Hug Hunger

dad and daughter dancing

As likely was evident from Wednesday’s post (“Hug Envy”), I’m probably one of the last people on Earth who should be offering their thoughts on hugs.  I have a general idea of what they’re supposed to look and feel like, but I’m hardly an expert on giving them and even less qualified to know how best to receive them.  I do, however, know intimately that they play or at least have the ability to play a critical role in our lives and, more importantly, in the lives of our children, which is why I thought I would re-visit the topic at an even deeper level.  To help me do that, I asked a dear friend, Alison Smela for permission to share a post entitled “Who’s Holding You?” that appeared on her own blog, Alison’s Insights several months ago. 

I share the post for several reasons: (1) it resonates with me; (2) it allows us to peer into the soul of a child (now a grown woman), who, like me (and, I suspect, many others) longed to give and receive hugs, but, largely as the result of the influence of less well-informed past generations, was denied both; (3) it is, like all of Alison’s work, painfully, but beautifully honest and insightful; and (4) it leaves the reader to reflect on several important truths.  One of those truths, for me, is that, as parents, we need to at least offer to hold our children during life’s hard moments, because being held is fundamental to our humanity.  Stated another way, the need to be held will not go away and it can only be repressed for so long.  Sooner or later, our children will find a way to fill that need with someone – or something.  It might as well be someone they can trust, who loves them unconditionally. 

Who’s Holding You?

For as far back as memory allows, most of the adults in my life led me to believe emotions were not to be openly expressed.  I now know this wasn’t intentional toward me but rather was taught through the generations.  Nonetheless, I can recall specific comments about my being too emotional, needing too much attention and when crying, feeling so confused to see eyes rolled or backs turned.

As a young girl I didn’t understand what was happening.  In those innocent early years I would often try to force people to pay attention and acknowledge me when I was feeling sensitive and vulnerable.  When that attempt wasn’t well received, I internalized their disregard as being about me, not my emotions.  Thus my take away was, people didn’t care about me and by all means I was to keep my emotions to myself.

When I was a teenager, our family visited relatives on my father’s side.  My brothers, sister and I had a great time hearing stories about my Dad when he was a boy.  As those words were being shared, I sensed a softness in the room which seemed to connect all of us in one way or another.

As it came time to say our goodbyes and head home, I watched as my father briefly hugged his mom.  When he stepped back, I caught a glimpse of a few tears falling down his cheek.  Somehow I intuitively knew those tears reflected a belief this might be the last time we’d see her alive.  Ultimately this prediction was right, but upon remembering the feeling after hearing all those stories just moments before, I stepped toward my father to hug him; to let him know I understood his sadness.  I was rather shocked when he pushed me away, gesturing I turn my attention to the others, not to him.

While this may seem a rather brief slice in time, what I learned left a lasting impression.  There was a very clear message that offering a physical gesture of comfort, leaning in for an embrace during an emotional moment was not OK.   That experience, layered on top of so many others through the years, reinforced what I learned as a little girl; emotions are not to be shared, they were to be dealt with in isolation.

Now that I am working to course correct so much of my life, I’m realizing the impact of being taught to shield the outside world from seeing me as unsteady, undone or emotionally injured.  I’m grieving the fact I was never offered an opportunity to have someone hold onto me during life’s hard moments.

Up until these past several years, I would resist offerings of hugs and hand holding when I was in emotional pain because I believed I had to be seen as completely together, never broken.  Yet I was breaking little by little my whole life.  I drank in isolation, feeling comforted by the warm embrace of alcohol.  I shrank in size hoping I might disappear from the pain of feeling so desperately alone even in the midst of all kinds of people.

Yet all that changed when I entered the rooms of recovery.  In my utter deflation I finally accepted a warm embrace and a helping hand.  My walls had finally crumbled to the ground and that guard I had put up completely fell away.  I was in such a desperate world of pain I was willing to do whatever necessary to in order to stay alive including allowing someone to hold me as I unraveled.

The day I met my sponsor, without saying a word, she hugged me and I allowed myself to stay there.  In her warm embrace I melted into feeling accepted and acknowledged for whatever I held inside.  For the first time in a long time, I finally felt alive.

Now, years later, I am eager to hug another woman struggling in her recovery transformation knowing one day she’ll do the same for someone else.  This is how the circle of healing works and will continue to work as long as we don’t let go.

Life is way too short to hide in shameful silence over feeling emotions we don’t want others to know we have.

This is why I will never disregard an opportunity to lend a supportive hand.  I believe together we can take a deep breath in connection and exhale whatever is causing the pain.

Thank you, Alison – for caring enough about others to share this part of you!

Hug Envy


Now that, with the help of Brené Brown, I’ve opened the gate to “Vulernabilityland” (a Magic Kingdom® for adults!), I feel considerably more at ease in offering today’s post: Hugs were a very scarce and precious commodity in my “family-of-origin” home.  As such, they were given out sparingly and, looking back, even when offered seemed forced, almost mechanical and mostly devoid of emotion.  Much later in life, I would learn enough about my parents’ upbringing to at least be able to understand, on an intellectual level, why hugging was so foreign to and difficult for them.  But, I obviously couldn’t have known that as a child, nor would it likely have served as any more of an “excuse” than it does knowing it as an adult.

I was a child, a teenager – and I was very much alone.  I needed real hugs – filled with empathy, understanding and compassion.  I needed hugs where they mattered most, in my own home, that told me I was loved – I mean really loved, beyond the words, for who I was and all I had to give.  I longed for hugs that told me “things would be alright,” to help ease the pain of too often feeling like most things in my life were all wrong. I needed someone to “model” what a hug is supposed to feel like, so that I could learn that skill and pass it on to my own children – and they to theirs.  Most of all, I needed the safety and security, the sense of oneness that only hugs can offer, so that I could grow as comfortable in accepting them as I was in giving them.

Regrettably, however, they never came – and I never did.

Eventually, I went off to college in search of an education – and a hug.  I grabbed the first one I could find.  Turned out, she was an alcoholic.  That somehow seemed fitting, but, at the end of the day (I do mean the end of the day!), it (and what inevitably came with it) was hardly satisfying.  And so I kept searching.  Eventually, I had children of my own – one of whom was “a hugger” who loved to hug and be hugged, the other was – well, “me.”  My sense was that, too much like her dad, she came out of the womb wanting to be fully independent.

She seemed to “rebel” against being hugged, even as a very young child, in spite of our desire to shower her with them. Maybe they seemed too confining to her – she never liked being confined by anything or anyone.  Maybe subconsciously she just wanted us (and the rest of the world) to have to “try” a little harder – to “prove” we really meant it, because, unbeknownst to us at the time (and not unlike her dad), she had difficulty believing she was as lovable as she is (and always has been) – or as deserving of love.

Looking back, whether she realized it or not, she needed those hugs just as much as I did – as much as we all do.  I think both of us better appreciate that now.  Recently, I surprised Ashley in the driveway of her apartment, when, while offering her a ride to work, I leapt out of the car and raced around it to greet her with an unexpected, cheerful and warm embrace.  We laughed and readily admitted that “we suck at hugging!”  But we also committed to “try not to suck at it” any more and we are getting better – one hug at a time.

I envy people who know how to give (and receive) a real hug. Both are a gift.