Lesson 1 of 7  - free your true Self to guide you 

Are You Getting Enough
Healthy Physical Contact?

A basic human need

Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/touch.htm

  Updated  02-22-2015

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To help you focus on this topic, invest a few minutes in this uplifting YouTube video:

      This article offers...

  • perspective on interpersonal touching - caressing, hugging, kissing, and handshakes;.

  • an inventory to help you judge if you're getting enough healthy touching, and...

  • practical options for initiating, enjoying, and getting more friendly touching

      This brief YouTube video introduces you to the content of this article:

      This Lesson-4 article is meant to raise your interest and self-awareness, rather than aiming to be a comprehensive exploration of a complex, controversial topic. It can be specially useful for people committed to patiently reducing their psychological wounds and improving their relationships.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this self-improvement site and the premises underlying it,

  • self-study Lesson 1,

  • perspectives on personal awareness and human needs


      Most (all?) child development experts agree that newborns and infants need frequent soothing human skin-on-skin contact to thrive. Do you agree? Many critics of bottle-feeding feel that it deprives babies of some essential physical contact with their mother's warmth and skin.

      Whether a young child gets enough spontaneous (vs. dutiful or strategic) hugs, caresses, and kisses or not can affect their evolving personality and identity - e.g. "I am (not) visible / touchable / lovable." Touching is one of many variables that determine whether a growing child's developmental needs are met well-enough and often enough.

Touches Mean Something

       Spontaneous physical contact between two people is an exchange of implied or assumed semi-conscious messages ("meanings") like these:

  • "I acknowledge your existence and presence - I'm aware of you now."

  • "I feel appreciation and affection and/or love and/or desire for you now."

  • "It's so good to see you!"

  • "I'm glad you and I are together now."

  • "I've enjoyed you and our time together."

  • "I like / love / respect / approve of / care about you now."

  • "I want to ease your pain."

  • "I want to make contact with (vs. avoid) you now."

  • "I'm sexually attracted to you,"

  • "Thank you for ______________."

  • (add your own messages...)

      These messages are semi-consciously decoded along with those from facial expression, eye contact, words, voice dynamics, and body language. If two or more  of these simultaneous communication variables don't match, it's possible to decode a confusing double message from some kind of touching - e.g. "I love you! / Get away from me." This is specially likely if the toucher and/or touchee is controlled by several conflicted personality subselves. ("I like you! You disgust me!")

Toxic Touching

      The examples above are all "positive" - i.e. they can enhance self esteem, trust, intimacy, and relationships. Other perceived touch-messages can be "toxic" - they can shame, chastise, scare, worry, confuse, promote distrust, hurt, and lower respect. All "physical abuse" sends clusters of implied toxic messages like these:

  • "I enjoy hurting you."

  • "I don't care about or respect you."

  • "I want you to fear me.".

  • "I don't care about your feelings."

  • "You're bad and/or inferior to me."

  • "You're invisible - a nonperson."

      Spontaneous (vs. strategic) physical touching usually happens without conscious awareness of implied messages like these. Note that each person may interpret local or chronic touching differently, depending on their history, experience, inner rules, and whether they're guided by their true Self or some other personality subselves. People governed by a "false self" are prone to distort reality without knowing it, so they may read some meaning into a hug, caress, or kiss that wasn't intended or felt by the other person. .

      People never outgrow their primal need for nourishing physical contact. Do you agree? Socially and psychologically isolated adults and kids can become unconsciously "touch-starved," though they're usually unaware of this until someone touches them. Some touch-starved people will endure harsh or demeaning physical contact to slake their sensory hunger. If they do, they may feel guilty and/or ashamed without understanding why Do you know anyone like  this?

Family Rules and Attitudes

      All homes, families, and organizations develop complex rules and attitudes about people touching each other - shoulds, musts, supposed to's, and oughts. The rules are often unspoken, and are a mix of each adult's ancestral values and traditions about hugging, caressing, and kissing. The rules can vary by age, gender, situation, and social role  For example...:

  • "Relatives should always kiss each other on the cheek when they meet and say goodbye."

  • "Hugs are OK only if everyone is fully clothed."

  • Full-body hugs are not acceptable."

  • "Sisters can kiss each other, but brothers shouldn't."

  • Adult male family members can hug young and older female relatives but not female teens, unless the teens initiate it;"

  • "It's OK to shake hands or pat relatives on the back, but no hugs or kisses."

  • "We can hug and kiss each other for birthdays, reunions, and holidays but not at other times."

  • "Females can hold hands but males should not."

  • "You shouldn't breast-feed your child in public."

  • "(You should) never hug your coworkers in public!"

  • "If you hug someone, always pat them on the back as you do."

  • "Sexual touching should be private and only between committed heterosexual partners."

  • "Painful touching (e.g. slapping, twisting, punching, pinching) is wrong and bad."

  • You should never (or always) spank a child's bare bottom."

  • "We (should) never talk about our family rules about physical contact."

      Personal and group rules can be about (a) initiating personal touch, (b) inviting touch, and (c) if, how, and when to react to it. There is usually a special subset of each of these dealing with sensual and sexual touching. By the way, how would you define sensuality"? Does that always imply sex, or do you see it as describing a healthy sensitivity to any kind of tactile stimulation? 

      People and families can range from "very touchy-feely" (lots of emoting and spontaneous touching) to "very cold ('unemotional'), formal, polite, and reserved."

      Young kids learn rules and attitudes like these over time from observing adults' behavior more than from direct teaching. The rules evolve from touch-responses like smiles, giggles, sighs, frowns, growls, flinches, scowls, slaps, and face and body language. Society, local culture, and the media silently shape kids; and adults' attitudes and behavioral rules about physical contact.

      Few people in our hyper-stimulating culture (and your family?) are aware of this rule-formation process.

      Does this "rule" idea make sense to you? If so, pause and reflect: name  some of the rules about physical contact that governed your early-childhood home and family. Then identify some of the rules that govern your present relationships. What do you notice?

  Psychological Wounds and "Touch Disorders"

      The (a) primal need for physical contact, (b) asserting this need (or not), and (c) responding to touching are all affected by psychological wounds in a child or adult. This effect adds to the rules and attitudes about touching they have learned. Significantly-wounded people can have little or no need for touching (numbness), exaggerated needs for it, and/or trouble initiating, reacting to, and decoding it. 

      For example:

  • Shame-based people can ignore (or despise) their need for touching because they feel unlovable. This is specially likely if the adults that raise them were "cold," "emotionally unavailable," and "nonphysical" (wounded).

  • Guilt-based kids and adults feel their need for - and/or enjoyment of - pleasant touching is "selfish, "wrong," and "bad;" They can also feel anxious or uncomfortable at their own urge to touch other people at times. This usually reflect the perceived rules they were raised with.

  • Fear-based people can be inhibited from initiating interpersonal touching for fear of "intruding" (offending) and being rejected. Conversely, specially-needy, insecure kids or adults can touch others too often and/or inappropriately to gain friendship or approval.

  • Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) who significantly distort reality can be stressed by misinterpreting (a) if and how other people touch them (or don't), and/or (b) how others seem to react to being touched. They may occasionally or chronically assume sexual meanings to non-sexual contacts, promoting confusion, stress, distrust, resentment, and avoidances.

  • People unable to trust wisely may discount or reject soothing touching as being some sort of ill-intentioned manipulation. Alternatively, they may interpret strategic or dutiful touching as genuine.  

  • Severely-wounded people may be unable to feel, empathize, and bond with some or all other people. This may mute their longing for and/or responsiveness to physical touching, If they weren't touched appropriately or often enough as a child, they may not comprehend what they're missing  or what other people need..

      Typical wounded people are unaware of their childhood-family's rules about touching, and/or they idealize and distort them. Before true wound-reduction, they often say and believe - "I don't have any wounds (or problems with physical contact!)"

      Note that some wounded people partially satisfy their needs for companionship and touching by owning pets - specially furry ones. Of course not all pet owners are psychologically wounded!

      Also note that touching someone else may satisfy your own need for physical contact, but may not satisfy your need for the emotional messages that we decode when another person wants to hug, kiss, or caress us. Some wise person has noted

"Each of us is the only person who can give to another...
what each of us needs to get."

      Another factor affecting interpersonal contact is....

Personal Space

      Personal discomfort rises for many people (including you?) if another person gets "too close" to them in some social situations. The English term for this is "my comfort zone." The radius of each person's zone depends on a number of semi-conscious factors like gender, self-image, fear of the unknown, odor, relationship to and familiarity with the "invading" person, and family and cultural rules.

      In social situations, each person has a baseline "comfort zone," and senses nonverbal "cues" like body language, facial expression, and movement (approach / retreat) to gauge the other person's zone. Physical contact depends somewhat on whether each person's comfort zone allows the other to enter it. Permission to enter depends on the type of contact - e.g. a handshake my be acceptable or welcome, but not a hug or kiss.

      Cultures can vary significantly in socially-acceptable comfort zones - e.g. some societies like Italy and Greece treat physical closeness as normal, and affectionate social touching as expected. Avoiding physical closeness and/or contact can be interpreted as an insult. or "aloofness." In contrast, some cultures like China, Japan, Scandinavia. England, and Germany promote keeping a "respectable distance" from other people, with obvious exceptions like doctors, mothers and kids, and formal greetings. 

      Now learn something about yourself with this...

"Touch Inventory"

      Get quiet and undistracted, and reflect on these statements. Notice your thoughts and emotions as you do. "T" = "true enough;" "F" = seldom or never true, and "?" = "I'm not sure" / "it depends on (what?)", or something else.

Options - (a) print this inventory for later review and/or sharing; and/or (b) retake this inventory after some time has passed to see if anything has changed. This can be specially useful if you're committed to reducing psychological wounds.

1)  I am usually aware of my need for physical human contact. (T  F  ?)

2)  On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high), I would rate my recent need for pleasant physical touching as a __.

3)  I can name the key un/spoken rules about kissing, caressing, and hugging in my childhood home/s and family   (T  F  ?)

4)  The females who raised me were comfortable with normal physical contact  (T  F  ?)

5)  The males who raised me were comfortable with normal physical contact  (T  F  ?)

6)  I can name the key un/spoken rules about kissing, caressing, and hugging in my current home and family   (T  F  ?)

7)  I am usually comfortable hugging...

  • adult family members (T  F  ?)

  • family preteens  (T  F  ?)

  • family teens  (T  F  ?)

  • male friends  (T  F  ?)

  • female friends  (T  F  ?)

  • people of a different race or color  (T  F  ?)

  • disabled and elderly people  (T  F  ?)

8)  I am usually comfortable kissing......

  • adult family members (T  F  ?)

  • family preteens  (T  F  ?)

  • family teens  (T  F  ?)

  • male friends  (T  F  ?)

  • female friends  (T  F  ?)

  • people of a different race or color  (T  F  ?)

  • disabled and elderly people  (T  F  ?)

9)  I'm comfortable initiating physical contact with most people  (T  F  ?)

10)  I'm usually comfortable with being touched by most people  (T  F  ?)

11)  I'm clearly aware of the difference between sexual and non-sexual touching  (T  F  ?)

12)  I'm socially open and confident with most _ adults and _kids (vs. being shy, reserved, or "withdrawn."  (T  F  ?)

13)  People who know me would describe me as "warm and open," vs. "cold, inhibited. and closed (unapproachable)."  (T  F  ?)

14)  I'm rarely or never embarrassed, critical, or annoyed by other people making nonsexual physical contact in public.  (T  F  ?)

15)  I feel spontaneous (vs. dutiful) affection for the young people in our family, and I like to express that physically  (T  F  ?)

16)  I'm clearly aware of my interpersonal "comfort zone," and I know how to adjust it if needed.  (T  F  ?)

17)  I know how to express my needs for physical contact clearly, without guilt or anxiety  (T  F  ?)

18)  I know how to express my boundaries about physical contact clearly, without guilt or anxiety  (T  F  ?)

19)  "Touchy - feely" people and groups are normal and OK.  (T  F  ?)

20)  I'm usually comfortable enough with my body, face, personal odor, and appearance.  (T  F  ?)

21)  I'm usually comfortable with playful touching (tickling, hair-mussing, wrestling, etc) with special people - within limits.  (T  F  ?)

22)  I don't need to hire someone to touch me (like a massage therapist)  (T  F  ?)

23)  Completing t5his inventory has been a pleasant experience.  (T  F  ?)

24)  I'm comfortable showing this inventory to others and discussing it with them  (T  F  ?) 

25)  Most people who know me would say I filled out this inventory accurately.  (T  F  ?)

Option - review your inventory, and star or hilight items you want to reflect on or change.

  Right now, I'm aware of......



  Something I want to do now is...



      If you're significantly uncomfortable with giving or receiving physical contact, and/or you need more of touching in your life, consider these...


      Three common reasons for any of these "touch problems" (and most others) are inherited psychological wounds + unawareness + ignorance (lack of knowledge). Once these problems are understood and acknowledged, each of them can be significantly reduced over time. To do so, commit to studying Lessons 1 thru 4 in this nonprofit self-improvement course. This will yield many benefits over time, not just reduce physical-contact problems!.

Trouble Initiating Physical Contact

      You can become more comfortable and spontaneous with touching other people if you...

  • identify and update any inherited family and cultural rules that inhibit friendly nonsexual touching; For example "I'm not supposed to touch anyone / adults / males / females / ..."

  • accept that your personality is composed of a group of well-meaning ''subselves'' which control your thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and needs.

  • check your attitude about the other person. If you don't feel genuine affection, respect, equality, trust, and admiration for them, accept that you probably have no motivation to touch them spontaneously.

  • use ''parts work'' to explore whether you're controlled by...

    • a Scared Inner Child. S/He may fear that touching others will offend or annoy them, be misinterpreted, or cause some conflict; and/or....

    • a ''Numb-er'' subself who guards you against feeling emotions like affection;: and/or by...

    • an Inner Critic who was taught to believe that touching other people is "weak," "sissy," or "childish;".

  • ask "Can I give you a hug?";

      and you can...

  • note that if people seem uncomfortable with your touching them, you can (a) ask for feedback ("Does my touching bother you?"), and/or (b) consider that the person may have inherited rules and/or wounds that cause their discomfort. In other words, realize that the problem is with them, not you. 

  • watch for a chance to discuss physical-contact likes, values, and rules with adults and kids you're hesitant to hug, caress, or kiss. This may shift your attitude and behavior with them.

      More options...

Discomfort Receiving Physical Contact

      This discomfort can come from a Shamed Inner Child who feels unworthy of acknowledgement, comfort, or affection. This common subself may also have been taught to feel disgust with their perceived body image, and friendly touches remind them of this. Another possibility is the discomfort comes from an Abused Inner Child who associates physical contact with pain. This is specially likely for adults who were sexually abused as a child.

      Another possibility is that a Guilty Inner Child believes that enjoying physical contact is somehow selfish, bad, or wrong. A third possibility is that one or more of your personality subselves associates some or most touching with unwanted, shameful,  and/or unpleasant sexuality.

      There are other possibilities. Consider using "parts work" to see if any of these normal personality parts and or their Guardian subselves may be promoting your discomfort. If so, negotiate with them patiently to change and reduce their discomfort.

Get More Physical Contact

      Pause and reflect. How often do you experience pleasant physical contact with adults and kids? Would you ;like more? If so, what's in the way of your getting it? Consider these options when your true Self is guiding you:

  • experiment with patting, stroking, hand-shaking, and hugging people you like and appreciate. If you're not used to doing this, it may feel phony and contrived at first. Do it anyway, and be aware of the others' reactions. They may reciprocate, unless they're wounded and uneasy.

  • ask for hugs when you need them. If you do, be aware of ''Be spontaneous! paradoxes.'' These occur when you ask for (or demand) something that can only be given spontaneously. For example "I want you to want to touch me more often." Give other people responsibility for managing their own comfort levels if you ask for friendly touching.

  • when people touch you pleasantly, affirm that - e.g. "Your patting me on the back, hugging me / kissing me feels really good. Thanks!"

  • Be aware of your handshake. People are generally turned off by limp, weak, bone-crushing, and prolonged grips. They're also more apt to respond (and initiate) handclasps if you're spontaneous, vs. polite or dutiful..

  • Review your childhood rules about holding hands with adults and kids. If they were inappropriate or inhibiting, experiment with new rules..

  • periodically raise everyone's awareness by talking openly with friends and family about physical contact - e.g. likes and dislikes. Option - give selected people a copy of this article, or refer them to it, to promote discussion and awareness.

      Did you realize you had so many options? 


      This Lesson-4 article explores the primal human need for physical contact with each other, starting in infancy. Getting enough pleasurable touching is an important part of reducing psychological wounds and improving personal contentment. The article aims to raise your awareness of physical contact in general and in your life, rather than trying to be a comprehensive exploration. It offers... 

  • perspective on interpersonal touching - caressing, hugging, kissing, and handshaking;.

  • an inventory to help you become more aware of physical contact in your life and relationships; and...

  • practical options for initiating, enjoying, and getting more friendly touching

          Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

    This article was very helpful  somewhat helpful  not helpful    

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