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: http://www.therapytoday.net/article/show/742/ [Last accessed 3rd November 2012].
Totton, N. (2010). Boundaries or barriers? Therapy Today, 21(8). Available online: http://www.therapytoday.net/article/15/54/categories/ [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