Growing up, hugs were a thing that happened inside our family unit, and were not something to be given away willy-nilly to everyone in sight. Sure, when we visited extended family, there may have been hugs and kisses depending who we were visiting. However, that was the limit. The physical demonstration of emotion did not extend to anyone who wasn’t either related by blood or married to someone who was related by blood. Not even good family friends went in for the hug and, to be honest, I was ok with that.
As I progressed into adulthood, it became apparent that not everyone kept their hugging efforts within their family, and this created a lot of angst and uncertainty for me. Eventually, I decided that I was implementing a blanket rule: “No physical contact outside of immediate family members” or, put more simply: “I am not a hugger”. Over the years, I did manage to extend my boundaries such that close friends were also included as hug recipients.
My anti-hugging stance led to some interesting situations. Those who were more committed than I to the hugging process would go in for the hug with a skill that totally thwarted any of my attempts to bail in the moment. I would then find myself reciprocating purely under duress, accompanied by a whole swag of awkwardness and self-judgement. For those who were less diligent in their pursuit of a hug, I mastered a swift manoeuvre that enabled me to shake hands rather than hug, leaving the wannabe hugger with a lovely, caring handshake and a lot of uncertainty as to what was going on. And, still other times, there would be that moment when the other person and I would just stand awkwardly, not knowing what to do, while I stood hard and fast to my non-hugging commitment.
This became a bit of joke amongst various work colleagues and, in more than one place of employment, I found myself being introduced as “This is Deanne. She has a no touching policy and is not a hugger. If you need hugs, come to one of us, because Deanne won’t help you. She does other stuff well; not hugs.”
As I started to mix with more and more people who seemed committed to the hugging cause, it got a little awkward, and I found myself reflecting on why I had such an issue with hugging.
What I came to realise was that I had unwittingly travelled down the path of providing myself with a label of “not a hugger”, and I was living that label as a truth. This may sound like a trivial labelling that didn’t really matter. After all, it was only a hug. However, to some people, it may not have been simply a hug. To some people, my living of the label “not a hugger” could have been creating a reality about interacting with me that I wasn’t intentionally wanting to create. If I am honest, it was starting to create a reality even in my own eyes that I wasn’t comfortable with. I wanted to be warm and welcoming of others and I felt as though my solid commitment to not being a hugger was putting up barriers.
OK Deanne, so what is it with this no hugging policy, then?
After some reflection, I discovered that the story I was telling myself was that hugging came with a swag of uncertainty. What if I go to my left and the other person goes to their right and we bump heads? What if I don’t turn my cheek in time and it ends in lip contact? What if my intentions are misinterpreted and I send the wrong message and it gets awkward? What if…? What if..? (PS I have previously confessed to being a committed over-thinker) There was a part of me who understood this uncertainty: we never did hugging outside of my family, so it seemed reasonable that my learning could contribute to this all seeming a little odd to me. However, I also couldn’t help thinking that perhaps I had gone a little bit crazy in assessing the risks associated with something as simple as a hug.
Gradually, I worked through my hugging uncertainty, thanks in part to the efforts of a work colleague, who said: “Deanne, I am of European descent. It is simple. Everyone always goes left.” Why did I not know this? Seriously, 40+ years of uncertainty could have been saved if they just taught this stuff in schools!
My uncertainty had become less of an issue, yet I still didn’t feel ready to hug. OK, Deanne. Why do you still feel uneasy?
After some further reflection involving many flashbacks to prior hugging “incidents”, I formed an assessment that, for me to feel comfortable with hugging, the hug had to feel authentic. Wow! It wasn’t that I wasn’t a hugger, it was that I was an authentic hugger! After some further reflection, I was able to apply some standards around authenticity that worked for me, and I am very proud to say that my hugging angst is no more.
As I reflected on my hugging journey, it occurred to me that we often hear people say things such as “Oh, I am not a public speaker” or “I’m shy” or “I can’t dance unless I am drunk” or “I am not a people person” or similar. However, is this really the case? Are we really born to not be a public speaker, or to be shy, or to require an “insert alcohol here” button that triggers dance moves? I hold an assessment that we are born a blank canvas and, as a result of our learning, we create a self-image through language that we then start to live as a truth. That self-image can include many labels, which we often assume are written in permanent marker and thus part of our structure. However, do those labels have to be permanent? In the same way that the flour container in my pantry once had a label on it that said sugar, is there any reason why we can’t change our own labels?
As I mentioned earlier, my “not a hugger” label may seem quite harmless. However, it actually added a whole layer of angst to my interactions with others that I don’t think was serving me. It was also creating a reality of me in the eyes of others, evidenced by the way my work colleagues, although jokingly, used to introduce me. We can have labels that become our life, because we don’t realise that they are simply a label that has been created through language. An example of this, I think, is the label that started my ontological journey: I am not good enough. I wasn’t born “not good enough”, I learned to live it.
What if, before we give ourselves labels, we take a moment to ask ourselves how that label is going to help us? For the sake of what am I giving myself this label? And, what if we took a further moment to ask ourselves: Do I want this label in permanent marker, or should I use a sticky note so that I can remove it when it no longer serves me?
Who am I?
I am a leadership and life coach, available for coaching and facilitation services. If you feel that it would be useful to have a conversation with me, please feel free to view my services on the Leading and Being website.