In our world today, need is a dirty word. People love to deny, suppress and disown their needs as if that somehow makes them a better person. We are addicted to independence. But here’s the problem: No matter how much you may want it to be different, you have needs. Every being on earth has needs. A need is something that is required in order to live, succeed or be happy. And you cannot un-require something that is required. You cannot argue your way into seeing that it isn’t necessary. You have one option when it comes to your needs and that is to meet them. There are many needs we love to deny. But today I’m going to talk to you about one of them. It is the need for touch.
People are preoccupied and obsessed with the idea of overriding their biology. If you look around the world today, our modern society is an example of this. Religion looks to suppress all instinctive energies within us like sexuality, hunger, and desire. Our modern society has made it so that we are mentally and emotionally ready to have babies at age 30 to 40, when our bodies are in fact on the downswing of fertility at that age. We have become, as a society, obsessed with finding a way to be immortal. We want to transcend all that makes us human. But when it comes to connection, we find ourselves in real trouble when we try to override our biology.
We might like to think that we can physically exist without each other, but we can’t. Healthy autonomy cannot arise in a person who has no sense of safety or adequacy, which for a physical human is provided through the person’s learned sense of security of connection. For a physical human, the chemical cocktail that our body releases in response to touch and contact comfort connection is the exact opposite of the chemical cocktail that is released in response to fear and shame. And so we need to accept that connection is our antidote. The sooner we can accept this reality about ourselves, the better. We are a social species. And more than that, we are a social species that needs contact comfort. Yes, I am talking about human touch.
I’ve never forgotten about a series of experiments that were done by a man named Harry Harlow in the 1950s. He was seeking to understand the human need for love, and the critical role that it plays in both primate and human development, so he separated a group of baby rhesus monkeys from their mothers when they were born.
The baby monkeys were each caged alone in the lab and allowed no physical contact with the personnel in the lab or with each other even though they could see the other monkeys and personnel. They immediately began exhibiting signs of distress. They clutched themselves, began rocking, staring into space as if dissociating, biting themselves, and biting their cages. They did not play or groom themselves and they seemed vacillate between anxiety and depression.
The babies were then assigned to one of two fake surrogate mothers. One was a model made of chicken wire that was covered in soft terrycloth. It was made to look roughly like a monkey. This surrogate did not provide any food. The other surrogate mother was also made of chicken wire, but no terrycloth. It had a crocodile looking head and provided milk from an attached baby bottle.
To say that the babies favored the mother covered in terrycloth is an understatement. The comfort these babies received through touch contact was incomparably more important to them than even their physical hunger. They needed connection more than they needed nourishment. This is also the case for people, not just monkeys. If our need for nourishment was stronger than our need for connection with one another, we would not meet people who can’t eat or sleep when they experience a painful break-up with someone they loved.
There is another unforgettable research study that I learned about in my university courses. It was a study done in the United States in the 1940s and was conducted on 40 newborn infants. I clearly remember that the objective was to determine whether individuals could thrive on basic physiological needs alone, without physical affection.
Twenty of the newborn infants were housed in a special facility where caregivers would enter the facility to feed them, bathe them, and change their diapers, but they would do nothing else. The caregivers had been instructed not to look at or touch the babies more than what was necessary and never communicate with them. All their physical needs were attended to scrupulously and the environment was kept sterile so as to prevent any of the babies from becoming ill.
The experiment was stopped after four months because by that time, at least half of the babies had died. More babies subsequently died even after being rescued and brought into natural familial environment. There was no physiological cause found for the deaths of these babies. They were all physically very healthy.
I specifically remember that one of the most disturbing facts was that before each baby died, there was a period of time where they would stop verbalizing and stop trying to engage with their caregivers. They would stop moving, stop crying, and stop changing their expression and death would follow shortly after. It was as if the babies had given up living before they died. This was the case even for the babies who died after being removed from the experimental conditions.
In today’s world, we are obsessed with technology. It’s hard to go anywhere and find people who are genuinely engaged with one another. Most people are fully engaged instead with a technological device. Their noses are buried in their computers or cell phones. And while social media has provided incredible opportunities to be connected with each other around the world, no matter where we are, social media only provides connection up to a degree. Physical connection cannot be replaced and its importance can’t be underestimated. We can’t get physical contact through a screen or from a distance. We need touch. We need vicinity. We need the comfort of being in physical contact with one another. And we must consider this when we are developing connections in our life.
The reality is that as humans, we need touch. Even the people, who are the most afraid of and hurt by human connection, need it. This is why the loneliest and most deeply hurt people experience so much torment. If we didn’t absolutely need touch and we were hurt by people, we would simply go on our merry way and never touch other people again. But we can’t. Instead, if we’ve been hurt by others, we spend our life in a torturous tug of war between the side of us that needs other people and the side that wants to be able to have nothing to do with them.
It is obvious that there are many ways we can be physically injured when it comes to touch and that this sets up a poor relationship to touch in general. But by far the majority of the pain we experience as people around touch is because of the emotional meaning we add to touch. People cannot stop adding meaning to touch and so touch is not touch for the sake of touch in our world. Instead touch is a tool. This meaning we add to touch destroys the purity of touch and makes it rather unsafe to touch each other.
For example, if your parent made you serve them and/or honor them through physical touch and there were consequences for not doing so, physical touch now means subservience and slavery and is no longer an organic expression of love. Touch is often used as a tool for manipulation and so when you touch someone, it may mean to him or her that you want something from them. If touch only ever meant that someone wanted sex, then touch will be interpreted solely as an emotional communicator that the person wants to have sex with you.
Meaning is added to touch and also the different types of touch in every race, culture, religion, society and family. For example, in American culture, if a guy slaps another guys butt in sports, it means encouragement. If a guy slaps another guys butt outside sports, it means he is gay. In Scandinavian cultures, you can’t touch a person of the opposite sex without it meaning that you want to be with them sexually or romantically. In Brazil, you can expect to be hugged and kissed by everyone even if you are a stranger. There is no physical bubble. It doesn’t mean anything other than friendliness and welcome.
Even in one culture, the way a touch is given changes the entire meaning. A softer handshake for example can mean a warm greeting whereas a firm handshake can mean ‘take me seriously’. There are differences in the societal acceptance around boys touching and girls touching. The powerless thing is that we can’t control the meaning that other people add to us touching them. And we add meaning that makes it not easy to just receive touch ourselves. Because of the complexity of the language of touch, touch seems so complicated; most of us end up in pain about it. We all end up touch deprived.
Humans need SO much more touch than they are getting across the world. In fact, purely biologically speaking, there is no single person who could provide enough touch for another person. Imagine a baby. When the baby is born, everyone who comes into contact with that baby, caresses the baby. The child in this healthy environment can run up and get a hug from mom one minute and the next sit on dads lap and the next, sit down and have their arm lightly stroked by grandma and the next, run hand in hand with their friend. In a healthy world, this would be how adults could live with each other in community as well. Obviously there are healthier cultures, communities and individuals than others in this respect.
If touch has been something that has led to pain for us, we need to work touch back into our lives slowly and with someone that we trust. Somatic therapy is one example of something we may need to do first before we can let people in our social circle provide touch for us in our day-to-day lives. It is to be expected that we would need to be rehabilitated if unloving touch was part of our wounding, as is so typical with abuse. But we do need this rehabilitation if we want to live lives where we genuinely feel connected to other people, at peace with the world and emotionally satiated.
When we are trying to satiate the need for touch, we need to stop suppressing this need within ourselves. We need to begin to look at touch as something that we do for touch sake. For example, we love petting a dog or cat for the sake of the pleasure of that touch in and of itself. It is a pure form of touch because it nourishes both the one touching and the one being touched. This is why it feels so safe for many of us to caress and be physically affectionate to an animal, but not a person. The communication is clear.
See, sense or feel that your body needs touch. Your skin and muscles and organs are starving for it. You are also starving for that form of communication emotionally. Some examples of nourishing types of touch are: Sitting with someone so we can feel their body against ours, holding, patting, gripping, rubbing, hugging, holding hands, gentle and comforting stroking, tickling, cuddling, massage, squeezing, pulling, forehead against forehead and kisses to name a few.
When we want touch from someone or initiate touch with someone, we can keep ourselves safe by getting very clear on the meaning of the touch before we do it and communicating with the other person about it. Essentially we must aim to take the room for interpretation out of it. Touch is one of the most powerful forms of primal emotional communication. We need that communication; the emotional message being conveyed through touch. But we also need touch in and of itself separate from a communication tool.
For the sake of your awareness, really ask yourself what meaning you specifically add to the different forms of touch. Where did you learn that meaning from? How does the meaning you add to touch differ from the meaning other people add to touch? Take a day and on that day, just watch people and how they touch. Take note of every time they touch and the meaning or communication being conveyed by that touch. Make a study of this form of communication.
Whenever you are experiencing touch or giving touch, ask yourself: What does this touch emotionally mean and what do I want it to mean? In this way, we make sure we are on the same page. It may seem less organic this way, but it is a necessary part of the rehabilitation. This makes touch safe to give and receive. And when you find yourself in a partnership, you will have to communicate about the meaning of touch as well in order to be on the same page so that touching other people outside the partnership is done in ways that makes both people feel satiated but also safe. Touch is something that creates jealousy in relationships faster than almost anything else.
As long as we are physical, there will not be a day when we don’t need touch from each other. Our sense of well-being is dependent upon us meeting this need for one another. We need to find opportunities for contact comfort and then we need to allow these experiences into our life. And we need to accept that it’s futile to fight against this aspect of our biology. If we can separate out the meaning of touch from the touch itself so as to clearly agree upon it and begin to touch each other for the sake of touch itself, we will create a healthier and more emotionally secure world to live in.