On International Hugging Day Let’s Say “No” To Hugs

International Hugging Day is here and I want to make a case against hugs. I think that there should be a lot less hugging going around. You might think this a rather antisocial attitude but in fact, I’m writing on behalf of all the people out there who become filled with anxiety at just the mention of a hug.

While it’s true that a lot of people view hugging as a wonderful way to connect and commune, there are many others who feel quite the opposite.

And while many people offer perfectly innocent, friendly hugs, there are enough creeps out there who use a hug as an opportunity to rub up against someone inappropriately, forever ruining hugs for the person on the receiving end of this form of assault.

Those who love hugging as a friendly gesture will rush to embrace you, whether you’re an old friend or someone whom they’ve just met. Friendly huggers tend to be outgoing individuals who like to express their warmth in a physical manner.

The thing is, not everybody experiences a hug as a friendly embrace. To some, all hugs are unpleasant, undesirable types of contact to be avoided if at all possible.

You might be wondering what could possibly be wrong with a friendly hug. You might find it counter-intuitive for someone to reject this type of hug, but people have good reasons for doing so.

In my practice as a psychotherapist I’ve encountered many people who endured traumatic life experiences that made them highly averse to being hugged.

Many of these individuals grew up having their boundaries violated or had these experiences (including having received inappropriate hugs) as adults. They were abused either physically or sexually; they were groped or caressed in creepy or intimidating ways.

For these individuals, the experience of being touched has become much more complicated and confusing. These survivors of abuse need to feel really safe and really comfortable before they’d consent to a hug, if at all.

There are other reasons why some people might be uncomfortable with purely friendly hugs. Some have religious objections to physical contact with adults of the opposite sex. An opposite-sex hug for these individuals would be seen as inappropriate and possibly even offensive.

Some people are shy or introverted and a hug from anyone other than a very close connection would feel overly-intimate and perhaps even distressing. These people would much prefer a non-physical type of interaction.

For those who’ve experienced boundary violations, hugs today may be colored by their trauma and imbued with too many negative associations from the past. For those who are exceedingly shy, hugs might be an unpleasant prospect but refusing a hug might feel even more uncomfortable.

There’s no clear hugging etiquette in our society. The unspoken expectation is that when someone offers you a hug you should accept it and appreciate it. So, when someone who doesn’t want to be hugged is approached by a potential hugger, they rarely know what to say.

Many people who are uncomfortable with hugging are even more uncomfortable with the idea of appearing rude by rejecting the hug.

On the spot, it’s really hard to think of a simple, direct statement like, “No thanks; I’m not into hugs.” Perhaps the traumatized person carries some shame and they’re uncomfortable with the idea of having to explain why they’re averse to being hugged. Perhaps the shy person feels even more awkward with the prospect of being assertive.

The person on the receiving end of an unwanted hug will often choose the lesser of two evils and stand there tolerating the hug, rather than risk insulting the hugger or getting into why they don’t like being hugged. But no-one should have to tolerate an unpleasant experience for fear of appearing rude or in order to avoid some painful self-disclosure.

I’d like to reassure all the hug-averse individuals out there that you shouldn’t need to explain or justify your position. It’s enough to say, “No thank-you,” when someone approaches you with arms open wide. The other person shouldn’t ask you “Why not?” Nor should they pressure you into accepting the hug. Both of these things would be insensitive and impolite.

If a hugger is operating out of genuine warmth and affection, they should respect your boundaries and accept the fact that not everyone will welcome their hugs. Good intentions don’t necessarily make an action acceptable to everyone else.

And if the hugger has more nasty intentions, these will become clear when you say “No” to their hug and nevertheless, they continue to press you for one.

For many years now, I’ve had an explicit no-hug policy in my psychotherapy practice. I don’t hug my patients and I ask my patients not to hug one-another during group therapy sessions or at my workshops.

Some people don’t feel entitled to say “no” to a hug because issues with self-worth. They’ll allow their boundaries to be violated repeatedly, accepting hugs that they really don’t want. Sadly, the huggers think that they’re being kind and never realize how uncomfortable the hug receiver is feeling.

People accepting unwanted hugs in therapy group can build up resentment toward the huggers and this resentment could eventually leak out as an angry outburst or passive-aggressive behavior.

They can start to shut down emotionally and create pockets of disconnection among the group participants. Having a no-hug policy prevents a lot of misunderstandings and upset feelings.

So, while a hug is a lovely thing to give and receive under the right circumstances, it can also be a charged experience. A hug could be an opportunity for bonding or a trigger to some painful trauma. It can be a friendly overture or an unwanted boundary violation.

For this reason, it’s important to exercise caution around hugs. You always have to consider the possibility that the person on the giving end might not be as innocent as they appear and that the person on the receiving end might not be as enthusiastic about hugs as you are.

My policy has always been, “When in doubt, don’t.” It’s a good policy to ask your close friends and family members, “Can I hug you?” before offering them a hug, and when meeting a new person or just getting to know someone, I suggest that you err on the side of caution and avoid the hug altogether.

You don’t know what the other person has been through or how they might perceive a hug. They might think of a hug as the best thing ever or they might have an overpowering urge to run and hide when they see you coming at them with arms stretched out wide.

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Marcia Sirota

Writer, speaker, MD, and author of the Short & Sweet Guides to Life book series