I was surprised to find “Good Will Hunting” on our DVD recorded movies list. Apparently my oldest son, Matt recorded it thinking it was about guns. A great movie, and it was the bit at the end that settled an eternal question for me. Matt Damon hugs Robin Williams and says: “Doesn’t this violate the doctor/patient relationship?” and Robin Williams replies, “Only if you grab my arse.”
So, let’s get to the bottom of this once and for all. If it is OK for therapeutic couples to hug, then here are some types of therapy room hugs that might be considered appropriate:
The Stealth Hug: This happened for me about eight years ago. I saw her in the corridor wearing a green jumper and a black pleated skirt and I made a snap decision, so when I got into the room, I launched myself at her. She was quite startled, but put her arms around me and hugged. That, by the way, is the only correct response when a client stealth hugs a therapist. Had she refused, my mortification factor would have been stratospheric and I would have had to leave immediately – never to come back again. When a therapist refuses a client’s stealth hug it can make the client feel contaminated at best and the embodiment of evil at worst.
The Lonely Hug: Touching someone is a very intimate gesture. It provides warmth and creates a surge of oxytocin, the attachment/love hormone. Lonely people are sometimes oxytocin/dopamine depleted and need lots of hugs rather than mind-altering medication doled out by dull, bored and indifferent psychiatrists. Lonely people are the ones you find in long-term therapy. Lonely people are lonely because they either have no friends or their relationships have soured over the years. Sometimes a hug from their therapist can save their life.
The Therapist Initiated Hug: This has happened a few times and I really feel good about this one. I feel validated and affirmed and for me it means I have achieved what I set out to achieve in therapy and this is kind of like a reward for good work done. There’s nothing like realizing your therapist thinks you are OK in a normal, non-stalker sense.
The Bear Hug: Sometimes I get so emotional when I hug people (not just my therapist) I can get a bit carried away and end up crushing the hug recipient. I am always mindful of this in therapy. It is generally considered good manners not to crush your therapist into a small ball.
The A-Frame Hug: This is a great one because you get all the intimacy without any genital contact. It is always a good idea to keep your hands above waist level as well.
The Cheek Hug: This happened once after a very emotional session. It was interesting to note that her cheek was as cool as her handshake had been a few weeks earlier. The coolness was incongruent with the hot emotional therapeutic tension hanging in the room. I recall once thinking she was an Ice Queen. However, her mannerisms are very warm and inviting.
The Epic Fail Hug: I once went to hug my therapist and stepped on her foot with my black boot. That was four years ago and I have only just stopped blushing. The other epic fail was when my handbag slipped off my shoulder and crashed into her hip. We’ve also done the head “dosey doe” dance as well. Do you hug to the left or the right? Does the left hand go around the shoulder and the other hand hover above the waist? It gets a bit complicated.
The Short Hug: This is a kind of pat-pat hug and a really good hug to have at the end of therapy. Short, sweet and simple with no lingering aftertaste regarding transference issues. It is in essence a non-hug.
The Long Hug: Sometimes you just want to stay there forever; however even I know that is not appropriate (my therapist’s favourite word). It just feels warm, soft, soothing, inviting and suspended in time. People with abandonment/rejection/attachment issues tend to sink into this sort of hug and want to merge into the body of the therapist. This is good and needs to be verbally explored. A good therapist will provide both cognitive and behavioural experiences regarding the meaning of the hug for the client (and the therapist as well).
The Kiss: Never a good idea, this is crossing boundaries in a huge, damaging way.
The Sexual Hug: What Robin Williams said!
Hug photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 27 Aug 2012