Can a Therapist Hug a Patient?

Can a therapist hug a patient? It’s an ethical question, one that should be asked by any therapist who has ever had the unfortunate experience of dealing with a client who is emotionally abused. Not all therapists know how to respond to this situation, but the ones who do can help to improve the lives of many physically abused clients. This brief article will explain why a therapist should not hug a patient in order to work toward a common goal.

First, there is the potential for abuse. Physical abuse, such as repetitive physical abuse (which is what most therapists are faced with when they deal with emotionally and mentally disturbed clients), can lead to severe and permanent psychological damage. A physically abused therapist may become depressed, lose interest in life, resort to stealing and/or resorting to other illegal activities such as drug use, prostitution and sexual assault. The emotional trauma inflicted can lead a therapist to lash out in a way that could benefit no one except himself. To put oneself in a position where one will abuse and neglect a client even when the client is only trying to get the best treatment possible is unethical, and could result in serious professional consequences.

Second, it does not serve the best interests of the emotionally disturbed individual receiving therapy. If a physically abused therapist attempts to comfort a client during a break in treatment, it can only worsen the situation. The therapist may become ashamed or angry at his or her own inability to stop the victim from abusing him or herself and feel guilty about it.

Third, physically abused individuals often feel that they have no control over their lives. When a therapist tries to hug the client, these individuals feel that the hug reinforces the abuser’s power over them. Even if the hug itself is inappropriate, the sense that the therapist is acknowledging that the individual can no longer control his or her own body or mind comes off as patronizing and controlling. It can result in a further spiral of emotional abuse. The client may continue to be inappropriately touched throughout the process. This pattern of continuing abuse is not the therapist’s fault, but it can be very detrimental to the client’s emotional well-being.

Fourth, physically abused individuals often feel like victims. Their fear and vulnerability make them feel vulnerable and exposed to further abuse. A therapist who continuously reassures the client that he or she “isn’t hurting him or herself” or that they are “getting better” or “getting better overnight” is sending the wrong message. Instead of being supportive, the message could be, “I will hurt you if I don’t get my way.”

Fifth, physically abused individuals can experience a decreased sense of self-worth and confidence. These feelings may stem from the constant violation of their bodies and minds by the physically abusive therapist. To the client, he or she may feel that he or she is not good enough for recovery, or that he or she is worth nothing because of the abuse.

Sixth, physically abused clients may have issues with their identity. Because they are not experiencing their own ability to heal, they internalize their illness (or defect) by blaming themselves. When a therapist facilitates this type of invalidation, the client’s self-image can become severely distorted. He or she may develop a sense of unworthiness and inadequacy.

The bottom line is that physical abuse can have devastating consequences on an individual’s emotional health and life. When this happens, he or she should seek help from a trained professional who has received specialized training in the proper placement of the hand in the body and voice. The goal is to de-empower and remove invalidation, shame and weakness from the client’s experience. The client should also be made aware of his or her legal rights regarding healthcare and physical abuse. There are many lawyers and other professionals who are familiar with these legal issues and their experience with these situations. In fact, it may be best if the therapist does not directly ask the patient how he feels about the situation but rather allows the client to speak first and then offer his or her opinion.