Using physical touch: Psychologists' decision dilemmas and experiences

Joan-Alice Taylor (2002)

The use of physical touch in psychotherapy is, and has been, controversial. This has been so since Freud seemingly changed his theoretical view to a "talking cure," while others of his generation emphasized the importance of using touch in healing mental illness. Currently, the controversy remains as some advocate for the effectiveness of using touch in treatment, while others question its use, even ethically. This study has been a phenomenological inquiry into the use of touch by psychologists. Specifically, it attempted to answer the question: What is the essence of psychologists' decisions, experiences and beliefs regarding the use of touch with psychotherapy clients? Ten licensed doctoral level clinical psychologists who were active psychotherapists participated in the study. The format was an intensive in-depth semi-structured interview designed to discover the meaning for psychologists about their use of touch with their clients. The participants were asked to describe one situation in which they made a decision to touch a client and did. The participants were then asked to describe another situation in which they decided not to touch a client and did something else. In both instances the events were discussed about the meaning each held for the therapist regarding their use of touch. The therapists who participated in the study indicated that the therapeutic needs of their clients, the context, and their self-awareness and experience influenced their use of physical touch. Additionally, the participants indicated that they also utilized their intuitive and instinctive senses as therapists when deciding to use touch or not to use touch with their clients. The implications of the study include the suggestion that professional schools of psychology include courses and training in psychotherapies that advocate the use of physical touch; that psychologists study the effects of using touch as a therapeutic intervention; that the field of psychology be scientifically open to the possibility that physical touch is a valid component of psychotherapy; and, that psychotherapists be flexible about the place of physical touch in their work.