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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

The Fear of Being Touched

We live in a world in which well-meaning people frequently try to encourage us to feel more at home in our bodies.

In Eastern-inspired meditation sessions, we may be asked in a soft voice to ‘feel our shoulders’, ‘run an imaginary hand across our stomach’, sense our breath running through us and be newly aware of the soles of our feet touching the floor.

Black and white photo of a blurred outstretched hand.
Photo by Jackson David on Unsplash

We may – at other points – be encouraged to have a massage and enjoy someone else’s fingers kneading the knots of tension in our back while, somewhere above, we listen to the gongs, birds and waves running through a piece of Balinese new age music.

For a certain sort of person, such talk of involvement with, and stimulation of the body, can have a tantalising and ultimately maddening effect – not because it is unpleasant per se, but because its realisation is filled with difficulties, and so is akin to being told to promptly ‘just speak Finnish’ or ‘just learn the violin’ from a standing start.

Those of us who are worse afflicted can be said to suffer from a condition technically known as haphephobia. Without usually knowing why, we have an acutely awkward response to being touched. The very mention of the body in a guided meditation can put us on edge. Talk of needing to love our bodies or feel proud of them is a torment. However much we might crave bodily reassurance and contact, the reality is infinitely complicated. At another’s approach, we flinch, we want to cover ourselves – and true safety may only be found by curling ourselves into a protective ball and hugging our knees. At night with a new partner, we may have to explain that in order to be comfortable (we almost want to say safe), we have to sleep on our own with the door shut; it can be a difficult message to get across without disaster.

The sensations we register when someone touches, or threatens to touch, us are profoundly historical, bearing memory of the ways in which we have been handled since the start. Some of us don’t like to be touched now because – by logical inference – something problematic occurred way back; it might have been an operation, some weeks in an incubator following a premature birth or (tragically) an inappropriate touch. We aren’t always in a position to know exactly, we may just have to deduce the general outlines of the problem from the pulses of our present unease. 

Too often, we are lost for words when it comes to conveying the issue to others. We would like to stop the yoga teacher in their tracks and beg our friends to stop extolling the virtues of massages. We can’t just unclench those shoulders or delight in having our back rubbed with jojoba oil. We don’t want to be obtuse but we’re not in a position to want to feel the soles of our feet or the air through our nostrils. The body is a site of difficulty over which a veil of forgetting and numbness has had to be imposed. 

It can therefore be of such help to be able at least to name the problem – and so legitimate it in our own and others’ eyes, especially in intimate relationships, where haphephobia has a particular habit of wreaking havoc. With its assistance, we can affirm our love but help our partners to accept that we won’t be able to be as close physically as we are emotionally. We can use a gauche word to help those we care for not to take our resistance so personally.

Touch may gradually become somewhat easier to bear the more we can admit how hard it is. One day, we may even enjoy a massage or a short siesta with a friend – so long as we have had every chance to give our secret discomfort its due.

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