I recently started with a new therapist. From the first session he has hugged me goodbye. I don’t have an issue with that. In later sessions, the hugs lasted longer and longer, and now they last up to 30 minutes. I have also received back rubs and back massages during therapy. The therapist has initiated all of this. Are these actions appropriate? I was previously in therapy with a counselor for 5 years, but I had to move. My other therapist never did that. I also met with 4-5 other therapists before committing to the new therapist and we never hugged. Is this conduct ok? I am worried I am overreacting because of my past trauma history and hugging was not a part of my life. However, it also feels like things are escalating quickly. The problem is I have never learned to establish boundaries. I could never say no to anyone hurting me in any manner. Discussing this issue with him would horrify me. Yet, leaving would be just as difficult because of my history as well. My primary purpose in life has also been to make people who hurt me, feel ok about it That is part of my low self-esteem. I have noticed that since I started with this therapist, my self-harm activities have returned. (age 43, from US)
Thank you for writing in with this very important question. His behaviors are NOT appropriate!!! Some physical touch in therapy is acceptable, such as hugging a client after a particularly difficult session or if the client has had a personal loss. However, even in these cases it is appropriate to ask the client if they want a hug rather than giving an unsolicited one. I cannot think of any possible circumstances in which a mental health therapist should give back rubs or massages of any sort, unless he is a licensed massage therapist as well and you have requested that service.
It is difficult to develop a trusting relationship and I am sorry that you may need to find a new person to work with, but I am fairly certain (given the information you shared) that he is crossing professional boundaries. I would not only suggest that you address this with him but report the behavior to the state licensing board — if he is behaving this way with you, he is probably doing it to other clients too. If you can’t face him directly, I would suggest that you reconsider one of the other therapists that you interviewed, or find a new one, and let that therapist help you through this difficult process.
Trust your instincts and get away from this so called “helper” before he hurts you any further.
All the best,
Dr. Holly Counts