Our histories of deprivation reveal lifelong effects (but we can heal…)
By Marcia Singer, MSW, CHt
Our childhood experiences of touch — pro or con — can last a lifetime. Being held and comforted, cherished and appreciated gives children room to grow, discover and develop into a happy, caring, responsible individuals. Conversely, being touched often with anxiety, hesitancy, embarrassment, disgust (as in changing a soiled diaper) — or with intent to control or dominate — also makes lasting impressions on young hearts and minds. Little persons aren’t able to adequately process the personal conflicts of their parents, siblings, teachers. But they totally experience the ‘energy’ communicated. They’ll have to find a way to relate to it.
Touching one another may be our first and most primary means of bonding and connecting. A pioneering researcher was Ashley Montague. His groundbreaking book, Touch: The Human Significance of the Skin (1971), cited touch as “the mother of the senses.” Yet the universality and primacy of touching remains little understood or respected in our culture. I remember the sting of rejection for my first book proposal, “Touch Me, Please!” in ’89 when told it was not an important topic. And yet the touch experiences we have as children still determine for most of us whether we will feel at home here on the earth, in our skin, or not.
In 1988, my former colleague, sex therapist Bruce Britton, M.S. and I created Touch Awareness Training. We wanted to reduce the impact of loving touch deprivation. A study had shown that Great Britain and the USA were two of the most touch phobic societies on earth, replete with alienated, wary, “touchy” or despairing persons. Most of our intimacy-injured private clients and students presented a quiet, ‘normal’ desperation. Many were survivors of abuse. A few were even in therapy for abusing. I learned that the harmers too were victims of their prior experiences, who acted out the scarcity of bonded connections and non-demand, caring touch. Lack also presented as withholding/distrusting affectionate expression, as sexual impotence or frigidity, or hugs transformed into stiff rituals. How ironic we found, that our bodies are exquisitely designed for pleasurable well-being, while socialization, in limiting natural, heartfelt expression, often severely reduces the inherent, healthy, healing benefits of touch.
What a big challenge to be a touch-aware grownup! Lack of unconditioned touches from the heart can bend little humans into wounded, pretzeled adults! For example, a parent directing a child to touch appropriately in public (that is, in a socially approved manner) without conveying that his/her natural impulses are bad or wrong. It’s so easy to inadvertently instill shame and guilt instead of trust and self-worth. Touches are messages: They tell us we’re safe to Be –or not. Since our motivations are often hidden from ourselves, it takes dedicated intent and self-awareness to become a mindful toucher or touchee. In order to heal from the invasions, neglect or misguided training we’ve endured, we often need wise guidance. The good news is we can heal! Grieve and relieve, ‘re-parent‘our touch-wary ‘inner kids.’ You and I can become kinder, conscious vessels for raising kinder, more considerate and secure youth.
So be gracious and patient with yourself and your child. Remember how to be more naturally responsive, honest around touch contact. Notice the when, how, where and why. Discover your needs and those of your child for communicating acceptance. Explore a range of healthy expressions: How might they impact physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually? Being natural touch geniuses is our birth right. When given and received with an open heart, we can change our families, communities and nations into more fulfilling places to be in relationship with one another.
A loving touch can save a life, perhaps yours or mine, or that of an innocent child.
Interesting TOUCH Facts:
Ugandan babies, born naturally and carried close to their mothers 24 hours a day for months, show ‘genius’ levels of early intelligence.
Over or under-eating can be a sign of too little loving touch.
Bathing stimulates the nervous system.
Picking the nose is an example of a culturally unacceptable self-touch act, especially in public. What others can you think of?
“Therapeutic Touch” supplies oxygen to tissues, helping them regenerate.
Some variables of touch are pressure, temperature, vibration, texture and duration.
What we communicate via touch can be a function of age, gender, body part, type of touch, context, place/environment or social status.
Hundreds of college texts on family living/parenting contained no mention of touching.
Skin messages are transmitted to our brains and gonads. The most sensitive areas are, in this order: fingertips, lips, tongues –and genitalia.
Brain maps show the hands occupying the largest territory of the cortex, next to that allotted for face and mouth. Thumbs have the most space there of all our fingers.
Most self-touches are involuntary, done to alleviate anxiety, to reassure ourselves.
The newish field of psychoneuroimmunology stresses the importance of touch in activating the immune system.
The entire body is a natural erogenous zone.
Touch remains the mother of the all our senses, and the most highly regulated and controlled of the six, in virtually all cultures.
Shining deLight on loving touch, Marcia
[Will appear in Marcia’s “Language of Well-Being” column in Sonoma County Gazette, August 2022]