Talking about the No Touch Rule

Friday midday I walk up the driveway to the old Victorian house where E has her office. She’s invited me to have an extra session this week to talk more about her refusal to provide comforting touch in therapy and my reaction to that boundary. Earlier in the day, I’ve already sent her a copy of my blog post that describes all the confusion and contradictory emotions I’ve been experiencing.

I take a breath before I enter the house. I resolve to keep my heart open, to allow myself to feel whatever comes up. I tell myself, let’s see what happens if I don’t run away from this but instead talk to her as honestly as I can.

We settle down on the floor, as usual, but neither of us makes a move to pick up the mandalas we usually color. E just looks at me and says, “I read your blog. Thank you for sharing it with me, and for coming in to talk about it. And I want you to know that I am so, so sorry. I don’t want to hurt you.”

I believe her, but still, what can I say? She asks what we can do to make sure things are okay between us. I have no idea, literally.

She gives me some spiel about how this is good for us, even if it is uncomfortable. We’ll be fine. We’ll figure our way through it. A little rupture is okay, she says.

It is okay with you, I think.

She acknowledges that things are not the same for us, that I am suffering more than she is, though it is also hard for her. It’s the nature of the therapy relationship. It is imbalanced, and that’s a good thing; it’s ultimately for my benefit.

I hear all of this, and I think only that I have heard it before, and I know it is true, and it doesn’t help at all.

She acknowledges that there is disagreement in her field about the appropriateness of touch in therapy. “Therapists have to come to their own conclusions about it,” she tells me. “But as I did more work with ethics boards, it became increasingly apparent to me that it’s not a good idea.”

She tells me it is okay for me not to like her boundary. It is okay for me to be mad about it. We don’t have to see it the same way.

I don’t like this line of conversation, either, because it’s quickly becoming apparent that she’s okay with me hating her boundary and holding it anyway. I kind of expected that, but discovering right away that she isn’t holding any room for reconsideration is painful.

E tells me it is okay to have the need for comforting touch. I appreciate this validation. I have, unusually, come to that conclusion myself. I mean, I have wavered some in recent days, wondering if I was wrong to even wish for the physical connection to E, but at a certain level, I know that this is a healthy thing to want.

“We are, after all, mammals,” I say. I think again about my dogs, how much they want to be pet, how they love to sit on our laps (despite weighing 70-80 pounds each). “We are warm-blooded, naturally social creatures. We need touch.”

E agrees. And she notes that I didn’t get enough loving touch growing up.

“No,” I say, “Probably not. And maybe that is a piece of why I was ‘complicit’ or at least not fighting back against inappropriate touch. Maybe I just craved physical attention.” I don’t know. That just springs up in my mind. I don’t know if I even believe that theory.

We talk a little bit about how so much of this is an expression of my unmet need for warmth from my mother. Then E stops and says, “We can, of course, talk about what you needed from your mother. We should talk about that. But I don’t want to rush to talk about that if there are things we need to talk about between us. Because this is both about us and about you and your mom, and it might feel safer to talk about you and your mom. But we can talk about whichever you need. I’m okay with that.”

I consider this. “We should talk about our relationship,” I say. “What I need from my mom, that is something I have carried with me all these years, and I’ll carry it all my life. When she dies, I will grieve for her and I will grieve never having that need met, I know it. There is no urgency to talk about it today or any particular day. But the feeling of needing something from you that you won’t give me, that feels big and urgent, and that’s really why I’m here today. I didn’t want to have to hold that pain and urgency the whole weekend, if possible.”

“Okay,” E agrees. She suggests that, following our general work to help me identify and experience my feelings, we could talk about how I feel about this boundary.

“But you already know,” I protest. “You read my post.”

“Tell me more about it,” she says. “Here it is, it is this thing between us.” She puts a pen down on the floor, between the two of us. “It is just sitting here. Imagine it is a thing; it’s not me or you, but a thing that exists. How do you feel about it?”

“I don’t like it. But you know that.”

“Is that all?” She wants me to expand on that. I can tell her how angry it makes me, or how sad. She says we can talk about it. I can ask questions about it. Does she have the same boundary with all of her clients? How does she feel about it?

I try to go with the feelings first, and my voice grows very soft. I feel as though I am opening up my rib cage and letting her peek into my heart. “I feel as if I let you see something very young, very vulnerable in me. I trusted you to see that. In the past, when I have shared something very intimate with you, you have met that with warmth and kindness. But this time, you saw the need and kept your distance. It is hard not to feel rejected. I do feel rejected. I try to tell myself that it is not about me…”

“It is not about you,” she interrupts, also speaking quietly.

“It feels cold. And that brings back all the times that I have shared a vulnerability with my mother, only to have her retreat, or pretend she didn’t see it. I feel hurt.”

I tell her I don’t want to be hurt. I don’t want to be angry with her. Our relationship matters to me. She matters to me. I want things to be okay between us. She tells me that I can be hurt and angry, and our relationship is still fine. She can be uncomfortable with my emotions, and yet our relationship is still fine. This is definitely new territory for me.

I do circle back and ask her, “Do you have this boundary with all of your clients?” It is a scary question to ask, because if she says “no,” I will need to jump off the top of a tall building.

“I do have that boundary with all clients,” she tells me. “Except I sometimes give people a hug at the end of a session.”

“I know that,” I say. “We have occasionally hugged at the end of a session.”

“Right. And some clients ask for it after every session, which is all right. I like hugs. I guess I tend not to hug men. There are just so many problematic cases about touch in therapy, mostly between male psychologists and female clients, but it just hasn’t felt right to me.” Then she says, “When I was a young therapist, I felt differently. I did used to hold clients. I could see they needed it, and it was something I could offer, so I thought, why not?”

Why not, indeed? I think. That’s still how I see it.

“But as I became more active with ethics boards and saw all the things that could go wrong, I decided it just was not ethical. I stopped doing it and made it a firm boundary in my practice. It’s probably been more than 20 years since I’ve touched a client in that way.”

I don’t have the energy to ask more about the “ethics” reason. What’s the point? As I say to her, “Well, I suppose you have the right to have any fucking boundary you want to have. It’s your practice. And then I get to decide if that works for me, or if it doesn’t.”

“Exactly!”

Ugh, exactly. Except I had no idea that I had this need until I’ve already worked with you for so many years and am now deeply invested. It’s not easy now to say, fine, your boundary sucks, so I will go and find another therapist who doesn’t have that stupid boundary.

I write that, now, as if I’m still angry. But in fact, I calm down over the course of the session. It helps me that she hears what I am saying, that she validates my need, that she is not repelled by my frustration and hurt. I know that I still don’t like the boundary. I know it’s firm. I don’t know how we will deal with it. But somehow, she makes me feel seen, respected and cared for anyway. By the time I leave her office, shaken a bit from the sense of being so exposed, I’m sad but much less agitated. I know I won’t obsess over the entire weekend (maybe only some of it). And I start to see, for perhaps the first time in my life, that it can be safe to express my anger and disagreement to someone I care about deeply.

33 thoughts on “Talking about the No Touch Rule

  1. I just don’t get it. To not give something because of all the bad things that could happen?? Well, she may as well not get in her car and drive cos bad shit can happen on the road, or maybe she shouldn’t smile at strangers cos she could get attacked or maybe she shouldn’t board a plane, cos it could drop out the sky.
    Sorry if this isn’t helpful but all this ethics crap annoys me.
    I’m sorry you’re being hurt by this boundary, but I’m glad your felt less urgency over it when you left.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, the boundary sucks, and it doesn’t make sense to me. The idea I try to hang onto is “she has a right to make whatever boundary she wants,” just as I have the right (I have been learning) to have my own boundaries, whether or not people like them. It is not easy though, that’s for sure.

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  2. Dear Q: “And I start to see, for perhaps the first time in my life, that it can be safe to express my anger and disagreement to someone I care about deeply.” This is HUGE. I can see this ahead of me – either I will do it (like Hannibal with his elephants)
    http://www.livius.org/articles/person/hannibal-3-barca/hannibal-in-the-alps/
    or I will give up like a tired 3 year old.
    I will keep you in my mind, Q – my Talisman. TS
    PS AWESOME!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear TS, I am sorry for not responding sooner. I just needed a little break from blogging, I guess. But I really appreciate your comment.

      Yes, learning to express disagreement, it is HUGE indeed. But if I can do it, you can do it. I am quite sure of that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Q,

    I have been so moved by this series of posts, and once again i am in awe of your incredible courage. I have been through similar ruptures and know exactly what you mean about not receiving the concession you wanted or hoped for from the session, but it somehow feeling ok anyway. That experience of someone lovingly setting a limit, while holding, validating and exploring our ‘big feelings’ about it, and truly staying alongside us in our rage and pain and grief, not shaming us or turning away. It’s a truly loving and parental thing to do, to really stay connected in the face of all of our distress, rage, shame, and convincing intellectual rationalisations. It makes me think a little bit, in a smiling kind of way, (now that I have got through it the most recent event and the warm fuzzy feelings have returned) of a jokey webpage doing the rounds on fb, called ’31 reasons why my toddler is crying’, which includes ‘I stopped them from drinking bleach’. We have that child part desperate longing to be held and touched and loved, and I think it is very easy for therapists to be seduced into this. It is far harder to hold the position of integrity and really do what is best for your client, to allow them to feel the loss, the pain and the grief and be alongside them with that and hold them through that. I do think it is an ultimately more loving act to be alongside someone in their distress and loss and trauma, as a parent might stay really connected to their little child’s big feelings about not being allowed to drink the bleach. Sometimes their job is to keep us safe. Attachment Girl wrote a really good series of blog posts about it, I will try to find the link. Anyway, well done as always. I am so in all of your courage. You are doing such deep work of healing and I think your therapist has such deep integrity. Take lots of care of yourself through the next few weeks. I hope it begins to feel less tender.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. E sees and knows ‘all the things that could go wrong’. She sees you and validates you. Can you trust her professional judgement that there are things that can go wrong and that she isn’t willing to risk hurting you? I wonder if down the line you would be able to see this more as care than as denying care? She doesn’t want to hurt you or risk it.

    Here’s the thing. A sign of a good friend is one who will tell his friend about a pit before he falls in it. The friend may not see the pit and may think others have traveled that road and are just fine. Still, a good friend warns of the pit. Your therapist offers a warning that things could go wrong and it could really be harmful for the quality of care.

    This is about your care and safety not about you being bad.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m going to risk saying this and really making you mad. (takes a deep yet weary breath). I’m not trying to up set you. I promise, but there’s something I’d like you to consider.

    It seems as if you think she shouldn’t deny the request, as if she’s obligated because it was requested. I don’t think her feelings are given equal validity to yours.

    We know that no means no. Is her no invalid because she’s a therapist? Is her no, are her boundaries as valid as your no and your own boundaries?

    Its not as clinical as saying, she has the power to relieve suffering but she has chosen not to and will therefore leave you hurting. I know it feels like that, but your intellectual side may need to take over so that you can better see the position of your therapist.

    I do think your bravery in discussing this matter is to be commended. I sooo get what you’re needing from her and what it feels like to have her say no. It crumbles the heart deeply. It’s bruises the ego, it bruises the young girl inside. It hurts. I’m really sorry about that.

    With confidence in your whole being,
    Faith

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Faith. I can tell from your comment that you get it. You seem to understand how it hurts to admit this longing to E and to not have it met. That makes it easier to read the other part: that it’s important to respect her limits. Actually, I do think I see that and respect that. The difficulty is more with the three-year-old part, who of course does not understand the idea that E should have boundaries too. So I have to figure out how to care for that three-year-old myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You’ve done so well thorough all of this, Q. I know it has to hurt that E won’t give you what you are asking for and needing. I don’t think what you are asking for is wrong or bad in any way, and I do think E is right that each therapist has to decided of they are going to use touch in their therapy. I absolutely understand your feelings about her holding the boundary and how you are now invested in working with her, so it’s not so simple as to just go find a new therapist. I felt like this when Bea started using SP— I hated SP, I hated how it had changed her, I hated that she wouldn’t just get rid of SP completely and go back to how it used to be, and as much as a part of me wanted to, I couldn’t just leave and go to a new therapist. I was too attached to her. The thing is though, the more we talked about it, and the more she validated and understood my feelings around it all, AND held to the boundary she had set of continuing to use tools from SP that she believed would help me, the safer I felt in therapy. Oh, I was hurt and mad and it was a lot of sessions working through all that stuff, and I felt like the pain of that rupture might kill me, but as we got through it, Bea became a safer person, because she did what she said she would do. She didn’t change things just because I wanted her to. I know it’s not the same thing as what is happening between you and E but I wanted you to know you aren’t alone. Your feelings make sense. I hope that you and E can find a way to give you the mothering holding that you need. Sending hugs xx🤗

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can imagine, I think, how frustrating and frightening it must be to have Bea using SP tools when you don’t want her to. It is a similar situation to what I experienced with E, actually. Your therapist is sticking to something she thinks is right, even though it doesn’t feel right to you.

      Even now, weeks later, it’s a struggle. I mean, I’m okay. I’m not crushed by this. But it isn’t easy, still, to accept that the person I’ve trusted to see this hole in my heart can’t/won’t provide the comfort I’m seeking. It puts so much responsibility on me to tend to the hole myself, and that responsibility feels sort of overwhelming, if I think about it too much.

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  7. AlicewithPTSD worded things much better than I did. She expressed it better. My second comment was choppy because I was trying to get it right, trying to be careful with my words without being too hurtful. AlicewithPTSD said what I was trying to say on in all areas.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. My therapist holds this boundary, too. Not for ethical reasons, but because she thinks it hinders the work of psychotherapy. I hate her for that. I think I’ll always hate her for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Pink! So sweet of your to check in. I’ve just had a lot going on with work and family, plus processing all of this. And while I often do a lot of the processing on my blog, for some reason I needed to step away from it for a bit. I’m doing fine, making some progress, I think. xxoo

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  9. Hey Q, thinking of you.
    I haven’t been up to date on people’s blogs because of my concussion, and I’m still not up to fully commenting (hopefully will soon, over the coming days) but know that I am sending HUGE quantities of love to you, okay?
    ❤ ❤ ❤

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  10. Pingback: Learning to Accept My Longing for Touch | la quemada

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