The word “stranger” has been on my mind lately.
It keeps finding me everywhere! It might have something to do with that show on Netflix I have been binge watching…
But then, also this past week, I was lucky to attend a talk by author and researcher Brené Brown. She teaches a lot about vulnerability, empathy, shame, and courage.
And here is one of her slides:
“Hold hands. With strangers.” It’s a whole chapter in her latest book “Braving the Wilderness”.
I’m not sure if Brené Brown meant this to be more figurative. But as a professional cuddler, I know all about literally holding hands with strangers. And I kind of like it.
If that sounds a little affronting to you, you’re not the only one. The idea of any kind of closeness with strangers – physical or emotional – really bugs us.
The whole notion of “strangers” is of strangeness and unfamiliarity. There’s an inherent lack of established trust or rapport in that. We’re taught that safety is within the pack, and to fear what (and who) we don’t know.
And yet, allowing this fear to dictate who we connect to, can shortchange us from finding community and connection.
Our Discomfort is a Clue
Learning how to get close to strangers hasn’t always been easy for me.
In the hundreds of people I have hugged and cuddled in the course of my career, I have come up against plenty – if not all – of my own prejudices. I’ve discovered biases I didn’t even know I had!
What I have learned about myself is that in most cases, any discomfort I face has little or nothing to do with my actual physical or emotional safety. It’s usually simply a sign that I have some judgement held against that person – or with the associations and assumptions I make about them. My prejudices often show up in the form of fear.
Take a pause with me for a moment. Think about who you imagine when you think of a stranger. Chances are, you’re not imagining someone who is just like you.
Even though there are many folks you haven’t met who could be just your type of person, you’re most likely imagining someone who feels very different, and even a little threatening to you.
I can tell you right now, that what I imagine as “strangers” are the people who challenge my biases. People who are from a different cultural background, who have a different skin color, folks of a certain gender, belief system, “attractiveness level”, neurological type, or socioeconomic class. The list goes on.
The thing that makes them strangers to me, is simply my own concept about who they are.
Learning to Bridge the Gap
So are we supposed to just suck it up, and hug and cuddle with everyone we’re uncomfortable with? Nope. Not at all. Ever.
Actually, the first step in creating any kind of connection is to feel safe. And sometimes that means choosing not to connect.
In order to be able to really be present with others, I had to first give myself permission to prioritize my own needs. That meant learning to say “No”.
Not everyone is a safe person for me to be around. Not every single person is the right client for my practice. Nor can just anyone meet my needs at any given moment.
Creating a space that’s just for me, and establishing boundaries around what I’m comfortable with and what I’m not was the first step.
And then, once I feel a sense of autonomy and empowerment, I open myself up to inquiry. I get curious about myself and my reservations. Then I get really curious about these strangers. I start to notice what we have in common.
What unfolds is always the same. I start to discover the depth of humanity we share. I find that we are more alike than we are different. We learn together, that there is always something we can connect on. We are all fumbling our way through humanity together. At the end of the day, what is strange is the concept of strangers.
The Stranger the Better
On the other side of our fear of strangers is a big reward. My most powerful experiences from cuddling – both in my personal wellness practice and as well my job – have come from the times I have connected with those outside of my natural sphere of comfort.
There is something inexplicably potent about closeness with someone new and different.
Intimacy with a stranger means you don’t carry any relational baggage into your connection. It means that the other person is really present to who you are right now. Not some memory of who you were in the past. That can be an extremely freeing feeling.
It also gives me the feeling of being connected to humanity as a whole. If someone so different from me can feel so safe, the fear and hate in the world dissolves, and I am filled with hope.