By Melissa L. Baker
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2007.
Massage therapy and prevention research are both professions assisting others to higher health. Fortunately for us, insights from prevention research—a field that attempts to identify the best ways to prevent negative outcomes related to social, physical, mental health, and safety issues—may also prove extremely beneficial to massage therapy. Its approach to innate health provides a fresh perspective for massage therapists that will profoundly enhance their professional and personal lives.
Burnout is a common phenomenon in the massage profession. After several years of attending to clients’ pain and ailments, dealing with business or self-employment, and facing cumulative tension in the therapist’s own body from the work itself, a large percentage of massage therapists leave the profession. And for lifetime therapists, bouts of burnout commonly come and go.
As a self-employed, licensed massage therapist for more than six years, I have experienced all of the frustrations that accompany the profession. Client expectations, coworker conflicts, business ups and downs, self-doubt about skills when client conditions don’t improve, management of overhead expenses, public perception, and physical fatigue are all common situations in the life of a massage therapist. When a new perspective is brought to our thought processes, we have an opportunity to view all of those situations in a different light. Suddenly, we can see frustrations as just passing thoughts, and we can more easily make decisions that are in the best interest of our health.
By gaining a new perspective on the way we see life, we may open the door for changes in our clients, coworkers, and families. When we walk through life with this new understanding, we look and feel different—lighter, perhaps. And others around us will see it. We won’t take things personally anymore. We won’t act out or make decisions when we are in a low mood. We can be constantly connected to our own inner health. This doesn’t require hours of studying a new skill; it simply takes a change in perspective and a new understanding.
Evolution of Prevention Research
Since the 1960s, prevention research has attempted to prevent costly societal problems before they begin. Researchers first focused on identifying external factors that led to problems and then worked to change those externals so people would change behavior (“outside-in” approach).
Then, researchers began looking at what makes some individuals resilient and others not. They discovered external factors didn’t lead to problem behaviors, but internal factors did.
In his book, Prevention from the Inside-Out, consultant, speaker, and author Jack Pransky, PhD, asserts the missing link is that an individual’s thoughts lead to behavior—positive or negative.1 And the only way to get people to change their behaviors is to encourage them to view their thoughts in a new way. In massage therapy, these two approaches can be illustrated as different ways to deal with clients.
For example, therapists may view their clients as people who need massage therapy or other care (an external tool) in order to become healthy human beings. This would be an “outside-in” approach. A totally new option is to view clients as fully complete human beings when they walk in the door—they don’t need anything external to be whole and complete. This would be an “inside-out” perspective. All clients have resiliency in them. This doesn’t mean clients won’t benefit from massage therapy; it simply means when massage therapists change their perspective they may be better able to draw out natural health and resilience in those who are coming to them looking for health.
In health research, resilience is the ability of people to make it through challenging situations—the ability to adapt to changing external conditions. It is an internal strength or coping mechanism. The concept of innate health goes beyond the generally accepted definitions of resiliency. Innate health implies that every human being has health within them, at all times. It implies that no one is without it. Health happens at birth. The body can reset itself back to a balance of health, even after disease. There is never a moment we lack access to our own health. We don’t need any tools, information, or other external things in order to develop it within us. When we are disconnected from our inner state of health, our thinking has gotten in the way. This missing link of prevention research—that thoughts and thinking take us away from our innate health—was first identified by philosopher Sydney Banks.
In the early 1970s, Banks had a profound insight about how our thinking affects our state of being. This insight overwhelmingly changed his life; he became much more joyous and let go of the weight of negative thinking.
Banks saw three principles very clearly. They illustrate how mind, thought, and consciousness together make up the reality of our experiences. These three principles are explained by innate health scholar Judy Sedgeman in “The Principles Underlying Life Experience: The Beauty of Simplicity”:
- Mind refers to the universal life force, the energy that is behind all creation (formless energy and energy in form).
- Thought is “the capacity to create form from formless energy.”
- Consciousness is “the awareness of the process of creation and of what we have created.”2
Through the fabric of creation—within it and underneath it—flows a constant stream of energy. This energy is the life force that animates all beings and brings life to our planet. It is the essence that animates human flesh and supports its complicated life processes. Banks is not speaking here of our minds—our ability to process information. He uses the word mind to refer to something deeper. Power and intelligence exist within it, of a greater level than we are usually aware.
Thought is the power within that energy to create. We have the power and the ability to create any thought we want at any moment. More than the power to create thoughts, we have the free will to create our own perceptions of reality.
Consciousness provides us the ability to see ourselves as separate from our subjective realities. Our consciousness allows us to take a step back from our thought processes and to be aware of what we are in relation to thought. We have the capacity to “watch” the process of thinking and the content of thought as separate from our true selves. Thoughts just pass through our consciousness, and their content is not permanently part of us.
Understanding these three principles allows us to gain greater understanding of our experiences in life and how we create our own, individual reality from our thinking. This understanding can lead to less fear, improved relationships, a greater sense of control of one’s health and life direction, and a higher platform from which to view life’s experiences.
Basics of Innate Health
We don’t need any external tools to get healthy. Health and balance are innately within us. As healthcare professionals, we can gain understanding of how to reconnect with that innate health and what it was that disconnected us in the first place. When seeing clients, we can understand they are all innately healthy.
Accessing our innate health is simple. When our minds are quiet and we are in a positive feeling state, our internal wisdom emerges. We then have access to information, options, and guidance—all from within. In this state of being, we have the ability to see our lives from a totally new perspective. Without thoughts clouding our vision, we have access to a larger picture of our life situation. Anything we need for our health and well-being can be found with a quiet mind and positive feeling.
From birth to death, thoughts flow continuously through our awareness. We perceive all life situations through our thoughts.
For example, suppose a massage client shows up for her appointment thirty minutes early and the massage therapist is eating lunch. The therapist might become angry that he has to give up his lunch and assumes this client is like all of his other older clients who show up early and expect to begin their sessions when they arrive.
Suppose the client who is early just had to be dropped off at that time by her daughter and was planning on reading her novel in the waiting room for thirty minutes to relax before her session. So, the therapist puts his lunch away and walks out to the waiting area to begin the session with his client. The therapist initially had the thought, “My client expects to receive her session early,” and that defined how he saw “reality.” The client, however, simply thought the therapist was ready to provide the session early. Each person views this situation through their own thoughts, even though they are each seeing the same thing.
With the gift of consciousness, we can observe our thoughts as they pass. We have the free will to choose which thoughts we will hold on to and ruminate over for a while, and which we will pay no attention to as they go by. We can be an observer to the content of our thoughts without taking them too seriously. An example of the importance of this is a convict who learned about these principles while in prison. Since he grew up around a lot of criminals and knew a lot about crimes, he committed them. Until he learned these principles, it had never occurred to him that, when a thought came into his mind about a crime he could commit, he didn’t have to do it.
Most of us innocently misuse the gift of thought. We take our thoughts too seriously, or we scare ourselves with our own self-created thought content. If a negative thought comes along, and a person grabs hold of it, that first thought will lead to other negative thoughts.
Let’s say a massage therapist had a negative experience with the landlord of his business office at some time in the past. Every month when he writes out a rent check, he thinks of his landlord again and gets caught up in his thoughts. First, he thinks about how wrong his landlord had been. That leads to associated thoughts of all the times others have wronged him in the past. That leads to thoughts about how he never sticks up for himself. That leads to thoughts about how spineless he is. That leads to thoughts about how his older brother always called him a chicken and a wimp. And that leads to thoughts about how worthless he is and how right his brother was. So, in the course of a minute, this guy went from simply writing out a check to a completely foul mood, with a low self-esteem—all caused by his attachment to a thought. An alternative was available. He could have written the check to his landlord, had a thought about how wrong the landlord had been in a previous situation, and then ... he could have let thoughts about his landlord pass by without taking them too seriously.
It’s easy to see how changes in our thinking lead to changes in our moods. When we find our bodies feeling tense and we are in a depressed mood, we can acknowledge it was our thinking that got us there. We then become aware that we have the ability to change our thinking in order to let go of that tension and negativity, leading to an improved mood.
Thoughts exist only as long as we think them. This is an especially helpful thing to remember when dealing with past traumas and bad memories. In the present moment, all past traumatic memories are now thoughts. Thoughts about the past need only be brought to the present when necessary. If we find that a thought comes to our awareness about a past negative event, then we have a choice about how long we entertain those thoughts, as well as the subsequent feeling states that emerge with them. Of course, memories cannot be erased and some experiences can be quite horrific, but we can choose how we deal with the past in the present moment.
Careful observation allows us to see how our thoughts affect our moods and our physical tension. When we are having fun and enjoying ourselves, we are likely having good thoughts. We also may notice that our bodies and muscles feel relaxed.
If a massage therapist begins to worry about his schedule because it doesn’t look very full for the week, and then he remembers all the lean times when he started his business, he will get worked up. He may notice his mood lowering, as well as tension creeping up in his shoulders. In this way, he allowed his attachment to thoughts to lead to feelings of worry and tension. And even though we are the producers of our own thoughts, we sometimes scare ourselves.
We can imagine another scenario where a massage therapist works for a local spa. When the boss hired her, she thought during the interview that the boss wasn’t very impressed with her training. This thought was hers and she didn’t verify her perception of reality with her boss. So, the first time her boss reprimands her for something, she immediately thinks that her boss wants to fire her. She easily gets caught up in her thoughts about how much her boss dislikes her and how soon he will fire her. The truth is, she is the one who has scared herself. She was the originator of the thoughts that made her afraid.
Current language expresses how we feel as a result of various external stress factors and describes the factors themselves. Job stress, relationship stress, life stress, and financial stress are all common phrases. Most people assume that a job, relationship, life, and finances are stressful—in and of themselves—indicating that many view stress as inherent to life.
Previous stress research focused on the notion that external events are the actual causes of internal stress. This model appeared to make every person a victim of external circumstances. This model of stress changed when greater understanding developed in the fields of psychology and prevention about how two people can have different internal responses to the same external experience. Current research in resiliency suggests it is possible that stress comes from the inside. This model presents a more powerful picture of human beings. Rather than being victims to life events, we all have the ability to choose our reactions and responses.
One life situation will look completely different depending on which of the two states we are in at the time: a stressed, insecure, state of being or a calm, secure state of being (see chart below).3
Interactions With Others
Understanding these simple principles of innate health allows us to improve our interactions with others. As we develop these principles in ourselves and reconnect with our own innate health and wisdom, we naturally interact with others in a more harmonious manner.
Understanding how thinking works also helps us understand others who are in a low mood or caught up in their thinking. Let’s say, for example, a massage client shows up for a chair massage appointment at his office. When he arrives, right on time, he notices the therapist is running five minutes late and is still with the last client. He becomes angry and starts to yell at her about customer service and how to run a good business. If the massage therapist understands these principles, she will not get caught up in her own thoughts. She can just be aware that the client may be having a bad day, and it probably has nothing to do with her. She can apologize politely and stop to listen to the man and his concerns. She can stay connected to her innate health, be calm, and be secure in herself. If the client feels heard and deeply listened to, he may calm down. Either way, the therapist can stave off a spiral of negative thinking about herself and keep her own self-esteem high.
We may also be better able to understand ourselves when we need to interact with others while we are in a low mood. Consider a massage therapist who is having a rough day and finds himself in a bad mood when he learns his daughter got into trouble at school. These principles can help him be a better father when he goes home to deal with it. If he recognizes he is in a bad mood when he gets home, he can see he is not in the best mindset to productively discuss the day’s events with his daughter. He may want to go home and blow up at her immediately. If he realizes he needs to calm down and get himself back to a clearer state of thinking, he can do something he enjoys. Then, when he finds himself calm, he can think better. He will be better able to really listen to his child and have clear ideas about his options when dealing with her. The principles allow us to see that, when we are caught up in our thinking, it might be best to postpone interactions or decisions.
It’s essential in developing this awareness that, when interacting with people who are in a low mood, we acknowledge and see their innate health. Individuals only act poorly because they are in an insecure state of mind. If they are connected to their health and wisdom, they are able to choose a different action. We all get disconnected from our health from time to time, so it’s essential to be forgiving. There is no need to judge people since they are only behaving the best way they see fit and based on their perception of reality at the present moment. It can be a great gift to them to deeply listen and give them your full attention. If we maintain our own positive, calm feeling state, they may relax more. If they can feel secure with you, then the potential exists for the interaction to change for the better.
Improving Work and Personal Life
We know burnout is common in our profession. Burnout can be caused by physical discomforts, as well as by the psychic and emotional toll on therapists.4 It is common for therapists to have compassion for their clients’ pain and suffering.
It is also common for clients to speak about all of their troubles during sessions. Remembering that every human being has innate health within them during those sessions can be revolutionary. No longer do we therapists need to pity our clients. They have access to their health all the time. We are not responsible for fixing their pain, tight muscles, or life circumstances. They have the power to do that. We can only provide massage, from a place of connectedness to our own health. That is our best gift to clients.
The most powerful combatant to burnout is the awareness that we have innate health—no matter what. When we walk through our day connected to our internal wisdom, we will make choices that support our health, business, and happiness.
Business and personal relationships will appear different from this new understanding. It’s easier to maintain relationships when we know not to take personally the things others do or say while in a low mood. This doesn’t mean we will become doormats or allow others to take advantage of us. When we are in a state of balance and calm, we can still make decisions that are the best for our health.
Implications for Massage Therapy Clients
With one change in perspective, massage therapists can see their clients as already whole and complete. We can acknowledge that if they are alive, they have more things right with them than wrong, and therefore a capacity for health underlies any disease.
The average client is a working professional with many responsibilities; they are stressed out and overwhelmed, with some symptoms of disease or physical limitation already evident. They may spend more time thinking about what’s wrong with them than what’s possible. As a result of our own changes, our clients may begin to contemplate the notion that they are fine, whole, and complete, and that they do have a capacity to be healthy—no matter what. For many clients, this may be a novel concept. It may never have occurred to them as a possibility.
When in contact with our innate health, we will no longer feel responsible for a specific health outcome of our clients. Of course, we want them to feel better, but we know they have the ability to get to a place of health on their own. We can change our thinking about what our role is in our client’s life. The three principles can help you become aware of the thoughts you have that define what you feel your role is. You can change those thoughts at any time.
By learning about thought and observing our own thinking and how it affects our state of being and connectedness to health, we can think a whole new reality for ourselves. Since our thoughts create what we perceive our external environment to be, we have more power over our world and the way we see it than we ever knew. Our jobs and families can be greater sources of joy, while frustrations and challenges can be seen in a whole new light.
Opening up to these concepts can allow our professional and personal lives to improve. Massage therapists can look at their profession in a new way and ease the burdensome feeling of burnout. While taking better care of ourselves and being connected to our innate health, we will be better prepared to assist others in realizing their own source of internal health.
Melissa L. Baker, BS, LMT, lives and works in Bridgeport, West Virginia, and is pursuing her master’s degree in public health at West Virginia University. Contact her for information on CEU classes for massage therapists at MelissaLBakerLMT@aol.com.
1. J. Pransky, Prevention from the Inside-Out (Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2003).
2. J. A. Sedgeman, “The Principles Underlying Life Experiences: The Beauty of Simplicity.” Presented at the Psychology of Mind annual conference in Kailua, Hawaii, 1998.
3. J. A. Sedgeman, “Stress-Resiliency, Riding the ‘Rollercoaster’ of Life,” scheduled as a poster presentation at the Hawaii International Conference on Education in January 2007.
4. The Healers.org, “For Massage Therapists Only: Dealing with Burnout,” www.thehealers.org/articles/0206burnout.html (accessed August 9, 2006).