When I was training to be a psychologist, I learned early on that physical contact between therapists and clients, however well meaning, can sometimes be misconstrued or lead to other inappropriate behaviours. Maintaining that physical boundary keeps me and my clients safe.
My own therapist loosened me up a bit on this front. At the end of every session, she would shake my hand warmly, often with both of hers, despite The Rules. Her handshake was affirming and comforting and caring in ways that are hard to articulate. It took me months to tell her how much this gesture meant to me, and it helped me to rethink my own feelings about appropriate physical touch with clients.
I may not be able to give physical hugs to clients, but I’m a proponent of verbal hugs. I let clients know I care about them or appreciate them or have learned from them, but I save “I love you” for people who don’t pay me for my time. Cancer has only increased my urgency to tell people close to me how I feel about them.
Although I have never initiated a hug with a client, I have become more open to a hug from a client. I can also understand a client’s impulse to offer a hug as a way of saying thanks or acknowledging I’ve helped. Or, more recently, as a show of caring upon learning of my leukemia diagnosis.
Keep these thoughts in mind as I tell you about this week’s visit with my superhero Radiator, Salima, who has now zapped me twice. While I’ve chattered anxiously and peppered her with questions both times, she has been patient, professional, and responsive. Her job cannot be easy, dealing with fearful patients day in and day out, but she exudes limitless kindness and warmth.
As we were saying our good byes this week, Salima gave me a hug and told me she loved me. I have no idea what prompted her affectionate gesture; I had not been especially engaging or likeable the two times we’d met. So I was taken aback, but I responded as any decent person would: I told Salima I loved her too. And then, because I couldn’t help myself, I said: “But Salima, we’ve only met twice. Isn’t it a bit soon to be talking about love?”
The Rules may not be quite the same in Salima’s profession as in mine, or maybe they are but Salima has interpreted them differently. She has to touch her patients on a regular basis, whereas I don’t. But I appreciate Salima’s interpretation of appropriate physical boundaries, especially in this setting. There was nothing untoward about her parting gesture; she was just letting me know in her own way that she cared about me. Cancer is a scary beast and the Cancer Centre is a scary setting. In that context, I understood the good place Salima’s affection came from.
Am I going to start hugging my clients and telling them I love them? No, I’m not; I could get in trouble for that. But I’m going to keep sharing my verbal hugs freely because there’s nothing wrong with them. And Salima reminded me how nice it feels to be hugged when you’re not expecting it.