When we are small and not yet using language much, physical interactions tell us who we are. Children mimic what they see, and learn to use their bodies in part by emulating what others do. Physical affection gifts us with regular affirmations and proof of acceptability. I’ve seen a lot of things online (so it must be true!) that longer lasting hugs have anxiety reducing effects. My own experience would seem to bear this out, as long bouts of being held will bring anxiety down more effectively than anything else I’ve tried.
It might be fair to assume from all of this that a child who is seldom touched could well be more anxious. My personal experience, of being largely untouched and a deeply anxious child, seems to go with this. Both sides of my family struggle with physical expressions of affection. I know one part of that story probably has a lot to do with serious abuse, the other side remains a mystery. My more immediate ancestors did not go in for affection much, and so awkwardness, anxiety and untouchability is handed down, one generation to the next. If you don’t feel acceptable, and you do feel anxious, you aren’t well placed to seek affection, and so the cycles continue.
The threads of how we got to be as we are can weave back into the past far beyond our own lives. (If this interests you, there is Druidry and the Ancestors). Unpicking those threads is not easy, and if they lead back to the dead, there may never be proper explanations. However, simply recognising that you may be living out an ancestral pattern that you’ve learned, and that what happens might not be a manifestation of who and how you are, enables change, I am finding.
As a child and young teen, I was almost incapable of touching anyone affectionately. I had a fear of contact. I still don’t really know how to seek comfort when distressed, because that just isn’t part of my frames of reference. I was told off for crying far more often than I was comforted. In my teens I made the simple discovery that sexual activities could be traded for, or would create a passable match for affection, and this opened the door to just how deeply I craved affection, in whatever form I could get it. This did not lead to the wisest choices imaginable. Which in turn has left me with a lot of anxieties around physical contact.
Recent years have brought different experiences, and those in turn make it possible to think differently. There is affection in my life now that comes without any kind of price tag. That’s an absolute game changer. As I’ve got used to this, my overall levels of anxiety have come down perceptibly. Where I really trust how I physically interact with people, I feel a lot more secure. Those connections are not numerous, but in the process of working through the recent meltdown, the spaces I feel bodily safe have become more apparent to me. And also how profoundly I need those safe and affirming spaces. I’ve discovered it’s not just about bodily contact, but about body language, how space is shared, and all manner of subtle things about being around someone else.
Alongside it comes an awareness that if I cry, there are people I can rely on to handle that kindly – not to ridicule me or tell me off. People willing to stand between me and the world for a little while so that I can have the space to recover. People who do not seem to think any the less of me for that. Belonging may be as simple as a gentle hand on the shoulder when everything hurts. One thing is clear to me – these are not issues any of us can tackle alone.