Should a Therapist Hug a Client?

My therapist does not hug me on a regular basis, however, after a few emotional sessions unearthing memories of my past abuse, she has put her arm around me when I reached out to her.  I recognize boundaries and attachment in therapy, so we’ve both respected that.

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“I feel like I need a hug,” the client said.

“What would it mean to you if I gave you a hug?” the therapist asked.

“It would mean you cared about my pain.”

“Can’t I care about you without hugging you?”

“You can. But a hug would be better.”

The therapist was a middle-aged woman who had taken care of her alcoholic father as a girl. She was drawn to the occupation of psychotherapy in great part because she had been good at helping her father. Her father and mother were antagonistic and distant, and she became a replacement wife to her Dad. Now she prided herself for being a nurturing therapist.

The client was an attractive young man who had come from a rather difficult background. His parents had gotten divorced when he was two, and from that point on he was shuffled from one parent to the other, as they had a joint-custody agreement. In his adult years, he had not been able to form a permanent attachment to anyone. All his relationship ended up badly, as had the one that had driven him to therapy. He felt rejected, lonely, and defeated.

“All I want is just one hug,” he kept saying over and over in his sessions. He was like a dog that wouldn’t let go of a bone. “That’s the reason why I left my last therapist. I practically got on my knees and begged her to give me a hug, and she kept giving me bullshit about how it would spoil the therapeutic relationship if she hugged me.”

“What would a hug mean to you?” the therapist repeated again.

“Oh, God! That’s what my last therapist always said,” he gasped. “She was always turning everything into a question. Look, can’t you just give me a hug? Just one hug? I don’t want therapy mumbo-jumbo right now. I want to be soothed. I didn’t get enough soothing when I was a kid, OK? Just give me a little soothing, a little comfort, and then we’ll do the analysis. After all, even such classical analysts as the Blancks recommended the use of parameters at times,” he added, being versed in analytic literature.

The therapist could not help but be charmed and touched by the precocious young man, and after many weeks of hearing his traumatic story, she felt deeply how needy he was. At the end of the session she got out of her chair and accompanied him to the door of her office. He turned and looked at her and realized she was offering herself. He hugged her rather quickly, beamed, and went away happy.

The therapist told herself that it was just one hug and it wouldn’t happen again. The next session the young man seemed to have new energy for the treatment, and he spent the whole time talking about something that had severely disappointed him. At the end of the session, she accompanied him to the door again and he reached out for a hug. The good-bye hug became a part of the therapy routine after that.

The client seemed to throw himself into therapy with even more passion. Then, after the seven more sessions, the client hugged the therapist very tightly and caressed her back with his hands. Then he drew away and smiled rapturously into her eyes. She in turn looked into his soft blue eyes and at his pouty lips. Suddenly he grabbed her and kissed her.

“We shouldn’t do this,” the therapist said.

“I know,” the young man said. “But we are.”

“But I’m your therapist.”

“You were my therapist.”

In general, a therapist should never make any physical contact with a patient except a handshake, not only because professional ethics forbids it, because usually, as in this case, it turns out to be detrimental to the treatment. The client was, in effect, blackmailing the therapist by alluding to another therapist he had dumped because she wouldn’t hug him. Instead of actually giving him a hug, she should have let the client know that she cared about him but that she could not give him a hug due to professional ethics. She could also have interpreted his transference—that he was feeling rejected by the therapist as he once had by his mother, which was why he needed a hug so much. Giving him a hug was acting out the therapist’s own father transference. It didn’t help the client to understand himself, it only helped him to avoid understanding.

This article was taken from the author’s most recent book, 76 Typical Therapy Mistakes.


27 thoughts on “Should a Therapist Hug a Client?

  1. Kat Jayne says:

    My therapist has hugged me twice and placed his hand on my shoulder several times. I’m a trauma survivor, and each time he has made physical contact I have had a great sense of safety and like he was helping to hold me together so I didn’t physicall fall apart. It’s never ever felt inappropriate in any way, I’m so thankful that he has done that for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cherished79 says:

      People react in different ways. I am also a PTSD abuse survivor and I welcomed the odd hug my therapist gave me, especially after a tough session where I shared memories that were tucked away for years and causing the kind of pain I had been dragging around for 30 years. As you said, it felt safe. Thanks for sharing and dropping by to comment. We are warriors!


  2. Reaper's Victim says:

    I can be honest and say when I hugged my last psychologist I thought obsessively about it wondering if it was wrong for it to happen or not but it was my way of saying good bye

    Liked by 1 person

    • cherished79 says:

      I’ve hugged my therapist on the odd occasion during the 7 years since we started. When I’ve had a very tough session relating to my PTSD it feels comforting to me. Thanks for commenting, and sorry for the delay with a reply. All the best. Deb 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. manyofus1980 says:

    I dont agree with this. but I do agree that maybe a male female doing it is harder to manage, or a female male, than say two females, there is more room for something to go wrong. i believe though that touch in therapy is important especially for me. XX

    Liked by 1 person

    • cherished79 says:

      I certainly agree with you there. I was sexually abused as a child so there was no way I was going to have a male therapist, however going through therapy for the hell my narcissistic mother put me through, a hug the odd time from my female therapist is comforting. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. thefeatheredsleep says:

    I don’t think it’s wrong, it’s often beneficial, body language can indicate if the client isn’t comfortable with it. When I moved here I noticed how standoffish they were i felt the warmth was more genuine when there was a more natural approach

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jess Melancholia says:

    This is such a sad but interesting story. Personally, I don’t think she should’ve hugged him ever. If he kept going on and on about it then she needs to do something to get his mind off it or let him go. I know that’s cruel but he is just looking to her as a crutch and not facing the real issue of why he needs to be held in the first place. He is basically just being dependent on her instead of facing whatever is haunting him. I know it sucks and we are human and want to reach out and help but honestly this isn’t the way to do it.


  6. Aimee says:

    We had a community meeting about hugs in general in the treatment center I am in. We came to the conclusion that hugs between your peers in recovery are okay if you have that relationship and you ask first. Therapist to client hugs are restricted to side hugs and only if both parties are comfortable with it. It makes sense. Many people have different sensitivities are things like hugs even can trigger something unwanted. I guess you could say it depends.


    • cherished79 says:

      I agree, therapists are the professionals in a therapy process. A person who has survived trauma could be further damaged with just a touch or hug. You are supposed to be dealing with triggers in a therapy session not creating one.


  7. mychildwithin says:

    Very interesting post..I only ever got a goodbye hug when therapy came to an end, with 2 separate therapists..One of them retired and the other said she would give me a goodbye hug to wish me well.


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