Human touch. Something we all need, yet something many of us fear after abuse. It make sense touch is now scary. Previous displays of affection were often side by side with acts of violence.
If you had asked me three years ago if I’d ever feel safe having sex, I would have said no. That intense level of affection sounded far too frightening. Sex had always, for 15 years, meant pain and violence and fear for me.
At the time, I could barely handle someone tapping my shoulder to get my attention. And that was only a basic, casual touch too. Affection is on another level.
In a second, I’ll share the three most powerful ways to reclaim your love for human touch. All you need to do to heal is read on and take the actions you feel will be best for you.
Now it’s your turn to start loving physical connection with others. It won’t happen today or tomorrow, but with some time and a little work, you’ll treasure affection in all the forms you desire.
Why affection is such a struggle for us survivors
Before jumping into the three exercises, I want to validate why affection is such a challenge for us survivors of abuse.
Simply put, what we experienced as “affection” was often abuse. It was false comfort after sexual assault. Or a tender touch after being hit. Maybe we were emotionally abused and then our abuser told us to come in for a hug-after they yelled at or shamed us.
Past affection had no separation from violence, pain, and fear.
So, even when affection is now with someone safe, our body and mind remembers this painful connection. It takes time to rewrite our synapses to view physical touch as an enjoyable thing. These exercises will help you do that.
Exercise 1: Recognize your control
Abusers take away our control. They remove the ability we have to make choices about our own life and what we experience. They force us into unwanted emotional, physical, or sexual situations.
Now that you’re out of the abusive relationship, you can reclaim control over your life. It may not always feel like it, but you are in control now. You were the moment you left your abuser.
This means you get to choose what affection you experience now.
It may take time to build a healthy set of boundaries around physical touch, but the point is you can start. Request that friends ask for hugs. Ask family to greet you in the way you want, not the way they instantly gravitate towards.
If someone does touch you without your permission (like a random hug or shoulder tap), you have more power now than you did while you were being abused. This is especially true if you’re a survivor of child abuse. You are much stronger than your younger self now and you can stand up for your boundaries.
Even a simple “please don’t hug me without permission” can do the trick. If someone doesn’t listen, turn and walk away or, if they become more disrespectful, consider cutting the person out of your life.
It took courage to speak up for your needs, so you deserve people who respect the boundaries you set.
You can’t always prevent unwanted touch, but you have a lot of control now when it comes to affection from those closest to you. Much more than you ever had during abuse.
(P.S. If empowerment is something you struggle with, become a Prosperity Path member here. Through an eCourse and more, I’ll walk you through how to reclaim all the power you lost. You’ll be healing alongside many other survivors too.)
Exercise 2: Make space for your fear reactions
Self love will play a huge part in recovering affection as something enjoyable.
With fear so intricately tied in with touch-it’s going to come up. You’ll think you can handle something and your body or mind will react unexpectedly. That’s natural. It’s okay. It happens to all us survivors.
I’m not telling you this to scare you. It’s worth lovingly facing this fear for the joys healing your relationship with affection will bring. As uncomfortable as these reactions will be, you can survive them.
I simply want you to be ready for a moment when it does happen-so that you can accept the fear with an open heart. It comes from a wounded place in need of love, not a place trying to hurt or destroy you.
There are three things that will help you handle this fear. First, work on emotional acceptance. This is a willingness to feel the emotions as they arise.
Acceptance of your experiences always makes them feel safer. It’s choosing not to run from them, so they can’t chase you (which is what actually feels scary). Instead, you’re choosing to stand with the emotion. Even though it’s intense, your choice to do this makes it feel safer.
Second, you’ll want to increase your distress tolerance. This is your ability to handle tough emotions and situations-basically, distress. All you need to know about that is right here in this blog.
Lastly, create a self-care plan. Finding a feeling of safety in moments of fear is critical, especially when emotions become overwhelming.
A self-care plan should include a list of distracting activities, comfort items (a blanket, a stone, a book, poem-truly anything), and grounding tools (essential oils, stim toys, a journal). The key is to find what self care is best for you and design your plan around that.
I’d recommend having a self care box in your home, then a smaller version of it you can carry with you when you’re out (like a small bag in your purse or backpack).
Exercise 3: Explore self-touch
Reclaiming a sense of safety with affection is the foundation to healing. There is no better way to do this than mindfully and lovingly touching yourself. (I mean that literally, not necessarily in a sexual context-although that can be healing too!)
You have control over what you do to your own body. When to start affection and when to end it.
Start with very gentle and brief moments of affection with yourself. Like clasping hands over your heart as you say something you’re grateful about, or giving yourself a hug after a tough moment.
Then maybe you start with a gentle massage of your feet or hands or shoulders, gradually working to the places you feel more vulnerable about. You can take as long as you need-days, weeks, or months to do this.
Taking a mindful shower or bath can be a great way to safely explore affection, too.
If you feel the need to reclaim safety with sexual touch (that’s been part of my healing journey!), you’ll want to move into this in time, but not right away. This often provokes the most fear when it comes to physical touch, and you want to maintain a sense of being in control. Don’t rush this. Do your research when you’re ready, you can try to acquaint yourself with some of the concepts behind these things. It’s all at your pace, and if at any point you want to duck out, that’s fine.
That’s the key-remembering that you are in control of when and how and where you are touched.
If you feel your body reacting too strongly from fear, simply stop and return to a different self-care activity. Slowly reclaim affection as a positive thing, so don’t re-traumatize yourself by going too far, too fast.
How your life will transform as you reclaim affection
As you reclaim affection in these ways, you’ll notice the physical relationships you have deepening.
The fear and panic when someone brushes against you in public will wane and you’ll start to feel safe in the world again. Reclaiming your relationship with affection will do wonders for your mental health.
I’ve come a long way myself with this over the past few years. I tried many techniques, both the ones above and others. Some didn’t help, but others (like in this blog) changed my life in beautiful ways.
Fear patterns take a while to rework and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. The journey itself is beautiful and rewarding.
Don’t give up, no matter how long this journey takes. It will take time, but it will be worth it.
Start out today by listing five things you’ll put in your self-care box, right below in the comments! Then, go ahead and actually make that self care kit. <3