Old scars, physical boundaries, and the pagan community

I showed a friend a picture of myself with another friend the other day. He remarked, “You’re hugging her. That tells me what I need to know about her.” Because of the physical abuse I’ve dealt with in the past, there are very few people with whom I let my boundaries down, and when I trust someone enough for physical contact, that’s a big deal for me. I’m touchy-feely with family members and lovers, but with friends, a hug from me is a pretty big lowering of boundaries.

That makes certain interactions within the pagan community very uncomfortable for me. Sometimes the fact that I’m not comfortable with being kissed, or with someone expecting a hug the first time we meet, makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me. The people offering physical affection are such kind, warm, welcoming people that I wish I could be comfortable with it, but my gut reaction to unexpected physical contact tends less towards “yay, hugs!” and more GETITOFFGETITOFFGETITOFF. I wish I were OK with it, but behind those boundaries is where I feel safe. With good friends whom I’ve known a while, I’m perfectly fine with hugs if I’m expecting them, but being kissed or surprised with hugs, even by good friends, or expected to deal with hugs from near strangers is anxiety-inducing even on a good day.

So what can a person do, needing to decline most physical contact but afraid to come across as though rejecting the genuinely kind people who aren’t expecting to find a boundary there? I know part of my issue is being a woman raised in the South and having been socialized from an early age not to upset people, but I don’t know where the reasonable medium is between allowing contact that is uncomfortable for me and the instinctive, panicked EW NO GET OUT OF MY BUBBLE that is my immediate, internal reaction. I wish the community were a safer place for people like me, who like other people just fine, but would prefer any physical contact to be on our own terms.


7 Comments on “Old scars, physical boundaries, and the pagan community”

  1. I am not sure on the whole interpersonal thing that would help here. All I got is maybe being up front that you have touch issues, but that might be awkward.

    Psychologically, I would ask, do you want to be more huggy and touchy feely? If you do, I think there are therapies that can address that. I am thinking the ones they use for people who are afraid of spiders, snakes etc. I think it’s called aversion therapy???? You could read up on it and try more physical contact with people you trust first. Increasing the time, going beyond your comfort zones with that.

    • Stephy says:

      Honestly, more than being comfortable with those boundaries being crossed, I’d like a safe space to maintain them.

      • I’m not trying to be obtuse. However that is subjective, so would you mind clarifying.

        I want to clarify, I would not expect you to change. I was throwing out stuff I know that might help, in the way I know how to deal with stuff. Mostly it’s a lot of Socratic why’s and facing stuff.

      • Stephy says:

        Honestly? I’d like to feel like it’s OK if I don’t want to be touched. I’d like to NOT have people come up behind me with a surprise hug or touch that gives me an immediate panic response. And I wish that I didn’t feel as though I were being mean by enforcing my boundaries, and that it were less awkward to decline a hug from a person I’ve just met. I’d like to see more *offering* of hugs and less demanding or helping oneself to physical contact. Some of the people I know in the local pagan community are very good about it. But in multiple pagan spaces, I’ve encountered this idea that “perfect love and perfect trust” means “nobody has boundaries,” and that doesn’t work for me.

  2. Lee says:

    Yes, these people are genuinely kind, but I can’t help but think it is perhaps a little rude and socially unaware to simply step into people’s bubbles and hug them without having ever met them. I think there needs to be more education about personal boundaries. Personally, I like unexpected hugs or random hugs from strangers, but I never give them out as I am well aware that not everyone welcomes them. Short of a jacket studded with spikes, I don’t think you should have to try to change yourself for people who should maybe reconsider their hugginess! A hug is a give and take of energy. In a community with people who know how to manipulate energy, I’m wary of strangers who want to hug, it’s a little invasive.

  3. I’d say similar issues affect a lot of my pagan friends. Painfully often stemming from as you said is true for you, past scars of abuse. There’s also pagans I’ve met with aspergers and other mental conditions that make being able to manage when they are ok and not ok with being touched extremely important to them.

    The group I interacted with most recently I didn’t notice a high volume of people over eager to share touch without first asking, but that may have been because the group had such a high density of people with issues like those I mentioned above so the understanding of the issue could have been higher than the norm for that group.

    My feeling is that you need to do what makes you feel comfortable, even if it means bruising a few feelings. Speak up, let people know you’re uncomfortable and by all means DO NOT allow yourself to be pressured into being told you should feel otherwise.

    As for the groups as a whole gaining a greater understanding so that you wouldn’t need to explain yourself (as you’re right, you really shouldn’t have to, especially in a situation where you’ve already been made to feel uncomfortable)… I wish I had a good idea of how to quickly engage that dialog, but I’ve a feeling what you’ve done here, posting about it, is the best first step. Gradually there just needs to be more education on the issue.

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