I’m going to invite you briefly into my “morning routine.” It’s been a point of contention in my romantic relationships but it’s one thing I’m not willing to falter on because it’s a necessity for my continued functioning and productivity. I’d wilt like a flower with too much sun and not enough water otherwise.
Each morning I wake up about an hour and a half earlier than I really need to be up. I make my morning coffee/shake. I turn on HGTV. Put the tv on mute. I feel attacked by noise otherwise. Subtitles are always on so I can occasionally glance up and see what’s happening. I drink my shake and scroll through blogs, articles, essays. I let my mind dictate the morning’s readings. Whatever pops into my head that day will be the topic of my googling. Some days I let the cats cuddle with me while I wake up and other days I can’t even stand to be touched. On those days the cats just curl up in close proximity. I maintain that cats can learn boundaries sometimes better than humans.
Touch as Transaction
Anyway, I tell you about my morning routine because this morning’s reading and HGTV-ing act as the inspiration for this blog. I was passively watching Flea Market Flip (not one of my favorites) while reading blogs by psychotherapists in other countries (I’m fascinated by how our societal/cultural norms change what happens in the intimate space of a therapist’s office). As I scrolled through a website with some kitschy blog titles I glanced up at the TV, I noticed that one woman was negotiating to get the price down on a beautiful wooden antique piece. As the old man starts to name his best price the woman gets closer and places her hand on his shoulder, leans slightly into him. He drops the price by 60%! I passively watch enough HGTV to know that doesn’t happen very often. So I continue to watch the body language of the contestants and flea market sellers. No more instances of touch but proximity seems to have an effect on negotiations as well. This piqued my interest so I read a few blogs on touch and proximity. I thought about it in the context of life outside the therapy setting and life inside the therapy setting. In both, I have decided that touch (the non-erotic, totally innocent kind) is a powerful but underutilized tool. We are missing opportunities for connection when we fail to reach out to others through physical contact.
I don’t know if you gathered from my comments about the cats during my morning routine, I often don’t like being touched. It tends to make me feel dirty and exposed and overwhelmed. This is an issue, I’m sure. But, despite that discomfort I notice I make a pretty consistent effort to initiate reassuring and supportive forms of touch with others, likely because it’s a need not being met in my own life. Despite the possible impetus being driven by my needs, I am almost always cognizant of the needs of the person I’m reaching out to because I also know the damage that can be caused by selfish forms of touch.
You might think I’m weird but I find that having cats let’s me practice the skill of honing my intentions before reaching out. Whenever the cats are lying next to me and I need to get up I pet them a few times, say “I’m sorry, I’ve got to get up now but I love you.” Do they understand my words? Probably not. Do they understand that my touch says, “I appreciate your cuddles”? Also, not likely. But, I do think my touch communicates something to them. And I think that’s the power of touch and proximity. It doesnt require words and it doesn’t require that we speak the same language. It just requires a sort of purity in intention. I pass love through my fingertips. They purr. It’s so simple. And I believe it is just as simple with people.
A Human Example
So why don’t we use this with humans more often? It seems pretty well known that humans are social creatures. We need companionship and we need the touch of others. But, again, I reiterate that the touch I’m referring to is gentle, loving, healing touch. I mean touch that has the best interest of the other at heart. Not the self serving kind. Generally we think it’s okay to touch freely in our romantic relationships. And we regard touch during greetings and departures as fair game in our friendships. But, how are our needs for touch met otherwise, if we aren’t in relationships. If we don’t see our friends often. And is the occasional hug really enough? How many of us are going through life touch deprived and don’t even realize it?
One of the things that bothered me early on (earlier on) in this whole therapy experience was when I came to the office in shambles. Something I considered to be very traumatic had happened the night before and I was barely keeping it together. It was the first and only time I let myself break down in the office. As I wept, my therapist just sat there across the room, a table between us. It felt so cold, so clinical. I mean, yes, her eyes communicated concern. And her body language conveyed attentiveness. But, none of that showed me she actually cared about my pain. Despite not being one for touch, that felt like exactly what I needed in the moment. I felt my mind fleeing from my body and I needed a hug or a gentle touch of the hand or shoulder. Something, anything to offer reassurance, to make my body feel less lost to the hostility of the trauma. And it didn’t come. I tried to comfort myself. Tried to give myself what I needed but it didn’t work. It was like trying to hug a porcupine. All spikes and resistance.
I genuinely think that moment in therapy could have been a something that grew the therapeutic alliance. Instead it set us back. No, I didn’t voice my needs (something I’m working on now). But, she didn’t make any attempt to offer comfort either. So, we met an impasse. She became to me no different than any of the other people who regarded my emotions as something to just be waited out, something “too much”. I’m sure she didn’t actually feel that way but that’s how her passivity and distance came across. And I’ve not been able to shake it. I don’t know how to recategorize her in my mind, so that vulnerability is possible again.
All of that to say, one simple gesture of touch and proximity could have been the catalyst to giant strides in my ability to trust and heal. If that applies in counseling then surely it applies in our relationships with people outside that setting as well. I don’t really have anything enlightening and insightful to say, but I challenge you to be mindful of missed opportunities. Don’t be fearful of your touch being misinterpreted. If you do so with pure intentions, with the intent to create connection, I have to believe that will be communicated via your touch. And don’t be afraid to hold an embrace with someone you love just a little bit “too long.” All of my favorite huggers are the people who don’t shy away from long embraces. They melt into you and let you melt into them. That’s how connection happens, how caring is communicated. Maybe not for everyone, but at least for enough of us that it matters.