Beyond Hugs - Deconstructing the Self-Reg of Comforting


Last March I posted a blog where I said I’d like fathers to see comforting as more of a core part of their role. That post resulted in some interesting comments. One that jumped out at me was one person’s observation that sometimes when she’s losing it, she does not want to be touched or hugged.

This comment made me reflect on what comforting really means. When you think about it, “the hug” is often used as a proxy for comforting in general. When people express distress on social media, friends often respond with “sending hugs” or simply “hugs. It’s just a handy way of expressing support. But sometimes I wonder if we’ve inadvertently elevated the hug to too lofty a position in the realm of comforting.

Personally, when I’m upset I seldom want a hug right away. I want sympathy but not necessarily verbal expressions of sympathy. What I’d find most helpful, I think, is more a kind of compassionate acceptance –support that doesn’t make me feel worse (more about that in a minute), but instead offers quiet acknowledgement of my situation and perhaps assistance, if there’s a practical the issue at hand. Most importantly, what I need is support that gives my brain/body stress recovery system the space to do its job in helping me feel better.

Unfortunately, I think some of our attempts to comfort people can backfire in the short term because they are experienced almost as pressure to feel better. “There, you’ve gotten your hug, now it’s time to feel better.” That “pressure,” usually unintended, makes me feel worse.

That’s an overly simplistic (and cynical) analysis, but here’s my point.

I definitely do not mean to cast aspersions on people’s (including my own) sincere and humanly imperfect attempts to comfort others. But I do think we need to pause and consider how often our attempts to offer comfort have unintended negative effects. It strikes me that sometimes our rush to comfort is as much about relieving our own prosocial stress as it is about helping the other person. I’m not impugning prosocial stress. It’s a key part of what prompts us to offer comfort. But ideally, we’re looking for a kind of blue brain-red brain balance here. The red brain triggers us to offer comfort, while the blue brain helps us stay alert and engaged so we can figure out the best way to do it. That includes attunement to the non-verbal cues the other person is giving us, which might be saying, “Don’t touch me right now!”

So with a child and a father (or mother, but this conversation started with the father’s role) comforting might sometimes mean well-timed distraction followed by a father-child play session. Or it might mean help with a practical problem that is causing the stress. It could also be providing a snack of apples, crackers and cheese (which was a go-to with our kids at times).

Often, the key part of comforting is simply being a calm, quiet, non-judgmental, non-pressuring presence. Comforting can involve words: soothing statements, guidance or advice. But not always, at least not at first.

I recall an encounter with my middle son, about four at the time. His older brother had just driven him into a total meltdown—a sad one rather than an angry one (perhaps ““crumbledown” would be a more apt term). I can’t remember all the things I did to try to comfort him. Some may have been unhelpful. What worked in the end was getting him out of the situation (i.e. away from his brother) and sitting quietly with my arm around him. Eventually I could feel his breathing slow down and the tension start to ease from his body. There were very few words. No explanation designed to help him process the situation on a cognitive level. No attempt to talk him into feeling better. It was his parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that helped him feel better, although it took about 20 minutes. My role, in hindsight, was to help create the conditions where his PNS could do its good work.

I wonder if that just might be the essence of comforting.

I’ve made a number of points here, and barely scratched the surface. Lots to talk about. How do you see the idea of comfort, beyond hugs?

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