If we hug?: a counsellor’s exploration into her perceptions of hugging a client
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“What does a hug mean in counselling practice?” In this autoethnographic research, I explore the role and implications of physical touch in therapeutic practice. Researchers argue that the use of hugs is controversial, as the fields of counselling and psychotherapy do not provide either a culture in which physical touch is regarded to be an appropriate therapeutic tool or where it is suitably introduced via generalised training that best prepares professionals to appropriately apply touch in practice. Yet, I argue that the reasons behind practitioners' potential struggle with the use of touch are much more complex and involve both the personal and professional spheres. In this qualitative study, I utilise autoethnography as my research method which illuminates the dynamics between my own sociocultural values, my personal relationship with my mother and my professional experience with a counselling client who requested a hug. I also employ poetry and storytelling as I argue that these creative methods assist me to recollect, analyse and present difficult memories, which implies that reflective practice helps to reveal potential issues that may arise in our interaction with therapeutic clients. By doing so, I demonstrate how these interactions formed and deformed my subjective notion of what it means to hug a client in a therapeutic context and show how the meaning and use of touch is significantly influenced by both sociocultural factors and subjective experiences. Thus my research illustrates that a practitioner’s potential struggle with the use of physical touch in practice can be a symptom of dissonance between his/her professional and subjective perceptions of and experience with touch. This autoethnographic study aims to show psychotherapists and counsellors how they may better understand the use of touch in professional practice by reflecting on their own personal and socio-cultural experiences with physical contact in various contexts.