By Tina Neidlein of tinaneidlein.com
I’m not sure when it started, all this casual hugging. But lately, it seems like every single time I get together with just about anyone, they come in for a hug. A hug “hello.” A hug “goodbye.” A hug “are you…okay?” Listen, I know I look tired. But I’m not currently dying. I promise. So what’s with all the hugging?
Yeah yeah, I know. The world kinda sucks right now. Everyone’s fighting. Countries are on fire. No one’s caught up on their shows. These are good reasons to cling to each other, I guess.
Or maybe it’s a lifestage thing? I’m in my 40s, as are a lot of the people I know. Many of us are getting hit with some real shit. You never know who’s going through a divorce, who’s caring for a sick family member, whose kid will not stop saying, “Okay, boomer” to you, despite the fact that for the LAST TIME, you are a Gen X-er, GODDAMMIT. Times are tough. Might as well hug everyone you come across, just to be…safe?
Maybe it’s where I live. I’m in the Midwest. People are friendly. They hold the elevator door open. They say “sorry!” when you bump into them. They call when your cattle have gotten loose. (Psych! They just text.) I’m all for down-home friendliness. I’m just not much of a hugger.
I never realized the extent of my aversion until the first time someone approached me, noticed me holding back, and said, “You’re not a hugger, are you?” I’ve since heard that many times over the years, and it always stings. Am I giving off some sort of cold, impersonal vibe? I guess I stiffen up or something. It’s weird, though. “I don’t feel like hugging” is a thought that’s never once entered my conscious brain.
Now, for the record, I should point out that there are a few people I’m 1000% comfortable with hugging. My husband, who’s happy to reciprocate. My son, who will accept a hug but barely. Like many teens, he just stands there, arms glued to his side. It’s fine, whatever.
But the list is pretty short. I would just rather the rest of the world keep a comfortable distance.
It’s not that I don’t like people. Because I do. And the ones who come in to hug me? I’m happy to see (almost) all of them. I just don’t feel like hugging back. There’s probably something deep there. Childhood baggage, maybe? I really don’t think so. It’s not like I was ever left alone in a closet for days. Although I should have been. I was an asshole.
So it remains a bit of a mystery. Guess I’ll put it on the To-Figure-Out List, right between “Why just the one chin hair?” and “Do I laugh like a goat?”
In the meantime, I have a few guesses. And if you’re also a member of the Hug Resistance, maybe one of these will spark something hesitantly affectionate in you.
First, hugging can feel a little dramatic. There’s pressure to perform. How close do I need to get? What’s the right amount of time to hold it? Will I convey the right level of excitement at a hug “hello” or wistfulness at a hug “goodbye?” What do I smell like? Can they tell that I haven’t showered? That I’m out of deodorant and had to use my husband’s, which is called something like “Wolf Testicle?”
I also recently learned the term “highly sensitive person” and I don’t know for sure, but I suspect I may be one. It’s not exactly what it sounds like—not “sensitive” like we’ll cry if you don’t compliment our outfit, although I still might do that. What’s wrong with my outfit? It’s vintage Target.
Dr. Elaine Aron, a psychologist, came up with the idea of the “highly sensitive person” (HSP) back in 1991. According to Aron, an HSP has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment. She estimates that 15–20% of the U.S. population are HSPs and get this—HSP traits are also found in more than 100 other species, including dogs, cats, birds, fish, fruit flies, horses, and primates. Apparently those traits are a type of survival strategy, being observant before acting. Which explains why you’ve never seen fruit flies hug. Now it makes sense.
As I read about HSPs, I was struck by the overlap with Not-a-Huggers. Lighting and sounds often overwhelm me. My skin crawls if the TV is too loud or if there are too many lights on overhead. The part that really got me was the supposed sensitivity to caffeine, which I gave up recently on my doctor’s orders. It was sending my body into overdrive, making me feel a chronic low level of exhaustion.
But the HSP trait that seems the most NAH of all is the awareness of subtleties in your surroundings. I’ve always had a painfully heightened awareness of the people around me. I soak up every one of their emotions. Know how a dog senses when you’re sad? I sense when you’re uncomfortable. (I can also beg and roll over, not to brag.) If you greet me with any sort of nervousness, I will stiffen up and reflect that right back. It sucks. Maybe someday I can become more like a dog and just start licking your face instead.
So…what to do if you suspect you may be approaching a NAH? Unfortunately, they don’t make “PLEASE DO NOT HUG, human in training” vests for us. Not yet, anyway. Until then, here are a few things to try:
• How about a little wave? This pairs well with a long, drawn-out “hiiiii!” (But only 5 i’s. At 6, we’ll know you’re faking.)
• If you just have to touch, fine. Try a meaningful arm grab while you hug us with your eyes.
• Shake our hand! Yes, really. We like it. If we’re women, we especially like it. It makes us feel like men get to feel, like we land business deals! And do successful things!
• Do not, under any circumstances, say, “Oh, you’re not a hugger.” WE KNOW THIS. And to hear it probably makes us feel bad.
Having said all of that, the next time you cross paths with me or any other NAH in the wild, and you are genuinely—and I mean genuinely—excited to see us, don’t overthink it. Just come on in for a hug. Go on, give it a try. But you better not be awkward! Or I just might lick your face.
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