Posted by: Marie | January 13, 2011

(489) When is a hug just a hug?

Post #489
[Private journal entry written on Monday, August 27, 2010]

Last month, I performed a mini-concert for the local Rotary Club. I had heard through the grapevine that one of the gentlemen who had been in attendance – a guy named Father Jim – was interested in taking piano lessons from me. Lo and behold, he contacted me this week.

We met today to talk about possibilities and logistics . . . I asked him to tell me a little about himself . . .

He told me he is a minister for a local church. He told me he spends his time ministering to all the sick and sad and hurting people . . . he works very long days and makes great personal sacrifices to do this work.

Photo by Martin Chen

He also told me his specialty is turning around churches that are in trouble . . . and he has been working with this particular church for two years . . . the people in the church had been so blind to how bad things were in the church and they had no idea how to fix it . . . but he had been working diligently to open their eyes to the truth and to lead them to a better experience . . . and, thank God, these poor, blind, confused people were finally starting to understand . . .

Okay . . . obviously, he is quite full of himself. Whatever.

He told me he had played a four-string guitar in his teens and early 20’s and had been part of a band. He never learned to read music; he had always just played by ear. Then, he went to Vietnam. And that experience killed his desire to create music.

Now, 40+ years later, he wants to reconnect with music as part of his healing journey. He thought I would be the perfect person to help him do that because of how I had reconnected with music as part of my healing journey. (At the Rotary performance, I had mentioned my music compositions were created as part of my own process of reconnecting with music after a 20-year absence.)

But, he was concerned he was too old to learn how to create music again. (He is in his 60’s.)

Of course, when he shared that part of his story, I melted. I was immediately attracted to the challenge of helping him find and reintegrate the wounded parts of his soul through music. I assured him age is not an issue because music of the soul is timeless.

We exchanged email addresses and he said he would look over his calendar and get back to me with some available dates and times.

As I was walking him to my studio’s exit stairway, I extended my hand in farewell. He shook it, but he then said, “That will be our last handshake ever.”

I looked at him, puzzled. I wondered . . . a germ phobia maybe . . . ??

But, no. He grinned and said, “I hug everyone, so next time, it will be a hug.”

I stopped breathing for a moment.

I don’t know this guy . . . we spoke a few minutes at the Rotary event and we had a 20-minute conversation today. I find him overbearing and, frankly, a bit disrespectful in a slick, arrogant way. Moreover, he is very large . . . tall, and broad-shouldered . . . about twice my size. I find myself wanting to keep a modest physical distance from him because my gut says I shouldn’t quite trust him to be aware and observant of my organic boundaries.

I most certainly would not feel comfortable hugging him at this point in time.

So, tonight, I’m lying in bed trying to figure out how to handle this. I know for sure he won’t do anything extreme (like grope my breasts or make sexual comments), but I fear he is expecting me to submit to close physical contact I don’t want (as in close-contact hugs).

I get that being a “big teddy bear” and hugging everyone as a way to demonstrate the generosity of his heart is all part of his personal branding. He doesn’t mean to be overbearing, he just wants to “spread the love”. His heart is in the right place.

I guess allowing him to do what he does wouldn’t be so bad . . . it would just be hugs . . . and his intent is purely motivated. I could just hold my breath and get through it so we could move onto the lesson . . .

Maybe I’m being overly sensitive . . .

(This is the point in my conversation with myself where I reach down deep and grab onto my newly formed way of being . . . . )

But . . . NO!

If I don’t want him to hug me, I don’t have to allow him to hug me. This is my studio, my sanctuary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let someone repeatedly come into my studio and pressure me into having physical contact I don’t want to have.

I know that place of silent compliance all too well. It is a way of being that forces me into being numb and absent from my body.

I won’t go numb and I won’t leave my body in order to placate a client’s ego. I refuse to require myself to remain hyper vigilant while sitting in close proximity with him at the piano . . . or as he enters and leaves my studio . . . always ready to pull away or fight him off (or go all complaint and numb) if he reaches out for my body . . .

No, I won’t allow him to bring tension and fear into my studio.

If I’m going to give him lessons, I have to know he is going to keep his hugs and his hands and his body away from me.

So . . . now . . . how do I go about establishing this boundary without vomiting the weight of my historical pain all over him . . . ??


  1. Good decision. Given his background he should certainly understand that people may have trauma in their background and have boundaries they need respecting.

    Hope you managed to sort it out.

    • Hey, Evan –

      One would think he would be sensitive to what all could be in people’s backgrounds . . .

      – Marie

  2. Very good decision. I’ll be interested to learn how you addressed this with him. This is a boundary I’ve had to enforce on numerous occasions. I’ve found the simplest truthful explanation is best: “I’m not comfortable hugging people unless they are good personal friends. I know you’ll understand.”

    Although I’ve also used the excuse (which is true in my case) that I often have pinched nerves in my back and shoulders, and even a simple hug can be excruciatingly painful.

    • Hey, David –

      This business of setting boundaries is still new to me, so it is helpful to hear suggestions like the ones you give here . . they sound firm but reasonable to me!

      – Marie

  3. He’s probably one of those ushie gooshie people who feels they need to spread their good will everywhere. Actually those people can be really great, but often don’t realize they are too much for some people.

    I have never had problems setting personal boundaries and I feel there is no reason you have to hug him, and shouldn’t if you feel uncomfortable. I think the words David provided are quite perfect: “I’m not comfortable hugging people unless they are good personal friends. I know you’ll understand.”

    If he disagrees or pushes back (hopefully he won’t) just repeat those words, maybe prefacing with the words “I’m serious. I’m not comfortable . . .” . You don’t need to explain whys or wherefores. If he is persistent beyond that, then HE has a problem with boundaries and maybe you shouldn’t teach him.

    • Hey, Susan –

      You make some great points here . . . if he (or anyone) can’t honor my boundaries, I don’t have to deal with him . . . that is a concept I’m still learning to implement.

      – Marie

  4. Eh…I get a bad vibe about this guy from your description. He sounds like the type who won’t listen no matter what you tell him, won’t respect boundaries, etc.

    I say, try once and if he acts out of line even a little, kick him to the curb pronto.

    • Hey, Aaron –

      So, do you think this is a situation where it would be good to get confirmation that he understands the boundary before going into the first lesson?

      – Marie

      • Marie, probably it would be good to get some confirmation before the first lesson. With a guy (I almost said jerk, hehe) like this, I think being really direct and serious is probably a necessity.

        You could call or speak with him at some point and say, “You know, I want to give you lessons but I’m a little concerned that you said you would be hugging me in the future. Given that you are aware I’ve had difficulties and traumas in my past, I am a little unsettled that you are saying what I am or am not going to do in terms of greetings with you. I don’t feel comfortable hugging and I need to be sure before we start out lessons that you will 100 percent respect my physical space.”

        It might be overkill, but better safe than sorry. Listen to your gut!

        • Hey, Aaron –

          I know I feel better knowing expectations and/or boundaries are established up front! It does seem like I shouldn’t have to set this boundary, but I guess some people need help knowing what is acceptable behavior.

          – Marie

  5. Hi Maria,

    Sayng you do not want and do not do hugs seems like a normal boundary. Even saying no that way, without explaining further is a good boundary. You are saying no, while keeping your privacy and private reasons to yourself. Hugging teachers is not a normal thing that normal people do.

    I think it is great and shows great progress that you knew you had a right to say no. Good and healing thoughts to you.


    • Hey, Kate –

      You make such a common sense point . . . hugging teachers is not a normal thing that normal people do, at least at the beginning of a relationship.

      Thanks for giving me credit for making progress!

      – Marie

  6. He has to have some training about this and how assuming a hug is proper and okay without asking. Just keep your distance and if he takes a step forward for the hug, put up your hand, just a bit, not up in his face and take a causious, small step back. That’s telling him to stop, not screaming rape. He should understand. You don’t have to explain a thing, that’s not required, you only have to say, “no”. Good luck with however you choose to handle this.

    • Hey, Ivory –

      I like your point that telling him to stop is not anywhere close to screaming rape. He should have training on this, at least, one would hope, given his job description. But, if he thinks he knows everything, he probably wouldn’t use any training he might have received.

      – Marie

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