Life in a Bind – BPD and me

Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and my therapy journey. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by goodtherapy.org. I write for welldoing.org and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges.

Feeling untouchable – touch in psychotherapy, Part 2

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[This is a follow-up post to ‘The desire for touch – touch in psychotherapy, Part 1‘]

Even before touch became a subject of discussion in my therapy, I was always acutely aware of any occasions when my therapist and I were in very close proximity, or when we touched fleetingly or accidentally. Once, as I got up to leave, she pulled down a book from her shelves to show me something. We stood side by side, very close, not quite touching. As well as the physical proximity, I suddenly became aware of the height difference, particularly as I was wearing heels. When sitting down, that difference is not at all apparent, and it felt strange being taller; somehow incongruous with the fact that I often feel like a child in her presence, and she feels like my shelter and high tower.

On another occasion, as I sat on the floor next to her chair to show her some photos, our shoulders touched. A number of other times, our fingers and hands made contact as we have passed objects – a photo, a ring, a card, a rock – from one to the other, to look at. I’ve always wondered whether she noticed, and whether she wondered if I noticed, and what it meant to me. The moments have always been fleeting, and I have been careful to try not to do anything or use anything as an ‘excuse’ to grab more of them. Of course I’m aware that if I pass her something to look at, touch may happen. Do I want it? Yes. But I am as fearful of being accused of engineering situations specifically for this purpose, as I am convinced of the fact that I would not feel comfortable or respectful doing so. I make the choice to pass her something to look at, directly into her hand, rather than by putting it on the table beside her, or waving it in front of her. In that sense, I am choosing to ‘risk’ touch – I might even be hopeful for it. But it happens as part of an ordinary sequence of events – in those situations, to act otherwise would be to specifically try and avoid touch, and that in itself would feel uncomfortable and ‘forced’.

I’m not sure it would be accurate to say that I ‘enjoy’ those moments of touch – they are incredibly fleeting and too laden with complicated feelings, for that to be the case. I appreciate them and treasure them – as ordinary but special moments of connection and interaction; as grounding moments of her reality and humanity; as part of a memory of something that we have shared. I’m often very unobservant, but in those moments I notice things like the smoothness and neatness of her nails, or the softness of her skin.

But there is one overriding reason why I appreciate those small moments of touch; one key reason why they are so significant, as well as special – she never pulls away. When our shoulders touched, she didn’t flinch; she’s never drawn her hand back faster than she needed to. Either she didn’t notice the touching, or she didn’t mind. Either way, my fear and unconscious expectation was that she would both notice, and mind. It felt surprising that she didn’t draw her shoulder back; or that she didn’t try and grab the edge of a passed object so as not to come into contact with my skin. I didn’t expect her to lean forward palm up and open-handed to receive what I had to show. I didn’t expect her to stand so close. I didn’t expect her not to pull away.

***

I spent a long time pondering why it was that I felt so ‘untouchable’; why I thought that my therapist would feel uncomfortable or threatened by my close presence, and would back away immediately from any contact. It didn’t feel logical that I should be so surprised at the fact that she did not seem to find contact distasteful. My parents never showed a reluctance to touch me or hold me – if anything, the reluctance was mine, as my mother has always desired much more physical contact (such a hand-holding or hugs) than I have felt comfortable giving. I could see plenty in my upbringing that would make me feeling ‘unlikeable’, but nothing that would make me feel ‘untouchable’.

And then one day as I was sitting in a café reading an article on touch in therapy, I had an unexpected memory of secondary school, and suddenly the feeling of being ‘untouchable’ made sense. There is so much in my life that I have discounted from being significant or formative, simply because it happened in not-so-early childhood, or because I survived it and never thought about its import at the time. I loved school – my love of learning over-rode everything, as did the existence of my own group of friends, the support of teachers and the structure of the environment. A child gets through something because they have to – I’m not sure I’d have the same strength now.

***

I was not the only one who experienced bullying; my friends did too, though it was something we never talked about, and I don’t think we even really saw it happen to each other – we were too busy trying to emotionally protect ourselves. The bullying was never physical and it wasn’t even that frequently verbal. But every day when lining up and filing into the school hall for assembly, I was aware of the gap that was left where people were trying not to stand too close. When sitting down in our lines on the floor, some would leave a large gap or try and start another line, not wanting to be near me or occupy the same physical space. I would try to think where to position myself so that this was less likely to happen, or less obvious if it did. How could I arrange to be at the beginning, or at the end, of a line? How could I make it so that what was happening to me wasn’t as obvious and so that I didn’t need to feel any more ashamed than I already did?

There were the science classes where a larger than average gap would be left at the lab bench between me and the next person; or the fear and sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when classes involved ‘pairing up’ and I had no allies because none of my friends were taking the same subject. And for a long time there was that awful art class where the teacher would simply go away and leave us to it for a couple of hours and some of the others would talk about me as if I wasn’t there and would pick up strands of my hair with a pencil, to avoid touching any part of me. I’ve never had much admiration or liking for my ‘inner child’, but as I write this crying, I have no idea how she went through that with even a semblance of staying intact, and for that I have to give her some credit and respect.

***

When the subject of touch has come up in my therapy, it has often seemed to arrive out of the blue – partly, I think, because it is often brought to the surface when I come across posts or articles that others have written, that bring my mind back onto it again. My therapist has made it clear that touch is not a part of how she works; and although I know she is happy to talk about the subject, at the same time I suspect that she thinks an intellectual debate, triggered by the experiences of others, is of limited therapeutic value. But when my own lived experience interacts with my desire for touch in therapy, that’s when I know she feels the subject is present and relevant, and the discussion can bear fruit. It can address what is happening in the room and in my head; it’s something we can both engage with, in the here and now. It is something we can pass between us to look at and examine more closely. It is no longer a discussion about what I want and what she won’t give me; but about what has happened to me and how she can help me understand what it means. In these times, the subject of touch connects us, even if physical touch does not.

Personally, I don’t think it would be detrimental to my therapy if there was the occasional moment of touch, to express connectedness. In some ways, I’m not convinced that my therapist thinks that would be detrimental, either. If we happen to touch, and want to talk about it, then we can. What is detrimental – and this applies to numerous areas of my therapy, as well as to other aspects of my life – is my constant focus on what I can’t have, to the exclusion of all else, rather than on what I can and do have. What is detrimental, is my refusal to accept reality, and my difficulty and resistance to bearing the frustration of boundaries, limits, absences and losses. Though I can’t speak for anyone apart from myself, that’s where the real work of my therapy needs to lie, and I need to try and use the subject of touch as an enabler to that work, and not make it a stumbling block. It’s in that context that I will experience my therapist not just not pulling away, but coming closer to meet me on the road, and standing by me while I try to figure things out – shoulder to shoulder, you might say, and heart to heart.

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16 thoughts on “Feeling untouchable – touch in psychotherapy, Part 2

  1. Wonderful, but so sad that you were made to feel contaminating. Sounds like your new awareness of this is a major breakthrough.

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  2. Thanks so much for a thought provoking post. I too had countless moments of bullying at the 8 different schools I went to.
    I was the girl picked last when choosing teams for school sport.
    It was an everyday occurrence for the kids to literally pick up their desk in the classroom to move away and get more distance between me and them.
    I have known this exclusion has impacted on my core belief that I am in some way ‘dirty/evil/disgusting/untouchable’ and more… It is a sad thing that 25 years after graduating I still carry those thoughts. Dealing with BPD never seems to end. Thanks for your wise posts, they are so helpful.

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    • I’m so sorry to hear that you went through this, and can certainly relate to the sports team issue….it’s good to have recognised where your feelings about yourself come from, as there’s more chance of eventually working through them and trying to change that perception. It is SO hard, and I recently told my therapist I wasn’t sure it was possible for me to change how I think about myself. Our subsequent discussion was a bit of shock – she was very direct with me – but it did bring to the surface the part of me that wants to keep fighting against my inner critic, and if showed (I hope) that that part is stronger than the one that is beaten down by the past. It can take a really long time to address those thoughts, but I do think it’s possible, and I really hope that you have people who can help you do that, and I’m really rooting for you!

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  3. I can so relate to being bullied and being shunned with every one giving me a wide berth. Those new lines and gaps that you describe and the dread of pairing up.

    I’m lucky that my T is willing to hug me, but she HAS pulled away when I once tried an extended hug… I suppose it confirms that I’m only “tolerable in small doses”. Like online acquaintances telling me “you are a strong and beautiful soul” after years of no contact even through Facebook.

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    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I must admit to being ‘suspicious’ of those sorts of comments on Facebook or in person, from people who haven’t seen me for a while. Though one could argue that they are basing their comments on past experience and are, for that moment, literally almost ‘living in the past’. As for the extended hug, do you think it would be possible for you to try and construe this not as meaning that you are tolerable in small doses, but as it being something either about who she is as person (she may not be comfortable with long hugs), or about the situation or therapy (e.g. does she think that an extended hug may impede rather than facilitate the therapy?). I feel completely unqualified to speak about this as it’s something I’m almost incapable of doing myself, but trying to see it in those other ways is important for being kinder to ourselves and for accepting others’ differences….take care….

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      • You’re right 🙂 at my next session, we didn’t talk about the hug but about other boundary things and I realised it’s likely her personal limit for clients. Self compassion is hard, but receiving compassion from Therapist somehow makes it easier to try to be kinder to myself.

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  4. Looking at this from a different perspective, a huge part of who I am means I come across very touchy-feely (I’ve only just had this brought to my awareness.) It makes some people uncomfortable, some hug me back, some get the wrong idea, some think I’m wierd and the closest to me realise it’s just how I engage with people, comfort them, comfort myself I guess. Has anyone had similar experiences or am I just an odd little bod 🙂

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    • In that case we must all be odd little bods 🙂 I think people vary hugely in how touchy feely they are, and some people are very touchy feely with e.g. family members, but completely the opposite with others. I think it can feel really hard to accept that others can feel so differently on this issue, and the difference is not ‘significant’ in that it doesn’t say anything about us, it’s part of the other person’s way of being. But it can feel rejecting, even if we know rationally that that’s not what is taking place. Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

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  5. Another interesting slant on the “touch” issue. I personally have always felt untouchable because I was sexually abused by my father for several years. Even though I have had a partner of 18 years and she is very affectionate, I still don’t equate that as the same as being hugged/physically acknowledged by my therapist. When I got hugs from her, it was just like a comforting “welcome back and yes, you are not toxic or unlovable”.
    Anyway, at some point I will work it through that I am not untouchable. I am fortunate to have a very patient, caring and dedicated therapist who is really there for me.
    Thanks for the post.

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    • Thank you again for sharing more of your story, and it sounds lovely to hear you speak about your therapist in those terms – I’m glad you feel you can work this out and that she’s there for you despite the fact that this is, and may continue to be, an area where you don’t quite see eye to eye….I’m sorry I haven’t managed to get back to you over email but I hope some of this has helped – things are very tough for a number of reasons at the moment, so I’m struggling to keep up, but I’m wishing you all the best with continuing to talk about this….

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  6. Touch is something that my therapist and I worked on from the very beginning of therapy. My therapist and I will hold hands in session between talking about hard things … he has taught me very gently what safe touch is by the start of a finger to finger, working the way to hold handing and a hug… now I sit side by side with my therapist in therapy .. for the past 8 years it has been sitting together, the first year was sitting seperaltely… I now have no problem with touch in therapy.. he likes to make sure we are CONNECTED and how important that is. I think it’s very important to learn what safe touch is, and when your ready, you will know. I trust my therapist 100% and I feel he has really taught me how to connect with others.

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    • Thank you so much for reading and for your comment….I’m so glad your therapist has helped you to discover and be comfortable with safe touch in this way….I get the feeling that therapists in the UK tend to have a different attitude towards touch than many therapists elsewhere, and it is not as ‘common’ as I think it is becoming elsewhere. I know that this is something my therapist definitely doesn’t offer and isn’t part of how she does things, and part of my task is to try and come to terms with that and not let it cloud the rest of our work, and also to try and figure out why it sometimes feels so important to me to have it…..Thank you so much for getting in touch!

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  7. I must add that since my recent situation with “no more touch/hugs” in my therapy and the fact that she has been away for a month, I can visually see me running into her arms and holding on to say “I REALLY missed you!!! I am not sure if I can actually stop myself from doing this but I know she would not be horrified just surprised by my sudden action.
    I really feel that touch can still play a part in most peoples therapeutic relationship as long as the touch is talked about, the want is understood and not for the wrong reasons and always being able to say NO (for either party), it does not feel right for me this time.
    I feel it was filling a need of filling the well of emptiness that was created by not getting the touch/love that I needed growing up. That well was slowly being filled by my therapist and eventually I would not have needed it. (Just my slant).
    Anyway, continue to love the blog and the interesting articles.

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  8. I actually spoke to my therapist in our previous session about this subject. I asked her whether she ever hugs or touches her other clients, or if it’s just me that she doesn’t want to hug and touch. For some reason I had it in my head that it was just because of me… Because of the BPD maybe. I was SO relieved when she told me that she’s not a touchy feely person in general. That she doesn’t even initiate hugs with her friends. So she doesn’t touch or hug ANY of her clients. I’m the complete opposite… I crave and long for physical touch. So it’s still hard not being able to have that with her.

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    • I think it’s really helpful that she was able to tell you that and I’m glad it helped a little even though I can completely understand that it’s still really hard accepting that you cannot have touch in therapy (which is also what I have to do, as my therapist feels the same about touch in therapy). What I’ve also found really helpful and lovely is being able to freely talk with her about wanting touch from her, and having that need/desire accepted and validated, even if I can’t have the touch itself. My therapist tried to get across to me for ages the fact that that could almost ‘be enough’ in itself, but I was very resistant to the idea. However, eventually I really did find it bonding and comforting to be able to simply talk about it openly, without actually having it. I feel accepted, in the way that I might have done if I was actually being touched…..

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