While hugs will never make it onto the list of “official” therapies, they can be powerfully healing … but only if they feel right. Hugs deliver a message, and they only feel good if you’re open to receiving that message.
There are many kinds of hugs, each having a somewhat different meaning. You can differentiate them simply by paying attention to your experience. For instance, you might recognize these hugs:
A hello hug is a gentle squeeze, sometimes so quick that you could hardly call it an embrace. Even if you like the person, your desire to do this will depend on how much you like physical touch.
A friend hug is slightly longer than a hello hug, and you may do it when greeting your friend. It communicates a genuine liking of each other.
An excited hug might happen when you see someone you haven’t seen in a long time or in celebration of some occasion.
A comfort hug is offered when someone is upset. It communicates caring and is an attempt to help that person.
A sexual hug is held longer and is often the beginning of other touching.
When someone moves to hug you, think about what it is they are saying to you. Consider whether you want to take in that message. If you do not, then avoid the hug or quickly step back. You may find that you are uncomfortable hugging even if you like the message. Again, you can step back to give yourself a chance to think about what is making you uncomfortable.
If you realize that you are uncomfortable with hugging even when you are with someone you care about, you might want to work on opening yourself to the experience. Hugging can help you feel closer to others and can ease distress that comes with many emotions, such as anxiety, sadness, loneliness, and fear. You might find it helpful to begin by thinking about what is motivating your defense against hugging. For instance, Linda was not a hugger, and so she did not initiate hugs with her boyfriend, Sam, though she tolerated them. She realized that she tended to feel alone in facing the world, and so she kept Sam at a bit of an emotional distance, just as she did with everyone else. Recognizing that she did not like feeling alone, she thought about how it would be nice to feel the love he communicated with his hugs. However, she did not know how to do this.
Once you decide that you would like to receive someone’s hug, make sure that you believe it is emotionally safe enough to try it. Then pay attention to the message that the other person seems to want to send. While being aware of the relationship and the other person’s intended message, pay attention to how you physically feel during the hug. At first you might feel tense or guarded, but give continue to pay attention. You might notice a decrease in tension or even some warmth. When Linda opened herself to Sam’s hug, she was aware of feeling comforted.
There are similar benefits to giving a hug. It often makes the other person feel good, which leads to more positive feelings in the relationship. Linda noticed that when she felt good being hugged by Sam, she more fully hugged him back. He expressed how happy this made him, which made her happier.
By rejecting hugs – or showing discomfort with them – you are likely giving others a message that you want more emotional or physical distance. To the degree that this is accurate, you are moving your relationship in that direction. However, when you share hugs with others in a way that reflects what you feel deeply inside, it can help you to overcome loneliness, ease upsetting feelings, and feel happier in yourself and your relationship.