Would you ever hug your therapist?
What if that therapist were a man and you were a woman or vice versa?
Would you allow your child’s therapist to initiate or receive hugs?
I’m a firm believer in the power of love and compassion to open doors, change minds, and renew hearts. Sometimes, in order to be of true help, we have to reach out to people in ways we would have never thought we would. And that often begins with touch or a heartfelt hug.
This article will discuss touch and whether it should happen in therapy.
Have you ever questioned why our society sexualizes everything? I have and it’s sickening! We don’t have to sexualize everything to the extent of causing paranoia and fear when touch becomes apart of a relationship, even a professional one. Sometimes touch does the very thing words cannot. For some cultures, age groups, and certain clients, touch can convey a lot and reach the most resistant heart.
It wasn’t until I became regarded as “an expert” in child trauma a few years ago that I truly gave my undivided attention to the power of touch, mainly hugs. I realized during my training that I often developed close therapeutic relationships with my young clients (ages 5-19) which often consisted of building relational and emotional trust first before I could do any therapy. Sometimes it would take weeks, if not months, to build a strong relationship with these youngers. Once I did, the therapeutic relationship was able to flourish because of one important element…hugs. Touch has been essential to most of my work with kids, teens, and families.
For the youngsters who did not have parents (or had absent parents), lacked emotional stability, and yearned for a maternal figure, I found hugs to be essential to the progression of their trust of me. But it certainly is a fine line walk. Boundaries must be respected and frequently checked to ensure adherence.
A random hug, a touch on the arm, or a pat on the shoulder can all make this cold world a bit warmer or the end of a session a bit easier. To have the ability to reach out to others and support them through touch when needed is, for the most part, an honor. Just think about it. When do you ever get a chance to hug someone in your daily life? Of course, you hug your family. But that’s quite different from hugging someone who is crying, struggling with a divorce, seeking love in all the wrong places, or struggling with a terrifying flashback.
Mental health professionals are often the first line of contact for someone in crisis. Therapists must “bring along” a host of tools to assist the person in crisis and bring them back to a place of balance and equilibrium. But it’s important for me to mention that some tools simply don’t work. No philosophical jargon, no breathing technique, no reverse psychology, no cognitive restructuring, no challenging of inaccurate thoughts, no co-regulation of emotions, no validation, etc. can take the place of a firm therapist-client relationship and the tool of touch.
Touch is a human thing that we cannot avoid. In fact, if we avoid touch completely, we miss very important emotional messages that we convey through personal touch. We all know that there are different kinds of touch and some forms of touch are completely inappropriate. Sexualized touch should NEVER occur with a client. And it’s important that boundaries remain firm if any such meaning is derived from therapist-client touch. Unfortunately, because some very unethical therapists have used touch as manipulation or to gain sexual dominance over the client, the ethics code for professionals provides guidelines to keep everyone in the therapeutic relationship safe.
Laura Guerrero, coauthor of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships, who researches nonverbal and emotional communication at Arizona State University, says:
“if you’re close enough to touch, it’s often the easiest way to signal something….We feel more connected to someone if they touch us.”
Although I have tons of reasons for why therapeutic touch can be helpful, I believe touch can be therapeutic because:
- We cannot/should not avoid connection to others: As basic as this is to understand, some people forget that a connection to others is inevitable. Everywhere you go there is always someone around (movie theaters, stores, public transportation, parks, shopping centers, etc.). We are constantly in contact with each other. As a result, we should not attempt to avoid contact with others but instead, learn how to connect and make it appropriate.
- We are relational beings: When you are feeling depressed or anxious about something do you look for someone to talk to? Do you look for a friend or pet to comfort you? Do you feel better once you have been consoled? If so, this is because you are a relational being who relies on the comfort and love of others to cope. Most people do. Life definitely hurts sometimes and to have someone near to provide physical comfort, can make the pain a bit more easy to cope with. Clients feel the same exact way.
- We should never neglect our intuition: Our intuition can tell us a lot about whether or not touch would be appropriate. It’s very important for therapists to be mindful of their client’s history of abuse, sexual assault, or other traumatic past that could cause resistance to touch. Clients should also consider that perhaps their therapist has a trauma history too that could make touch undesirable. Personally, I allow my clients to initiate hugs and only allow touch from clients who understand healthy boundaries and has shown a great deal of respect. It’s important therapists protect themselves from clients who may attempt to use touch to manipulate. Clients should also be wise.
- Insensitivity to touch can lead to therapeutic failure: I have had the unfortunate experience of witnessing therapists in training “fail” to connect with a client who eventually drops out of therapy unexpectedly. Although this may not have been due to lack of appropriate physical proximity, it could have been. Proximity says a lot about how you feel about the person you are relating to. Distance can convey cold feelings. Closeness can convey acceptance and trust. Clients who are encouraged to, for example, create a “trauma narrative” or relive a bothersome experience may benefit from close proximity.
- We should develop a balanced view of touch: It is my experience that there are therapists who are completely opposed to touch out of fear of “crossing the line” with some clients. These therapists do not believe touch is an important part of therapy and will use other forms of communication to convey compassion and empathy. While this is totally okay and often representative of their therapeutic style, it is important that mental health professionals develop a balanced view and learn how to utilize it when necessary. It is also important that clients respect whatever stance their therapist has on the issue.
How do you feel about this topic? Is it appropriate?
As always, I wish you well.
Association of Directors Of Psychology Training Clinics. (2006). Training students on the ethics of touch in psychotherapy. Retrieved August 30, 2018 from, https://www.aptc.org/news/112006/article_one.html.
Psychology Today. (2014). The Power of Touch. Retrieved May 2,2015, from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201302/the-power-touch.
Photo by ricardomoraleida
This article was originally published on May 2, 2015 but has been updated for comprehensiveness and accuracy.