Dear Captain Awkward,
I have some pretty intense reactions to being physically touched. Basically, I can’t stand being physically touched by most people – and I especially don’t like being hugged. It makes me feel trapped and physically sick. I’ve learnt to deal with it on occasions where it would be awkward or rude not to, so it doesn’t impact my interpersonal relationships too much, but I still don’t like it.
However, I really cannot deal with being hugged if the person hugging me is very emotional – like if they’re crying. On the few occasions where this has happened to me, I’ve been very shaky afterwards and I felt like I’d been physically violated. Now usually I just avoid situations where this might occur, I go about my life with minimal physical contact and I’m fine. However…
My grandfather’s funeral is coming up (he’s got at the most a couple of weeks left and funereal preparations are under way). I know it might seem self-involved to be concerned for myself when my grandfather is going to die, but this is a huge issue for me.
First of all, it’s very important to my mum that I attend the funeral, so not attending isn’t really an option.
Now: My mum has never been very respectful of my desire to not be hugged, even though I’ve talked to her about it, and it’s not something any of my extended family members are aware of.
I know that my mum is going to be very emotional at her father’s funeral (obviously), as will the rest of the family. There have been numerous times in the past when my mum has been crying and she’s clung on to me for over a minute, completely disregarding my feelings. It’s physical torture. When I bring it up to her, she makes me feel guilty (“But I’m your mother!”) and tells me that I’m a cold person. I’m worried that at the funeral, I’m going to be stuck in a situation where my mother will constantly want to cry into my shoulder and all my aunts and my grandmother will want to pull me into teary hugs. I feel like they’ll be extremely hurt if I push them away, but I really don’t feel like putting myself through physical torture just to spare my relatives’ feelings. This will be my first funeral, so this is the first time I’ve had to deal with this prospect.
Anyway, my question is this:
Do you think there’s some polite way to avoid physical contact at the funeral, or should I just suck it up and deal with my own feelings afterwards? I really don’t want to hurt my relatives’ feelings or appear rude (especially at a funeral!) but I feel like the emotional intensity combined with all the hugging, hand-holding etc. might be too much for me to bear.
Thank you for any advice you’re able to give, and for taking the time to read my letter. I think you’re fantastic!
For what it’s worth: I’m a 20 year old woman.
Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place
First, I’m sorry about your grandfather.
Second, I feel very stumped in answering this question in a “the only credential I have is an MFA in film” kind of way, so I’m hoping the readers will come save the day. In the meantime, I will throw things at the wall and see what sticks.
One possible solution is for you to hug your mom and your aunts first (everyone else gets a handclasp of solidarity). It allows you to choose the time (and a little bit about the duration) of the hug. Then it’s out of the way and the anxiety of “Oh god, will this person hug me?” is not hanging over you the entire time? Except there will always be more relatives and you will still feel anxious and crowded?
Comedy suggestion: Could you swath yourself in a hat with a giant veil and long black gloves (protective armor from another era), and any time anyone comes near you, retreat behind it?
Could you not explain at all, but take a big step back when they lunge and say “I’m sorry, I can’t hug you, but I love you and I am so so sorry?” Don’t explain the why, just the what. I feel like pregnant women, people with certain illnesses, people with small children need to consistently enforce the “I’m sorry, could you not touch? Thanks.” boundary a lot, and maybe the less explaining the better.
Have you ever sought professional help to help you handle this anxiety about being touched? Again, I am not any kind of clinical anything, but what you are describing sound like panic attacks. I feel oogy about the idea of you having to medicalize your symptoms and show that you’ve sought “treatment” for them from a suitable authority figure when a simple “Oh, that’s Stuck, she doesn’t like to be touched” eccentricity should work in maintaining boundaries you’ve set, but it’s an explanation that your mom might accept in a letter before coming home.
“Mom & Aunts, I need to talk about hugs again, because I am having a lot of anxiety about Grandpa’s funeral. I love you so much and I want to be there for you, but being touched and hugged gives me panic attacks with the following symptoms (symptoms). I’m working with a therapist to figure out why I have them and treat this so it causes me less anxiety, but I need you to understand that it is very serious. If I don’t touch you, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings. But I need to take care of myself around this, and I need you to understand and help me by letting me be the one to initiate any hugging and to understand if I take a step back.”
If she makes you feel guilty or calls you a cold person, treat it like any guilt trip. “That hurts my feelings, mum. I really struggle with this and I want to be honest with you so we can take care of each other.”
Then you can figure out what you can handle and give what you can. Put your hand on your mom’s shoulder or something to let her know you’re there for her. Funerals are exhausting, so make sure you can supply tissues, glasses of water, reminders for her to take breaks, doing the washing up and making dinner without being asked, and generally being a rock for her throughout that week. Build in a lot of breaks for yourself to take naps, be by yourself, and recharge.
Readers, help me out here.