Holly Dobbs has been a member of First Unitarian Providence since 2008. An Alexander Technique teacher and massage therapist, she has been putting hands-on professionally for over 15 years. Being “licensed to touch” has given her a unique perspective to share.
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My name is Holly Dobbs, and I have been touching people for a living since 2004. My work has been deeply transformative, and I would like to share with you some of the things it has taught me. I will also apply the topic of touch to our first two UU spiritual principles.
Touch: a powerful vehicle
Touch has the power to ground you, bring you into the present, and get your attention. It is essential for the development of the ability to trust in the young. It enables social connection, and romantic bonding. Research has found that touch speeds healing and pain relief after surgery. It strengthens the immune system, helps you to be more resilient to stress, and activates the part of the brain that is linked to rewards and compassion.
Touch builds cooperative relationships and reinforces reciprocity.
In my work, I have discovered a spiritual element of touch: that even the rare; most off-putting, grouchy, difficult clients change under my hands, or perhaps my own perception of them changes. I see the beauty in them, no matter who they appear to be when they walk through the door. I feel through my hands and through my skill their humanity, uniqueness, and vulnerability. Over the years, my work has developed into a spiritual practice. I find that time drops away, my mind quiets, and I am just here! I am here with the person, communing with them, becoming a salve for them, being my best self for them.
I have found in my work that touch, with healthy boundaries, IS indeed a powerful vehicle for spiritual connection. Healthy boundaries are essential to be able to bring the practice of touching others into its spiritual potential.
You don’t know, just by looking at someone, whether or not they have a history of trauma. You don’t know if they are germophobic. You don’t know if they have a sensory processing disorder. You don’t know if they have been sexually harassed.
What if they or one of their family members has a weakened immune system? What if they are autistic? What if they simply do not touch people they don’t know, or find touch incredibly private? How do you practice healthy boundaries so that your interactions can be safe and beneficial to those you encounter?
Do you feel like First Unitarian Church is your territory, and that the people who enter it are yours to touch by default?
Do you love touch, call yourself a hugger, and feel hurt when someone backs away from your open arms and good intentions?
Do you think people who seem to dislike touch are missing out, are a little crazy, and pity them a little? I confess I once felt that way. But someone had the patience to explain their perspective to me.
My friend left First U
I wanted to give this talk because of a friend who came to this church in search of a community with values like hers, a place where she could learn, make friends, contribute her care, and act on her desire to do good.
A few months into our developing friendship, she confessed to me that she was struggling with the way that she was being touched in our community. I had already concluded that she was a quirky person, and I dismissed her concerns. I thought she was overreacting. I didn’t get it. The type of touch she was having trouble with seemed benign to me. Why couldn’t she see that when there are good intentions it is ok to tolerate a little discomfort?
My friend sought help from church officials, and efforts were made to change behaviors for her. I thought that the changes should be enough for her to be able to comfortably keep coming here. “See?” I said, “It’s all ok now, right?”
She sadly shook her head.
She explained that she had not been fully understood when she sought help. And I think she meant she had not been understood by the church officials in the same way that I had not understood her. They had seen her as female, quirky, maybe a little political, and as overreacting. They had thought that the change in behavior was enough to solve the problem, but it wasn’t. The attitude of those involved had not changed, even if a behavior did for a while. A spiritual boundary was broken and could not be repaired. Behind the good intentions and the respectful surfaces, she felt viscerally that her personhood had not been respected. She left First Unitarian. I witnessed her unresolved pain and distress. It was not drama over political issues. It was not quirkiness or overreaction. It was the real pain of a broken trust. She had become unable to bring herself to enter our space! I grieve that I no longer see her here, that I was blind to her struggles, and that she had to repeatedly explain to me what was wrong about her experience of touch at my beloved First U. I am grateful for her patience in clarifying why she had to leave. It is for her, and others like her, that I am giving this talk.
Our first two principles state: We respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person and strive for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
Touch, is a powerful vehicle for spiritual connection. But – ONLY WITH HEALTHY BOUNDARIES.
People have the right to decide how or if they will be touched. Everybody is different, and we cannot assume that the way we feel about touch will be the way another feels about touch.
My dear fellows, we live in a country where “unwanted touch” and “inappropriate touch” are frequently in our headlines. America is a litigious place, and inappropriate touch is an issue that is coming up more and more as the Me Too movement continues to awaken us. As a touch professional, I have learned skills to navigate this most personal of interactions. Boundaries and ethics help me to protect myself and prevent harm to those I touch. Boundaries allow me to make safe touch available, with all its exquisite potential, to those who need and want it.
I believe boundaries are necessary for physical interaction in our community as well. A respectful question goes a long way: “May I shake your hand?” or “Can I offer a hug?” It is wise to offer before acting, even with someone we have known for a while. Getting consent first clears the way for the beautiful and nurturing hug, enthusiastic handshake, or consoling arm across someone’s shoulders. Asking first gives someone the chance to tell you what they really need. Asking helps to bring touch into its spiritual potential.
We need touch. Touch is fundamentally, biologically, and spiritually necessary for our health, our sanity, and our ability to thrive. We need boundaries for the very same reason. Touch, with healthy boundaries, is a most powerful vehicle for spiritual connection. Respecting each individual’s unique boundaries is how we respect the inherent worth and dignity of those we touch. Respecting each individual’s unique boundaries is how we touch each other with justice, equity, and compassion. We are touching another person, a mystery, a universe unto him, her, or themself. Let us touch each other with care, with a check-in first, offering touch as a balm, a gift, knowing that it is someone’s heart that we touch. Let us touch with our own heart, and let it be a dance!