I love my therapist; she’s smart, skilled, caring, insightful, grounded, and just a good, decent person. And maybe after all these years, I’m done working with her.
I know this is driven by hurt, so I want to slow down, take a breath, and think it through. It’s not only about wanting to put up an emotional wall, however. I wonder if she may have given me all she can or is willing to.
To explain how I got to this point, I need to back up a couple of months, to the time I told her that I comfort myself imagining resting my head on her knee while she touches my hair. I felt very exposed when I told her that, and she backed away immediately. “I don’t even have to take that to my ethics board,” I remember her saying. “It’s obviously not okay.”
Soon after that we had the therapy retreat, which was intensive and helpful, and since then we’ve gone back and forth between working with the shame connected to having connected arousal and abuse in my head, and just propping me up on the days (weeks) when my medication issues are especially bad. We have never revisited that conversation, but it’s been in my head almost every time I’ve seen her.
Last week I was working in California for four intensive days, and I’ve had week upon week of insomnia, so I’m pretty tired out these days. And sad, somehow. I just want comfort.
I say that to E yesterday, in our therapy session. I am not very talkative, and I can see I am making her work hard. She tries to draw me out, but I’m not very responsive (not on purpose, I am just stuck for a while). As the session progresses, I fee I am a small child, a baby even, holding out my arms, waiting to be picked up and held close.
“I feel so alone with it all,” I tell her. “There’s a great big hole in my heart…”
She asks me what I needed to fill it. How can I answer this? I need my mother. I need to be tiny and know I am cherished, that my presence in this world matters deeply. I need something that doesn’t even have words.
I get up from the floor, where we are coloring our mandalas, and climb up on the couch. I curl up and hold a pillow close to me, which also gives me a barrier to hide behind.
We talk a little about touch. I find massage gives me a little bit of what I need. We talk about what I can ask for from my husband. But gradually, words become harder and harder to find.
Finally, she says, in a soft voice, “I bet it would feel good for me to come over there and stroke your hair and tell you that you are wonderful, wouldn’t it?”
I can only nod.
She says, “I see that, and I wish I could give you that. You are wonderful, I can tell you that. You are courageous and so committed to doing this hard work. But I can’t give you that. That’s where we hit my professional boundaries; it wouldn’t be right.”
I close my eyes and wonder why I even nodded when she said that. I should have just said NO, I don’t even want that, why would I?!?
She says, “It’s one of those times when what I want to offer as a human being collides with what I do as a professional… I can’t risk my license and my practice… not appropriate… [etc., I’m forgetting portions of this]… This probably doesn’t feel very good to you, to be told I can’t give you that. But you probably feel good to know you have an ethical therapist.”
What?!? No, I don’t feel good I have an “ethical therapist.” Why would it be unethical to sit next to me, to touch me? Why not come hold my hand? It’s not sexual, there’s never been anything sexual about it. It’s not something I want all the time. It’s just right now. Right now as we have been talking about the most intimate things. Right now as I have been struggling for months and months with my withdrawal from Effexor, wondering sometimes if I will ever feel stable. Why is it unethical to provide some physical comfort?
I consider leaving early. I have never left a session early; the minutes I spend there are too important to me to throw them away. But there is absolutely nothing to say. She is certain that by denying me some comfort for that hole in my heart, she is doing what is best for me. I know she’s not trying to be mean. But there is no way to reconcile what I want and what she wants. It seems so pointless.
But I don’t leave. I don’t want to do anything I’ll regret later. We are near the end of the session anyway. I’m polite and don’t say much. I start to clean up the pens and the coloring books a bit early. Finally it’s time to go. She stands by the door to say goodbye and touches me lightly on the arm as I pass by.
Sorry, that doesn’t help.
Later, at home, I try to understand. What exactly is unethical here? It’s okay for C to provide touch in her mind/body practice. Am I overlooking something? I poke around a bit online and read a variety of perspectives. I read a long piece that covers some of the reasons therapists stay away from touch, along with the many ways in which clients benefit from touch. It definitely comes down in favor of touch in therapy, but with some clear boundaries and a lot of intentionality and self-reflection.
One of the reasons, according to the article, that therapists steer clear of touch is the advice they get from risk management. I remember E talking about her license and her practice. And I wonder, as much as I have trusted her, how much does she trust me? Touching my hair or holding my hand isn’t safe for her? I might lose it and sue her? After more than ten years, how much does she even know me, if that is her fear?
Thinking about this consumes me through the evening. I compose emails to her in my head. I think of sending her the article, asking her to tell me what her thinking is, what is the reason that touch is unethical? Then I think, no, that is like chasing someone you’re enamored with but who isn’t interested in you. It’s like calling them up, asking, why you don’t love me?!? And when you hear the reasons, you argue that those aren’t good reasons. Clearly her reasons are good enough for her. It’s not for me to change her mind.
That’s when I start to think: maybe I have the right to be comforted and touched, in a non-sexual way, by someone who knows me and does not judge me and does not need anything back. Maybe E has given me enough. She’s taught me skills and guided me to many practices that are helpful. She’s been generous and encouraging. And this is her limit. She can’t give what I need. Maybe someone else can.
(Never mind that the mere idea of starting over with someone else is exhausting.)
Later I think, no she is right, what I want is unreasonable. It’s just because I am too needy, too flawed, too unable to meet my emotional needs within the context of the life I create for myself. It’s another example of my failure. I consider burning myself to squash the yearning. But I don’t do it. Maybe that’s a good sign. Or maybe I’m just too tired.
Later I am sad. And hurt. And kind of mad.
I think, this is just a re-enactment of my relationship with my mother, who always knows better than I do what I need, what’s good for me. I asked her to lend me money when I was leaving my abusive ex-husband, who had emptied out our joint checking account and left me with nothing. She said no, because she and my step-father thought it was my husband’s role to support me, and they didn’t want to get in the middle of things. I asked her to come out when I was due to have my first child, but no, she made her plane reservations for a month after my due date, because she thought my husband, baby, and I needed to bond as a family before anyone else was there. I wanted help applying to college but no, that was part of me learning to be independent. I wanted to go to the movies with friends, but they couldn’t be trusted (ironic given that it was her friends who molested me). I wanted a ride… the long walk was good for me… I wanted some defense from my step-father’s verbal abuse… a wife sticks by her husband… I wanted comfort… but I was a big girl…
It goes back earlier than I can even remember. She has told me she was one of those Dr. Spock-informed mothers, who fed me when the clock said it was time, not when I cried.
So here I am, all these years later, crying out for an embrace, like a lonely child who needs to be held and rocked.
E says I can get this need met within my relationship with my husband, my second husband, my dear, understanding husband. She’s partially right. He will hold me and touch me, and I find some soothing there. But for reasons I may write about in a separate blog later, that’s not the same thing.
I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t want a rupture with E, on the contrary. But does that mean I have to bury this need? How can I do that, without harming myself (my most effective strategy for getting rid of difficult emotions).
On my walk this morning, I think again about what I’ve learned about mindfulness. Maybe my task is just to sit with the unresolved longing, as well as the grief and rage that accompany it. That sounds like a wise approach. Yet, grief and rage don’t seek wisdom. Grief and rage want to stamp their feet and rip up the mandalas we have colored in therapy and tell E that she’s needlessly withholding. And it isn’t fair! It isn’t right!
So here I am, with all my contradictory impulses battling for my attention and the future of my therapeutic relationship in question. Breathe, Q, I tell myself. Just breathe.
CREDIT: Image edited from a photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash
For starters, you are not a flawed human being for wanting what you never had in your obviously abusive mother. You were left with this wound that you want to heal and because E has been someone you trust for ten years, you feel she could help you with this wound. Some therapists might do this, but she doesn’t feel comfortable with it for some reason. I would not see it as sexual either, I see it as a maternal need that was left unmet in your past. And for that reason I doubt even the most loving of husbands can’t fix it either. All of these things are not your fault.
It sounds like you have a great therapy relationship with E until you wanted this thing she cannot give you. She probably sees it as she is your therapist and not your mother and feels you need to get this need filled somewhere else. This is the hard thing about a good therapist being the only one you trust with all your secrets and pain. But the fact is she is NOT a friend, but a therapist. And good at this one thing.
If I were you, I would try to develop a relationship with an older woman at church or in the neighborhood or in a support group like Al-Anon because what you are asking for might never happen with this excellent therapist, but could happen in another setting once you grow to trust a woman who is not being paid to listen to you. I realize this will take vulnerability and wise decisions about how much to share for awhile until the friendship is built up, but if you can do this it will be far better than a hug or caring gestures from your therapist. Keep her as a therapist and find a friend who you can give and receive on an equal level and it will truly heal your heart.
I am not in any way diminishing your pain. I feel for you. My mom was rather distant and hugless too. And she never comes to cheer me on in anything in any way. It has been heartbreaking to say the least. One day, by accident a woman near my mother’s age in my church came over and threw her arms around me and told me that she would be thrilled to have a daughter like me. I don’t say this to brag. I am telling you that no therapist who is getting paid to listen and hug me would do the amount of healing a woman who was not getting paid (and who I was able to reciprocate the love back) did to heal my heart.
I am sending loving thoughts your way and I hope and pray this happens to you. Then you could keep the good therapist and find a true freinds who can bring that healing you so deserve.
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I have a few thoughts about what you wrote, so I hope you won’t mind my sharing them. One of them is that, for me, this hole actually cannot be filled, because I have one mother and that’s all I will ever have. I think the hole does get better as the grief is acknowledged. Knowing, for example, that I needed physical comfort as a child helps me to understand what the grief is all about. The grief can feel so great that it can’t be accepted, but I think it can. It doesn’t need to be fixed.
My second thought is that physical comfort is easy. I haven’t been aware of some people physically feeling safe to me until recently, and it’s been enlightening to realize if someone I trust walks into the room or I hear someone’s voice that I feel safe with, I calm down immediately and it takes zero effort on my part. I don’t think anyone actually felt safe enough to me before for this to happen. It made me realize people who are better at relationships have this all the time at their disposal as a coping strategy, and they use it to deal with stress a lot less than what I am facing. (My friend came home from visiting her mother, and shared with us how much better she slept in her mother’s house.) So there are times when I am overwhelmed by what I am going through and some part of me knows I am overwhelmed, and it goes for something that seems easy and effortless–like being around a safe person, because I am maxed out. There isn’t anything wrong with this, but it helps me to see that I am overwhelmed, and I just really need this to be easier, and there are times when it isn’t easier and can’t be made easier. It can help to see myself–this is too hard right now. Maybe that was a hard moment for you.
Finally, I can feel the pain in what you are writing of having a mother who really didn’t take you in, didn’t respond to you and didn’t really have the capacity to respond, and felt that following rules was a perfectly adequate substitute for being human, especially since in many cases I would think following those rules met her needs rather than yours, which is maybe what your therapist did. Instead of saying, I don’t feel comfortable touching my clients and owning it as her boundary (a perfectly fine boundary to me, if you put it that way), she told you it was better for you.
All of that said, the self-hug is a great thing, as is stroking your own head. I do it all the time. One thing that is hard about this is that none of it is fair or easy. It’s so much work, and the therapist can help, but they can’t do it for you. You shouldn’t have to be figuring out all of this, but you do. It’s just the way it is. It’s so hard. It’s not fair you didn’t get the parenting you needed and consequently have to work out how to parent yourself.
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This is horrendously painful. To have that gaping need and someone saying they want to do that for you but can’t because of what? Ethics???
It’s a pile of bullshit. I think it’s a fallacy that it’s unethical to provide physical comfort. And if there is a rule that says that, then there’s an awful lot of therapists disregarding it because there are some who provide it.
You are missing maternal touch and you can’t get that from a friend or a husband. It just isn’t the same.
I hope you find some words to email her because you deserve to be heard.And maybe this is a learning curve for your therapist, by discussing it it’s maybe something that will make her rethink her stance on it.
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I’ve read that article previously and it gives an interesting take on the topic. I get what you’re saying about no never being what you want to hear no matter how it is phrased, but I do think E could have put this to you in a slightly better way. What she said comes across as “because rules” and I think it might have been more helpful to have discussed some of the issues that tend to come up when therapists do use touch and to frame her non-touching more as a choice which she is actively making in the way she practises.
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I really cringed when I read what she said to you the first time you brought this up. Because although she doesn’t want to extend beyond that boundary, you having those feelings IS ok. It is absolutely OK. There is nothing wrong with wanting that. I have a similar longing with my therapist. And she does occasionally use touch, because she is comfortable working in that way and she feels it is beneficial to our work. I know a lot of therapists won’t do this, and I am really very grateful that she does every now and again. Sometimes only touch will bring comfort. Even if that is a simple as you say – just having them hold your hand.
I can identify with feeling like it isn’t the same coming from someone else. I get a lot of physical closeness and comforting from my wife, but that isn’t what the little part of me craves. That part wants to be held, accepted and kept safe by her mother. And like you, my relationship with my mum doesn’t allow for that. So it’s all transferred into what I want from my therapist, who I definitely cast in a maternal role. It completely makes sense to me that you can’t get that need met by your husband, and I am surprised that E doesn’t understand this.
I hope you can find a way to work on this with E so you can move forward together. If not, maybe it really is time to find someone who works in a different way.
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Oh I feel EXACTLY the same!!! I want my T to cuddle me and stroke my hair or cover me over with a blanket and make me tea and soup. I want so much comfort from her that she can’t and won’t ever give me and god it hurts doesn’t it. It makes you feel like you’re dirty and undeserving when you know they won’t ever do that for you doesn’t it? And the pain is intense.
My T said yesterday the feelings are old child part feelings about what I needed when I was younger from my mum and that in real life, now, her doing those things wouldn’t help. (I don’t agree obviously lol)….
You’re right though, it’s about acknowledging the feelings and not trying to make them go away. I don’t know how to do that yet.
Thinking of you xx
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Ps I just read someone’s advice about meeting an older woman somewhere else and I strongly advise against this (just my opinion!) because that’s exactly what I did 8 years ago and now I’m desperately trying to remove myself from her because she’s a narcissist and has been emotionally manipulative and emotional.
You may be thinking that not every older woman would be a narcissist and obviously that’s true, BUT, if you’re whole purpose of meeting an older woman is to have a need met, maternal or otherwise, you are going to put yourself immediately in the “victim” role of the drama triangle and you’ll be drawn to someone who wants to “rescue” you. Believe me when you do this, you will pay a high price like I am now “after all I’ve done for you”. That lady will unintentionally keep you in that weak, victim role and it won’t end well.
Unfortunately nobody can fill this hole for us – not our therapists, not a new maternal woman or our boyfriends – the only way out is for us to feel all this horrendous agony and release its hold over us so we stop seeking dysfunctional relationships!! Xx.
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Ouch Q. I’ve actually just put a post up about hugging… it’s so important. I’m sorry E isn’t able to meet this need xxx
It makes me sad to read this. I also get Sirena’s anger about using ethics as the sole reason.
Also DV’s point about attributing it to her own beliefs and how she prefers to work.
I always thought that therapists didn’t touch clients in case CSA but the therapist is likely to know about that anyway. But my therapist is big on ethics and we hug at the end of each session. She always asks if it’s okay beforehand. I don’t want her to be my mother though. I’m not boasting in any way. I suppose she may not want to mislead you but she could probably set terms around it. That sounds cold but it’s not supposed to.
I think it is ultimately the therapists discretion to use touch in therapy. I don’t see what is wrong with an arm around the shoulder when someone is upset. It’s a shame because E has known you a long time and it may help. x
I used to be the one wary of touch in therapy. Which is odd, and very like A. She does everything backwards I find. She doesn’t shy away from these things, I do.
That article you linked to is one I read when the issue of touch in therapy first came up. It’s what convinced me it was okay. Ultimately though, even if you did convince E, the healing I find touch provides is more from the desire of the two people to be in that moment together, not the touch itself.
And the touch – whether from A or my husband or a friend’s hug, it doesn’t soothe that child inside me. It helps dull the ache, but it is still there and I often have to hold a stuffed animal or baby sized object myself and pretend to calm it to get my own longing to go away. This realization that my husband cant fill that hole has helped me be a better wife – I actually personally think advising people to rely on the contact from their romantic partners as a way of healing attachment wounds is crappy advice. What happens when they’re mad or you’re fighting and they don’t want to hold you? This happens all the time in my relationship (ok, like twice a year) but it is less painful now that he is not responsible for providing that attachment touch.
I stand firmly in the camp that it is not unethical to touch if consent and understanding and all of that is established, on both parties. Our society shies so far away from the idea of intimacy between anybody who is not a relative or significant other.
There is a really good section on this in the book “the emotionally absent mother” when it talks about therapy and attachment wounds.
At the end of all of this I want to say I can’t imagine how frustrating and painful it is to need to be held or have your hand held or even have a physical reminder of your therapist there in the moment – and I do not think your desires or requests are unreasonable, at all. I understand that this may not be something E is comfortable with, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for you to be wanting it.
Sending you so much love.
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This sounds very painful. I’m sorry she won’t give you what you’re needing. Wishing you comfort and peace x
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I dont agree with E! touch is very important and when its done in the right way its wonderful! I know because eileen hugs us all the time! and she holds our hand and sits with us I think you should email her I dont think its wrong to do that. You deserve to be heard! xx
[…] around my heart after my appointment with E on Wednesday when we established, once again, that she won’t touch me or offer me any physical comfort. Thursday I went for a walk. I tried to meditate and give myself some mental space. those things […]
You’re going to get answers that are all over the place with what a therapist should do or shouldn’t do. But what I think is really, really important is how you feel about what you’ve asked.
What I’ve read in your entry tells me there are feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment for having asked for comfort without receiving it. There’s a strong feeling of abandonment and the need to justify your request. There appears to be conflict of reality that you’re bad that this safe person can’t risk touching you. These feelings come out loud and clear in the entry as well as the feeling that you were right but she was not.
I also want to point out that there is a marked difference between what she does medically with touch and what she does in talk therapy.
You asked, “Why would it be unethical to sit next to me, to touch me. It’s not sexual, there’s never been anything sexual about it. It’s not something I want all the time. It’s just right now.”
Your request for comfort isn’t about sex, not at all. She knows it’s not about sex, not even a little. You can be safe in canceling out that thought.
“She stands by the door to say goodbye and touches me lightly on the arm as I pass by. Sorry, that doesn’t help.”
Being able to read her physical touch accurately is going to be important. Can you do that Q?
“And I wonder, as much as I have trusted her, how much does she trust me? Touching my hair or holding my hand isn’t safe for her? I might lose it and sue her? After more than ten years, how much does she even know me, if that is her fear?”
Writing these things out can be very helpful so that when you read over it later you may be able to see key parts of what you think and feel as well as key parts of what your therapist thinks and feels. Two people make up your therapeutic relationship, one I would strongly encourage you to continue.
I want to end my article size comment by saying that it is okay to throw fits and temper tantrums like in the graphic with the little girl. I think choosing a safe way to do it like writing it out will be very helpful for you later on. You’re a thinker with reasoning ability. After the tantrum you can go over it with a clearer head and figure out where you stand.
What a hard subject to tackle. I can see how heavily it weighs on your adult self and your child self.
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[…] 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 […]
[…] but I keep going. “It’s the same part I think, no, I know it’s the same part that longs for comforting touch. She wants a mother who is crazy about her. I want […]
[…] mean she will always go along with what I want, of course. She never did give in about comforting touch in therapy. In the end, we agreed that I wanted it and could be mad she wouldn’t give it. She would […]
[…] to one another on the sofa, and she put her arm around me. She never did that in real life–no touching, I always hated that boundary–but I developed a habit of imagining it as a way to soothe myself sometimes, when I really […]
[…] in my old fantasy of resting my head in her lap and having her stroke my hair (something she would NEVER do). I can’t swear I will never do that again, but right now, I find it harder to imagine […]