These are the hugs I miss

I know it’s important to focus on what we have, and to be thankful for it, but for those of us with loved ones out of reach during this pandemic, it’s hard not to dwell on our losses. On the folks we’re missing. On the hugs we’re craving, with no way of knowing when they’ll be within reach again.

And there are not enough people filling our days, there aren’t enough things to do or places to go. Life is hectic and there’s too much to do, yet somehow not enough to distract us from the gaping holes in our lives. Every time I am a little tired, or my hip aches particularly fiercely, or anything makes me a bit sad, the overwhelming anguish of being separated from my people seizes on the chink in my armour and floods my system with yearning.

Video calls are bitter sweet. Beloved faces right there in front of us, yet out of reach. Sweet, familiar voices land in our hearts like soothing ointment, but at the same time they leave raw scars. I spend an hour on a call with a loved one, and then spend all day alternately smiling and heaving deeply sorrowful sighs, as I alternate between how much I love them, and how far away they are.

It leaves plenty of time to contemplate the nature of hugs. Hugs have personality, just like people. One person can give many different hugs, but hugs between the same two people tend to develop a distinctive character over time. These are the hugs I crave:

The Fierce but Fleeting, or FbF – a short, sharp, intense hug, the FbF uses full body contact to convey deep affection and emotional need in the minimum time, moving straight on to coffee and conversation. The FbF is no nonsense, but heartfelt. A meaningful hug in a hurry.

The Fierce and Lasting, or FaL – as intense as the FbF but sustained for as long as both participants consent, the FaL is my favourite. A full body hug with no room for so much as a whisper in between, the FaL conveys deep affection and a yearning for the closeness we have been denied for too long. There may be tears. Eventually the FaL must give way to basic life support such as eating, drinking, and other bodily functions, but the need to postpone the moment for as long as humanly possible is overwhelming. The FaL is the maximum amount of hug in the maximum allowed time. It has nowhere it would rather be than in your arms.

The Friendly and Affectionate, or FaA – a firm hug with the intensity dialled back, this hug is very pleased to see you, but quite clear on its boundaries. The FaA conveys affection but not need. It is the friendly, neighbourhood hug. The FaA will be delighted to see you around, but it will not hunt you down, nor outstay its welcome.

I even miss the Tentative and Cautious, or TaC – An A-Frame hug, which aims to maintain minimum risk of intimate personal contact, yet still constitutes an embrace. In the TaC, arms and shoulders touch, possibly even cheeks in extreme cases, but nothing below the collarbone. It is the entry level hug, that promises nothing, but speaks of mild affection.

I use different hugs with different people, but I dream about Fierce and Lasting hugs with my far flung besties all the time now. When I can have them in real life, I might have to be reminded to let go.

What are your favourite hugs like?

Are you being bullied?

Once, when one of my teens was being bullied at school, I was astounded to recognise behaviour that had been directed at me at work. I ranted and fumed. “Do they all get the same handbook? How the hell do they all use the same tactics???” My friend Michele suggested that they do it because those tactics have been used on them… and they work. She described it as a circle of contagion, rather than an instructional manual. I suspect she might be onto something.

Awful though it is, there is a bright side to these repeated patterns – patterns can be spotted! (boom boom! sorry…)

This is good news! Because if you can see what they’re doing, it becomes possible to uninstall the buttons that bullies love to push. So here are some red flags to look for.

1. Making everything your fault. Bullies love to make it all about you, because it latches on to all of your insecurities and is really hard to fight. In the schoolyard this can be things like “You’re annoying.” “You’re difficult.” “You’re always upsetting people.” Note how these are non-specific, so really difficult to refute.

At work, it’s often about you failing to meet targets you didn’t know about, failing to attend meetings you weren’t invited to, or, again, being generically “bad” in ways that are super hard to refute or address. Things like: “You’re not a team player.” “You don’t fit the culture.” “You’re too enthusiastic/not enthusiastic enough/too demanding/too quiet…” There are always ways to argue you’re not as good as you really are: You’re too new to the field, too long in the job, too young, too old, too different, too much the same…, or in friendship groups, you’re too loud, too quiet, too political, not political enough… And they’re most effective when they tap into your imposter syndrome, because you’re more likely to believe them.

2. Isolating you/Cutting you off from your support. If a bully finds out you’ve gone to someone else for support, they’ll often say you are breaking a confidence, going behind their back, betraying their trust, or behaving unprofessionally. They’ll berate you for putting an unfair burden on the person you went to, or dragging them into a conflict that’s none of their business and not their problem. It’s in a bully’s best interests to have you isolated and unable to fight back, so of course they will do everything in their power to make sure they can say whatever they want to you without facing consequences. This has happened to my teens in the schoolyard, and to me in the workplace. It’s a classic tactic. As a bonus, really effective bullies will also make you feel guilty for seeking support elsewhere.

3. Telling you everyone else thinks so too. I’ve seen this in workplaces, on committees, and in the schoolyard. It’s another classic tactic. “No-one else will tell you this, but…” or “Everyone is coming to me and saying that you’re…” or “Everyone is miserable because of you.” “I’ve never had so many complaints.” “Everyone else is too nice to say so.” “Everyone feels the way I do.” These are designed to make you quietly exit the scene, stage left, and leave the bully in command of the stage. Or, even better, they provoke conflict between you and everyone else, so that the bully winds up looking like the good guy by comparison. It’s amazing how often “everyone” actually boils down to “me, myself, and I”. Bottom line is, if no-one else is saying it to you, they’re not saying it at all.

4. Controlling your response. This one is particularly effective if it comes on top of the first three tactics successfully making you miserable and vulnerable. At this point the bully gives you a way out. You can leave the group (leaving the bully, again, in command of the stage), step down from a role, leave a committee, or simply stop standing your ground. Basically, give the bully what they want, and you “won’t get hurt”. It’s a standover tactic. And a horrifyingly effective one.

5. Making you the bad guy. Here, the bully turns the tables and tries to make everyone else think that you are making up stories about them (often right when they’re making up stories about you), performing poorly at work, or being a bad friend. They’ll try to push your guilt buttons, at the same time as making everyone else think you’re awful. This has the twin goals of driving others away from you, and making you more likely to crumple and walk away yourself. Sometimes they’ll do this using some of the other tactics, like making a big deal out of you “breaking confidences” and being untrustworthy, because you told someone else how they were treating you.

Bullies want to manipulate you and control you into doing what they want. Don’t let them!
I’ve just shown this to my teens and they have suddenly recognised times when they were bullied that they didn’t identify at the time. I hope you will share it, and that it helps you identify these horribly effective tactics, both when they happen to you, and when they happen to people around you. If you know what’s happening, it may help you to stop it.