Our church, Christian Assembly in Eagle Rock, California, is known for great teaching, music and hugging. When we are on our game (which is most of the time), you would feel us leaking warmth and connection. It is both intentional and authentic at the same time. Most people welcome this expression of our sincere desire to let everyone who walks through our doors know that they matter.
Nonsexual touch is a wonderful thing. It can be comforting and healing, and for some people particularly, reaches a place in the heart that words alone cannot touch. It can convey love, care, acceptance, and safety. It is necessary in so many of our relationships to create a strong bond. Babies need it to survive and thrive. Husbands and wives keep their love and connection vibrant with affectionate touch.
But there are some for whom physical connection feels threatening. Past experiences have written a different story — one of pain or fear. There are times when this is easier to detect in someone than others. They may back away when approached or become rigid when hugged. You might notice a startle response or a negative overreaction to your overtures.
At our church our staff and leadership teams are trained to be particularly aware of these signs and the need to maintain good boundaries so that we are a safe place for everyone.
When a person has experienced deep trauma, every interaction with new or unfamiliar people may be suspect. “Is this a friend or foe? Are they safe or should I be ready to protect myself?” Sometimes this is not conscious or intentional, but rather an autonomic response coming from a more primitive part of the brain. This “reactive brain” signals a “flight, fight, or freeze” message to the rest of the body.
What can you do if you sense someone’s resistance to your authentic attempt to reach out to them?
- First, don’t be offended. If you don’t know them or their back story, you have no basis to understand what might be operating in them at that moment. Unfortunately, sexual and physical abuse is much more prevalent than you might imagine. In many families the people that should have offered love and protection were either inconsistent or victimizers.
- Second, it is always better to be cautious with touch. Be particularly aware of non-verbal messages and be respectful of another person’s personal space. Even if you think you know someone pretty well, you could still cross an invisible boundary and create an awkward situation.
- Third, know your own heart. Make sure that your intentions toward another person are pure. Don’t try to get your need met at the expense of another person. Make sure you are not using physical connection to control or manipulate another person. The connection needs to be wanted and reciprocal.
Touch can be powerfully good or powerfully damaging. It is the other person’s interpretation that gives meaning to the exchange. Now, as Dr. Laura would say, “Go and do the right thing.”