Touch in therapy (maybe in my therapy?)

I’m a unique patient, in therapy. I have my bachelor’s of science in psychology, and generally I have always fallen on the “prove it to me with a well researched and thought out argument” side of things. I’m also pretty logical, and when I want to, I can find a reason against almost anything. Essentially, I’m a pain in the ass.

Because of my upbringing though, I’m also a people pleaser, a perfectionist, and due to my lack of emotional nurturing I don’t do well at labelling or expressing my feelings. They weren’t allowed, and still even now, and even with my closest and best friends, even with my husband sometimes, I behave how I feel I am supposed to, not how I actually feel. A noted that in session on Thursday with the astute observation that I still scan my environment with her when she asks my opinion about a new topic, I’ll answer how I think she feels. But she always catches me.

A has been the first therapist to match me, step for step. To not let me pull the wool over her eyes, or distract her. She calls me out when I do something like that, but she will let me choose to continue. For example, this week, “you’re steering the conversation away from you and I. We can do that, if you want, I just want you to know I know what you’re doing, and make you aware of it if you aren’t.” It’s never threatening or accusatory, and usual once I’m caught out I’ll redirect and open up more. I respect her intelligence and stubbornness. I respect that it matches mine. 

One of the things that gets me and can catch me off guard, is my inner child. It’s like a different ego-state, if you will. The adult professional in me is cool and collected and logical, able to adapt, entirely in my head. The child in me – the young ego that was largely deprived and forced to be a parent early – wants to be comforted and held. It’s always been something I’ve thought about, having A hold me, rock me, comfort me. To cry it out and not be told “that’s enough”. But I took that as the natural whining of an unloved child, not something that could be corrected (to a point) through attachment work. I have a resistance to dependency on others that seriously affects my relationship with my husband, and I have a deep resistance to feeling my emotions or needs. ‘I don’t get to have needs’ I will often tell A. She will tell me that’s an old story. I don’t believe her (she’s working on it).

Scientifically there is backing for touch working in therapy – although not with all people. There are obviously limitations and one has to be careful. There is no way touch does not affect both parties – therapists are human after all – and especially with survivors of childhood sexual abuse (which I am not, so it’s easier here), it can be a very tricky situation largely client dependent. The aversion we have as a society to touch between people who are not related or in a romantic relationship comes from risk aversion and lawyers and living in a western individualistic society more so than from a scientific standpoint. 

There is also danger in bringing touch in to therapy if the practitioner isn’t educated. Touch is the first way we explore the world, like breathing, our skin and the messages it sends is with us from day one. Touch and therapeutic holding can both provoke and heal trauma, it’s a dual process – but with an experienced professional the sense of getting what you need now and the discussion of missing things then can be more healing.

Of course, this is all stuff I have learned in the past twenty four hours from reading academic papers on the matter. When it came up in session, I knew none of this. 

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Two days ago (from my journal)

In therapy today I was talking about that part of me that is lonely and alone and no matter how much I am held by (my husband) or touched it remains empty. I didn’t vocalize it, but all I ever wanted was to be held until I was cried out, you know? But when (my husband) does it it doesn’t fill that hole or even begin to heal it. A asked what that part would want and I said I didn’t know, and she said really? And I said yes (even though I did know. I’ve always known, I just don’t like the answer).

And she then went, totally unprompted. “if you ever wanted to be held while you just sobbed, thats something we could do. We can work towards me holding you. I can hold you while you cry. I bring it up so you know it’s an option, because I know you won’t bring it up with me” And I SWORE I heard her wrong but wanted to believe it and then I just looked at her and nodded to indicate something so she wouldn’t ask more. 

And then she asked how that felt and then I was telling her I just wanted to avoid her and be sassy and she was like “can you just be here with me? Be present” and then I was sassy and then she was like “I know I’m getting closer to that super vulnerable and grieving protected part of you when you snap at me. And it’s okay, I’m not going anywhere.” 

So then a few minutes later, I asked about if I heard her right that she would be willing to hold me while I cry and she said absolutely, that I could climb into that chair and be held, that we could work towards that. That it was an option we could discuss. And oh did part of me want to. And oh was another part of me so mad. And another wanted to run and it was very confusing but I do want to be held. I want to be held and allowed to cry and not told “that’s enough”. And I never let myself think that was a thing. 

I never believed that it was a thing. I’m still not believing it’s a thing. 

And I was looking at her and she was like “you still scan your environment in here, and try to assess if you’re actually allowed to believe or think what you’re believing or thinking. And you still question where I stand and if I’m going to hurt you or change the rules or take back what I said.” And she wasn’t wrong. “I want to know how you actually feel, not how you think I want you to feel.”

After, I told her how I would never have asked to be held even though it’s something I have thought of, that even though she’s told me something is okay, that I still question if she means it, that I’m so afraid of crossing boundaries and losing access to any of it, to her. And she said how boundaries are her responsibility and how she needs to take better charge of reassuring me – about how I even scan her and that environment for permission, to see if things are right or wrong or allowed. I am so scared of tripping that wire. She says that it’s her job to define the lines and make sure that I know where they are and she promised she would never just leave me even if I did trip the wire, but that I haven’t even come close.

And yes. That was my session. And I feel so full and loved and fuzzy. And also so wary and concerned. It’s quite the combination. I hate emotions.

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I wasn’t going to post about this. But I’m curious about touch in your experiences of therapy.

All I know, is that when I researched it, and talked about it with good online friends, and talked about it at length with Lu (thank GOD for Lu), I realized I am exactly the person in these articles that is said to benefit from therapeutic touch in therapy. 

I never thought about it before. I’ve mostly been against it. But I am now thinking it seems like a natural next step. A needed next step. 

Providing ‘therapeutic nurture’ through touch and holding to a client in a regressed state, at this crucial point, can repair damage done in earlier years as the central nervous system is wide open. By being touched gently, appropriately and timely, a primitive reaction can be triggered – one of bodily relaxation, soothing and a feeling that one is not alone. Appropriate touch conveys the therapist’s emotional relationship to the client: that he is willing to be more in touch with him, that he wants to try and understand more of what is happening for him, that he sees him, and accepts him. There is nothing required or demanded in return except for the client to give himself permission to receive….. …..could the space between therapist and client now present an opportunity to experience what was missing, lost or abused – safe contact and bonding?

(Excerpts from The Place Of Touch In Counselling)

I truly believe (now I believe… the only part of me that wanted touch 48 hours ago was that lonely child locked in the hole of the middle of my chest who is now full of Hope, so thanks for that, A) that maybe this would be good for me. That maybe touch can bridge that gap that words can’t. 

Living in my head means I never connect, or relax, not truly. And if touch can help fix that, well then, I honestly don’t know. But maybe I’m willing to try? 

I might be willing to try. But I don’t even know where to start with that discussion. 

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32 thoughts on “Touch in therapy (maybe in my therapy?)

  1. Touch from my husband does nothing for me. But my circumstances are such that since he has been chronically unfaithful he has joined the ranks of the rest of people who are incredibly unsafe to me, so in that sense, that makes sense his touch doesn’t feel good or safe or comforting the way I need to either. I find it hard as well to receive or give touch from/to my children. I realized how badly they were starving for it so I’ve FORCED myself to hug them and touch them when I think they need it and always when they ask for it whether I want to or not. It’s so awkward for me though. I grew up abused and neglected. I never heard “I love you” or can remember hugs or tender, soothing touch. It was usually used for gain when I did recieve it so I have VERY engrained messages that touch is scary, unpredictable, and unsafe.

    So I’ve been working with my therapist regularly now for about 18 months. He always gives me a “side hug” when I’m leaving my sessions. I always wondered if it was appropriate or if he was just kind of a more loosey, affectionate, friendly person. He definitely is not a stiff professional. He’s very casual overall so I just chalked it up to that and obliged him, so as not to be rude. He told me not too long ago why he started doing this with me. Because he knew I have had no safe touch in my entire life. Touch always led to exploitation. He wanted me to know that there are safe people and touch could be safe. He took it upon himself to show me through example. It was part of his way of building trust with me as we started to work more consistently. I was kind of amazed at his subtle intentionality with it. And now that I understand it, I look forward to it. There have been a couple times where it hasn’t happened for one reason or another and I was disappointed. That was interesting to me. He has often said, as well, when he sees me struggling or hurting across from him he just wants to come over to the couch and rescue me, hug me, or hold me but he knows it would be overwhelming for me so he resists. But it’s comforting to know he has a desire to. When I think about it after the fact, I think I crave it and wish he would have in that moment because I wonder what kind of impact that would have had.

    One thing I think about as well though is the fact that he is a male. He is married and so am I. There are definitely complications with that but so far God has protected me and helped me from letting my attachment to him get inappropriate or vice versa. It just adds a layer. I would be lying if I said I have never imagined what it would feel like to crumple into a heap of a crying mess with my head in his lap, but I know of course that would push a boundary that cannot be crossed. And while I can crave that sometimes because he is the most safe person I have, I don’t think I’d actually really want to go there in real life. I think what the desire shows me is that this type of touch and comforting is something that has been seriously absent in my life and it has deeply affected me. That motivates me to be that for my children so they don’t have to suffer by feeling neglected as I have and was.

    I love all your stories about A. She sounds so intuitive and amazing. She seems to “get” you and that makes me smile for you. I think working towards touch in therapy could be very beneficial. It’s nice she has brought up the possibility and that you can process and explore it at your own pace.

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  2. This post touched a very vulnerable part of me. I would do anything to be held by my therapist, or even just a small hug. But I don’t think that will ever happen. 😦 I’m a little jealous of what A offered you. ❤ ❤

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  3. Touch in therapy has been an integral part in my healing process. Like you, I can’t get that type of soothing from my husband because the relationship is very different and I am an adult and a wife and the boundaries and relationship is very different. And the pain and need for safe, innocent touch and holding is from a regressed placed within the psyche. It needs to be a parenting hug and that’s why spouses can’t seem to give to that child need.
    What I find interesting is, when I’m in the therapy room and in a more adult state of mind, I don’t want to be held by her. It feels too weird… like two adults holding each other, it feels…. clumsy or something. But the minute I’m regressed or in touch with child parts, that touch in normal, natural, warm and soothing. That touch signals that she’s really there, that I am safe, that I am loved and worthy of care and that everything is going to be okay. Holding generally brings my nervous system down and back to a more grounded place.
    Being held is a need I refused to admit I wanted or needed for years and most therapist’s seemed to think it is a bad thing so that only compounded the feeling that is was weird or wrong or yucky for an adult to want to be held that way. And eventually, as much as I yearned for it from therapists I was attached to, I also don’t think I could have handled it. It’s only in this relationship in the past year that I’ve allowed touch.

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    • I’ve always semi wondered about why the touch (the same touch, arguably) from a friend or my husband doesn’t do anything. But what you’re saying makes so much sense.

      Clumsy is a good word for it. I can definitely see it being clumsy at times. But I also believe in certain moments that crying it out within a safe embrace would be incredibly healing.

      I have to admit I was hoping you’d comment, knowing you and Sienna use touch in therapy, and I’m so glad you did. Most therapists DO seem to think it’s a bad thing which is why I never would have brought it up. The article I linked to talks about how that can actually be damaging to a client who asks for touch, and I believe that. Having been denied our whole lives, then asking and being denied again, no wonder we don’t ask.

      May I ask how long you and Sienna have worked together? I have been working with A for just over a year, and I honestly imagine it will be at least a few more months before (if) we go there.

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      • We’ve only been working together for 2 year and 2 months. We talked a bit about it first, Sienna brought it up first and I literally couldn’t help but act of cool about it, like “yeah… maybe… I don’t know if I want that…” LOL And it was eventually Sienna that asked if she could come over and give me a hug, I was in such a bad place that I just nodded and it was very natural.
        It makes me really angry how touch is demonised in therapy and pathologised to the point that therapists are terrified to go with their natural instincts to reach out to a client. If you ever want to chat more about it, feel free to email me. 🙂

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  4. If Nikki made that same offer, I’d be exactly where you are – wanting but wary. As someone on the outside looking in, I’m going FUCKING YES DO IT! I related to this post so much, have even read the article you linked to three or four times over the space of a year. I have huge respect for A and I think she can do this in a safe containing way, and I absolutely believe you deserve this safe nurturing experience.

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    • Rea I SO appreciate this. I think if our roles were reversed I would also be yelling FUCKING YES DO IT!

      It’s so nice when readers have huge respect for A, as I obviously do. It reaffirms that for me. And I really want the safe and nurturing experience (I start to tear up thinking about it).

      I too believe she could do it in a safe and containing way. She even said she would be willing to have it be something we ‘work towards’, implying it isn’t something immediate and is something to be discussed. Which is important.

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  5. I’m very interested to read this post, because therapeutic touch is something that I’m starting to explore myself. I do feel that same child-like need to be held, including in therapy, but at the same time I do not connect that feeling in any way with my actual flesh and blood therapist, more with the ‘ideal parent’ he represents in my head. I have no desire for him to touch me and am happy that we never even shake hands.

    It is made more difficult that I have no real experience of comforting touch from a man: my father was out of the picture from when I was 4, my husband was really only interested in touching in the ways that were enjoyable for him or as a prelude to sex and never as a way of soothing or comforting me, and of course I have that experience of being sexually assaulted by a man from whom I sought help and emotional comfort. I am quite touch averse at the moment, even though I crave it. The reality never matches up to what I want or need.

    I have just started working with a massage therapist to try to get more comfortable with being touched and to meet some of that need for skin contact. Can’t say it’s going all that well so far (the best I can say was that it didn’t hurt), but I’ve only had one session and I’m not sure if this is the right person for me. I may also look into getting individual yoga sessions with the teacher I liked, at a different studio from the one where I had problems. I think if I ended up crying in the session as has happened in the past I would feel comforted by as small a gesture as her holding my hand – I certainly wouldn’t be up for an actual hug at this point.

    The memory of comforting touch that is closest to what feels like it would work at the moment is of my mother snuggled up next to me on the couch with one arm around me, reading to me.

    I’ll be following where this takes you and A.

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    • It’s really interesting to hear your perspective, especially in having a male therapist. I think I’d feel differently if I had a male therapist and it wouldn’t even be a discussion at all. And it’s not even about it being a potentially sexual thing (because A is a lesbian, so wouldn’t that be the same issue?) but about the fact that my issues lie in not getting nurturing from my mother, and also I’ve been hurt by men in my adult life, so I feel like it would be even more complicated.

      I can appreciate the combination of being touch averse while craving it, that resonates with me. I can be incredibly skittish. Although I have warmed up to my husband over time, certain moments I want no touch at all.

      I have a trauma informed RMT and I’ve found that helpful. I highly recommend individual yoga (although mine has a no touch during practice policy). It’s so interesting how touch is a form of communication.

      I am really curious about this journey regarding touch and therapeutic touch and discussions about touch. And I will be sure to keep you updated.

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  6. Daughters of narcissistic mothers, the worst tribe anyone could belong to. I feel you!
    It is confusing. Thanks for understanding. Your work with A is great. I am sure it will fruit into something great.
    I hope I can sort this out soon. I am only living in my current town that I study in until I finish my studies. I am really not keen on finishing my studies without sorting my mental health. I come from a country that has no therapists so basically my current therapist is my only anchor!
    Thanks for everything Xx good luck with your work with A! X

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  7. First paragraph made me laugh. You’re not alone with that 😉
    Just go slowly, and I say that because I wonder if part of you is still apprehensive. Talk about it with A. I think it could be so therapeutic. I’m looking forward to reading how this goes for you ❤

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    • Lol it made me laugh too. Essentially I am a pain in the ass, but she likes the challenge I think. I think I also remind her of her in a lot of ways before she found her current therapist (who she has been with for 7 years).

      I don’t know how this discussion will unfold or even IF it will unfold, but I’ll keep you posted 🙂

      I too, think it could be good. In the words of Lu “OMG girl why would you be ashamed of that it’s the most natural thing in the world”

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      • I also think you remind her of herself based on a lot of things you’ve said.
        What’s holding you back from having the discussion? You have research to back this stuff up.
        Lol Lu. That’s awesome what she said.

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      • I think I’m just afraid of believing it, and also knowing there’s a LOT of work between here (where I can barely tolerate her sitting on the couch next to me) and there.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not sure there’s a step by step process, I think she intuitively feels her way through things (unlike me. Feelings, what are those?). But I know we will talk about it. And I also know that she always asks permission. Even with a mouthful of mnms we were sharing the other day it was a muffled “can I sit beside you while we eat these?” She never invades space without a discussion.

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  8. A is amazing! This is great.
    I would never have the guts to bring this up with my therapist. I face similar issues to yours and she once asked me: ​”What does emotional intimacy mean to you” and I was like “hugs” hoping she would understand that behind my resistance is a need for a hug, but she never brought it up or suggested it. I am too scared to initiate it and get the “disgusting, stay away vibe”.

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    • It’s so interesting, how therapists handle it. I’ve been doing lots of research (because that’s how I deal with this stuff) and it appears that a lot of therapists who are encouraged to use touch are what they call “wounded healers” – those who understand more where we are coming from.

      I have never initiated contact, it’s been brought up or offered by her first, every time. Thank goodness because I can’t handle rejection and would never be able to take her saying no OR taking it back (I get a real ‘too good to be true’ vibe from this). I sense she realized I needed this a long time ago and has slowly built trust. We ate mnms side by side the other day, she hugged me at the beginning of session and at the end. It’s like a slow slow s-l-o-w building of intimacy and trust.

      I agree, she is amazing. This is going to be a loooonnngggg exploration but I’m not against it.

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      • I think it is amazing how you found a therapist who understands you so well and who is ready to go out of her way for you. Keep up the good work as you grow and learn to form a secure attachment to your therapist and hence others.
        My therapist is a “humanistic integrative” one. I don’t understand how she works as she has been giving me conflicting messages. I am a daughter of a narcissistic and hence I have a great deal of mommy issues. She told me to learn to form a secure attachment to her, her role of reparenting and all that. But then sometimes I also feel like she withholds a lot and that if she would want to reparent me she would be more “available”. She also sometimes bring up hitting the rock bottom, grieving and filling the hole through people outside, and also trying to find my own mother me. Which leads me into a state of 😐😐.
        I don’t want to bring up anything with her as I am scared of annoying her. I do have the same rejection feelings like you so I never explain what I really feel/want out of fear of pissing her off.

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      • I totally understand everything you are saying. Daughters of narcissistic mother’s, unite.

        I find A’s boundaries REALLY helpful. She is, in essence, doing what your T says she is – reparenting me and helping me form a secure attachment – but only in session. I get no outside contact. However, in session, she is extremely available. I totally get why you would feel in that state, it sounds confusing.

        It took A and I over a year (of 3 hours a week, mostly) to get here, and I still shake and get really upset if I have something to tell her I’m worried about, but slowly and surely every time I’ve taken a risk, she’s been there.

        She is my 10th therapist though (the second one who has lasted longer than 3 months), so I got pretty good at figuring them out. You will work this out, I believe in you.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh.. I also was once like “there is no point of telling you anything. You just sit, listen and do nothing.” I felt a “wtf” expression on her face and she replied by saying “what do you mean do nothing?” What do you want me to do?” I was just like “nvm. Yes. You can’t do anything.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I couldn’t deal with that. I need someone willing to call me out on my bullshit and be somewhat unconventional but still love me through it.

        The best thing A has done is remain consistent.

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