Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, October/November 2000.
Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
Perhaps it was inevitable, what with the increasing insurance coverage of massage and the inherently physical nature of touch itself. Whatever the reasons, this profession seems to increasingly assume that our clients are on our tables for their health.
But what if it ain't necessarily so?
Maybe last night an argument with their spouse turned ugly. Maybe their last three attempts at painting are in the trash with their confidence. Maybe one year ago tomorrow mother died, and this morning they burst into tears when the lid flew off the blender.
Chances are they'll volunteer nothing like this when you ask them how they are today.
In the intensive care unit of the heart are carefully stored the pains and disappointments, the longings and loves that motivate our behavior. When it comes to sharing these with others, visiting hours are rare.
Nonetheless, here she is, on your books, at your door. She may even present you with a complaint, a shoulder pain that won't go away. Quick as a keystroke, all the shoulder techniques you know download in preparation. In one sense, this session is already over.
Perhaps the biggest single mistake we as bodyworkers can make is to think we know where a session is going. At that instant, we stop working "with" the client and begin working "on" them. Regardless of skill, these sessions go "thunk." We've all been there.
The deeper the connection we make with our clients, the more profoundly our touch will impact their lives. We cannot force our way in; we must be invited. Creating a safe space is certainly prerequisite. But we are naive to think that we create a safe space for our clients simply by being willing to listen and maintaining confidentiality. These both amount to keeping your mouth shut. Providing a safe place is an active, not passive, process. Safety can only truly be offered when you accompany another into the danger zone. Standing silently on the edge is of little genuine comfort.
If this sounds ethically risky, it's not, unless you pretend to be more than a companion. Don't try to fix anybody. Don't give advice unless you have a license to do so. Do be immensely human. For that, we are all fully qualified.
If the essence of our work is nurturing (and I believe that it is), we must keep in mind that the balm works only when applied to the wound. Only the client knows the way. Our challenge as therapists is to be worthy of the expedition.
Carl Jung wrote, "You can go with another only as far as you have gone with yourself." If clients are not comfortable opening up to you, guess where the block is? When I meet practitioners who have not had bodywork in months, I know their practice is doomed. We all recognize the smell of hypocrisy.
Too often, I fear, we forget that bodywork is also a business transaction -- we receive the client's money and they must then decide whether they have received that amount of value. As much as we might enumerate for them the benefits of touch to the body, to the emotions, to the psyche, and to the spirit, it is the client who decides its value.
Wise, indeed, is the therapist who seeks to add value where value is already recognized. If you can discover why a client really came in, you can demonstrate how bodywork adds value to that aspect of their life. This is health care and marketing at the core. It's very powerful stuff, because it welds the love you put into your work with the values which are driving your client's life. And it beats the pants off an ad in the paper.
The catch is that if marketing is your primary motivation, it won't work. We each intuitively know when we're in the presence of a sales pitch. The good news is that we can always tell the truth, because we know that every area of life -- from relationships to creativity to finance to self-image -- can be improved by good bodywork. Helping clients to recognize this is one of the keys to success as a therapist. In our zealousness to be perceived as health care providers, we fail to realize that many clients are focused somewhere else entirely. Our best efforts miss the mark by a mile.
So how do we do this? How do we find out what motivates our clients? Most of the time they tell you without even being asked. We simply don't listen well. When they mention that they're a few minutes late because they were dropping off their daughter at soccer practice, you have just been handed two powerful pieces of information -- family is important and time is short. How can bodywork help? There is listening, and there is the listening that follows the desire to hear.
Many massage therapists feel that all this stuff is not their territory; they have been warned -- even at some massage schools -- to stay away. It reminds me of the girl who stays after school to ask her favorite teacher in private about sex. Yes, in a perfect world, this should not be the teacher's job. But this student is there because it is the safest place she can find. If she felt she could ask someone more appropriate, she would.
If a client comes to you seeking support or solace or simple nurturing (doesn't that about cover it?), provide that as best you possibly can. No, don't get in over your head and don't play psychotherapist. Instead, lay open your heart in service, watch carefully for bent twigs along the way, follow the path to a spot once left in haste. On arrival, most of the time, a simple nurturing touch will suffice. All they really wanted was to not have to go back there alone.
Therapists who are unwilling to make the journey spill their nurturing in the hallway and lash themselves to forever matching technique to complaint when something far more profound and rewarding, for both client and therapist, is perhaps waiting just around the corner.Jim Herweg is co-owner and director of the Kalamazoo Center for the Healing Arts, a state-licensed school and center in Kalamazoo, Mich. He teaches the program's business class and maintains a small private practice. Herweg is also a newspaper columnist and former investigative reporter. He can be reached online at email@example.com.