Hugging Porcupines

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From Hug Machine, by Scott Campbell

I recently started a new job working full-time as a Marriage & Family Therapist.  To celebrate my new employment, I ordered a few children’s books that I’ve had my eye on for a while.  One of them is a gem of a book titled Hug Machine.  Hug Machine is a book about a young boy who hugs anyone and anything he sees, including adults, crying infants, mailboxes, snakes and giant whales.  After showing off his hugging prowess in various settings and on myriad subjects, the boy encounters a porcupine who seems to anticipate being the exception.  “I am so spiky.  No one ever hugs me.”

The next page shows a beautiful image of this boy, decked out in oven mitts, a catcher’s mask, and other protective gear, giving a big hug to that porcupine while assuring him (or her), that all those hug-withholders “are missing out!”

This image, and the concept of hugging a porcupine, is powerful.

My therapy office is no stranger to porcupines.  Not literal ones, of course.  (Unless you count my porcupine puppet!)  Rather, many of my clients share some attributes with porcupines.  Many of them have evolved spike-like defenses that protect them, but that also make them seem unapproachable, and, in turn, make them feel unlovable.

Consider angsty teens whose body language, and perhaps even their overt spoken language communicates that they don’t want you to come near them.  Are they too spiky to hug?  Think about a significant other who, after extended periods of hurt and frustration, is characterized by defensive mechanisms such as blame, denial, snarky comments, and the silent treatment.  Is he or she too spiky to hug?  And what about the individual who experienced so much abuse and neglect and betrayal growing up and in past relationships that they don’t know how to be vulnerable or open or trusting, nor do they feel safe doing so.  Are they too spiky to be hugged?  Further, underneath all of those spikes, do they actually want and need be hugged?

I am a big believer that everyone, whether they know it or not, yearns for connection.  Everyone desires to be seen, valued, cared for and loved.  Everyone wants to be huggable.  Everyone wants to be hugged.

It is easy to allow obstacles to connection (such as defensive mechanisms) to keep us from expressing acceptance and love.  But oh how the world needs more hugging machines and fewer lonely porcupines.

The Courage to Connect

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I recently re-read Stephen Crane’s Civil War classic, The Red Badge of Courage.  As I was reading, a passage jumped out to me.  My inner therapist got excited, reached for a pen, and marked the paragraph, writing in the margin, “fear of openness and vulnerability”.

The passage describes young Henry Fleming as he anticipated his first battle.  He is full of fears and insecurities.  What if, in the heat of battle, he ends up proving himself a coward and runs away from the fight?  He wishes to share his thoughts, in hopes of finding that he isn’t alone in his fears, and to be encouraged regarding his capabilities.  But he also fears admitting to having those worries.  And so he scanned the group, hoping that someone else would be vulnerable and express their fears first.

“All attempts failed to bring forth any statement that looked in any way like a confession to these doubts which he privately acknowledged in himself.  He was afraid to make an open declaration of his concern, because he dreaded to place some unscrupulous confidant the high plane of the unconfessed from which elevation he could be derided.”

He desperately wanted connection and validation.  But he feared being rejected and derided.  His thoughts were human.  Rather than being about doubts of succumbing to fear in battle, these same insecurities could describe someone who is about to say “I love you” for the first time.  It could describe a spouse admitting to their partner about their fears concerning becoming a parent for the first time.  It could describe any disclosure of feeling afraid or inadequate.

Everyone feels inadequate at times.  And when they do, they yearn for comfort, connection, and reassurance.  However, before inviting that healing salve, they must first reveal their woundedness.  And that degree of vulnerability can be scary.  It requires removing their armor so that the wound can be treated.  But, in removing the armor, it means that they are exposed and can be easily hurt.

People need connection and intimacy.  This requires vulnerability.  And to be vulnerable requires trust and courage.

Most people have been hurt before.  Sometimes by those who were never trustworthy, and sometimes by well-meaning individuals who did not recognize the need for sensitivity or who perhaps never learned how to nurture.  If you and or your partner do not know how to respond to the other’s vulnerability, therapy with a Marriage & Family Therapist might be helpful.  It may be tempting to just keep your armor on.  But ask yourself, would you rather never hurt, or feel connected to those you love?  Connection requires courage.  It requires courage to expose your true self.  And sometimes, it first requires the courage to seek the help to know how to connect.