Are Most Modern Day Americans Starving For Touch?

The laying-on of hands is one of the oldest healing capacities, available to everyone. But physical contact is often frowned upon here. What are the consequences of that?

“Mom, I am so sad. I am forgetting how to love.”

“What do you mean, sweetie?”

“When I go to hug or kiss my friends here, they make their bodies stiff. I am trying to give my love; I don’t want anything back. I just want them to receive my love. But they make their heart’s hard and my love ricochets back at me,” she says through tears.

My daughter and I have just moved to the United States from Brazil. We have been stateside for six months now. A couple weeks ago, I noticed that I have become more soldier-like in my introductions. Rather than leaning in, I hold my line and wait. When I first moved, I was so habituated to leaning in, that I bore the discomfort of odd side hugs and air kisses. In spite of the awkwardness, I was newly returned so I was still riding the energy of just being back. I cherished the Brazilian way of relating and those habits, and love of those habits overrode social morays.

The question of touch extends to what it means to be an individual. What defines oneself as a person? What exactly is personal space? Where do I end and you begin, and what to do with the space between us.

As Americans, we pride ourselves on self-sufficiency and independence. Our “me” bubble on the mind-map doesn’t have as many connectors as a Brazilian “me.” Our contours are thicker and more defined. Like a deep jar, it’s a bit harder to reach in to get the contents. And from the depths of the well, a bit harder to extend out. As Americans, we love the idea of the bootstrapper and the self-made man. Doing it alone is valorous.

Brazilians, in contrast, don’t understand why you would want to do it alone if you could include others. “Include others” doesn’t even quite make sense. Because “me” is closer to “you” or “him” or “her.” We are in this together. Connection trumps content or destination.

It is normal for a Brazilian adult to consult her family on major decisions. For many Brazilian women, it matters to them how her family views her birth choices.

My gut reaction was “Why does it matter what your parents think about how you give birth?” But to most Brazilians, it does matter. You are not a singular person, with singular goals that have singular effects.

Certain choices aren’t personal, they are communal and collective. You are part of an inter-connected family unit who will share both your triumphs and your tragedies. You will celebrate together and mourn together. Your actions will affect them and be effected by them. Your problems aren’t just yours to solve.

The essence of personhood extends to touch. And for my daughter, who grew up in Brazil, everyone seems too far away here. Her spontaneous gestures of kissing a friend on the arm or on the forehead are either received with eye rolls or awkward pushes away. It is actually against the rules at her school for children to kiss each other at all. Hugs are discouraged. Teachers can hug their students, if the children initiate it. And fist bumps are encouraged over handshakes…germs. Thankfully she has a teacher who will receive hugs any time.

I am in a training for trauma resolution called Somatic Experiencing. We are talking about touch in the therapeutic process. For licensed therapists, there are stringent rules about touching—namely, DON’T DO IT. There are legalities involved. This is a big deal.

In Somatic Experiencing, touch can be one of the “tools” that the therapist uses. It is a “tool” rather than a normal human behavior. Everyone has to be primed to get ready to touch and to be touched. It’s hard to understand how we’ve gotten so disconnected from such a basic mode of expression. “Excuse me, do you mind if I talk to you?” “How about eye contact, would that be OK?” How far we have strayed from the organic expression of our mammalian nature. How have we become so unscientific and forgotten to include touch in our scientific therapeutic model?

As we talk about touch, an older woman who works with at-risk youth says “Oh no, you can’t touch these kids. Too much trauma. You’ll lose them. You touch them, you are going to lose their respect and push them away. You’ll blow any ground you gained with them.” I felt sad at what sounded like resignation and a frozen paradigm. Who deserves touch? Who receives touch?

On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the most basic needs (the bottom of the pyramid) are food, shelter, and sex. Before adolescence, that need could be translated as touch or contact. Maybe healthy touch in homeopathic doses is exactly the right medicine for healing, not just for at-risk youth, but for all of us.

What are the consequences of starving for touch?

There’s a new parenting model where children are given a choice in everything.

To reinforce a child’s sense of her own boundaries and what feels good and does not feel good to her, she is asked before any contact is made. A mother asks her 2-year-old child, “May I hug you?” I wonder what has happened in a culture where a mother doesn’t have implicit permission from her 2-year-old for a hug. I cringe at how this effort to protect a child (ourselves?) from and prevent trauma is actually reinforcing an underlying message that touch is dangerous.

I also question where this encouragement for and compulsion to define a sense of bodily separation starting from infancy leads. A sense of “me” and “mine” is a root to a lot of suffering. This approach prioritizes verbal language over body language, and denies that a child would offer a physical reaction to touch, pushing away or collapsing and squirming if they didn’t want the contact. Why do we believe so heavily in words?

I am a bodyworker; I make my living touching and teaching people.

While each of us may be endowed with certain “gifts,” the laying-on of hands is one of the oldest healing capacities, available to everyone. Today we have so many modalities, branches, and styles of bodywork. But the essence of all of them is healing connection and contact. Without presence and contact, the technique means nothing. Each of us has the ability to touch with presence, compassion, and intention.

We can and we must heal each other through touch.

Kimberly Johnson is the creator of, a virtual community for post-partum moms who want to heal their bodies, reawaken their libido, strengthen their relationships and mine the full experience of motherhood. She leads workshops nationally, internationally, and virtually helping women bridge spirituality and sexuality. She specializes in birth injury and birth trauma and has a private practice in Encinitas, CA, where she lives with her 7-year-old Brazilian daughter. 

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