It's total anguish. Every cell in your body is screaming you want to be hugged. It's natural of course . . . it's how we have healed ourselves over the millennium. Then why are many modern day healers resistive to the idea?
Turn your speaker volume up because it’s time to listen to your…
“Hugs in Therapy” Podcast
In this recent teleseminar Dr. Carole & I addressed a MyShrink Member’s question concerning touch in psychotherapy.
Dr. Carole relates an awesome strategy you can try with your therapist . . .
“Clients” Speak Up
I received this question a while back and I thought it pretty much described the anguish folks struggle with in their therapy around the question of touch. I thought I’d include it here.
hi, i would like to know ur opinion of holding in therapy. Im struggling with this every day. i have a hell of a time with it. my therapist wouldn’t hold me, wanna know if its really not good
thank u very much
Great question ABC. The short answer is that it depends on the therapist’s comfort level with touch. I’ve held clients and they have found it to be very beneficial.
Well she’s definately comfortable with touch cuz she does hug me every time b4 I leave but she wouldn’t budge with this and I’ve been begging her and begging her and this is causing me so much pain….
She claims that therapist don’t hold their clients – BS!
Cuz i know some do – here u go… u do.
This was so interesting. It could however be very difficult actually asking for touch if rejection is more painful than doing without touch itself. Imagining back to that first highly activated initial interview (for everyone I think?) – well, asking then would be nigh impossible I feel. Why could the therapist not say something like “I am someone who very much believes in maintaining boundaries , but I also believe in touch if it is what you need at times, providing of course that that touch never crosses accepted boundaries, and some patients like to know my take on this subject”.
There are times when you are struggling through really painful stuff and yearn not to feel so alone and in such pain on your own. I so agree, touch then could really help some people (me, for sure) ‘to get it out’ and open up more easily. The interesting thing is I believe if touch was sanctioned across the board in psychotherapy by the powers that be, and as long as it was comfortable for the therapist too of course, then the strong desire by the patient/client for touch would help in the actual growth forward of that person. That need is so strong I think there are times when you could perhaps just overcome the feeling of the embarrassment of asking, because a) you would know it was not boundary crossing in therapy per se, and b) there was therefore a strong chance you would get to experience that which you needed, and c) the therapist had been the one to bring it up at the initial interview so you knew where you stood on that matter. And surely by bringing your need out into the open would be helping you grow as a person on 2 levels at least. 1) You had nevertheless had to be the one requesting it, “bringing it to the table” (which is not that easy), and 2) you get to get the comfort with subsequent results of being helped “to open up” going through the difficult and painful stuff… but with a feeling of comfort and safety and so move forward in your therapy.
I know touch and holding help me but my psychologist will NOT hold me. At all. Or touch me even by holding my hand. I get into some terrible trauma memories and feel very small indeed and still he won’t touch me. I have dreams now where I am very small and wailing and running towards him to be picked up and held and he just pushes me away every time. It is breaking my heart. I CRAVE it so much. I LONG to be held when in such small child pain, but NO, he refuses. It feels cruel and I am getting worn out by this.
It is very difficult to not feel the support that you need. Physical touch can be a powerful way to connect. I was sitting with a family recently and the mother putting her hand on the back of a child when the child was feeling unloved was powerful.
I also know that it is possible to get the felt experience of connection with touch and without it. You might consider exploring with your clinician if you think it is appropriate the feelings of longing for connection and times when you felt loved and connected to that feeling. Another way to feel the support from your clinician is to notice the times when you do feel the connection and allow yourself to remember these when you are in a moment that you are feeling lonely.
When we have a memory we call it up in our brains in an dynamic state. What this means is that we can re-write the memory even difficult ones if we bring to that difficult memory or feeling an new and powerful resource. So remembering when you are hurting the feeling of love and connection can be a powerful transformational tool.
It is possible to talk to your clinician about why touch would be helpful and see if there are any possible ways for you both to negotiate healthy boundaries around it. Some people can seek extra training in touch therapy for psychotherapists. This could be helpful if your clinician is open to it.
Mike Changaris, Psy.D.
Now my therapist holds me, hugs me, holds my hand and even rubs my back once in a while. He hugs me at the end of each session and today let me snuggle up under his arm for a bit. I am so obviously a small child – in that mode – when I want this so he agrees it just makes sense for me to have that need met because most people did as small children and I didn’t. So I am making that developemental stage now.
As a client, I really wish every therapist would be up front on their boundaries around touch from the very start. I feel like I’ve been dancing around this topic with my therapist for a couple of months. We do a lot of work with my journal entries and there are a lot that focus around how I feel like need closeness, physical connection, etc. to safely release some of the emotions that are surfacing for me. I have made commentary about wanting to know what the boundaries are, what I can expect him to do if I am in pain…but I feel like unless I specifically ask him, “Do you touch clients? Handshakes? Hugs? A hand on someone’s shoulder? Would you do that for me? Do I have to ask for it or would you offer it if you sensed I wanted or needed it?” I will never know. Yet, at the same time, it is impossible for me to ask directly. The best I can manage is to continually express my needs, while aiming them at the ambiguous “someone” or “anyone.” Therapists, if you are reading or hearing such statements from your clients, it’s very probably they mean YOU. All it might take to give me permission to address these questions with him is the simple questions, “Is someone a specific person?” or “Who is anyone?”
Last month, I started sitting on the floor when I was too overwhelmed by the distance. My therapist started joining me on the floor, sitting side-by-side with me (which I had expressed as a need), but still four or five feet away. The intensity of wanting and enjoying that “connectedness” while not knowing if my feelings there in that space were “OK” with my therapist meant that configuration left me panicking, albeit in a different way than the distance panics me. Instead of being shut down (distant configuration), I found myself powerfully drawn in toward something I wasn’t sure I was “allowed” to have. If he was far and we were divided by the coffee table, I could barely look at him, because sensing that disconnect was painful. If he sat with me on the floor, I experienced a powerful urge to draw closer and make physical contact, but not knowing the availability of such an experience, I fought to contain it on my own, which was a very painful experience. As my therapist sensed how overwhelming the my experience of our connection was, the amplification of my usual separation anxiety, he said, “Perhaps I should not have sat on the floor with you.” Ouch! So now, considering his withdrawal, it is nearly impossible for me to ask where he stands on the issue of touch, because of an inner certainty that my needs will be rejected…again. And as my therapist himself has noted, the message of invalidated need, that I would ask for something, allow someone to meet my need and then have it not be OK is the most distressing, excruciating experience I can imagine. It is like being at the end, teetering over the edge, of my own inner world.
There are many past precedents for why this is so, ranging from an extremely touch-deprived childhood to assaults in my preteen and teenage years to having safe touch within my marriage damaged by a sleep condition that my husband has. Without touch, my therapist and I have still been able to explore the messages of being “too much” and “not enough” and the real experiences of being pushed away and invaded by people I should have been able to trust. Therapy is the first place I’ve been connected enough to someone I trust to actually want to approach for safe, non-sexual connection and touch…yet, my concern for my therapist’s invisible (yes, possibly imaginary) boundaries means I am paralyzed. I am drawn toward him as a safe, trustworthy person, so I cannot run away (despite often wanting to), yet I am repelled by the sense that he will not receive or accept those needs. So, I am literally inanimate unless he approaches…and this is true of both the physical aspects and our verbal interactions in general. I need explicit permission for almost every positive experience I have within therapy: learning what it means to be open and vulnerable; asking for things I need and allowing him to meet those needs; and yes, wanting to be hugged.
I have no initiation, no power, no responsibility for getting those needs met. And honestly, he may be wise to patiently wait for me to take up those things, as offering them before I can clearly communicate when I want and do not want them would be quite dangerous. However, I wonder if therapists realize how impossible it is to ask for something that has been withheld to the point that something inside believes you simply must be literally untouchable and unapproachable. It feels like asking my therapist to give me a unicorn…in my mind, the possibility just does not exist within nature that he CAN touch me without being repelled, damaged or transfigured into an abuser somehow. The potential that I might be loveable and touchable by him seems fiction or fantasy. For the sake of not reliving one of the most painful messages many of us clients experienced in our childhood (which is that no one can be close and safe at the same time, either because we were neglected, physically abused or sexually assaulted), I think it a therapist’s basic policy should be stated up front and clearly labeled as their boundary/choice (i.e. not something that is dependent upon the client’s innate approachability).
That being said, I do realize the importance of client initiation, especially in cases like mine where we have been able to repel or say no to unwanted contact in the past. So, while having the general policy out there is a must in my opinion, there may be cases where it would be wiser to let the client ask for contact rather than even offer it. I think reassuring a client that it is an available resource (if the therapist indeed feels comfortable with it) is important, but if the therapist is approaching without explicit invitation, I wonder if some client’s may experience it as invasion and be unable to vocalize the fear that accompanies it. I’m assuming those therapists who practice touch are aware that it is a constant negotiation and most of that negotiation is probably occurring within the clients themselves, with the therapist taking on the role of a facilitator.
In my case, it would probably be two completely different experiences if my therapist asked, “Do you want a hug right now?” and “What would it mean if I moved closer in this context? Would you feel comforted? Invaded? Would you want touch? Do you think you’d be able to ask for it? To say no?” In the first scenario, my panic at having to answer the offer would probably lead me to jump over all the important reflection that MUST attend touch in my case. I would react instinctively either, “Yes, I desperately desire a hug,” or “No, I can’t receive it. I don’t deserve such a thing.” But, even if I desperately desire touch, I might not be ready for it (and without asking the latter questions, I would not be able to realize it). And if I could not receive it, not because it would be a negative experience, but because feeling a lack of permission, jumping over those same questions would rob me of realizing that a hug would be a safe, healing, releasing experience in the present moment.
In the end, as much as it seems essential that therapists put this conversation out there, I realize that I need to take responsibility for the discussion within my therapy experience. Even if the answer is that touch is not something my therapist feels able to offer me, I need to understand that it is just his personal preference to express his care in other ways and it does not reflect upon me. I need to be ready to not internalize his boundaries as rejection. And if I look at it from that perspective, as a client, I have nothing to lose from bringing up the topic. If he truly is the safe, trustworthy therapist he has demonstrated himself to be, then he will not be disgusted or intimidated by my feelings of need there. He will accept them, receive them, explore their meaning with me and grieve with me. I am not receiving touch now, and should I find out he cannot offer it, nothing will have “moved,” even if my experience of him is temporarily altered (as it was when he said he should not have sat with me). However, I will have the opportunity, when I am ready, to explore what it means to not have that experience available to me. Or if I am wrong, and touch is something he offers within an appropriate context…well, then I shall have my hug at last! All that really remains in my case is to decide when I am ready to explore the meaning behind the pain of the “deprivation” I am already experiencing.
Thank you for that deep and heart felt response. It sounds like you and your therapist are doing excellent and inspiring work! I like how you are processing this subject. It seems that you have hit many of the main difficulties we all face around this issue, therapists and clients alike.
Many children grow up with out enough contact or with damaging contact. Building a good relationship with your body and safe touch is an important part of psychological change. It sounds like you are well on the way to developing the respect and love for your own process that will allow a new powerful relationship with others, your body, your heart and your emotions to develop.
As a therapist it is important to trust the client’s process and allow them to disclose their inner life at their own pace. This requires faith in the clients own inner strength and ability to heal. This gives the client the chance to feel that their inner life and experience is respected. So even therapists who use touch regularly tread lightly in how they negotiate the use of touch. It is important for the clinician to be respectful and aware of the changes in the relationship even in a five minute span. Sometimes even when touch could be helpful on one level it might not be on another. Discussing these things in a safe, supportive and authentic context can be powerful and transformative.
Many therapists do not have a clear policy and thus there is unneeded confusion. Having a clear policy makes sense for both clients and therapists. It would help everyone feel more at ease with this topic. Sadly, many therapists are not trained on even how to talk about touch!
I like what you said about the process here, “I realize that I need to take responsibility for the discussion within my therapy experience. Even if the answer is that touch is not something my therapist feels able to offer me, I need to understand that it is just his personal preference to express his care in other ways and it does not reflect upon me.”
Your needs, thoughts and feelings are valid and valuable. Healthy safe relationships are an interaction between two people who respect eachother’s boundaries. In this context of mutual respect true safety can emerge. My hope is that if he were to say to you that it was not in his scope of practice to use therapeutic touch that it could be a chance to deepen the therapeutic connection.
The discussion could be an opportunity for exploring the longing, emotions, fears, ambivalence and grief you had from not getting the nurturance you needed as a young child. Getting to explore those feelings even with out the touch could allow you to begin to build the safety in relationship. As you take that safety with you into the world, you can develop healthy relationships that include the nurturance and support you need.
Your thoughts are deep and insightful! Keep up the amazing work. Thank you for sharing your experience. Many others also likely have a similar experience.
Dr. Michael Changaris
Yes, let’s leave this test in Layla…until my techies fix the confusing arrangement.
Just so everyone knows…the name above the Comment’s box will show your first and/or last name or both. However, when your post goes live, it will only show your Username.
Hope that helps,
it did and it does
I wanted to share a “touch in therapy” story to exemplify just how important a role I think touch can play in our healing journeys. I need to share a little of my stuff to better set the stage for how touch was so critical for me. I have been working through my childhood stuff for over 2 1/2 years, with my core issues related to what I call a mother rejection wound. I have struggled with this for decades. I suspect being unwanted in the womb, as well as have all the patterns of insecure preoccupied/ambivalent attachment as an infant and young child. As such, I had (and often still have) a deep, insatiable longing for what I call good mommy love, connection, and acceptance.
As my therapist and I began to work this territory, my inner child came to the fore, first as an older toddler then later an earlier infant self (over the course of a year’s time). The infant self was scared and yearning for mommy to respond and listen to her (always accompanied by images of me being in a crib as an infant, screaming my head off in the dark, but mommy never responding). In exploring these scenes, I found myself filled with deep longings for physical connection with my therapist. I need to interject here that this longing was profound because my story is especially unique in that my therapy relationship was by phone, rather than face-to-face!
As a part of my healing process, I had asked my therapist to be a stand-in mommy figure for me in order to work through some of the woundedness. Long story short,an opportunity came to actually visit my therapist in person (several hours away). As the time approached, there was great anticipation to meet her, and also the exciting fact that we had come to a place in therapy where it seemed like a watershed point was about to happen. I was working through a lot of anger and rage, and being able to do that with her support in person was crucial. I also felt like the cathartic work would give way to my heart opening a lot of the pushed down stuff that needed to come out. I also had expressed how much I could not wait to finally meet her and be able to give her a giant hug, to which she was open!
The first session upon our meeting dealt with getting out the anger together. In addition to some tennis racket whacking all in a safe environment, she also gave me some holding. Still, the best was yet to come. The next day, we had what I have considered perhaps one of the most profound days of my life. The day before had released my heart and the tears started flowing. When we met for the session, I started to bawl and said, “right now, I just need you to hold me and let me cry in your arms, just like I have wanted to do my whole life (just like the image of me being in the crib but this time with mommy responding!)” For the next 20 minutes, maybe more, I wept and wept and wept, and she just held me like a teddy bear, not saying a lot or stroking me, but just being there enveloping me. After a while, she started to speak tenderly using a metaphorical image about my life…wow, just remembering this gives me goose bumps!
After the bawling, I remember her saying something like, “I know you have always felt alone, but you are not alone; you have never been alone”. This amazing time was followed by me writing out several large sheets of paper worth of all the negative scripts I have carried around in my soul and heart. At one point, as I expressed “why did my mom have to always be so cruel and critical??”, I burst into tears again, and she asked, “do you need another hug?” to which I said, “yes!”
There is so much more to this story but what I want to say is that since that life-changing encounter, some people have criticized the love and touch within the therapeutic relationship, saying therapists don’t and shouldn’t do that! I fully and wholeheartedly KNOW that experiencing the warmth and embrace of my therapist that day went way beyond her and our relationship. It was like feeling held by Love itself. I will never ever forget that love because it was EXACTLY what I needed at that point in my painful processing. And, interestingly, I find that since that encounter and a follow-up visit more recently, the longing or touch deprivation is not so insatiable as it first was. It is as if that part of my past has been touched in a profound way at a core level. Frankly, I am finding touch through my support system, especially my husband (here I mean non-sexual, as he reaches out to my healing but at times hurting soul), as well as developing my own self-care and self-soothing tools.
I sincerely believe that as several have expressed here, there is a crucial place for touch within the therapy context, and for me personally, touch opened up a very important door as I continue my healing process. Thanks for listening.
Just beautiful! Thanks for sharing.
To answer your questions – and my therapist is my second and therefore newer, (though not that new)therapist that I have.
Yes, I believe touch is very important in therapy and I am one of the very lucky ones whose therapist seems to, too. Both in comfort touching, and a really warm end of session hug too.
Is touch important to me? Being comforted by touch with my therapist has only really started reasonably recently when I was struggling with pretty deep and painful stuff. And it was wonderful and so helpful. Hugs have happened for a long time now. I would agree too that it has been absolutely essential in taking both me and my healing deeper and it has been very very important to me.
Am I touch deprived? I don’t think I had really thought about that one, but looking way way back I now can see I certainly was. I believe with my therapist’s help and with her right there with me, I am looking into that dark place and through her touch and comfort when things get really painful, slowly starting to leave it for the light. Proverbially and literally!
And I know how extremely fortunate I am!
The Touch Video was so beautiful and thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing this with us.
My life has had its share of abandonment, and I have been in therapy for years. Recently, I had a breakthrough and after watching the Touch Video, it occurs to me that I stepped on the path leading to this latest breakthrough when my therapist’s hugs (at the end of each session) became more “maternal” through the use of touch. Sometimes, she cups my face in her hands looking directly into my eyes. Other times, we hug with cheeks touching. Other times, she may hold my hand for a moment while walking me to the door — or there are combinations of these. Actually, just writing them now and visualizing them occurring is ‘in-the-moment’ comforting.
Distinguishing regular hugs from these ‘skin-to-skin’ hugs described above is important. My recovery seemed to take a leap forward when the hugs became, for lack of a better term, more maternally intimate with real skin-to-skin contact.
I do wonder if my therapist is aware of this. It all seems very organic — not at all contrived — and it is so, so very comforting. Whether coincidentally, through measured, brilliant therapeutic practice, or through Divine plan, my daily life is coming together and my emotional state is regulating in such positive ways — ways I haven’t experienced for many years (if ever).
The baby in the Touch Video found life through touch. Touch is a necessary part of healthy growth for us all. Now, as an adult, through the use of therapeutic touch, my therapist is “growing me up.” Finally, I have found my “good-enough mother,” my GEM, to walk with me on my journey.
I am so, so grateful . . .
Touch in general is undeniably extremely important, vital in many instances. In psychotherapy it has been so helpful, and means a great deal to me. A huge help, and encouragement both to go deeper and to heal. I am blessed to have a therapist who ‘believes’ in it.
I also find this very interesting. I believe I have a slightly different angle on this in that my therapist is physically limited in this respect. In some ways that my give me the security to talk to him on matters of past abuse.
At one point when verbalizing a past experience I said don’t touch me which I believe was taken quite literally. I’m not sure how I would feel if we headed for this area.
I think sometimes what it would be like to shake his hand; he definitely has come to represent a father figure to me. I’m not sure if my internal ability to interpret his touch in a positive way would help or feel like a threat. I have not been able to open a dialogue in this regard & don’t think I ever could. 🙁
It’s taken a number of years to feel secure enough to bring up stuff in general let alone something as sensitive as touch; excuse the pun.
I am haunted by this. Or should I say the absence of this!
It seems to be my overwhelming preoccupation – my desire to sit at my therapist’s feet and just have his hand on my shoulder, or some similar form of simple touch and comfort.
We have discussed this (eventually!) and he has admitted that it lies beyond his boundaries. I feel he is very relieved that is the case!
I have discussed my preoccupation with the notion with him too, and said that therapy has worked to relive the symptoms of depression in a large way by replacing the inner preoccupation with paranoia / panic / insecurity / suicidal ideation etc; by the preoccupation with wanting a hug from him! My head does not have capacity to panic / cry / worry about the other stuff that is used to, as it is too taken up with fantasies of therapy touch!
The clock is ticking. I am in therapy in the UK under the NHS. I have no idea of the duration of my entitlement, or what criteria have to be satisfied before he can sign me off his list. He will not discuss this (distracts and refuses to answer), and has said we are now in an ‘end phase’, so it is too late.
I have one of my final sessions with him later today and I know if I were to be brave enough to raise this website discussion with him he would scoff at it. (Or I would feel him scoffing at it!!)
I was previously under one of his colleagues (he is head of the department, so I guess ‘staff’), and my contact with her was terminated right after I transgressed and asked for a hug. I was moved on to him. Deja Vu.
Can you talk more about the types of therapeutic touch? Does it have to be a hug? Or can it be another form of touch? I relate very much to what someone said previously about wanting to sit at their therapists feet and have them touch their shoulder but I personally would not be comfortable with a hug. Can you expand on possible different types of therapeutic touch?
Forgot to check this box when I submitted my first comment about different forms of touch. My T told me a long time ago that he does not hug or hold hands. But that was also before our relationship deepened. He recently spontaneously told me about a study done on basketball players who high-fived bonded more with each other and won more. And, so I think he’s totally onto the importance of touch. I’ve been wondering if I should broach the subject with him again since there are lots of other ways to touch aside from hugs and holding hands.
Sometimes when my nervous system gets going, I become aware of just how calming and reassuring a touch would be at that moment. I’m afriad to bring the topic up. I’m afraid he’ll say no. I’m also afraid he’ll say yes. The intimacy of the act alone would make me break down. Even though I’m afraid, there’s a part of me that knows we have to have this conversation and fairly soon.
If you can talk more about other types of touch aside from hugs that might be appropriate in a therapeutic setting, I would be most appreciative.
My therapist has been away a long time due to unforeseen circumstances. I have missed the almost tangible settling balance she gives me with hugs and touch, which I have greatly missed, as I too have missed her.
I have only realised now that ‘touch’ happens even if you are NOT physically touched. That just her nervous system settling my own so out of control one lately, is a powerful form of touch too. It is just as important – and I use this word after thought – it is shattering to have had to try and manage without either. Let alone both.
I did not really and truly know what I had until I had to try and manage without it. Which I am doing none too well.
Mmmmm…wow, We all want it! But so few seem to give it…truly my heart goes out to all who have that deep need and are not receiving it. My therapist( we are christians) prays with me at the end of every session and rolls her chair over and takes my hand firmly in both of hers…and yes I want it and wait for it. I journaled (which we always read together) that I just wanted someone to hold me…and after I finished reading, she said I would like you to stand up please and she came over and held me…I have asked on 2 occasions before and was met with a resouinding yes and open arms…she has touched my arm or back on the way out and a couple of times just said…come here I want to give you a really good hug…my background is from severe abuse and can not tolerate touch from anyone…even someones arm grazing mine…It took me almost 2 years before I would let her touch me…how very glad I am that I did. She says I am touch starved. I feel like crying for the ones here that just want to be held and aren’t…I am so sorry
what do you think about touch if client is experience severe transference, safe or unsafe?
Having been in therapy now for almost 3 years, I know how important touch is because for me touch has deepened our therapeutic relationship, our connnection, helped me feel safer and more secure, and helps me take my therapist with me mentally when I leave the session. We hug at the end of each session. There are times when I would like more touch, for example for my therapist to just hold me and tell me everything is going to be OK.
But I haven’t asked for that because I dont’ think he would do that. I just have a very strong feeling that if he would do that I would find it to be very healing in a deep kind of way. In the beginning I was kind of afraid of touch, but one day I asked if he hugged his clients, and he responded by saying it depends where they are in therapy. Within a few weeks one day he asked me if he could hug me and I said yes, and so it’s been a normal part of therapy ever since, and I love it.
I’d feel so embarrassed to ask. Appreciated the podcast. Keep em’ coming!
Adding a comment and thought to what Audrey commented
a) as the client (I somehow think I would prefer not…too painful, disturbing and impossible to handle.
b) as the therapist…yes? no? I can’t start to imagine. Perhaps every patient and their degree of transference and their history etc is too different to say just a yes, or a no and therefore it would depend?
How interesting. I will be watching the comments and replies in Hugs in Therapy for sure!
Hi my name is John. I have been seing therapist for nearly two years now. I am gay and i am just finding it hard to come to terms with my sxuality. My therapist is also gay and he has helped me in so many ways. But i have a big problem now- i have these feelings for him that just don’t seem to go away. The feelings range from having an atraction to him to feeling like a child who needs a father figue. I know that there are bounderies and i respect them but its so hard. I some times would like a hug i don’t ask but he tells me that i have to just give myself a hug sometimes. I find this very clinical and it hurts me when he says things like that.
It is hard, and perhaps trust is even more difficult, yet work to trust your therapist. Trust him enough to tell him how you feel about him — maybe even share this post with him. What you’re feeling is not at all unusual. Frankly, I would venture to say that most clients (especially those of us in longer-term therapy) have these feelings.
I want to post that after a whole year of being told I could not be held, my psychologist started to touch my hand or arm when I was distressed. A year on from that initial touch, he now holds me when I feel very little and am very upset in a little child way, and we have found that I have to fight not to hide under his table but to actually fall more in his direction instead of away from him. He also ALWAYS stands at the end of the session and says “would you like a hug?” and I always say “you bet!” and get a nice long hug, almost falling asleep on him.
This has meant that the most hidden me, the little child in terrible pain who learnt to hide away – is not able to fully be in the therapy and her fragility is met and her touch starvation is met and I am suddenly feeling much better and getting stronger too.
Also, my psychologist admits that he had to do a lot of work on himself to move from being a clinician who NEVER touched clients to being one who holds my hand, rubs my back, hugs me and occasionally holds me. He has had quite a journey! I am very grateful he dared to look at his own stuff around this and change his mind.
I had my final visit with my therapist of 4 years today, at the end of the session I tried to give her a hug but she told me that she didn’t do hugs, and I felt very hurt and upset. I am thinking that it was a company policy not to hug clients and not one of her own, either way I respect the policies not to hug but I still felt very hurt. I personally think that therapist’s should hug their clients if the situation seems appropriate (definatley not every therapy session though).
When I hear stories like this Richard, I’m just dumbfounded and choked. I feel embarrassed for my profession. Where is the humanity in “I don’t do hugs”. It’s like saying “I don’t do therapy”.
I’m sorry this happened to you. You deserved much more.
And I’m not meaning to single out your therapist – the profession as a whole is so wrapped in fear around potential “harm” we end up doing even more harm. As a profession, we don’t discuss touch very much. I mentioned this topic to a well-known therapist recently and I never saw anyone run so fast!
Take good care.
I more or less know where you are coming from and it sure is hurtful. I have a disability in which I can easily lose my balance and do. My last therapist was a very cold woman…I believe even despite the therapy she favoured, which was cold and strict! And awful!!! Right in the beginning of therapy when I didn’t as yet know boundaries and ropes I suddenly saw a ring she was wearing, and I asked to see it. As one does anyway, but certainly to help me balance on the edge of my chair as I leaned across to see it, I took hold of her fingers, and despite knowing my condition she fast withdrew her hand saying, very coldly “Please don’t touch me”. I only just recovered my balance but I felt I had been slapped, and felt so appalled and confused. And bad!!!??!!
She would NEVER EVER have agreed to a hug and I was far too terrified to ask for one if or when I wanted needed one at the end of a particularly difficult session. Which, sometimes I did.
My present therapist is a warm and loving person, and there’s always a hug at the end of a session. She will even take my hand if I’m going through difficulties in session. I know how lucky I am.
Wow your Therapist was worse than mine, my Therapist at least shook my hand but I still though that was a very cheap move and if I had time to think about it I might not have even shaken her hand considering how she just dragged me into despair.
It seems incongruous that psychologists as practitioners in a care giving profession are limited ethically or by their own boundaries in their capacity to provide the very human sensation of touch. As developmental research has shown touch is one of the basic human needs. Consequently a review and revision of ethics regarding touch in therapy with necessary boundaries established is required.
It also appears that there is a significant gap in psychologists training regarding touch therapy. Including touch therapy as part of the learning/training modules would enable psychologists/therapists to offer such therapy to their clients. When clients are aware that touch therapy is an option the potential exists for self empowerment to occur. After all a person knows what it is they need and the knowledge that they can comfortably ask for what they need (in this case touch), is a powerful mind body integration.
Touch is one of my favorite topics when it comes to therapy. I am fortunate to have a T who doesn’t shy away from it but quite to the contrary knows very well how to make use of it as a healing modality. She a bio-energetic analist. Her way of dealing with touch makes me feel safe, understood AND normal in my needyness for touch and empathy.
Such a shame it still is such a misunderstood topic with many T’s. It’s such a strong, healthy and inherently human way to convey feelings and works wonders when it comes to creating corrective experiences.
Over the nine months that i’ve been in therapy with her I’ve laid my head in her lap, she’s held me and we’ve hugged on several occasions. And off course there is transference, but we deal with that openly so it’s incredibly healing – she doesn’t really like the word transference, she calls it ‘feelings to be explored”. Her relaxed and open way of dealing with this, makes it ever so easier for me to be honest and straightforward about my feelings.
Thank you for the wonderful, ever evolving website
I’m a student in a CACREP-accredited MA program in clinical mental health counseling. I came to this because my work as a massage therapist. Over the 17 years since I graduated from massage school, my practice and continuing education pursuits brought me to a place where 60% of my clients were adults and children recovering from traumatic injury—ranging from elective (i.e., knee replacement surgery) to interpersonal (i.e., rape, attempted murder, assault, abuse) to impersonal (i.e., war injuries, car accidents)—25% were babies with congenital musculoskeletal conditions (e.g., torticollis), latching problems, colic, etc.; and 15% comprised people with chronic pain conditions or less severe orthopedic injuries.
I’ve never been able to buy into a divided body-mind model of human beings. There is no way to provide effective ‘physical’ treatment to someone recovering from a traumatic injury without hearing at least parts of the story and holding space for the client, the injured tissues, the whole story (whether known/knowable, or not), and the passage of time. I knew for sure that I was working with whole human beings and that it was important to bear that in mind, persistently.
Although I studied somatic/psychoemotional trauma sequelae extensively within my scope of practice (e.g., craniosacral therapy and somatoemotional release, Reiki, bodytalk, etc.), I could see, way off on the distant horizon, the place of ethical difficulty. So, I went back to school to complete my BA and then started shopping for MA programs, selecting one that has a strong and durable investment/requirement in student personal growth. (Healthy counselors! What a concept!)
My point is this: touch can be profoundly useful in trauma recovery. It can help clients learn to re-inhabit their bodies and, ultimately, re-embody themselves wholly. But it requires quite a lot of responsive confidence and alert attending—especially given the sometimes unreliable/unpredictable capacity of clients to initiate Stops. It is unreasonable to assume that the same client on the same day will welcome being touched. Checking in may be the single most important task, initially.
And, from another point of view, the segregation of touch in the intimate landscape of psychotherapy seems a bit arbitrary. We deal with profoundly intimate content in an uneven power context. Touch can be humanizing and equalizing—as long as the therapist maintains the position of holding the space and remaining responsive to the shifting needs and presence of the client, rather than serving a personal need or desire. (That part has the potential be a little tricky, I imagine, given what I observe about people’s relationship to touch, in general…)
I want to think that the days of equating touching clients with fostering unhealthy dependence or re-traumatizing/exploiting clients are drawing to a close in light of neurobiological research results. My hope for my own practice is to develop a flexible array of ways it can look. Some clients won’t want or need touch. Some clients may benefit from reparative touch. Some clients may be able to have touch used as a psychoeducational home base for boundaries, expectations, etc. Some may just appreciate it as a normalizing experience. As long as I am scrupulous in my self-inventory, focus, and internal checking in, I can be confident of my own posture within this. And I love the way Marijke described the clean and transparent exploration of boundaries and transference/countertransference. Yes!
As for me, I’m inspired by this podcast and the stories of the people who have commented. Thank you for your sharing! It is invaluable to me as a student and a fellow human.
Thank-you Alice for your very interesting and thoughtful reply. I think your comments will be helpful to many clients who happen upon this topic – not to mention those therapists that are pursuing an interest in this area.
I’m very encouraged by your remarks actually. You’re going to be one of very few practitioners who have the qualifications for both touch and psychotherapy. And if your reasoned approach as you describe here is any indication, I think you’re going to be an amazing therapist!
In general, I don’t hug my client. That’s not to say I haven’t. It depends on the session, the client, and wether or not the hug has benefits therapeutically. For example, if one of my clients have continuous feelings of being rejected and feels isolated because of their HIV status, and there are clear boundaries around our therapeutic relationship, AND the client says it’s ok, I end the session with a hug (as if to say, your theory of NO ONE wanting to touch you or be around you because you’re HIV positive is false). However, it’s clear in this scenario that the hug is indeed therapeutic. Other clients have randomly tried to hug me after a session, maybe around a holiday, or a difficult session, and I certainly don’t back away from it. It most certainly is needed at that time. If I had a client who consistently tried to test boundaries and/or had a history of initiating lawsuits, or I have diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I might use more caution with allowing a hug to occur.
When I went to my Therapy session today with my new Therapist (it was our 3rd session), I told her that I was having a really tough day and really wanted a hug but she told me that she also didn’t do hugs (although if there is any small consolation she did tell me that she was open to giving them at the last session unlike my last Therapist) so needless to say I feel very hurt and upset right now and probably will for at least a little while.
Sorry I missed your comment Richard. I hope you found a way to get a hug that day. As I thought about your comment, I was imagining how you would have felt if you had gotten that hug from your therapist…how you might have been able to settle within yourself…and maybe feel like you’re not carrying the load completely on your own.
It’s so disappointing to hear another story about the “helping” profession that seems to fear sharing a simple hug for a client.
Well my Therapist ended up leaving the practice at the start of last month so we had a preplanned final session which I got a hug at the end of and I will say that it was a very satisfying hug. As for that day I did manage to find a way to get through it but I will say that it was very tough to do.
Thanks for keeping in touch Richard. It was good to know your therapist was true to her word about giving a hug on your last session. And I’m so pleased it was a satisfying hug for you. At least now you’ll have that memory to draw on.
I’m sure one day, we’ll look back at these times and wonder how our humanity got so misdirected.
All the best, Richard.
Hello. I have been seeing my therapist for almost a year now. I am 20 and he is in his 60’s. I’ve been craving to be held..or at least hugged by him for sometime. I don’t trust just anyone, and he knows that. Last session I was rather upset. I don’t think I’ve ever been that..open before. Anywho at the end he held his arms out and said “It’s all going to be alright. Mind if I do?” Of course I latched onto him like a blood thirsty leech. Lol. He know’s that that is something I crave..though I haven’t told him I want it from him. It was very very (let me repeat!) healing. I’ve honestly never felt that..safe and understood in my life. I guess I’m wondering if it would be innapropriate to ask for one again..or just leave it be for a while. Obviously he asked first but I don’t want to get my hopes up or anything. I think it depends on the persons involved and how well you know them.
Oh, I’d encourage you to ask again Leen. Instinctively you’re yearning for what your body mind craves and knows what would help you to heal. It’s coming from a healthy place.
I know there’s a risk in asking the question – your therapist may say no. However, even if he does, I’m sure – based on how you describe him – that he’d help you to feel okay for asking.
Not many therapists are familiar with the power of touch to heal and few have had training on appropriate use of hugs in therapy. (Therapists tend to shy away from therapeutic interventions that they don’t have training in.) So if he does say no, this is likely one of the reasons he’d hesitate to give you a hug.
I think either way it’d be a good learning opportunity for you.
All the best,
PS. I’m sorry Leen – I didn’t get notified for some reason about your post…I imagine you’ve moved on from where you were when you wrote it. If you haven any other questions feel free to ask and I’ll do my best to answer them promptly.
I have been going to my psychiatrist for almost 9 years. We only meet for 20 or so mins because I also have a therapist. Through these years I have developed a significant transference love for him. He knows it very well. He is an older (68) year old conservative man and I am a 43 year old frequently hypomanic woman. To my recollection he has never touched me. Maybe one hand shake the first time I met him years ago, but I’m not even sure of that. I know that he wouldn’t dare touch me because of my transference love. Once he took my blood pressure and it strangely was extremely high (out of my excitement) and he seemed nervous even taking it. Somehow he managed not to officially touch me doing that. I believe that if he ever hugged me it would probably be a big mistake. I will say, however, that I do wish to shake his hand someday when he retires, and when I do it will stay with me probably forever.
I didn’t realize touch was even possible in therapy until recently… I always just assumed it was a big no-no… So I just emailed my therapist and simply asked her if we can discuss her boundaries. Because I realized I have made a lot of assumptions in therapy, based on what I thought would be a boundary.
Very cool Laura. Yeah, it’s my belief that one day all good therapy will include appropriate touch ie. when the client is ready. For many of us, our deepest, intractable emotional issues were laid down when touch – not verbal communication – was dominant. It makes sense then that when a client feels an innermost desire for touch from the person they trust the most, it should form part of the therapy.
Thanks for your comment Laura.
Wow. I can barely breathe after reading these. This whole conversation is incredibly inspiring and moving but also fills me with anxiety. I’m about to have my 6th session with my therapist and a week ago felt myself developing strong transference feelings, and told him so. I have felt very connected to him now two or three times, it;s hard to explain but I just felt an emotional rawness and I think he picked up on that and he smiled at me tenderly and I wanted to cry so much, but I couldn’t because I can’t cry in front of people, only alone. I went home and bawled my eyes out. But I felt this overpowering need to be held in his arms, the way my mother should have held me (my mother was very cold and rejecting and un-maternal to an extreme). I look at him more as a mother figure than a father figure, I have no idea why. My transference feelings don’t extend to the sexual, but I long for a deeper connection, to be able to cry in his arms or on his chest, or sit on the floor with him (I like the earlier commenter’s idea about moving over closer on the floor).
Yet at the same time I am so afraid of touch and I feel disconnected to my emotions. My therapist seems extremely empathetic and last week when I was discussing a painful memory in an intellectual, detached way, hea sked me to pay attention to my internal physical state at the time and I thought about it and realized I felt a blockage in 3 places and realized this is why I can’t cry. He leaned forward and told me we’d work toward that together, toward me being able to trust him enough to cry with him and get all the trapped pain out. He actually hadly had tears in his eyes as he said this (I read recently this is both ethical and fairly common in therapy). I couldn’t believe it. I felt like i was dreaming. I never felt so validated, ever. I was over the moon that he CARED that much…it was beautiful….BUT! I broke our gaze when I saw the tears because at the same time I felt too exposed and raw…and his emotions embarrassed me some (because they mirrored my own? I’m still trying to figure this out)…so I looked at my shoes and laughed nervously. I’m always running from my true feelings and covering them over….this is something he knows and we’re working on….I want to be able to embrace my feelings the way I think he does. I feel so lucky to have found him.
While I was staring at my shoes and in spite of my embarrassment I was so tempted to throw my arms around him right then in childlike gratitude. I just couldn’t do it though. He picked up on this too and asked me what was making me uncomfortable so I told him. I told him I loved the fact he was an empath who could model emotions for me and feel them even more than I felt them myself, and how deeply moved I was by his tears…but that my defense mechanisms wouldn’t allow me to connect fully or fully experience such a beautiful and profound moment. He said nothing, but listened beautifully and then our time was up. As I got up to leave, I thought I saw him hold his arms out toward me as if to hug me but I wasn’t sure so I didn’t respond in kind, since I wasn’t sure I was imagining this or not and didn’t want to risk rejection if he wasn’t. At our next session I want to know what his boundaries are about holding and touch because I have an overpowering, almost painful need to let myself be held by him and cry into his arms like a small child.
It’s just hard to reconcile this need with my almost equally strong need to be in control all the time, and to be detached from my own and other’s emotions. Becoming too vulnerable is terrifying to me but at the same time I long for it so much, and my therapist is the only person in the world I would allow to see me like that or to hold me that way.
I wanted to say that he is extremely ethical and careful about my boundaries. He never said how he feels about touching and hugging in therapy (and I’m unsure if I imagined him holding his arms out toward me or not), but my gut instincts tell me he would do it if I needed it. He also sometimes moves over to sit next to me or leans forward toward me to tell me certain things (I can’t explain this, it sounds weird but it isn’t) but has not actually touched me.
I don’t know if this makes much sense…I’m rambling. My thoughts/feelings are a jumble right now and I feel like I’m being pulled between two powerful forces: the need to become a young child and sob into this man’s arms and let him mother me; and the other one to pull away and protect myself from feeling much of anything at all. A couple of these entries brought tears to my eyes…I want that so much. I’m so close to it, I think. But that wall inside me is like steel-enforced cement.
I don’t know how I’m going to get through these next few days until our next session. I need him the way a 2 year old needs mommy.
That was a lovely comment Lauren. Thank-you for having to courage to share your story with us. I’m inspired by comments such as yours – to hear how even in spite of your fears you’re trudging forward. And from the sounds of it, you have the right therapist to help you get there. So good to know.
And just so you know Lauren, these fears will subside one day and you’ll learn so much and grow to be the person you were meant to be!
All the best,
PS. Here’s a tip to help you get through this time. It’s about using two parts of your brain. Each time you feel like a 2 year old wanting Mommy, take a moment right there and then and allow your maternal instinct to care for her. It helps to get through the moment and it does a little healing at the same time.
Firstly, THANK YOU FOR HAVING THIS TOPIC!!! I AM ALSO SORRY FOR THE LENGTH OF MY POST.
Not that it should matter but I am a 51 yr old woman who has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and I need your perspective on what happened to me in my therapy.
I have been seeing my therapist for over 4 years now and about 1 year in, I asked if she provided hugs and she said she was open to it if there were clear signals that it felt appropriate, was not going to be re-traumatizing and only if it was something I asked for (not initiated by her, since I have a childhood sexual abuse history). So for over 3ish years now, on occasion, I have asked for and received a hug (usually at the beginning of the session). These hugs were usually asked for before her leaving on holiday, after she came back or if I felt that I needed to “reconnect” with her in the next session after I had really exposed myself and felt alot of shame, guilt and/or embarrassment.
About 4 weeks ago, I came into the session asked for and received a hug and described a dream I had the night before…I was flying with a garbage bag above me that was now empty being used like a kite (the garbage bag used to contain all the toxic stuff from being abused), now the bag was being used to lift me up and feel light, filled with joy and possibility. I had three flights with this garbage bag in this dream, the first was quite amazing and freeing, the next very short lived and almost disastrous and the last filled with near misses of objects…(that is the dream).
As I told her about my dream, I started to cry and when asked why, I said it made me worry about when I would no longer see her as my therapist. We talked about this topic and I got progressively more upset and overwhelmed at which time I again asked for a hug. She gently said no. I felt heartbroken, hurt, re-traumatized and confused. When she explained that she felt it would be taking away from my process by comforting me when I really should be trying to comfort myself and that she was still “here” for me, still “present” she did not want me to avoid the processing of my deep emotions. At the time, the adult part of me completely understood (still felt hurt) but did understand. BUT, the child part was very confused and hurt as mentioned above. I left the session feeling very raw emotionally. She said she would consult with the psychiatrist she usually consults with to get her perspective on things (as she has done in the past with other issues that have come up).
The following week if I remember correctly she called in sick (a rare event).
The next session, I asked for a hug at the beginning of the session (again to reconnect and to remove any internal dialogue about being toxic due to not getting the hug last time), she said we had to talk about that and sat down without hugging me. I was filled with dread!!!
She explained that she would no longer provide physical comfort (hugs) when asked. I was crushed emotionally and started to sob. She explained that after the last session, she felt it was “crystal clear” that she would be taking away from my process if she continued to provide physical comfort. Instead it would be much healthier to “discuss/talk about not getting the comfort and what that brings up for me. (at least that is what I remember her saying or meaning).
I was so hurt and felt even more confused by this “black and white” decision, that I could not even look at her while she was trying to explain how she was not actually closing her heart to me but opening it by allowing for a much deeper conversation about the lack of comfort. (To my knowledge, there has been few times that our sessions were fluffy and not deep in emotions and raw feelings).
I would also like to say, my therapist is probably considered to be one of the top trauma therapist where I live and our therapeutic relationship has only really had minor bumps on the road up to this point.
So, to continue, I left very emotional. I wrote her a letter which I asked her to read the following session to try to sway her decision but it looks like she still feels she is doing what is therapeutic for my process.
I however, view this as a very clinical decision without any consideration for how damaging it is to me AND my process.
I could explain how a previous therapeutic relationship affected how deeply I feel about this but my message has been long enough.
Can you provide your feedback/perspective on this? I realize you don’t have all the facts but what I have laid out here is pretty detailed as to how it went down.
I sincerely appreciate any feedback you provide!!! Thank you! Lou
Hi Lou, thank-you for sharing so many details of your life. I can’t hide the disappointment I felt in reading your story. And I can imagine how painful this must be for you. As you know when we go to therapy for some time, the process triggers our early memories – we go into child mode. In this state, we need new memories to help heal the old. So when I hear stories such as yours where I go is to imagine saying “no” to a child who wants a hug. Or someone saying “You’ll have to learn to deal with this on your own”. Strict parents used to do this sort of thing and it was acceptable.
We’ve learned from child development studies that if children are given what they need, they flourish. If they are sent out into the world without sufficient self soothing capacities, they flounder. When you are in child mode, you’re back there. You’re in a state where you need the same comforts as a child would. When you have sufficient self-soothing memories, then you’ll be better able to take on the daily challenges of life.
There is nothing wrong in needing the healing touch of another human being. If you can’t get this from your therapist – the one person you likely trust the most in the world – then where can you get it from?
I can’t point a finger at your therapist – it just seems it takes forever for new ideas – even neuroscience – to reach therapists. Yet here you are in need of something that if you were met in this way – by a mere hug – it could provide such deep healing – and so easily so I might add.
I think your therapist is trying to do the right thing. The fact that she sought out supervision says she does want to do what she thinks is right for you. So I’m torn when I say that what I think is going on in your therapy is not right. Every cell in my heart says it’s not right.
What I believe is happening now in your therapy is a mini recapitulation of what you got as a child – inconsistent parenting. I imagine at this point you might be thinking “where do I go from here?” So, let’s step back…
Your therapist has chosen to meet you at a much older emotional state where your capacity to think and verbalize your feelings are at. You can still do work from there – however, in my opinion that still leaves your earlier states untouched. And I’m not sure if this fracture in your relationship can be healed if she’s not willing to give you what you need. In fact, you’re at risk of closing up again and “pretending” it’s all okay just to secure your relationship with her.
I guess if I was to leave you with something Lou is this…try not to let her high status as a “trauma expert” sway what you know in your heart is right for you. She is well meaning. However, I’d strongly encourage you to do some inner child work. This is something I teach in my program so in brief it’s about creating a safe place and going to those early places to do the healing you need.
All the best,
I am very greatful for this. But is this counseling approach for elderly counselors only?
Hello Anselem, when you say this “counseling approach” I’m assuming you mean using touch in therapy. The use of touch is for any therapist and particularly those who work with folks longer than 12 sessions (i.e. by 12 sessions I mean to suggest it’s not short-term therapy).
Let me know if that answers your question.
I’m very satisfied with my therapist even if she doesn’t touch her clients. Still I knew I needed some sort of holding or touching mode of healing.
I tried a few sessions with a “snugglist” (yeah it’s a real thing) That was not a good experience as this person was untrained and unprofessional. I noticed her sending and receiving texts while holding me.
I decided to try working with a sex surrogate as I also have a lot of anxiety with sex. This person also communicates with my therapist after each session. I have had a dozen sessions with her and at least so far it has all been talking and hugging without removing any clothes. It has been a remarkable experience though this is an expensive option. (good luck getting your insurance to cover this)
Thanks for all the great info on this site which has helped me in choosing the healing I need.