the Poster Girl for Anxiety. Check out her blog The Nail Biter.

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