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John W. Travis, M.D. & Regina Sara Ryan
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Fear of Touch

By now you should have a good idea of how important touch is for human growth and development, and how grave the consequences may be when it is lacking. The question now becomes - Why don't we do more of it?" There are at least five possible answers.

First: Not everyone knows how essential touch is. Here, as in so many areas of life, we are often sadly lacking in information about what it takes to promote personal wellness. In an attempt to counter this ignorance, a popular bumper sticker appeared some years ago: "Have You Hugged Your Kid Today?"

Second: Much of our reluctance to touch and be touched stems from fear of our bodies - a fear we learned as children. To touch yourself and gain pleasure is still considered sinful by many segments of American society. Children who masturbate frequently get their hands slapped. Many of us were told that masturbation was unhealthy, dangerous or sinful behavior. Messages like this communicate negativity about the body and create distrust of it.

Third: Societal attitudes increasingly connect touch with sexual advances and label as improper any public displays of affection. These attitudes show up in many ways:

  • A woman who breastfeeds her child outside the home receives disapproving looks.
  • A preschool teacher tells her class that while it's permissible for girls, boys are not supposed to kiss each other.
  • Two friends who meet in the local bank after many years apart are asked to leave when their embrace lasts over twenty seconds.
  • In some school systems, teachers are forbidden to touch children at all.

Fear of the body in general and sexuality in particular are deeply embedded in the consciousness of the culture.

Fourth: We refrain from touching and allowing touch because we feel alienated or cut off, or are depressed, anxious, and/or withdrawn. Living primarily in our heads, we are often simply unaware of our need for touch.

Finally: It is risky to touch. To be "touching" or "touchable" is to be vulnerable. If you reach out to another person, you might be rejected, and this would hurt. If you allow yourself to be touched by another, your defenses are down, and you might be hurt as well. Consequently, many of us have learned that it is easier to simply "keep our hands to ourselves."

When people lose touch with their inside world, when they fail to be sufficiently touched in a positive way by the world outside, they slowly die - sometimes physically, but more often socially, sexually, emotionally, and spiritually. We need to touch and be touched in order to learn, to communicate, to experience pleasure, to be healthy, and to grow. As you appreciate your needs for and fears of touch, you lay the groundwork for more creative ways to touch your world.

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