To Touch or Not to Touch: The Question of Physical Touch in Adult Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

Kabanov, Luba
Ellis, Emma
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Master of Psychotherapy
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Auckland University of Technology

The role of touch in psychodynamic psychotherapy has been a controversial issue almost from the start. Despite Freud's initial experimental use of touch, he later distanced himself from the practice, pronouncing psychoanalysis touch-free. This contributed to a prevalent aversion towards touch in psychodynamic psychotherapy that persists today. Nonetheless, recent studies have highlighted the positive effects of touch on mental and physical well-being, and some therapies have successfully integrated touch into their practice. This hermeneutic literature review aims to explore the role of touch in psychodynamic psychotherapy for adults.

The findings of the study reveal that the taboo against touch remains strong in the psychodynamic field. The main objections to touch are rooted in the principles of abstinence and neutrality and the fear of contaminating the transference. Both arguments highlight the rule of non-gratification, which posits that therapeutic change can only occur when a client's desires are not satisfied. Touching a client could inadvertently satisfy these desires and lead to a fixation at the trauma level. The slippery slope argument, which suggests that any form of touch could escalate to sexual misconduct by therapists, is also widely recognised. Contrary to these arguments, a growing body of support for the therapeutic use of touch is emerging. Advocates argue that the taboo against touch is futile, as sexual boundary violations still occur. Additionally, therapists who acknowledge using touch therapeutically often lack a safe environment to discuss and explore their experiences. The use of touch as an intervention is highly individualised and necessitates careful consideration of factors such as cultural background, age, gender, and personal history of both client and therapist. Therapists must also evaluate their personal attitudes towards and comfort with touch before considering it as a potential intervention.

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