When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings. Hugging with mindfulness and concentration can bring reconciliation, healing, understanding, and much happiness. The practice of mindful hugging has helped so many people to reconcile with each other — fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, friends and friends, and so many others.
-Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love
Here’s an exercise for self-development I once learned: imagine there’s a party that you aren’t attending. Two people you respect are talking about you. One of them knows you; the other does not. If the one tried to explain you to the other, what are the things you would want them to say about you? Whatever the answer is, try to cultivate more of that. It’ll bring you closer to being the person you want to be.
I’ve been practicing this exercise for a few years, now, so I know my answer. And let me tell you, there is nothing like finding out that your friends actually do talk about you in exactly the terms you always wanted. People tell their friends that I make people feel calm and safe, and that I give very sage advice for a 21-year-old, that I smell delicious (no joke–this is a well-known fact about me, apparently). And there’s another thing that circulates social circles whenever my name is brought up: I give really, really good hugs. Like light-up-your-life, let-out-the-breath-you-didn’t-know-you-were-holding kind of good hugs. People in other countries eagerly await my arrival so they have the chance to experience one of these happy lil’ ribcrushers. I’m serious.
And although I am obviously delighted that I’m known for my aptitude for casual affection, it also makes me sad. Because in my ideal world, it is not a big deal if someone is good at giving hugs, because everyone is good at it because it is just the way society operates, plain and simple. Something is only extraordinary when it’s scarce, and I don’t want good hugs or platonic intimacy to be scarce in my world.
Here’s the thing: in my own inner world, I don’t give good hugs. I give hugs. The difference, I am assuming, is that I was fortunate enough to be raised in a very openly affectionate household with two parents who taught their children early on how to hug and snuggle and hold hands and be unapologetically cuddly human beings in general. I grew up in an environment where healthy physical contact was encouraged in theory and modeled well in practice, and so I’ve matured into someone who is very comfortable displaying affection.
But here’s the other thing: these days, my experience is not the norm. I know a lot more people who are uncomfortable with intimacy than I do those who are comfortable with it; even some of my closest friends are still awkward and uncertain of themselves when they try to display affection. It isn’t anyone’s fault–they were raised by whatever values their parents upheld, and their parents were raised by whatever values their parents upheld, and so on and so forth. The slow suffocation of friendly, platonic affection in our society doesn’t have an easy explanation, or a tidy scapegoat to point the blame at. But it does have a solution: people like me, who are lucky enough to be confident in their displays of affection, need to model ourselves for people who need to re-educate themselves.
Humans are social, tactile creatures. Physical affection isn’t just a bonus, it’s a necessity. It’s vital to our growth and development as people. Babies who receive more cuddles develop stronger immune systems as children and adults; there is a noticeable increase in oxytocin and serotonin levels in the brain after about ten seconds of prolonged hugging. Virginia Satir, a renowned American psychologist, once said: “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.”
Have you had twelve hugs today? I know I haven’t, and I’m supposed to be the snuggly one. So in an effort to revitalize the sort of casual affection we all need in our lives, I am presenting to you an honest-to-gods practical guide on how I do my hugging.
If you think it’s silly, then congratulations, you’re one of the lucky ones. One of the ones who don’t need to learn. But for everyone else–everyone who is uncomfortable with displaying affection even though they want to because they just aren’t sure how to do it appropriately or ‘right’–this is for you.
How to Hug Your Human: A Practical Guide
Ask your human if it is all right to give them a hug.
Probably the most important step there is–no matter how good you are at giving affection, if the other person is uncomfortable, it doesn’t help anyone. We don’t touch people without their consent, so if you get a “no thanks, I’m good”, please respect that–even if you think a hug would help. It’s not our job to decide what is in anybody’s best interest but our own. Of course, with friends and people with whom you’ve already established an affectionate relationship, this rule gets relaxed. If you receive an affirmative, proceed!
Get your shit out of the way.
If you’re sitting down and they’re standing up, stand up. If there’s a desk in between you, don’t lean over the desk–walk around it. If you’re carrying shopping bags on your arm or a hot tea in your hand, put it all down on a table somewhere for twenty seconds. Good hugs are not haphazard, half-hearted or half-assed, and nothing says lazy craftsmanship like the awkward one-arm side-hug we’ve likely all come to know. Prepare your space. Then prepare yourself.
“Look ’em in the eye, aim no higher.”
It pays off to make a bit of eye contact before you actually go in for the proverbial kill. It helps to establish a sense of presence, of realness. The point of a good hug is to make people feel real and safe and protected, and that isn’t going to happen if you’re looking over their shoulder at something. It doesn’t need to be some long overly-sustained staring match, but make the effort to see your human before you make the move to hold them. (I once got the advice that “long enough to make out their eye colour” was the ideal length of time for eye contact like this. Try it out!)
Assume the position (or one of them, anyway).
Seems like a lot of prep work, doesn’t it? But it makes all the difference, and it becomes second-nature with time and practice. Now it’s time to actually deliver your hug! Depending on the human of choice (consider differences in height and build) and the circumstances (is this just a hug for a greeting or did someone’s cat just die?), I choose from a variety of hand and arm positions, but the general guidelines are these:
- Face your human properly, and wrap both of your arms around them. Again, no awkward one-arm side-hugs here. This is why we got rid of all the stuff we were carrying.Try, for just a few seconds, to be a shelter for your human; everybody is struggling through life, and everybody appreciates the feeling of being shielded for a moment.
- No anxious-butterfly hands. Commit. Find a place for your hands and then rest them down properly, palm and all. (In fact, for those of you worrying that this is too intimate, note that the palm of a hand feels more friendly and platonic than the fingers.) Placement really depends–you can reach for your own arms/elbows if you’re going for a bear hug, but for maximum versatility, thread your left arm between your human’s arm and their torso, and let your right arm circle overtop their arm/shoulder. This lets you put your hands on their shoulder blades (for comfort), on their back (for support), or even on the back of their head if you’re at just the right height (this is the ultimate gesture of warmth and tenderness and you get bonus points for little hair pets/head scratches). It also helps with the next point, which is to…
- Press your hearts together. When it comes to the actual anatomy of a hug, this is one of the most important parts. This is the part that’s going to raise those oxytocin and serotonin levels in the brain. This is the part that’s going to signal to the body’s muscles to unclench and release any tension or pain. It’s vulnerable, and it’s vital. If you feel weird about it at first, try making it into a game–see if you can feel your human’s heartbeat and tap out the rhythm on their back. It’s actually very soothing on the receiving end!
- Breathe deeply. With all these things to remember, did you forget you’re supposed to be breathing? Well, here’s your reminder–not just because I am an avid proponent of breathing (honestly who isn’t) but because the rise and fall of your chest against another human’s chest is another tactile signal to the body to calm down and relax. It grounds you and reminds you to be present in the moment as you hold this person you care about. And it will probably remind them by example to also remember to breathe. Nothing else can remind you quite so gently and quite so powerfully that you are both alive.
Got all that? Take your time, and remember to play with it–it’s actually a lot of fun, figuring out the different places that human bodies become matching puzzle pieces. Make sure you’re not craning your neck or bending your arm at an awkward angle, because now it’s time to…
Sit with it.
Well, stand with it, really. It’s time to be still. Even people who are uncertain about displaying their affections can fake-it-till-you-make-it up to here–and even people who are natural snugglebunnies can get lazy once they reach this point. This is the magic moment. Your form can be 100% on-point and you still won’t reap the benefits if you hit-and-run (hug-and-run?) your human of choice. Stand there. Close your eyes. Pay attention. You don’t need to actually physically stay still–I tend to wiggle around and sway people from side to side if I’m in a particularly energetic mood–but don’t let your thoughts run away to some other place. You’ve arrived at your hug, so stay a while. If you’re still getting used to it, you can count seconds in your head–as previously mentioned, anywhere past ten seconds is where the mind/body begin to react on a visible level. Just don’t be afraid to hug for “too long”. I have had five-minute conversations with friends while hugging the entire time. Honestly, in all my years of being the local snugbug, I have never been told that I hugged anyone too long. It’s usually those last few seconds, just after your human thinks they should pull away, that are the most healing. Stay a while.
Disengage with grace.
Just ’cause you’re done doesn’t mean you’re done. The followthrough is just as important as the execution! When you’re ready to let go, don’t just let go. The sudden change in temperature and pressure can actually be pretty shocking to a body, at least on a subconscious level; most of us aren’t used to so much openness and vulnerability, and it pays to reintroduce your human back into Regular Social Mode gently, especially if this is a public-place hug. Instead, give some little signal you’re going to disengage–usually I give one last big squeeze–and then when you do move away, try to slip in an intermediate stage where you’re still in contact but not as much contact as before. Good examples are squeezing your human’s shoulders gently, or letting your hands slide down their arms to hold their hands for a second before letting go. After that, it’s back to your regularly scheduled program–only with a little more love and affection and self-confidence than before.
In Defense of Public (and Private) Displays of Affection
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I identify as asexual. Because of this inner wiring, I see a very obvious line between touch that is sensual and touch that is sexual in nature, and that clear difference makes it easy for me to frolic happily in the realm of platonic affection without ever worrying if things are ‘getting weird’. I don’t know if the difference is as obvious for allosexuals, or even for all asexuals–I just know that the difference exists, and that our hyper-sexualized society has made it very difficult for us to understand that fact.
These days, intimacy seems to be reserved for romantic/sexual monogamous relationships. If two friends hold hands, you assume they’re ‘together’; if two men give each other anything more than a good-natured punch on the arm or a carefully-monitored bro-hug, one has to wonder whether they aren’t sexually involved. A kiss on the cheek? Out of the question! (Never mind that there are cultures where friends and family kiss each other on the lips by way of casual greeting.)
This is ridiculous. And it’s killing us.
I want us to remember, collectively, as a culture, that not all touch is sexual in nature, and that intimacy in some form is necessary in all healthy relationships. I want us to relearn how to give each other the gift of physical and mental and emotional and spiritual wellbeing. I want us to relearn that first language, the one we were almost all born fluent in: body language. I want us to relearn how to hold each other again.
With any luck, I’ll live to see a time where my good hugs are nothing special.