32 thoughts on “Therapists Retraumatizing the Client by NOT Hugging on Request

  • November 13, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    Thank you for saying that. There have been times when I could have used a reasuring hug – but always thought it just wasn’t allowed – so I never asked. I didn’t want to be humiliated by the rejection. It would be exactly as you describe.


  • November 14, 2010 at 2:57 am

    I just love you Sonia. Keep on doing what you do. Don’t change a thing.

  • November 14, 2010 at 7:57 am

    No academic stuff here- just a reminder to therapists who opt out of hugging -in-person OR virtually via <<>> ~ if the therapist is clear about boundaries in the beginning of the relationship- the expectations, misinterpretations and retraumatizations are likely avoided.

  • November 14, 2010 at 10:36 am

    It was the hug my t gave me (that he always gives me after sessions once we established our own protocal for ending sessions and HE established the safe way he gave me the very short hug) … well it was after a very intense session and very intense week when everything in the universe had crashed at my feet… and he had given me one hug but I asked for a second one… I had a NEED that I couldn’t explain in words to him at the time… but he gave me that hug..

    Well I had planned on taking my life on that night – had planned it for a couple weeks but couldn’t exactly tell my T that because I knew he would have to put me in a hospital and I was just not going to do that. I needed something I couldn’t define and was at a place I couldn’t explain.

    T gave me that second hug and I felt connected. I felt that if I were to go ahead with my plan that I would hurt this ONE person in the universe who actually honestly cared about me in a healthy and safe way. I felt it.

    The memory of that hug was what allowed me to make it through even worse stuff that came the next few days. The hug my T gave me saved my life – for real.

  • November 14, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    that’s quite a rant. I remain unconvinced however that psychotherapy is an appropriate environment for hugging.

    In fact, I might argue that a hug is just as apt to cause re-trauma as refusing one.

    Good boundaries make good therapy, and, as the previous comment indicated, should be very clear from the beginning.

  • November 14, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    I think I agree, but only if a patient asks for one, and then only after a brief discussion for the request.
    If the T would make some physical contact at each session, it might not come to this need. In that I mean, well, shake hands, touch an elbow or lightly touch the back as they exit the doorway past you, etc. Even handing an article or pen back and forth gives a patient that same connectivity.

    Hugs can be interpreted to mean so much they are not (read misinterpreted) and can feed that transference towards the wrong direction, in my opinion.

  • November 14, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    Thank you WePow,

    What a fabulous, powerful story. You sum up exactly what I am saying.

    It has to be spontaneous and felt in a Carl Rogers Humanistic way by the therapist. Therapy is not a linear chronological process whereby this happens on week 2, this happens on week 5, it is far more messier than that with awkward emotions and memories sometimes getting in the way of so-called boundaries.

    It is very much possible to give a spontaneous hug and still maintain much needed boundaries. Any environment, especially one fraught with emotions, is an appropriate one for hugging.

    Regards Sonia

  • November 14, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    Most people who go to therapist are vulnerable, troubled even i think that’s a given- it’s also a given that we have bad days days when we really feel crappy and needy however…. Therapeutic boundaries are for the safety of the patient and the doctor. Whether we as patients understand transference isn’t the issue or to be used as an excuse because the therapist certainly does. He or she shouldn’t need or want to hug the patient. Vulnerabilities/needs of the patient are dealt with by talking- that’s what therapy is… not by physical contact it just has no place in the room.

  • November 14, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    My (female) obstetrician gave me a heartfelt hug after my first son was born. It was a lovely gesture and one that I remember even after 17 years.

  • November 15, 2010 at 6:45 am

    Sonia, my OBGYN (who is a male like my T) gives me a brief side hug after seeing him now, and he smiles. He is from India and I think it is extra special he does that for me. He only started doing it after he repaired damage in surgery caused by CSA. He wanted to understand how the body could get scared in that way and so I told him enough. After listening to me, he told me how sorry he was and he asked if he could hug me – and I said “OH YES!” And it somehow made all the bad emotions connected with seeing him and telling him THAT part of my story go away.

    With my T, it is the same type of thing. The stuff is too deep and the shame is just too much inside at times. I do all the very hard work around all of the CSA while in session. It leaves me feeling like no human on earth could ever EVER in a zillion years want to offer me a hug. First they would not want to because of what I told them and thinking they would become contaminated by just hugging me. But also the fear that human touch means someone wants something from me.
    So in my case, the hug is very much a healing part of therapy that I use as medicine.

    I thought about this topic for a while now as it is interesting to see how others view it. Something I do think comes into play here is cultural differences. I live in a Southern USA state – and honestly we are known for our friendly nature, open conversation, free smiles, and tons of hugs! I have lived in other states where the people were just different as a culture and they didn’t hug like they do here. So I think that also factors into how a T responds to a hug request.

    And one other thought, my T made it clear that he was the one offering the hug. I asked him if I could give him a hug and he said “No.” Then he smiled and said “But I can give you a hug if you want one.” This kept the T in charge of the therapy tool. 🙂

  • November 15, 2010 at 8:56 am

    I would contend that an emotionally charged atmosphere is not the best environment for physical contact between the therapist and the client to occur.
    In retrospect, I can’t tell you the safety that I have felt in my own therapy when *my* emotions fly all over the place, but the therapist holds *them* but keeps my personal space my own.
    Even if I ask for more, he respects me enough to give me that autonomy. He is not a surrogate for what I need in real life. That’s mine to find.

    Regarding this quote:
    “This summons up and evokes many hidden and not so hidden feelings of abandonment and rejection from parents and other people in their lives and deep, deep feelings that I am not OK and even my therapist thinks I am evil.”

    Isn’t that what therapy is there to examine and not avoid?

  • November 15, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Yes, Madeline that is what therapy is there to examine and not avoid. But as a human being we are not all intellect and reasoning, sometimes we just need a hug to make it all better, something mothers have known since time began. A hug is not a sexual request in disguise.

    “Even if I ask for more, he respects me enough to give me that autonomy.”

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I gather you asked your therapist for something and he turned you down? I’d be interested to hear more about that if you want to share.

    PeWow, yes for therapists who refuse a hug from a distraught client, I wonder where their motives are coming from, do they think we are dirty and contaminated and that whatever mental illness it is we are suffering from would they feel it is contagious? I had a friend who got up from the couch to leave therapy once and the therapist (male) thought she was about to hug him (she wasn’t) and he held up both his hands out in front of him and said, “I don’t do hugs.” She thought he was a complete knob, never went back there again and found another therapist.

  • November 17, 2010 at 8:56 am

    Nope, nope, nope. I adore my therapist and sometimes I dearly wish he would hug me. We talk about that wish at times, for after 10 years of therapy, if it is not discussed, it’s still present in the room. However, I know that such physicality would be a mistake, a slippery slope for me because my feelings about this therapist are, though principally on the up and up, sometimes still mixed with some transferential feelings of romance, etc. We concentrate on the amount of spiritual holding that can occur when a person is regarded and cared for, and in my own life I concentrate on creating an environment where there are many people who hug me. It’s not “retrauma” but clear boundaries and it makes good sense for many people.

  • November 17, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    my therapist hugs me. not all the time, not everytime, but sometimes it is just the thing i need. i need someone to connect with me on a deeper level, to not let me live just in my head, to bring me into my body, and she is good at doing that. when i was in the hospital she visited me twice and gave me a huge hug each time. now, it’s whenever i have had a particularly challenging session. it helps, and i don’t read too much into it. sometimes a hug is just a hug.

  • November 17, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    @Madeline – If my male T had been crystal clear from day 1 “I do not hug” then I’d never have asked, not been rejected, wondered why he wasn’t safe, what was wrong with me that even the T won’t hug me, never had to hear that it was because I’d asked wrong, or because of my history of being violated by a trusted adult. Great, I was taken advantage of as a teen, so 30 yr later I cannot be safely hugged?
    Seriously, Ts out there who will not hug, put it in writing and give it to everyone on the first visit. I’m not going to work with you!
    My female T, when I told her my most difficult his-story, she said “I’ll bet you could use a hug” and she was RIGHT. It was a moment of great healing, to FINALLY get comforted after that trauma of long ago.
    Thank you Sonia, for validating the power of the hug.

  • November 18, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    My therapist has hugged me 3 times in the past 2.5 years. Each time made me uncomfortable and thinking back on them still makes me feel strange. The first hug came when someone I was very close to left my life suddenly with no contact. I was hysterical on the floor of her office and she got down on the floor and gave me a quick hug. The second time, I was in the ER. She was the phsycologist on call. It was the middle of the night and the police had brought my hubby in after I called them on him for getting too rough with my son. After doing so I wanted him to come home but she got the finally say and sent him away for 48 hours. I was thankfully inside but pissed outside. I cussed her out. She gave me a quick hug. The third time, was last Christmas. I get very agoraphobic but I managed to make it to a store so I got her a small gift I stood in line for and bought myself. I got a hug. I personally don’t think therapists should hug. I care a great deal for her and the hugs go outside the boundries I KNOW *I* need in the relationship.

  • December 19, 2010 at 8:13 am

    I would have to disagree with the idea that a therapist should give hugs “upon request.” First of all, it puts the therapist at risk professionally. If the hugs are misinterpreted by the patient, the patient can accuse the psychologist of making a sexual advance. This, by the way, is true for teachers as well.

    Second, I don’t believe anybody should ever be told that they have to hug someone. If they do so without wanting to, for whatever reason, then the gesture is meaningless. Their freedom of choice is taken from them. A hug or any kind of physical gesture should be given freely or not at all. Hugs are what personal, not professional relationships are for.

    Therapists are there to help you live with more independence and strength–to develop your own resources and courage and life skills. Demanding touch from an unwilling person is not a good life skill.

    Ultimately, I think it would be better for a therapist to work with the patient to find out why they want to be hugged, and to help the patient develop personal relationships where hugs are appropriate.

    • June 15, 2018 at 1:06 am

      Excellent reply. Thank you for sharing your intelligence and good sense.

  • January 11, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Sonia, I’m still thinking about this post. While I very much understand why my male therapist did not hug me (or others), he did a poor job of clarifying that boundary from the start. It became a central topic, struggle, of the therapy. I will always have a FANTASY about hugging him, about which I will always feel guilty and ashamed. Because he rejected my hug, it felt like I wanted something wrong, bad, inappropriate.

    My current therapist does hug me. So, when I think of her hugging me it’s a MEMORY, a nice memory that is comforting. No guilt, no shame.

  • February 18, 2011 at 12:47 am

    I have had problem with being touched due to my history with an abusive father and a couple cases of sexual assault and abusive boyfriends. Maybe this is unusual, but I have hoped to associate touch with more positive interaction with people. Right now I become very fearful and agitated when men hug me because I have had very few relationships where I have not been physically harmed. I had hoped that my male counselor I am seeing would help me, but when I asked if at some point I could hug him, he said no. I know there are plenty of explanations (many of which are completely understandable), however, he did not tell me why he said no which left me very upset. It was not that he said no, more how he said it and the lack of explanation that caused me to become upset. I became very embarrassed about asking and fearful that my counselor believed I had feelings for him when I don’t. Am I wrong to be upset?

  • March 23, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    My therapist and I have had an off again/on again thing with the hugs. I am a very touchy, feely, huggy person and I told him it was NOT a sexual thing, but a connected/comfort thing.

    Can’t we just be human?

    Sometimes he hugs me, sometimes not….if he gives me a wimpy hug, i just roll my eyes and tell him…that was pitiful.

  • May 24, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Thank you for a very stimulating article and the thought-provoking comments. As a long-time therapy client and therapist (and student supervisor)the issue of touch continues to be multi-faceted. As with all things in a therapy session a request for a hug is a therapeutic communication. The therapist’s skill is in selecting the most attuned and appropriate response – which may or may not result in a hug. As we see from the comments above an unwanted hug or even a requested hug could be counter-therapeutic. There are also times when a compassionate hug coming from a place of deep empathy and with the intention of making a contact that is both physically and emotionally nurturing can be life-saving. I teach my students that until they have attained the wisdom to know when touch will be experienced by the client as positive, nurturing and safe that it is best to stick to the ‘no touching’ rule. As Sheila stated above, there are good reasons for this guideline. It can protect both therapist and client. Touch (and not touching can heal and/or re-traumatize based on the context – learning how and when to wield this powerful tool is the responsibility of us all.

  • May 28, 2011 at 5:43 am

    I’m a therapist on the beginning of my career and I was always wondering why a non-sexual comforting touch (hug, holding hand) is considered a taboo in therapeutic context. This idea was mostly derived by psychanalysis and Freud. Fortunately, in the CBT programme I attended the concept of comforting touching is not entirely prohibited. But, even though I believe in the comforting hug, there are some circumstances where a therapist should beware. For example, certain personality disorders, especially borderline, or severe delusions. What are your ideas on the latter?

  • June 2, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    I think this post is said perfectly, and agree with it completely. Therapists should not enter into such a career if they are not prepared to gave a needy person they work with a hug. I personally find the thought of being hugged teriffiying as i used to hate to be touched because of my past experiences. But about 4 or 5 years ago well leaving therapy the worker i had could tell i was upset and asked if she could hug me and i nodded, it felt so uncomfortable but the last time i saw her again she asked agin if she could hug me and again i nodded. That was the day my heart melted, it had been many many years since anybody had asked if they could give me a hug andi discovered that i longed to be hugged but since childhood had been rejected by my mother and every time id be upset she’d pass me onto somebody else. After i left that therapy i did ask one of the other workers who i worked with there for a hug and she was very nice and gave me one before we parted, a hug a very much needed and have never received a hug from another adult that i’ve accepted or felt in my heart since. I now work with a Psychologist and have done so for almost 3 years but she refuses and it like my mum rejecting me all over again. Sometimes the pain inside is so bad that i’m sure i can feel my heart freezing up again and maybe i will never find somebody who will hug me again. I ask her for a hug when i really need one because she’s the only one i trust enough to ask and at this rate the chances of me feeling safe enough to ask somebody else before my heart freezes up completely are slim – there are only so many rejections one damaged soul can take….

    • March 20, 2012 at 1:22 am

      Sorry but giving physical contact to another person is NEVER a requirement for anyone, and no one should ever be made to feel guilty or like they are a bad person for not submitting to someone else’s demand for physical contact. Therapists are humans too, with the same right to personal boundaries as anyone else, and a client is not entitled to have the therapist automatically throw their own boundaries to the curb just for them. If you are asking your therapist to hug you whether they are personally comfortable with the physical contact or not, simply because it is what you feel you need, that is not much different from a parent who disregards their child’s boundaries of comfort just because they have needs which they want taken care of. It is the same sense of entitlement. “My needs are more important than what you are comfortable with.” Think about it for a second.

  • July 26, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    I asked my therapist for a hug last Tuesday. I telegraphed it in writing and danced about it for most of the session. I finally found the courage to ask out loud and was told
    “That is not ever going to happen”

    in an angry mumble. I felt the mumble as angry.
    It blew me away. I have my issues and went off the deep end behavior wise. Nothing to do with her. Wrote a letter saying a lot of things but started off with How to I save face now. How I did not expect her to give me a hug but a professionally firm but polite response and discussion. As a result of the letter I was contacted stating my appointment is being removed from the calender and then a lot of niceties and a need for a consultation. I should not be writing this here but I am still trying to process since after getting that voicemail I politely left a voicemail saying thank you but she will not hear from me again. She made me feel so ashamed. She knew It too.

  • July 28, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Dear Joe: I am so sorry. How sad that we live in a society with so many rules and regulations we forget/choose not to be simply human.

    Shame on that therapist. Yes, she should have calmly and sensitively…..discussed your need for a hug, etc……such fear and paranoia, that is what I see…….a hug should NOT be such a major issue. I think we all know that touch is more healing than any word(s) could ever be.
    ]The last place you should feel shame is in a therapist’s office.

    Shame on her.

    I am so sorry.


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