Infants expect and require abundant joyful, loving touch. They continue to need the physical presence, warmth, heartbeat, and nervous system activity that surrounded them in the womb. When that drive to be held, rocked, soothed and comforted is met with enough touch and care, the child develops secure attachment.
If adults respond intermittently, the child develops anxious attachment, dedicating their whole being to figuring out how to entice adults into responding more consistently. If adults do not respond at all, the child develops avoidant attachment, shutting away their needs in the whole-body belief that touch will never come.
If adults both care for and harm the child, the child develop disorganized attachment, with equally compelling drives toward comforting touch and away from danger.
Natural need for touch
Adults need touch as well. When the need for touch has been met well enough, with kindness and safety, we accept the ongoing need as naturally as we accept the need to breathe. It is simply part of us.
When we experienced absence or abuse from caregivers instead, we grow around an aching emptiness at our core. We cover it over with shame that somehow we were not enough to elicit caring touch. As we learn to explain the world to ourselves in words, an Inner Critic gives voice to that shame.
When the need for touch pulls us toward people who also hurt us, our self-trust takes a beating. We feel unwillingly compelled and hijacked, as well as ashamed of the inability to erase or ignore our touch hunger, even though the need for touch is as physical as the need for air.
We also feel hijacked and ashamed when we flinch away from touch that appears harmless. We criticize ourselves for being affected by past harm. Touch can bring us into body awareness in the present moment, and it can also bring up the past.
When a trusted adult sexually abuses a child, caring touch and sexual contact become deeply entangled. It can be difficult to disentangle them, especially since modern US culture provides few opportunities for non-sexual touch. It can help to seek out non-sexual caring touch from trusted friends, or bodywork, or activities like social dance or contact improv.
We wrestle for control over our need for touch and our responses to it. We search for safe, caring touch that can reach and calm the ongoing panicked distress of our inner infant. We try to listen to our inner signals as a guide, but they conflict wildly.
Offer yourself touch
Even though the longing and confusion and fear is about touch from others, we can work on healing by turning toward ourselves. We can experiment with offering our own body caring non-sexual touch, and listen to all the reactions that arise.
Stay aware of consent from inside, and do not override a “no” or “don’t want.” Listening to “no” might be exactly what your body needs. You can also pay attention to the touch of your clothes, or the touch of water in the shower, or hug a tree, or cuddle a pet.
- Sense inside for what part of your body would like touch. Are there any parts that definitely do not want touch?
- If you do not receive a response, check if it would be okay to start with one hand touching the other.
- Does the receiving area already know what quality of touch it wants? Touch can be moving or still, brief or sustained, light or heavy, given with a tense or relaxed hand, coming from the whole palm or the tip of a finger.
- What is your intention while touching? Aim for kind, listening touch.
- Start with a brief touch. When you stop touching, do you sense the area wanting more, or did it feel like enough, or too much?
- Does the area respond differently to different qualities of touch?
- When you feel done with touching this area, check if another area would like touch, and if it feels okay to continue.
- Afterwards, take some time to sense any continuing reactions.
Experimenting with touch might bring a mix of emotions. You might feel comforted and soothed. You might feel angry or lonely about doing the exercise alone. You might feel frustrated or embarrassed by your responses to touch. You might feel old emotions that were stored in that part of your body, such as fear, numbness, or emptiness.
Acknowledge each response
During and after this exercise (or anytime), you can stay more present with yourself and offer a safe healing space for frozen younger parts by acknowledging each emotion and response that arises.
- “I sense something in me that feels calmer
- and I sense something in me that feels angry
- and I sense something in me that hates this exercise
- and I sense something in me that is curious
- and I sense something in me that feels very young and alone
- and I sense something in me that doesn’t want to bother with consent.
- All are here and I am the space that contains them all.” (Phrasing suggested by Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin.)
You can turn toward each part or response with interested curiosity and sense more about it. For example, a part that doesn’t want to bother with consent might reveal impatience, and frustration, and a sense of not deserving to be heard. With a lot of gentle listening and acknowledgment, it might reveal that it is afraid of being punished for having boundaries, and eventually soften into relief and clarity about what kind of touch is and isn’t okay.
Your Inner Critic might have a lot to say around touch. You can acknowledge it and what it says, without believing that it is true. You can check if it is feeling worried, perhaps about being alone and uncared-for.
Touch from others
You can try this exercise with someone supporting you to stay present but not participating with touch. You can also try exchanging touch with someone in this mindful way. The presence of another person will add layers of responses, for example feeling judged or wanting to manage their emotions.
While our unmet needs feel as urgent as they did for an infant, we do not have to get someone else to meet them as adults. We can bear witness and grieve for how painful it was and is for our needs to go unmet. We can meet some of them with our adult presence. We can notice when the outside world gives us little bits of what we need.
With insecure attachment, our emotions and reactions around touch can be raw, wordless, and overwhelming, arising from our painful earliest experiences. When we can take a tiny step back to greet each response and get to know it individually, we can keep ourselves company in those difficult places. With our warm adult presence, the hurt places gradually change and heal.
- Thanks to Silvia S. for suggesting this topic last year, and for helpful comments on a draft.
- The techniques in Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin’s article How to Use Focusing to Release Blocks to Action can also apply to touch.
- Jane Clapp’s article Attachment Deficits and Emotional Hunger expresses the urgency of emotional hunger.