Podcast: Hugging Strangers to Improve Mental Health
Touch is a powerful thing. From the time we’re born, and throughout our lives, humans need touch to thrive and develop properly. Sadly, many people in our culture experience a profound lack of caring and respectful platonic touch. Today’s guest, Rev. Edie Weinstein, has a remedy for this. She is the founder of Hug Mobsters Armed With Love, which offers FREE HUGS events for the public.
Tune in to discover how Edie got started in the hugging “business,” the ins and outs of giving free hugs in public, and how she manages to gently navigate our culture’s understandable wariness of inappropriate touch.
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Guest information for ‘Edie Weinstein – Hugging’ Podcast Episode
REV. EDIE WEINSTEIN, MSW, LSW, Love Ambassador, Opti-Mystic & Bliss Mistress
Edie delights in inviting people to live rich, full, juicy lives. She is an internationally recognized, sought after, colorfully creative journalist, interviewer, author and editor, a dynamic and inspiring speaker, licensed social worker and interfaith minister, BLISS coach, event producer, certified Laughter Yoga Leader, certified Cuddle Party facilitator, and Cosmic Concierge.
Edie is the founder of Hug Mobsters Armed With Love, which offers FREE HUGS events world- wide on a planned and spontaneous basis. She speaks on the subjects of wellness, relationships, trauma recovery, addiction, mental health, spirituality, sexuality, loss and grief. Edie is the author of The Bliss Mistress Guide To Transforming the Ordinary Into the Extraordinary and co-author of Embraced By the Divine: The Emerging Woman’s Gateway to Power, Passion and Purpose.
About The Psych Central Podcast Host
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Edie Weinstein – Hugging’ Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to the Psych Central Podcast, where guest experts in the field of psychology and mental health share thought-provoking information using plain, everyday language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Podcast. Calling into the show today we have Edie Weinstein, who is a licensed social worker and a PsychCentral.com blogger. She’s also the founder of Hug Mobsters Armed with Love and the author of the book Bliss Mistress. Edie, welcome to the show.
Edie Weinstein: Thank you, Gabe. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.
Gabe Howard: Well, we really appreciate having you. And the biggest question that I want to ask you and I’ve really been looking forward to this interview. How did you land on a hugs? I mean, of all the things in the world, hugging just seems both so obvious and so far away. Can you talk about this for a moment?
Edie Weinstein: Oh, for more than a moment, actually, we could do the whole interview on that.
Gabe Howard: Yeah.
Edie Weinstein: I grew up in a very nurturing family. Nobody left the house without hugs. And I love you. Nobody came back in without hugs and I love you. Unlike a lot of people, sadly, a lot of people’s home’s touch was either violent, coercive, non-existent, limited sexual or not by consent. In my home, it was purely by consent and abundant. So I told my parents they raised me to do this kind of work. And I came upon the free hugs movement. There is a gentleman named Juan Mann. People want to Google it, it’s J U A N M A N N. And one day he went into his town square with a sign that said free hugs. He had moved there, I believe, from England and was lonely. And something like 20 minutes went by. Nobody came up to him. People walked by, looked at him like, what the heck is this weird guy doing? And then this older woman came up to him and they embraced. And then people started gathering around and a movement was born. In 2014, Valentine’s Day weekend, I brought a group of friends to 30th Street Station, which is the big train station in Philadelphia. We let ourselves loose there, about a dozen of us who walked around the train station with our free hug signs offering people love. And we did a free hugs flashmob and it’s only by consent.
Edie Weinstein: We didn’t kamikaze hug anybody. We didn’t go grab people. We asked, would you like a hug? And if they said yes, we’d hug them. And if they’d say no, we say, okay, thank you. Hug somebody. Well, one of the people that approached us was a gentleman who was an Iraq war vet. He was the only survivor of his platoon. And he had survivor’s guilt. And he said, I thought about ending my life until I met you people. Can I join you? So, of course, we gave him a sign and he was off to the races himself. And I thought, wow, we’ve really got something here. Hugs, save lives. And I hadn’t realized how much until a few months later, on the way home from the gym, I had a heart attack at age 55. And as part of my cardiac rehab, I walked around Doylestown, Pennsylvania, which is closer to home than Philly, doing free hugs strolls because hugs are heart friendly, not just cardiac friendly, but emotionally heart friendly. And they connect us heart to heart. So friends started calling us “hug mobsters,” and I said, oh, mobsters, Mafia, guns, drugs. Nah, I don’t think so. And I said, what about Hug Mobsters Armed with Love? And thus a movement was, well, it wasn’t born, but it was extended beyond what one man did. So I do it any and every where I can.
Gabe Howard: That is incredible and I love everything about it. And my favorite phrase in there might be, “We aren’t hug kamikazes.” I come from a loving family as well. We’re huggers, I always tell people that I am a hugger and
Edie Weinstein: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Kamikaze hugs. Again, my new favorite phrase. That’s how we hug. I mean, people just charge you and hug you in my family. But of course, that’s my family. I’m on a first name basis with all of these people. How does this work in the real world? You know, at first, I was like, man, if you just like grab people, that that seems like a really bad idea. But if you just walk up to a stranger and say, can I give you a hug? I’m not going to lie, that also seems like a really bad idea. How are you bridging those gaps?
Edie Weinstein: Well, a couple of things, particularly in the era of #MeToo, we want to be really careful about how we touch people because anything can be misinterpreted. And on the flip side, we want to be sure that we don’t buy into the touch deprivation that so much a part of American culture. So the kamikaze hugs even people in my life, if I’m not sure if they want to hug, I’ll say, can I give you a hug, would you like a hug? And when I’m out on the street having a Hug Mobster sign helps. People look at it like, OK, what is that? Or if I carry a sign that says free hugs or if I wear a t shirt that indicates that I’m doing free hugs. When I do it out on the street somewhere, like I was in Washington, D.C., hugging in front of the White House, and there were people from all over the world, all different cultures, some of them huggier cultures than others. And even that, you know, I would approach people and say, may I give you a hug or would you like to share a hug? Some people are hungry for it. Some say, no, thank you, nah, I’m good. When they say, no, I don’t want it, they’ll say, nah, I’m good. And I say, I know you’re good, but hug somebody. So, yeah, it does feel kind of weird and culturally, sadly, because I’m a woman, it’s less threatening. Because I’ve had male friends go on hug strolls with me and some of them are a little leery about reaching out to hug people. So this is changing the culture, okay. Changing touch culture, changing relationship culture.
Gabe Howard: I remember early on in my career, for those who don’t know I’m six foot three, I’m two hundred and seventy five pounds, I’m broad shoulders, I’m just a giant of a man. And as I mentioned, my family are all huggers. And when I first got started, people would just come up and hug me. And I loved that. That was amazing to me. And as I got more comfortable in my role as a speaker and a presenter and a public figure, for lack of a better word, I just started randomly hugging people back. I work in mental health, so there’s more women than men. But one time I went in for a hug and somebody put up their hand and said, no, no, no, I’m not a hugger. And you should be careful, Gabe, because if people have a history of trauma, people don’t like that. I mean, you know, you’re a man coming in. And I thought about that for a moment. And now I have the phrase, are you a hugger?
Edie Weinstein: Yep, yep.
Gabe Howard: And that’s what I say. You know, people come up and they talk to me and they’re like, you know, gay, blah, blah, blah. And I’m like, oh, are you a hugger? And I open up my arms. And if they say, no, I’m not. I say, well, I’m giving you a mental hug or I’m
Edie Weinstein: Yes.
Gabe Howard: I’m hugging you in our mind. And I reach out my hand or I shake their hands or I just do whatever they want. But you’re right. This idea that hugging is natural has sort of. It’s just weird for me. I’m not going to lie because I think that a hug is just something that you do for everybody. Whereas in other cultures, kissing hello is perfectly normal. And I think that’s very weird. So are the majority of people receptive or are the majority of people not receptive? Like, what’s your ratio there? How many people accept the hugs?
Edie Weinstein: Ok. Well, most are receptive.
Gabe Howard: Nice.
Edie Weinstein: When I first started doing this, more people said no because I was uncertain. Anytime you approach someone with a new idea, the more confident you are, the more people are gonna be receptive. Because they sense that energy. Now it’s a few people they know. They say thank you. Thanks for taking care of yourself. Not everybody is into this. And I will do that like if I’m meeting somebody and they’ll hold out their hand. I think that’s what you said. Are you a hugger? They say, oh, yes. And I’ll hug them and they say no, and I will shake a hand. And when people say no to a physical embrace, I’ll say, are you cool with a handshake? High five? Fist bump, virtual hug? Where I’ll wrap my arms around myself and imagine hugging them and usually they will say yes. There are times when I’ve hugged hundreds of people in a day. I go to different events like this summer, there were four Pride Fests, and I probably hugged a few hundred people throughout, you know, a full day. And I don’t keep track. Somebody said, oh, you should have a clicker. I don’t want to do that because it takes away from the quality of what I’m doing. Quantity to me doesn’t much matter. What’s the impact? It’s a ripple effect. I’m not totally altruistic. I do it for myself, too, because it helps me feel connected to the world. You know, when I hug people, I don’t know what their politics are, who they voted for. I don’t know what their religion is unless they tell me. I don’t know what their gender orientation or sexual orientation is. And it doesn’t matter. I just want the world to be a kinder, more loving place. And if hugs can help with that, I’m all on board with it.
Gabe Howard: The next question that I want to ask is surrounding like the worst case scenario. You said that the majority of people are accepting the hugs. You’ve talked about the people who don’t want hugs are just like, oh, no, thank you. And you say, hey, you should hug somebody today. And they say, OK. And they wander off. Have you gotten any truly bad reactions? Has anybody just flipped out?
Edie Weinstein: Never. Nope. The most is somebody says no, I’m not really into hugs or no, thank you. You know, I’ve never had that. But again, I think it’s because I’m a 5 foot, 4 inch woman. I have purple hair sometimes and I wear colorful clothing. So I’m not particularly threatening. But the coolest things that come out of this are the types of people that have said yes. I celebrate the anniversary of my heart attack as a brand new life experience, and I always do free hug strolls. On my third cardio-versary, a friend of mine who’s a filmmaker followed me around South Street in Philadelphia, and there was this beautiful Muslim woman dressed, I wouldn’t say in full hijab. Her face was uncovered, her head, and she comes up to me and she offers me a hug and she says, Who wouldn’t want a hug? And she was kind of gesturing and moving her body around. Who wouldn’t want to hug. And some people don’t. They say that they don’t want them. And she lifted up her finger and pointed at me. And she says even when they say they don’t they don’t want them, they need them. And I thought if the people who espouse hatred see this beautiful woman who is probably in her 40s, I’m guessing, talking about the power of hugs to connect people and that the needs that they meet, they couldn’t possibly hate.
Edie Weinstein: So I think that’s part of it. The other thing that’s important, too, is children. When there are children around that I offer a hug to, I say to the parent, if it’s okay with you and okay with your child, may I hug your child? If the parent says yes, a child says no, I won’t touch them. And I’ll say to the child, nobody touches you without your permission. So it’s OK that you’re saying no. When I was in D.C., there was a family from the Dominican Republic and it was a mom and dad, and like a 7 or 8 year old boy. And he didn’t want hugs at first. And I said, OK, will you do fist bumps or high fives? And he did both of those. So a few minutes later, before I left, he approaches me and opens his arms. So he was asking me for a hug. So I’m a consent educator and this is about consent as well.
Gabe Howard: We’ll be right back after these messages.
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Gabe Howard: We’ll be right back after these messages.
Gabe Howard: We’re back speaking with Edie Weinstein, a licensed social worker, about the power of hugging. So let’s talk about consent for a moment. As you pointed out, you’re a consent educator. And early on when I was a young boy, I was always told that no means no. Later on, I was told, listen, we have to get rid of no means no because it’s not thorough. And we wanted to hear. Yes, means yes. This opened up a world of understanding for me, because when you hear a yes, you know that you have permission. Can you talk about that a little bit? Because I really do think that people are fuzzy on what consent is. And that’s so unfortunate.
Edie Weinstein: Absolutely. Well, it’s perfect timing because I’ve just started teaching a class with a friend who’s also in the same field that I am called, “Yes, No, Maybe So: The Conscious Consent and Boundaries Workshop.” And we just did our first one together on Sunday. And the way that we define it, define consent is that it’s saying yes, just to touch, but a wholehearted yes to whatever it is that’s being offered to us or asked of us. And if I’m not a full blown heck yes, then I’m a heck no. Okay? I don’t have to say yes. Those of us who are co-dependent and I count myself among them, people pleasers. My husband used to say I was an emotional contortionist who’d bend over backwards to please people. I would often say yes when I really wanted to say no. I didn’t want anybody to feel rejected and I didn’t want to be rejected. So, consent is all bound up in that as well. That when we give our full, wholehearted consent to something, we are on board with it. I consented to this interview. I may have been wishy washy about it, and if I’m wishy washy about something. I won’t do it until I’m sure that this is what I want to do.
Edie Weinstein: And I’ve been that way all my life that I’ve had to think things through before I jump into it. And once I’m there, I’m all in. So, consent for me is about, okay, can I be all in to whatever is being offered to me or asked of me? And that could be touch. It could be sex. It could be a gift. It could be a commitment to do something with someone. So that’s why it’s important. When my son, who’s now 32, was a boy, we talked a lot about not only no means no, but only yes means yes. And not just from him, but to him. I said, if somebody wants to touch you in a way that you don’t want to be touched, no matter who it is, it’s no. And you’re allowed and you’re encouraged, and you’re expected to say no if you’re not comfortable. And to the best of my knowledge, he you know, he’s been appropriate with anybody he’s ever been in relationship with. I’ve never worried about him crossing boundaries and touching somebody inappropriately. And I wanted him to know that he had the freedom and the self body sovereignty to say no to anybody touching him if he didn’t want it.
Gabe Howard: And I think that some of this goes back to what you were saying about getting consent from children. I do not have children, but the majority of my friends and family do. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard. Oh, don’t be that way. Give your uncle a hug or stop that. You say hello and give them a hug. I understand the say hello. I understand the make eye contact. I understand being socially appropriate, but it does shift a little when you demand that somebody occupy your physical space. Right? My question specifically in this isn’t so much about consent, but it’s about how do you teach somebody, especially a child, the benefits and the value of hugging without forcing them to hug a bunch of people?
Edie Weinstein: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: It’s difficult, right, it’s difficult for a parent because like you said, touch is so valuable and so important, but you don’t want to force somebody to do it.
Edie Weinstein: Right. In the 1960s and 70s, I’m 61, the common thing was, oh, go hug aunt so and so. You don’t want her to feel bad.
Gabe Howard: Right.
Edie Weinstein: One of the things that I encourage children to do, if I was a parent dealing with this and what I would tell the child if the person wanted a hug. They don’t owe anybody a hug. If I was going to a family gathering with a child, even as old as an adolescent, I would say there’s gonna be people here that you don’t know. How do you want to greet them? Now, what would be a good way for you to feel comfortable to greet them? And if they’re people that you do know, know, how would you like to greet this person? Well, I would like to shake their hand or I would like to do a high five or fist bump. And so it’s preparing them in advance. So listen to somebodies words and watch their body language, their non-verbal cues. If you’re an adult witnessing, and it doesn’t have to be anything horrible, it’s not like somebody who’s molesting the child. But if you see a child being uncomfortable with physical behavior from an adult, you can step in and say, OK, enough, enough, stop. And take that firm stand, because that way that child will feel like they have an ally, that they have a voice, and that you’re encouraging their voice.
Gabe Howard: And I think it’s important for anybody listening to understand that obviously the best hugs. Just like anything else in life are ones freely given. We have to consider whether it’s a child, whether it’s your mom, whether it’s whom ever a co-worker or a stranger on the street. If they’re hugging you out of obligation, it’s diminishing the return significantly. I don’t want to hug somebody that doesn’t want to hug me because somebody who is bigger than them and had power over them told them to.
Edie Weinstein: Absolutely.
Gabe Howard: It kind of ruins it a bit.
Edie Weinstein: Absolutely. And if you’re on the receiving end, wouldn’t you want somebody to hug you willingly?
Gabe Howard: Yes.
Edie Weinstein: Doesn’t that feel so much better? And there are times like, for example, if you’re in a relationship and your partner is not feeling so hot and you say, would you like a hug? And they say, no, really, I just want to be by myself. Forcing a hug on them isn’t listening to what they’re saying. And there are some people that when they don’t feel well, whether it’s a physical condition or an emotional condition, that they just want their space. It’s not a rejection of you or the love that you want to offer them. That’s hard too. If somebody is saying, well, I have all this love to give and I know that by hugging them, I’m going to make them feel better. It’s not about them. You’re making it about you.
Gabe Howard: Exactly.
Edie Weinstein: Yeah, I mean, my primary love language is touch, but there are people in my life that are not. That’s not their primary love language. I have wonderful nurturing friends, who would never do a free hugs event with me. They’d never go out and do that. I also teach a workshop called Cuddle Party, which is about nurturing non-sexual platonic touch for adults. And there are people that in my life that would never go to one. My son included. He says, Mom, the day I go to a cuddle party is the day you get in a wrestling ring or go to a shooting range. It so happens. So but he’s very. However, he’s very affectionate with me, with his wife, with his friends. But his style is very different. I’m his weird hippie mom who does all this bizarre stuff. It’s slightly embarrassing for my 32 year old.
Gabe Howard: You know, Edie, along the lines of that weird hippie mom statement that you just made, when I first became aware of you and to be clear, we’re co-workers over at Psych Central. So you’re not just some random person I found on the Internet. We have an actual working relationship. And even then, I thought, what is this? And
Edie Weinstein: Everybody, bizarre woman here.
Gabe Howard: You know, I’m kind of on guard for this. As the host of the podcast, I talk to a lot of people. I get a lot of guest pitches. As an associate editor over at Psych Central, I read a lot of the submissions and there’s a lot of what I like to call misinformation out in the world, especially surrounding mental illness and psychiatry and the treatment for mental health conditions, mental illness, etc. And just to disclose, when it, when I first saw this, I thought, well, this doesn’t make any sense. I mean, just randomly hugging people, that’s not going to do anything. But I’ve also learned to keep an open mind and I read your articles, I read the information that you provided. And of course, again, we’re coworkers. I know you. It makes it a little easier. And I realized that, yeah, because you’re not saying that hugging it cures mental illness. You’re not saying that hugging prevents depression. All you’re saying is that hugging has intrinsic value and that kindness has intrinsic value. And that value reverberates out into your life and into the lives of others in a very positive and meaningful ways.
Edie Weinstein: Right.
Gabe Howard: And I wish more people would understand that when, you know, they roll their eyes at this, because, you know, some people do. And I think if
Edie Weinstein: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: They really thought about it, they would realize that, oh, my God, we’re sitting on the simple solution to feeling disconnected. And here we are.
Edie Weinstein: Yeah, I totally agree, and as I said, hugs save lives. I don’t know what happened with the gentleman that hugged us initially, five years ago. I don’t even know if I’d recognize him if I saw him again. But I also know that for the people who experienced this, the feedback that I get from them, they don’t feel so alone. There’s another form of hugging that I do. It’s called free mom hugs. Have you ever heard of that?
Gabe Howard: I have not.
Edie Weinstein: Ok. Free mom hugs got started probably around the same time as Hug Mobsters did. There’s a woman named Sarah Cunningham and she was a devout, she’s still a devout, Christian whose son came out to her as a gay man and she went into a tailspin. She thought, oh my goodness, how can I love God and love my son and not have to choose between them? So she had a dark night of the soul, like a lot of people do, if their kids come out to them and she realized she didn’t have to make a choice. So Parker invited her to go to a pride fest in Oklahoma City, and she made up a sign that said free mom hugs with the idea that those who come out to their parents don’t often get hugs, though she said by the end of the day, she was covered with tears and glitter because a lot of the people that she hugged sobbed because they didn’t have the kind of parents that she was for her son. And she thought, just like I did, I’ve got something here. So she took it on the road. So I’m part of free mom hugs. You can actually look that Web site up too, free mom hugs. There’re chapters probably in all 50 states. And when I went to the Pride Fest, I hugged a lot of young people whose parents rejected them when they came out and they said our parents would never do that. There’s also free dad hugs. So that healed. I can’t tell you how many lives that kind of hugging changes when they feel accepted by a maternal or paternal figure, even if it’s not their own. And yes, I’m sure there are articles out there that talk about the mental health healing, power of safe, nurturing, platonic touch by consent. And that’s how I would categorize what I do.
Gabe Howard: Well, that is incredible. Edie, we are about at the end of our time. Can you tell folks how to find you and how to find your book, Bliss Mistress?
Edie Weinstein: They could find it on Amazon, The Bliss Mistress Guide to Transforming the Ordinary into the Extraordinary. They can find me on my Web site www.opti-mystical.com. So that’s my Web site. I’m also on Facebook. My son calls me a Facebook addict. But it’s Edie Weinstein, W E I N S T E I N, and I encourage you to be in touch with me and hug somebody today starting with yourself. So I invite whoever is listening to wrap their arms around themselves and then take it out to the street.
Gabe Howard: Well, thank you so much for being here, and I could not agree more. Hug as many people as possible and I really like the idea of hugging yourself. Thank you again for being here.
Edie Weinstein: My pleasure, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: And remember, everyone, you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counselling anytime, anywhere, simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Also, wherever you downloaded this podcast, give us as many stars, hearts or bullet points as you feel appropriate and use your words. Tell people why you liked the show. And finally, share us on social media. Email us to everybody you know and we will see everyone next week.
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Central Podcast, T. (2020). Podcast: Hugging Strangers to Improve Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 20, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/podcast-hugging-strangers-to-improve-mental-health/