February 4, 2020

Being Generous with Physical Touch

Mental Health & Wellbeing

What do we need as humans?

What is it that humans need to survive? Food, water, shelter? We have seen examples historically and probably in our own personal lives of people surviving off very little. However, there often seems to be vitality and liveliness missing from a person’s life when they are pushed to the edge of what is humanly possible to survive.

At the counseling center, we keep a ‘needs inventory’ outlining what research shows as everything humans need to function and be well taken care of. The Physical Well-being category, which is one of seven categories, has nine examples listed. The other six meta categories are Connection, Honesty, Play, Autonomy, Meaning and Peace. In total, 62 examples of needs are listed under those categories. Now this isn’t a conclusive list, but it is representative of research out there on the topic. If we go off this list and examples, physical well-being, or what we think of as basic needs, makes up only 12.7% of total needs. Only 12.7%.

You don’t realize a need till you’re deprived of it.

When I was a teenager, I had a hard and harsh experience in my faith community. For various reasons, I was excommunicated from my church. My level of sin was responded to with a high level of discipline which included over 2 months of not being physically touched and not eating with people. We aren’t going to get into the details of this story today, but I mention it to highlight the importance of humans needing things like physical touch. You see, physical touch is actually listed under the physical well-being category on the needs inventory. It is part of the 12.7%. Is is also part of the additional needs because it communicated inclusion, mattering, belonging, safety, etc. I think it isn’t until we are deprived of a need like physical touch that we realize how much we need comfort, love, and connection to others.

How physical touch is missing from life.

Living and working in an urban context has me reflecting on expression of and fulfillment of basic needs. The culture here in Chicago has a ‘keep to yourself’ vibe. Everyone needs to be highly conscious of how they are taking up space; being mindful not to crowd or impose on people. The only time you ever dare touch another person is during commuter times when everyone crams into packed trains and buses. I would imagine this type of physical touch makes people feel more like herded animals.

Seemingly more than ever, families get spread apart across the country and even the world for opportunity, schooling, jobs, and preference on lifestyle. We see people living it up all over social media. Yet, the people we get to work with in counseling at Optimum Joy report simply needing a hug to feel like the pieces of their lives aren’t falling apart. Building a new community is incredibly possible and I encourage people to lean hard into creating that for themselves. This takes time though, and the accessibility of opportunity in our world often moves people away from those who can and want to give a hug.

I personally am highly invested and attuned to the evangelical christian culture. I can’t help but notice the trend where people are dating less and less, and often don’t get married at all or until much later. I’m not here to make a positive or negative statement on relationships, faith, and marriage! I make mention of this simply because people often report that if they were to access or resource the need of touch, then imagine that in our current culture. This is the place to do it and that may not be a reality for many people.

Also, people may have their significant other! The person who is supposed to be there for them through thick and thin, yet they find themselves incredibly lonely. I think we can all imagine how painful it is to know that you have the person who is supposed to care for your needs, and yet they don’t or can’t for whatever reason.

I write this debbie downer post because I want to highlight two points and then encourage us to be generous.

Humans need more

The first point is that we humans need far more than food, water and shelter to feel fully alive and taken care of. Remember, simply remaining alive accounts for only 12.7%. Humans need more. Our culture doesn’t always validate how important the softer and more emotional needs are to existence. Part of our work as people who want to grow and flourish is connecting to ALL our needs. After we do this, we can go about figuring out how to resource them in our lives through ourselves, others, and faith.

Safe and kind human contact

The second point is that we live in a time where there is a disparity in safe and kind human physical contact. Homeless, single, elderly, LGBTQI, married, or alone; every person alive needs human contact like need to breath air. People are probably not getting enough, and are therefore suffocating.

This disparity came to my attention long ago because of designed circumstances within my church. It may seem like nothing or not important to lack being touched until you find yourself without that basic human necessity. We are always talking at Optimum Joy about generosity informing everything we do. I strongly believe that safe and appropriate human contact and connection is a way to be incredibly generous in our world today. It is a strong and excited hug towards a friend. It can be a hand on the arm, acknowledging someone’s importance or presence in a moment. It can be laughter that moves your shoulders to touch. It can be as simple as eye contact and a smile that ‘touches’ someone in your life or that you pass on the street.

I don’t believe it is hard to be generous in this way. If you start looking for opportunities to give, you will be overwhelmed with the need. And if you find yourself reading this and wondering how to resource something like human connection and physical touch, my word to you is, “go first.” Be brave and bold enough to initiate so that people will respond and start to give back as well. Sometimes, you have to give in order to get, but I think giving love to others can end up fulfilling your own need for connection. We are all human, and we all need. More than ever, we need each other.

People everywhere wrestle with how to be better and more connected human beings. If you’re also looking to connect and add these ideas into your life, often a therapist can help. We at Optimum Joy would love to help!

Written by therapist Alexandra Hoerr


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