I’m having a freak magnet kind of a day. I can call it that only after long experience. When I was younger, this kind of thing might have made me feel special. I might have mistaken other people’s poor boundaries, or other serious red flags, for instant intimacy.
I’m sitting in a busy cafe. Within an hour, three total strangers have interrupted me and physically touched me. One of them also touched my purse.
This is highly unusual. Let’s acknowledge that. If I were Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it’s unlikely that other people would walk up and lay their hands on me, even if the song “Lay Your Hands On Me” were playing in the background.
I have to ask myself, is there something in this situation or in my physical presence that is drawing this odd behavior from others?
First assumption: I’m in the way.
If I were standing in a crowd, like at a parade or festival, I could assume that I would be pressed against. I’ve ridden mass transit for many years and I don’t necessarily mind being squished together.
Being touched by a series of strangers could also be a sign of low situational awareness on my part. Maybe I’m blocking a doorway or I keep wandering into other people’s paths.
Second assumption: Something is visibly wrong with me and people are checking on me.
If I were having some kind of dizzy spell, if I had just been hit by a car or knocked over, if I was bleeding from a head injury and didn’t realize it yet, it wouldn’t be surprising for someone to physically steady me or try to help me sit down. I assume that if I were going into shock or having some kind of episode, I might not realize what was going on.
Third assumption: I am the victim of a prank.
Maybe someone stuck a sign on my back. Maybe I’ve unintentionally walked out of the house looking like some kind of meme, and I’m too out of the loop to know it. In this scenario, people might be interacting with me because they can hardly keep from laughing, and making eye contact or sneaking photos of me is prolonging the fun.
Lord help me, I wish I could rule out that third option forever, but I’m still haunted by this kind of thing...
Fourth assumption: I’m in the kind of neighborhood where the cultural norm is more physical than other places.
It is true that I live in a beach community with very relaxed norms. Seeing people walk down the sidewalk barefoot, or wearing only a skimpy swimsuit, is everyday and unremarkable here. Maybe the locals are also huggers and I just haven’t noticed yet.
Fifth assumption: I look approachable and people are drawn to me.
This is likely, and also hilarious to me, because it’s both true and untrue.
I happen to be wearing a set of enormous noise-cancelling headphones. My husband bought them for me specifically because they are an ostentatious signal that I am WORKING and unavailable for casual chatter. This is because he knows about my freak magnet problem. I also happen to be wearing a Warrior Dash t-shirt, a garment I’ve worn to Krav Maga lessons, and the only accessory that would make me feel more intimidating would be my kali stick.
When I left my apartment, my sartorial messages were STAY AWAY and BUSY and I MIGHT FIGHT YOU.
At least three other people looked at me in this guise and thought, I should touch this woman.
Who were they?
One, an older woman, possibly old enough to be my mom. She grabbed both of my arms from behind. What?? She wanted to joke with me about another man a few feet away who was playing air drums. Okay cool.
Two, a young man, possibly young enough to be my son. He touched my arm and started talking to me until I took my headphones off. Then he asked if I would pull down the blinds. As I did, he put his hand on my purse and held it out of the way.
Three, a young girl, probably middle school age. She tapped my arm and kept waving at me until I took my headphones off. “Hi.” She wanted to know what I was doing (“trying to get some work done”) and tell me that she and her two friends had the day off from school.
When people physically grab my arms, they have my attention. I figure they’re telling me that the building is being evacuated, or someone is trying to steal from me, or my headphones aren’t plugged in and I’m blasting everyone with a wave of sound, or I’m foaming at the mouth and having a seizure. It’s never been that.
For some mysterious reason, random people just feel impelled to do anything to get my attention.
My family has had a joke for many years. Every time we go somewhere together, someone picks me out and asks me to take their picture. The joke is that I could have a very large stolen camera collection by now! Obviously consensus opinion is that I look trustworthy, approachable, and kind. Another way to put that is: small, female, and harmless. Never mind that I’m belted in two martial arts and I have special training in how to fight with hammer, screwdriver, pen, knife, and staff. I look nice enough, don’t I?
The thing about instant intimacy is that it’s superficial. Just because someone is ready to drop their boundaries on sight doesn’t mean there is any good reason for it. Someone who becomes emotionally open and vulnerable right away may have motives hidden even from themselves.
The truth is that I’ve had this “instant intimacy” issue since I was a baby. Or so I’ve been told. It was part of my socialization as a tiny child to listen closely and with sympathy when people start spilling their life stories. They may do this with literally anyone who crosses their path; I’m just the type to regard it with compassion instead of annoyance, shock, or dread. Oh wow, someone with serious boundary issues, tell me more!
People are right when they see me as someone who is safe to approach, to interrupt, or even to grope. Apparently. I’m never going to haul off and start beating someone up or shouting at them, although I am trained in these arts and I certainly know what to do. I’m also a Free Hugs person, experienced in social services and crisis management. These are empath problems.
There are probably people who come across as seriously intimidating everywhere they go. I imagine there are people who wish they had more friends and can’t figure out what unintentional signals they are sending out. I’m not scary! Come back! I wish I knew their secrets, just like they probably wish they knew mine.
It’s incumbent on us to figure out what to do with these surface impressions. I’ve had to learn to protect my mental and emotional bandwidth. I’ve had to learn to slow that roll and set up more limits and speedbumps and tests and boundaries with all the random strangers who are drawn to me. I’ve had to learn not to mistake every approach as friendship or romance. Instant intimacy is a red flag, a signal to slow down and ask more questions. Real friendship needs more time to develop. Real, ordinary friendliness and cordial behavior is plenty.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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