Some people really love hugging. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great way to show physical affection for your close friends, family, and romantic partners. However, not all of us are so keen on embracing people no matter how close we are to them. Now science has an explanation for why we feel that way.
Like many things, it’s down to how we were raised. A 2012 study published in Comprehensive Psychology revealed a somewhat obvious but important finding: people who grew up with parents or other guardians who were big huggers were way more likely to be into hugging themselves as adults. The study insisted that “hugging is an important element in a child’s emotional upbringing,” which, you know, duh.
If it’s never been your thing, it’s never going to be. Suzanne Degges-White, Counseling and Counselor Education at Northern Illinois University, told TIME that given the importance of our early childhood experiences in forming our adult selves, it’s unlikely that people who didn’t grow up with hugging as a normal part of their day to day lives would suddenly develop a love for it later in life. “In a family that was not typically physically demonstrative, children may grow up and follow that same pattern with their own kids,” she explains.
That being said, some people do defy the norm. There’s always the chance that non-huggers could grow up so starved for physical affection that they become big on it as adults. “Some children grow up and feel ‘starved’ for touch and become social huggers that can’t greet a friend without an embrace or a touch on the shoulder,” Degges-White says.
A lack of physical affection while young can affect our bodies. According to Darcia Narvaez, a professor of psychology at University of Notre Dame, two big changes occur in our bodies when we go without hugs as kids. For one, our vagus nerves (a bundle that runs from our spinal cord to our stomachs) can be underdeveloped and “decrease people’s ability to be intimate or compassionate.” And yes, there’s proof of that. Secondly, it can mess with our oxytocin system. You probably know oxytocin as the substance that allows us to bond with our children after birth and our romantic partners after sex, but its importance in bonding has more platonic purposes too.
It could come down to body insecurity. As Degges-White reveals, “People who are more open to physical touch with others typically have higher levels of self-confidence. People who have higher levels of social anxiety, in general, may be hesitant to engage in affectionate touches with others, including friends.” That makes sense. If you’re uncomfortable in your own skin, you’re not exactly going to be thrilled about other people touching it, are you?
It’s a good reason to skip hugs altogether. Unless you know someone is super into hugging and you are too, there’s no reason to do it. You can be just as friendly, compassionate, and affectionate without embracing one another. The most important thing is to make sure everyone is as comfortable as possible to keep things from being awkward.
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