I Crave Affection — Am I Immature?

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Reader’s Question

I grew up with a mom who was not very affectionate. I can remember one time when she initiated a hug, and that was because I did something for her unexpectedly. I cannot remember ever cuddling with her, sitting on her lap, or having her initiate a kiss. Is this why I crave affection? From just about anyone?

Whenever anyone hugs me, it feels like heaven to me. I am careful to keep my distance however, because I know my feelings are inappropriate. I make sure I do not allow a hug to last too long and sometimes I even avoid letting people hug me because it can be too raw — too close to home. I make sure no one knows, but I still have this constant void — need. I guess there’s nothing I can do about it.

Am I immature? Too sensitive? Any suggestions?

Psychologist’s Reply

As you’ve discovered, touch is an extremely vital form of connection with others. Touch is the foundation for how we build self-esteem and begin to understand feelings of attachment to others. Children need to be held for comfort, to feel safe, and to know they are loved. That is why it was extremely unfortunate that your mother was not affectionate or physically demonstrative with you. People who were rarely touched gently themselves often do not know how to touch others in positive ways, and perhaps this was true of your mother.

The medical profession discovered the extreme significance of touch in tragic ways. After World War II, it was found that babies raised in orphanages where the staff was stretched so thin that all they could manage was to feed and clothe them frequently died. In addition, premature babies who were kept separate from the touch of others in order to protect them were failing to thrive. As a result of these experiences and a large amount of research, touching has become a routine part of any form of childcare.

Adults also need touch because it helps us live a fuller life. In fact, research has shown that couples who touch more report more satisfaction in the relationship (probably because it leads to increased intimacy and self-esteem). It’s also related to better athletic performance, and even minimal touch can decrease anxiety and reduce anxiety-related physical disorders. Touch also can communicate at least eight distinct emotions, as well as intensify emotions, often by allowing stifled feelings to surface.

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Human beings are social animals and, as such, we need touch in order to survive and thrive. So yes, I imagine that the lack of affection you had growing up did lead to an increased desire to feel gentle touch from others. I do not believe that your need for touch makes you immature or too sensitive. You are simply missing what you should have received in childhood. Moreover, since touch is also associated with many other things, like self-esteem and approval, your need for touch could be a little more complicated than merely craving it. So it’s possible that touch means different things for you. Consequently, analyzing the reasons for the void may help you to fill it.

You are wise to moderate your touch with others. Nothing makes people uncomfortable faster than inappropriate touching or overlong hugs. However, while you are discovering what hugs mean to you, perhaps you could figure out ways you can find positive touches. For example, elderly people living away from family often suffer from lack of touching, so maybe you could volunteer at a nursing home, then everyone could benefit from appropriate hugs, shoulder pats and other gentle touches. Some cultural groups are more physically affectionate than others. I know many families in which everyone, even non-family members, are greeted with hugs. Thus, you may want to seek out people who enjoy affection as much as you, and then you can receive more frequent touching. This way, everyone wins.

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