Social Intimacy In the Time of Social Distancing

Buckle up. This is going to be one of those rambling rides. As a warning, it is only peripherally related to writing. But it is something I keep coming back to these days, and I think it’s stewed enough. Time to share.

Over the past few months things in the world have gotten real different, real fast. Most of us went from dropping our kids off at daycare(school), going to work, grabbing a coffee with a friend, dancing once or twice a week, maybe having a game night or bbq (or whatever your cultural equivalent is) to… being at home. That’s a helluva long list to be balanced by “life at home.”

Sure, home has cleaning and sorting to do. (Who joined me in going through two decade old photos during the first week? No one? Just me?) Then there’s the baking. Sour dough has REALLY taken off these days.

Some of us are lucky enough to be stuck with our loved ones. Spouses, partners, friends, roommates, kiddos. Yay! (Also, stress!). Some of you are on your own. Which I can’t even begin to imagine.

But the point is that we are not getting as many opportunities for social interaction as we usually get. A lot of us are seeing how shallow the majority of our online interactions are. Many of us are exploring how deep we can actually connect through the internet. Which brings me to the point of all this:

Social Intimacy Without Physical Intimacy

This morning, I woke up to a link one of my friends had shared on Facebook. I was introduced to the fun and soul-nourishing music of a guy called Cornflower. During his online session, he mentioned an idea he heard from one of his friends, “Even though we’re being told to be physically distant, we need to remain socially intimate.”

That line absolutely resonated with me, because I am one of those people who gets my intimacy through physical touch. I can show up to a party, barely talk, but spend the night in a cuddle puddle and leave feeling completely rejuvenated. I prefer hugs to hellos. I dance because I absolutely crave safe, unassuming physical contact. Touch is my language of intimacy. Besides writing, it is how I express myself.

But now I can’t shake hands. Hug. Dance. Cuddling is straight out. So what’s a girl like me to do? How can I keep that social intimacy up when all of my usual outlets have run dry? What even is social intimacy?

It should go without saying I’m not talking about romance or sex. Those kinds of intimacy are also important, but aren’t the type that most of us just had chopped off. What I’m talking about is feeling like part of group. The feeling of belonging. The release of oxytocin that comes from being accepted into a herd. How do we keep that when we can’t actually act like a herd?

Seeing and Being Seen

At Mountain Blues Camp this past summer, Jenny Sowden led a closing dance circle. Each dancer spent 8 counts in the circle, doing whatever they wanted, whether it be dancing, or simply saying goodbye. She said something that stuck with me–that it is our basic need to be seen. That we all want to be seen.

At first it stuck with me because I was riling against it. I am not the type of person who wants to be seen. I like being invisible. I hate having attention put on me. It sends my anxiety into overdrive. But that same night I had my birthday jam, and I felt not only seen, but something more… accepted. Cared for.

When I got back to Bulgaria, I kept thinking on that idea of being seen and accepted. I was in the middle of therapy for my anxiety, and my psychologist brought up the idea of acceptance and how it releases oxytocin–that feel-good hormone we associate with love? Yeah, it is less about romantic or sexual love and a whole lot more about being seen for who you are and being accepted.

Great. So we’ve established being seen for who we are–authentically seen–makes us feel safe, secure, and happy. How are we seen when we can’t gather?

A Peak Inside

The easiest way to be “seen” right now is to put ourselves online. Hello webcams. Over the past week I’ve watched quite a few from-home concerts and lectures. Things like Stefano Ronchi’s Red Sofa Concerts or Sofia from Lindy Hop Bulgaria’s lecture on musicality and phrasing. Both of these examples of sharing have a sense of raw honesty about them. We, the viewers, are invited into the place where these people live. We see not only the performer, but their family. Heck, even their laundry.

To me, that is a bit of intimacy that goes beyond our everyday social intimacy. We are suddenly seeing into the homes of people we have only known outside. I’ve also seen dancers and musicians sharing a lot less formal videos. Practice sessions. These are absolutely lovely, because they take us beyond the performative nature of our relationships and shows us interacting with something (a piece, an instrument, a damn kitchen chair). These have glimpses of authenticity.

It is that authenticity–that sharing of our real selves–that will fuel us during this time of separation.

But what if I don’t want to be seen?

The other day a friend invited me to be part of a blues zoom party. I had every intention of going. But I didn’t have energy to clean my living room, my social anxiety was in high gear, and I couldn’t find it in me to put myself out there on a medium I don’t usually feel comfortable with. (Sight but no touch? Shudder.) I had to cancel.

The next day I found myself wondering, if I can’t get the balls to put out videos and join in conference calls, how am I going to be “seen” these days? Am I going to just disappear?

Luckily, no. I got four short story acceptances this week. Although they will be published in the coming 2-6 months, those acceptances give me a great feeling of being “seen” and understood by someone else. So, at least I have that.

But what else?

Sharing ourselves is taking on many forms right now. Those posts of sour dough bread? That is a person’s work. Filling out and sharing random questionnaires? That’s a person saying, “Hey, I’m sharing parts of myself.”

Usually, we can just scroll past these social media posts. But right now, I challenge you to actually go deeper. Interact with them. “Great bread, what’s the recipe” or “I didn’t know you were on debate in high school” can go a long way right now.


  1. Put yourself out there. Share something you’re doing. Let it be raw. Let it be honest. Let it be intimate.
  2. Interact with the things people are putting out there. Recognize them for the intimacies they are, appreciate them, and let your loved ones know they are seen.

Image by Lumapoche from Pixabay


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