Year 2021.6: Be Inspired–Touch

Touch is the only reciprocal sense.

–I have no idea who said this

I don’t recall where I saw, heard, or read this. But I was struck by this quote enough to write it down on a scrap of paper. Then I forgot about it. Or did I? I found it last month cleaning out one of my piles of clutter during my post-semester “pick up the pieces of your life” phase. Since then, I’ve been actively mulling touch daily. And I feel inspired to touch more and with more intention.

Allow me to insert this quick update from MessyMarvelous:

As you may have heard since we last blogged, Amy and I are in the completion stages of our second book. We have a little way to go but the remaining tasks are editing and in our recent meetings, we decided we wanted to write more and get some blogs out to you. We have been doing some social media live videos on FB & IG, but it is not the same. Writing is an altogether different art form. We each find it a meditative and contemplative activity that is good for our souls. Both of us find joy in sharing that with you. And so, we decided on a series about inspiration. Watching for it. Being open to it. Allowing inspiration to change us.

inspire (verb): fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.

love, actually

I’m a Love Actually junkie. People either love this 2003 movie or roll their eyes at it. I watch it multiple times during the holiday season with the familiar characters keeping me company while I hold tightly onto memories and tears as I decorate my tree and home in solitude. My favorite scenes are surprising: the opening scene and the closing scene—each taking place in the Heathrow Airport reflectively narrated by Hugh Grant. My throat tightens with emotion every time I watch it.

All kinds of ordinary people are lit with joy as they embrace their loved one(s). The evident delight is universal as they hug. Ordinary yet extraordinary. Worthy of inspiration.

I think I am acutely aware of this inspirational topic of touch because of the pandemic. Perhaps I was primed for this awareness after living mostly single for a decade. The thing I often missed the most was physical contact—the familiarity one has with loved ones with whom you live with in close spaces: touching your hand, squeezing your shoulder, a lingering hug in the kitchen, an unexpected foot rub on the couch, a familiar form behind you on the bed, a surprise kiss, hello and goodbye hugs. Like in the movie’s airport.

Skin hunger…

The pandemic left so many of us hungry for touch. I felt grateful to be partnered during this time yet I still missed long hugs with others—my daughters, my mother, my friends. Oh how I’ve missed my regular massages. Moreover, I even longed for the occasional contact by my yoga teacher giving me a correction. I looked like I was having a hand spasm as I resisted the urge to shake people’s hands. (I love a good, solid handshake!) Perhaps, especially trained as a Southerner, parting with friends and family without hugs was terribly anticlimactic.

Post-vaccination, I found myself initially “forgetting” to hug. Or successfully retrained NOT to hug. I felt awkwardly restrained initially—almost shy. Then I began to “fall in” to those first greeting hugs. Much like the ordinary folks in Love Actually, I held them tight. For a long embrace. The joy so great I felt bursting with emotion. And this time, I was much more tuned in. So much more mindful of what I felt in those experiences of touch. Long and lingering. Inspired.

We need 4 hugs a day for survival; 8 hugs a day for maintenance; 12 hugs a day for growth.

-Virginia Satir

One of my personal inspirers, Virginia Satir, said we need 4 hugs a day for survival, 8 hugs a day for maintenance, and 12 hugs a day for growth. I would suggest we really need more. In a thriving Satir community of which I am a part, hugs (with permission/consent) are the standard greeting and the full 12 (or more) for the day does give one a certain boost to the heart and soul.

The science of hugging

We know that people die without touch. This was clearly shown in a Romanian orphanage in the 1970s when babies, who were otherwise well fed and cared for but not held, died from what we then termed “failure to thrive.” They simply did not grow and develop. We also know that people who experience “bad touch” from abuse (physical, sexual, and neglect) suffer measurable consequences throughout their lifetime with an increased risk for both physical and mental illness, injury, and shortened life expectancy.

What happens when we hug? A nice long hug, between 6 and 20 seconds (according to different sources), heart to heart, kicks off the release of that feel good, bonding hormone, oxytocin. When hugged by someone with a fondness and appreciation for us, our heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels drop. We relax and emotional bonds are energized with the other in the form of empathy, compassion, generosity, and trust. And it’s a mutual communication of affection.


So back to the initial note I jotted to myself: touch is the only reciprocal sense. Simply, we cannot touch without being touched and we are not touched without touching. But it is more than that—we do not perceive touch the same when we touch ourselves versus when touched by others. Try it: Gently stroke your own arm. Now have a friend gently stroke it in the same way. Not the same experience. At all. It is because we are hardwired to experience these 2 different touches to mean different things. In short, our brains minimize the experience when our own hand strokes our arm. We necessarily dismiss it to some degree. It is internal information that we receive all the time.

When someone else strokes our arm, we are getting information about our world. It is largely unanticipated. We encode those messages differently. Is it kind, loving, gentle, threatening, harsh? Is it desired? Unwanted? We know that we cannot tickle ourselves—It just doesn’t work. And have you ever seen or used one of those head “ticklers” generally made of stiff copper wire? It is one sensation when you use it on yourself but an experience entirely different when a friend applies it to your scalp. And SO much better!

But it’s more than skin…it’s the heart

And there is one more level to this: when someone connects to our heart, we say we feel touched. It means that we have connected tenderly, deeply, spiritually, and left with a lasting mark. This is what changes us. Touching someone’s heart is how we transform everyday, ordinary experiences into meaningful ones.

Touching someone's heart is how we transform everyday, ordinary experiences into meaningful ones. –MessyMarvelous Click To Tweet

Here is the second half of a love poem I found (You have touched my heart) by Ravi Sathasivam, a Sri Lankan poet:

You have touched my heart with your soul

You have touched my heart with your gentle words

You have touched my life with gentleness

and filled with full of love.

I feel your beauty in my heart

I feel you are with me every moment

and I cannot find anyone else

I need you now because you have touched my heart.

More than ever…

Watching our world re-open, it is clear with some recent horrible events that loneliness, isolation, and disconnection have created a cultural failure to thrive. My wish is that our collective losses and the re-collection of connection on the backside of this messy, pandemic-induced desert of touch will enjoy renewed growth. In his opening monologue, Hugh Grant surmises when important or tragic things in life happen, messages of connection and love are all that matters. I hope you can join me in being inspired by this reciprocal nature of touch. In fact, it would seem, love actually is all around…and that’s marvelous.

Be inspired, friends.


Rhea A. Merck, Ph.D. I’m a Licensed Psychologist and I’ve had a private practice in Columbia, SC, since 1996. In addition to teaching at the University, I also provide clinical consulting services with the athletic department. A persistent woman, mother of 2 amazing young women, writer, teacher, life-long learner, curious & creative human, lover of life, I am passionate about making life better every day… for more, visit my outdated website at or email me at [email protected]


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