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.”
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.