Counselling: To Hug or Not to Hug?

Counselling Studies Level 3

Learning Journal for Week 4: Wednesday 24th October, 2012


In this learning journal I explore boundary limits to the counselling relationship, as well as situations and issues that challenge personal and professional boundaries.

Boundaries in counselling are a complex and subjective topic of contention. Indeed, I can see why Feltham (2007) refers to boundaries as “ethical agonising.” Under the ethical principle of “do no deliberate harm,” the breaching of boundaries can be seen as a violation, which is clearly a serious ethical and moral dilemma within counselling. Yet the breaching of boundaries could range from acts as blatantly unethical as having an intimate relationship with a client, to acts that are difficult to comprehend as violations, such as making a client a cup of tea (Feltham, 2007).  This raises the question of when an act is seen as a boundary violation – does it depend on whether harm is the outcome or whether harm was the intent?  Does it depend on the individual client or circumstance? Such questions have raised a huge degree of debate within the field of psychology, as can be seen in an article by Totton (2010), entitled, ‘Boundaries or Barriers?’


Totton introduces ‘The Slippery Slope Theory,’ which purports “any flexibility or inventiveness around the usual ways of doing therapy – a single toke on the spliff of adaptability, so to speak – leads to the hard stuff: to sexual abuse of clients.”  In other words, emphasis on boundaries and fear of being sued for misconduct can prevent counsellors from being congruent in their practice through fear of violating boundaries. This makes me wonder whether too much precaution is truly person-centred, since person-centred theory is based on seeing the best, as opposed to the worst, in people. The assumptions that touch in therapy is wrong (and often abusive), and that people are good and striving for the best, are incongruent beliefs. This is discussed in Palmer and Milner (2001), ‘To Hug a Client – or Not?’ (pp. 448-455).


Touch is probably the most controversial of the possible boundary violations within the counselling context, and it is only through personal experience that I can examine this issue. I have experienced touch with two different counsellors – one was harmful and one was healing. It is with this in mind that I cannot say that I totally disagree with touch. Indeed, the touch I received that was healing I feel was an important part of my therapy. It was not long after divulging to my counsellor sexual abuse experienced as a child. For weeks afterwards, I felt disgusting, unlovable and untouchable. A tap on the hand, and later a hug, at the appropriate time (i.e. not too soon after my divulgence and only when I asked) gave me a sense of the unconditional positive regard that is at the core of person-centred counselling. I can see how this might have been inappropriate if conducted differently or initiated to meet the counsellors needs rather than the clients.  I can also see how it might have been inappropriate with a different client, who the counsellor had not gained an understanding of over many sessions. Yet, I can honestly say that in my situation, it was therapeutic.


On reflection, I believe that rather than ethical frameworks being in place to impose restrictive boundaries, they instead allow the proficient counsellor to establish client-appropriate boundaries – with some boundaries such as no sexual contact being appropriate for all clients, with some other boundaries requiring ‘therapeutic flexibility’ that has the clients best interests at heart.





Feltham, C. (2007). Ethical agonising. Therapy Today, 18(7). Available online: [Last accessed 3rd November 2012]. 

Totton, N. (2010). Boundaries or barriers? Therapy Today, 21(8). Available online: [Last accessed 3rd November 2012]. 

Palmer, S. and Milner, P. (2001). Counselling: The BACP Counselling Reader. Sage Publications (CA).


Categories: Counselling, Personal/Professional Development, Psychology

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. I wonder too about the role of training when it comes to boundaries. I have my bachelor’s in Psychology and I also went to massage therapy school. I would think that after spending so much time with objective touch in massage, my ability to touch someone in therapy would be different than the “quality of touch” of someone who had not spent over 700 hours touching people non-sexually. Touch is often times associated with intimacy of a sexual nature for a lot of people, and I feel that even a hug or a slight touch from someone who has the slightest bit of discomfort with it is rather different than a hug or a slight touch from many people trained in massage or other physical therapies. They have spent lots of time cultivating their comfort with touch.

    It seems that for any boundary or scientific finding about boundaries, it would really come down to the specific therapist and the specific client, rather than ever being an okay-or-not-okay type of thing across the board, right? This is a great article, I like the amount that it’s making me think!

  2. Hi Nicola, I found it hard not to say, ‘there there’ when someone would be crying or screaming their heads off when going through therapy. Someone gave me great advice, a woman who’d been a therapist for years. She said, just rub their hand and say. ‘It’s o.k.’ Any more would hinder them getting the emotions out. It’s tricky, I tend to be quite a huggy person, but it’s not appropriate during therapy. Great post.

  3. Jennifer, this is a really good point. I know someone who is training to be a counsellor has found the issue of physical boundaries difficult because she has an interest in aromatherapy, etc. I suppose the difference is that someone who attends counselling with someone who has an interest in this or, for example, massage, will have different expectations and therefore different boundaries are needed. At the end of the day, I think you are right about it coming down to the therapist and client. If both are happy to hug and both know the boundaries surrounding this hug, is it even a boundary issue/ethical issue? Like you, I could think about this for ages!

    Thanks for dropping by, Jennifer. I am pleased it made you think as much as me 🙂

  4. Ooooh, I hadn’t actually considered that, Susan – the hindering of emotional expression – could a hug interrupt the flow of expression? Maybe in some cases, it would assist by breaking down the ‘wall,’ so to speak? You have certainly made me think some more. Perhaps a tap on the hand would suffice and if so, why take it to the next level?

    Thank you for the food for thought. As you can see, my own views are going around in circles at the moment 🙂

  5. Semi off topic but I studied Community Welfare and at one stage was working at a community center. One of my roles involved running a kids club and I often had young children (ages 7-12) running up and hugging me and jumping on me ect. Having been taught that touching a client was inappropriate I was uncomfortable with this and it showed in my work. I ended up trying to avoid situations where this might happen – such as staying as a lookout and not getting in the water when there was a trip to a pool – this resulted in me not being able to feel comfortable and adequately interact with the children and thus I ended up being removed from running that group. Perhaps the successof the group and my role in lleading it would have been different had I not been taught never to touch a client.

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