A touching place
Wright, N. (2020), ‘A Touching Place’, British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy, 19 May.
Social distancing: a novel, contemporary means to avoid close proximity and physical touch. Yet there's something about the phenomenon that feels strangely familiar. Step back with me metaphorically, for a moment, to the days before Covid19 arrived - unexpected and uninvited - and so rudely invaded our space. What were our personal and cultural realities then and, technology apart, how far have they really changed?
Let's be honest. Touch has been difficult, awkward, suspect even, in British culture for some time now. We’ve relegated physical contact to analogy, to expressing it in words: ‘I felt touched when you did that’; ‘Let’s stay in contact’; ‘That really moved me’. We say to our children, ‘Look – but don’t touch’. In fact, even looking is a bit tricky. It’s as if looking, really looking, constitutes an extension of touch, a frowned-upon breach of sacred space.
Ask yourself: when was last time you really looked at someone, gazed at them intently, studied their features, their body, their movement, without you or they feeling acutely embarrassed? ‘Don’t look – it’s rude to stare!’ It’s a deeply-embedded cultural thing. We learn from our earliest experiences and responses: what is acceptable and what kind of behaviours will bring punishment, awkwardness, surprise, fulfilment or reward.
So it is with physical touch. We have written and unwritten rules and expectations about what constitutes appropriate touch; amplified socially and politically by a legitimate desire to protect vulnerable people. And so we don’t touch. Risk determines our psychosocial stance. We live lives largely devoid of contact; of the joy, support and healing that can come from a simple touch: that deep feeling of tangible, life-giving, hope-inspiring contact.
To bring this closer to home: I remember visiting my parents a few years ago. In my family, we certainly didn’t touch. It would feel awkward and embarrassing, but I decided to hug each of my parents on my arrival. At first, they looked shocked. It felt rigid, stiff, difficult – but they didn’t push away. I persevered each time we met or I left, until the time came when they protested if I arrived or departed without giving them that now-traditional embrace.
I’m reminded of how often Jesus touched people - and allowed himself to be touched by them too - sometimes in surprising ways and with unexpected results. He didn’t just work miracles through words or connect from what we may regard as a suitable distance. He touched people physically and, in doing so, he touched them at profoundly human, deeply spiritual levels too; resulting in the most amazing, transformational experiences and effects.
Today, by contrast, touch feels unsafe. Our professional norms and boundaries are designed defensively to safeguard people, relationships and reputations. It’s sometimes emotionally about protecting ourselves or others from embarrassment, hurt or rejection too. In the pandemic era, we stand at a distance to avoid contracting or transmitting a deadly disease. It’s a conscious behaviour with an explicit rationale that, in this case, makes good sense.
Yet still, at times, I believe our avoidance of touch is a matter of unquestioned reserve; a cultural heritage we introject from others as children and perpetuate and reinforce subconsciously through our own attitudes and actions. What part, if any, does touch have in your counselling or therapy? The Virus aside, would you ever touch a client…or allow them to touch you? Where does touch fit with your ethical beliefs, values and practice?
Let’s keep in touch!
This article first appeared in the BACP Members Blog, which is published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy © BACP: https://www.bacp.co.uk/news/news-from-bacp/coronavirus/member-blogs/blog-a-touching-place/
* * * * *
‘Nicely written, Nick. Thanks for sharing.’ (NM, India)
'Great article, Nick.' (GW, UK)
‘Such interesting questions Nick 'would you ever touch a client…or allow them to touch you?' Touch is such an inherent part of our humanity (as we are finding out with the Covid-19 situation and the clear message not to touch people who aren't in your household). When we touch we are communicating something about the relationship. The therapeutic relationship is a profound one because as professionals we touch very deep parts of our clients' inner world and vice versa. We are both impacted by the touch of our humanity. As to physical touch - this is particularly sensitive because sometimes clients have been inappropriately touched by others so it is important that we do not invade other people's physical space. We try hard to make the relationship an equal one but as professionals we may be seen as being in a position of power. Also perhaps as professionals we have been touched inappropriately and may feel uncomfortable with clients touching us - a handshake is one thing (not allowed at the moment). How about a touch on the arm? What does that mean? Whose benefit is the touch for? Do we have permission? Do clients have permission to touch us? I look forward to reflections from others.’ (SG, UK)
‘I think you are right SG, it depends a lot on the past experiences of each of us, and on our own personality. We can't treat everybody the same way. Maybe the best way to a first approach is not to touch, and then, we may see.’ (CG, Mexico)
‘Interesting reflections, CG. I was struck by your thoughts around what we do culturally whether we like it or not. Touching another person involves being in their personal space. Boundaries are important and l believe we should be free to say 'no' if we aren't comfortable.’ (SG, UK)
‘This is a very interesting and wide topic. There are a lot of perspectives from which we can discuss about it. I'm always glad to learn the point of view of non-Latin people regarding relationships! It is interesting to understand a little bit more about the touch in GB. In our Latin America countries, particularly in Mexico, we do touch: we say hello with a kiss on the cheek, we hug briefly, we shake hands (but this is kinda "cold") and not only with our relatives and friends, but many times with people we meet for the very first time... of course, sometimes it is uncomfortable with certain kind of people, but it is common... although... I don't know if we like it or it is just a cultural habit... I'll have to think about it. Thanks for your article Nick, I enjoyed it 🌷.’ (CG, Mexico)
‘How then do you show love?’ (DD, Brazil)
'I remember when my Dad died, my Mum really missed physical contact. That was part of her bereavement but something rarely talked about. I always made sure to hug her when we met up.' (PC, UK)
‘We are so badly tarnished by the actions of paedophiles that all men are now viewed with suspicion. It makes even the most natural of contact with children impossible, e.g. to pick them up if they fall, or to give them a reassuring hug if they are afraid. I worry about the psychological and emotional effects that will have on future generations.’ (GB, Australia)
‘Nice piece Nick. Working interculturally especially brings its challenges in this area too. The client that looks for a handshake (most often in business contexts or those where therapists are part of a medicalised 'white coat' culture); the tentative hand on the arm from the client who likes to 'feel' you are there; the one who asks for a hug because they haven't felt physical contact with a warm human being for months. All depends, I'd say. And that's where Ethics, Modality, and using (internal & external) Supervision well, matters. e.g. "A hard and brittle frame vs a genuine human response"; "Why this client? Why now?" ... let alone questions of 'Gender'. I'm a fan of Ofer Zur, Ph.D. , worth taking a look perhaps? https://www.zurinstitute.com/touch-in-therapy/’ (IR, Switzerland)
‘I come from India, from a state called Punjab where people hug easily. If you don't hug people think you have become arrogant. For me that's the only way it works.’ (SS, India)
‘Touch is a very powerful communicator. As a trauma survivor, I am very mindful that a simple brush on the shoulder that seems benign to most, can take someone to a dark place quickly. As I have coached many employees and leaders over the years who are having difficulty in their roles, words of compassionate encouragement and honest feedback can influence change. No touch needed...’ (JW, USA)
‘Wow! Thanks Nick for this article. I'm from India and have a very different view on this. I have experienced different hugs from limited people and the emotions behind it. We are not from a culture of hugs. But it's a beautiful experience by the giver and the receiver. I'm reminded about two incidents in our epics when Rama embraced Hanuman and Krishna embraced Kushelar. I'm also reminded about my classical dance form (Bharatanatyam) which is most of the times a solo performance. We have aesthetically beautiful presentation of touch by peacock feathers, the clothes adorning us, the earrings, etc. Coincidentally I'm learning one such song on Krishna. My self got so elevated imagining and dancing, dreaming about the touch of divine in a character! It's like life expansion! Very touched and had tears when I read about Jesus! So similar!!! The intent matters in everything that as humans we do and more when it's touch because it leaves memories, thoughts, emotions which will be alive for years and years! As someone rightly said in therapeutic setting, it's different and I use my intuitiveness and presence to touch if it's essential. More than belief, values, practice.... for me personally it comes when both the person feel it and be one as a giver and receiver. Professionally, handshake and still I prefer a Namaste. I feel more humbler with that as if connecting to the heart!!! Would love to hear more from you and other friends across globe. 🙏 and a virtual 🤗’ (LV, India)
‘It depends on the "Touch" Some clients like to give hugs; some hand shakes, and some just a hello. As a therapist once rapport is built you get to better understand what a client likes or dislike. In my practice I start out with a handshake if the client extends his or her hand, if not a "hello” is good enough.’ (CM, Canada)
'Great question to ponder Nick. The comments have been enlightening & interesting. I too had non hug parents, which I never realised until after I mixed with "natural hug-people" and took my new habit home. Professionally, I go by "speak the language of the listener", so I leave it to clues from them. So it is still essentially a personal-culture thing, as other comments have said. Some clients have asked for a hug at the end of a session. I open the door first, so it is never in private. (Unfortunately, being a male has it's risks when dealing with physical contact with potentially troubled people, but I've never had any problem.)' (NH, Australia)