Tough Love in the Office (Especially When Clients Touch You)

In graduate school I worked with a young woman who suffered from a very deep, intense depression. For months she could barely get out of bed, let alone go to work, which lead to her getting fired and resentment from her husband. With anti-depressants she regained some level of functioning and we would use our sessions to simply plan behaviors and activities that would allow for an increase in pleasure and accomplishment. It was, in many ways, a much more serious version of the work I did with Jack.

As I led her to the door at the end of one of our early sessions together, she threw her arms around me and cried, almost uncontrollably. It came as a surprise but I didn’t resist her, partly out of sympathy and partly out of sheer confusion and inexperience. She kept her arms locked around me for almost a full minute, then pulled away and apologized as she dragged her sleeve across her face.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Do you mind telling me what was going on with you right when you decided to hug me?”

“I’m such a burden to my husband. I don’t do anything. I feel worthless, I need so much help to improve. I guess I just wanted you to understand how hard it is.”

“I think I understand,” I said. “Did it help you at all to have that cry?”

She let out a small laugh. “A little.”

We talked about her feelings of worthlessness over the next few sessions. Sitting with aspects of the self that are considered unpleasant can be very, very hard, especially when you schedule an appointment to do so and know exactly when you’ll be delving into your own misery. And for multiple sessions, I let her hug me, sometimes just briefly, at the end of the therapy hour.

Now one could argue that this is a violation of boundaries, having a therapist and client touch each other. I get that. However, after checking with a supervisor, we agreed that there was something cathartic about her actions. They didn’t feel sexual in any way whatsoever. And my supervisor made an interesting suggestion.

“Is she improving at all?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” I said. “She was able to get her job back. She runs some errands after work, and she’s gone from sleeping 18 hours per day down to 12.”

“Okay,” he said. “At the end of the next session, hold out your hand. If she doesn’t take it, reach for hers. Shake her hand, but warmly. She’ll ask why you’re doing that. Tell her that, as time goes on, she won’t need you nearly as much. When she was at her most vulnerable, you were there. Now she’s taking on life more for herself.”

“So the handshake is symbolic?”

“Exactly. She’s graduating in many ways. And as she gets better, you’ll make the handshake a little shorter, maybe more professional-feeling. And then you’ll simply say good-bye at the end of sessions like you do with your other clients. But the point that you’ll stress to her is that you will be there for her when she really needs it.”

Some clients might take offense to what could be perceived as a “pulling away” by the therapist, but when it’s explained correctly, it can be very empowering. This woman really benefited from it and, as her life continued to improve, she would either briefly shake hands or simply gave a quick wave and a good-bye.

However, progress in therapy is rarely, if ever, linear, and sometimes she would have bad weeks where her mood would plummet. Her urge would be to hug me, but I would resist, reminding her that a setback doesn’t mean that she isn’t getting better. I would stick out my hand and say “you are still much, much better. You’ve graduated. I’m here for you, but you don’t need me in the same way you used to.” This kept her empowered.

I’ve used this idea of “graduation” with many clients over the course of their treatment, especially when we think about ending therapy. In the ideal world, they’ve learned and grown and feel better. They’ve upgraded their life.

On that note, I have a very dedicated reader who sometimes writes to me and shares her experience with her Psychiatrist. They’ve worked together for years and, from what I can gather, their relationship has been intense at times. In her ideal world, the psychiatrist would be available to her 24/7. This, of course, is impossible, as he has other patients to see and his own life to live. At a deep level this angers her and she expresses it to him. She asked him why he was more accessible to her at the onset of treatment and perhaps less so now. This is how she described his response (edited and reprinted with permission):

He told me this story that he saw on the Discovery Channel and said that this describes our relationship and that it’s something I can think about when things get tough or things aren’t perfect between us because he said there will be many more times that I get mad at him.

He said he was watching T.V. and it was showing a mother lion and her cub. It showed the mother taking care of and protecting him and letting the cub nurse. He told me that the mother at that time let the cub do almost anything he needed to do because he was so young. But as he grew up the mom had to start making him do some things he didn’t want to do, to push him to be independent, and when the cub would try to come back and nurse now that it had teeth it would aggravate the mother and the mother would hit the cub upside the head with her paw. And he said sometimes the mother would hit the cub pretty hard and it would go flying away from the mom. But even while that was going on, if something dangerous came around like a large animal or the cub would get into a dangerous situation the mother would pull the cub back close to her to protect her cub. And this is the process they went through as the cub was growing up.

Dr. ______ said that while he was watching that he was thinking that is a lot like therapy and that his relationship with me is a lot like that. In the beginning he let me get away with being a lot more dependent because that is what I really needed it. But now when he yells at me or keeps me from doing what I want to do it is like when the mother hits her cub. But at the same time he is always there to protect me from the dangerous situations that I get myself into and to protect me from the dangerous “animals” He told me to remember this story and think about it when things aren’t going well and when I start to doubt our relationship or that he cares about me. But that he will continue to push me out on my own when it is needed and pull me back when it is needed and he will always be willing to hit me up side the head. He said he wanted to stick with me through everything and help me work through it and once we get to the other side my life will be different. It felt really good to hear him say that and how much he really cares! And that he is never planning on giving up on me.

Assuming this guy isn’t smacking my reader around, I’m impressed. Most psychiatrists give new meaning to the phrase “socially inept,” but this doctor sounds outstanding.

Therapy doesn’t always mean giving exactly the client what he/she wants. It’s making an educated guess as to what the client needs. Both women in this post needed a little ‘tough love,’ at the risk of getting uber-pissed at their providers. But the reality is that they both improved because of it.

(Visited 2,991 times, 1 visits today)

21 Responses to “Tough Love in the Office (Especially When Clients Touch You)”

  1. Carolyn R. Sheldon says:

    Hey, I like your site and this was a really great piece. Would most shrinks allow hugs like that?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Great site, thank you!

  3. Anonymous says:

    […] Tough Love in the Office (Especially When Clients Touch You … […]

  4. Anonymous says:

    Tough love indeed! Good stuff…

  5. Joe says:

    If you just gave them what they wanted, wouldn’t that make you an enabler?

  6. Rob Dobrenski says:

    @ Joe: There are exceptions, but you’re spot on for most cases.

  7. Wayland says:

    Rob, I applaud you sir. Well-written.

  8. Amber says:

    Touching story.

  9. Anonymous says:

    My Aunt sent me to this website and she was right! Keep up your fantastic work.

  10. Melissa says:

    I absolutely am loving this website, totally gonna need to add this to the list.

  11. Mark says:

    Dr Rob, in the final session of therapy which had been weekly for two years, I shook my therapist’s hand, to say thanks. Strictly speaking, was I going out of bounds?

  12. Chater says:

    Interestingly, what I got out of this is very different. In movies, it’s often portrayed that the psychologist is very objective and doesn’t care so much (perhaps jaded by it all), except maybe for Good Will Hunting, but I digress..

    It’s interesting to see that a psychologist can form a close attachment from his side too. Do you ever keep in contact with your clients after their therapy is over? I can imagine that after 6 months to several years of consistently, you can form a friendship. Obviously, this wouldn’t be with everyone, but does this happen? Or is there some unwritten rule that you should not and do not?

  13. Rob Dobrenski says:

    @Chater: There’s a blog post about this somewhere on here, but WordPress seems to have lost it. In short, relationships after therapy are seriously frowned upon. I may get a voicemail from a client who is just saying hello and sharing how he/she is doing, but relationships after therapy, whether formal or casual, are not on the menu.

  14. cna says:

    Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

  15. Kris says:

    Interesting angle on the tactile aspect of therapy, Rob.

    I was in the care of an excellent therapist for just over 2 years. My situation, though, the tactile issue was reversed from the one you wrote about. One of my issues included an extreme aversion to being touched, and that is something that C had to help me sort out. At the outset, I would not, could not, manage more than a brief formal handshake from anyone, immediate family members included. She never crossed any lines tactility…but C did push me.

    How do you handle situations like that with your clients? Tactile contact is a vital part of healthy human life, so how do you help someone who is unwilling to touch and be touched how to define reasonable tactile boundaries? I know what C did, and that it worked in my case; I was just curious about another person’s perspective.

  16. […] Tough Love in the Office (Especially When a Client Touches You) […]

  17. passingby says:

    Now if only they’d do something about the male therapists who initiate hugging with their female “clients”… I won’t hold my breath. Your field is such a crock.

  18. A says:

    The more that therapists make such a big neurotic deal out of hugging or not hugging, the creepier it actually is, and although I prefer to regard my therapist as more of a bartender (I’m not a “huggy person”) I daresay the because of reading this I feel much more self conscious about the idea of hugging whereas with say an acupuncturist, it would just be a normal and organic process if that was their personality type. ( I could still take it or leave it, probably leave it )

    If I did feel I ever needed a hug, I would at least know now NOT to ask a therapist… geez, you guys really know how to suck the life out of what I thought was just a nice gesture. Just be real, for crying out loud, and admit that hugging makes you feel as uncomfortable as it makes me.

  19. Banksie says:

    Hey Dr. Rob,
    Love your website, by the way. I did want to respond to this article by saying that after being in therapy for 25 years with an older, male psychologist (I’m female), I have to admit that we hugged at least 6 or 7 times. This was always after a very intense session where I shared something that I had never shared with anyone. Sometimes I initiated it and sometimes at the end, he would just stand up and hold out his arms. He was very much a father figure to me. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it. Not creepy. Not sexual. Just an mutual understanding that it was what was needed at the time.

    I’m sure, as a doctor, one would have to be very careful with this, as attachment issues can develop. But, it was the best thing for me. It was what I needed and I’m guessing that my therapist got some satisfaction out of it, also.

    Keep doing what you are doing! MANY of your posts make me laugh so hard! I can SO relate to many of them!!!

    Peace to you,
    Banksie

  20. RandomPerson says:

    This is a tough one for me to swallow. As someone with a clear attachment disorder who is JUST starting to inch towards maybe possibly trusting my therapist to ‘be there’ (and kicking & screaming the whole way), it terrifies me to think of the pulling back process. But then, we’re all different. There’s no way in heck I could hug my therapist right now or cry in front of him, and I force myself to limit my emailing him between sessions (something he allows & I do because I can just say things in writing that I can’t say in person right now).

    There must be some balance… I mean, I can’t be the only person in the world who attempts to push away out of fear of attachment = abuse or abandonment; but then you have others who cling for dear life… this one’s really got me thinking. And freaking out (because I’m now, of course, thinking that I need to force myself away before my therapist can start pulling back). Something to talk about next session.

  21. Seviah says:

    I don’t respond well to tough love, but can do without the hugs.

Leave a Reply