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Why some people are touchy-feely, while others hate it

A new book on the science and meaning of touch talks about why some people experience touch avoidance, and why it matters 

For a sense that we associate with comfort and pleasure, touch can also evoke fear and discomfort
For a sense that we associate with comfort and pleasure, touch can also evoke fear and discomfort (Jackson David/Unsplash)

I start at a place that’s highly personal for me: my fear of touching other people.

At the beginning of ‘Western Massage 1’, my teacher, Al Turner, a wiry man with glittering eyes who used to be a professional dancer, asks us to line up. He bends his knees, sinks his weight into his heels and sashays from side to side, a movement he calls “horse dance” and asks us to follow along. This is the kind of large, sweeping motion we’ll use when we’re giving a massage, he says. It gets us to engage our whole bodies, including the strong muscles of our legs and our core, so we make fluid strokes and protect the smaller, more fragile bones in our fingers when we’re massaging.

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Things get intense really fast. Next he has us pair up at massage tables to practice using this motion on another person. My partner, a Rubenesque yoga instructor named Elena, lies down first. Turner directs those of us who are still standing to touch various parts of our partners’ bodies, first the backs of their arms and then their legs. He asks us to pay attention to how they feel, whether they are tight or slack, hot or cold. We have to monitor how they react, if they flinch or their breath slows. I’m not really noticing much of anything he wants me to. I’m mostly focused on my own awkwardness. As I go over her body with my fingertips, every snag in her clothing or bump in her skin is magnified in my mind.

“Remember to use your whole hand,” Turner says. “If you’re nervous, she’s going to feel it.” He sounds as if he is speaking to everybody in the room, but the location where he’s standing suggests that his comment is meant especially for me. I look around at all the other students. There are a couple who look sort of uncomfortable, but most of them are at work totally unfazed. I guess massage isn’t something you study if touching people is hard for you, unless you’re me. I feel Turner watching me as I place my palm down on my partner’s back. My shoulders tighten, and immediately he pipes up again.

“If you’re uneasy, you can calm yourself down by going back to horse dance,” he says. “Remember, you’re just dancing.” He tells us that when he’s massaging his clients on days he’s not teaching, he imagines himself cutting a rug around the table, just like he used to do on Broadway stages. He strongly believes that if we’re having fun, the client will too. The positive vibes will seep straight into their skin. I close my eyes and imagine the Swedish popstar Robyn playing in my head. My heart speeds up, and I let myself become looser. The minutes pass faster, and before I know it, it’s time for break. The first thing I do is run to the bathroom to wash my hands.

I’m telling you about my unease at massage school to highlight how, for a sense that we associate with comfort and pleasure, it also evokes my most extreme fears. I don’t consider myself cold or withholding. I do like people, and I enjoy touching the one or two I’m closest to. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. That’s what makes me wonder why I don’t seek it out more often and why, when people reach out to me, my first instinct is to recoil. I’ve tried for years to sort out my thoughts about it and assumed it’s just a product of my shyness. But some research on touch avoidance shows that it can say much more than that about our personalities.

How to Feel: The Science and Meaning of Touch by Susha Subramanian; published by HarperCollins India; 272 pages;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399
How to Feel: The Science and Meaning of Touch by Susha Subramanian; published by HarperCollins India; 272 pages; 399

Because touching requires us to put ourselves out there, people with more confidence are likelier to initiate it when they’re young. The positive reinforcement they get in response leads to a feedback loop that gives them an overall more open and expressive body language. 

People who are touch avoidant tend to be less comfortable in their own skin and could suffer from low selfesteem. They are often passive and have high degrees of inner tension, meaning they have conflicting feelings, such as simultaneous desire and fear, that prevent them from taking action. Some have faced interpersonal trauma that makes their emotions feel particularly dangerous to them, which is why they feel two ways about acting upon them.

Some of these traits are indeed tied to what we think of as introversion, which is partly something we’re born with. As babies, natural- born introverts are highly reactive. They notice and respond to every sight, sound, and smell. As a result, they approach new situations with alertness and trepidation, which also means they need more downtime to be alone and process their feelings afterward. Babies that are less observant of every small change in their environment often grow up to be extroverts because as they grow up they aren’t fazed by the little nuances of each exchange with another person. The way they use their bodies reflects their innate nature.

Of course, our temperament is only part of the puzzle. Upbringing also matters. If when we cried out as babies we felt our parents were highly responsive to our needs, we developed a secure attachment. We got the sense that our loved ones would be there when we needed them and assumed the same as we formed friendships and romantic interests in our later years. If we felt our parents were unavailable or aloof, we interpreted their lack of touch in various ways— that we needed to learn to be independent and soothe ourselves or that relationships we soughtwould always be a source of anxiety. Depending on our experience, our preexisting traits were either tempered or heightened.

Those with insecure attachment styles generally take one of two routes: we grew up to be either somewhat avoidant or suspicious. People with avoidant attachment styles report having less enjoyment of emotional and physical intimacy, including touch.

They may have taught themselves from a young age to suppress their need for affection, believing that being too demanding with a caregiver would lead to abandonment. While people who have suspicious or anxious styles of attachment still find touch rewarding, they could enjoy it less for other reasons. For example, they might be quietly conscious of how much their partner touches them and read too much into it. Time apart has the potential to make them feel unwarranted distrust. The positive side of closeness for anxious types coexists intimately with the fear of losing it.

The relationship we had with our parents keeps getting played out throughout our lives, according to what psychologists refer to as attachment theory. To be clear, our style of relating isn’t a direct reflection of our parents. It’s just our interpretation of our relationship with them. We may have assumed they were uninterested in us when they were just busy with their own problems, like managing a demanding work schedule or dealing with health problems. Or we may have taken our parents’ behaviors personally when they were just acting out the patterns of their own upbringing or their cultural script. We could have interpreted as coldness the composed nature that their parents taught them to embody. 

Even when they’re only partially true, the stories we tell are important because they provide a window into our behavior.

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Excerpted with permission from 'How to Feel: The Science and Meaning of Touch' published by HarperCollins India. Sushma Subramanian is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Mary Washington. 

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