by Charlotte Michael Versagi, L.M.T.
have a client who I think is developing an inappropriate attachment
to me. She gave me an expensive Christmas gift, frequently leaves
me voice messages and recently asked me to do something socially.
How can I handle this?"
Different practitioners are comfortable with varying levels of closeness
with their clients, so the first step is to define what "too
close" means to you, according to Steve Eabry, a touch therapist
who also practices polarity and Esalen massage in San Luis Obispo,
California. Eabry, who has been practicing for more than 30 years,
works primarily with women over 50 and pregnant women.
"If you feel uncomfortable that
something is wrong, it probably is," Eabry says. "You
need to recognize that as early as possible and then do something
"A very emotional situation can
occur, but whether or not it is appropriate or 'too close' depends
upon the intent of the practitioner and the expectations of the
client. It's when one person is not sure of the other's intent or
expectations, then you can get in trouble."
Eabry says that a gift in itself is
not inappropriate, but if it makes you feel uncomfortable, then
it probably is inappropriate. "Sometimes a very emotional or
expressive client who has been working with you may express thanks
with a gift. That may not be inappropriate. How does it make you
"First, assume no strange intent
or expectation from the client," Eabry continues. "Take
it as a real expression [of gratitude] but that nothing further
is intended. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
"At that point, you make a statement
like, 'We are going to a place that makes me uncomfortable,' or
'We've had a good relationship or good sessions, but you don't need
to give me a gift like this.' Be very clear and very kind with the
assumption that there is nothing strange about it. Most of the time,
there probably isn't. The client just is grateful and will recognize
what he needs to do by your reaction."
If the gift is inappropriate, it should
be returned, not accepted, Eabry says. "If you accept it, the
person has no real feedback that it was not appropriate and can
assume it's okay." Eabry suggests even if a gift arrives by
mail and you are not comfortable with it, to send it back quickly
so the person is clear you are not accepting it.
But what if it happens again with the
same client? Eabry says if the client doesn't take the hint, you
need to end the professional relationship "with kindness and
with a referral elsewhere."
Eabry says many uncomfortable situations
can be avoided by taking some time up-front in the initial phone
interview. "You need to develop a spiel that expresses what
this relationship is, who it is you are and what you are here to
do," Eabry says.
When it comes to social invitations,
Eabry repeats the importance of knowing your own boundaries. However,
there may be times when you find yourself attracted to the client
and that needs to be handled, too.
"There is certainly nothing wrong
when both of you enjoy each other's company and you go out socially
and realize you want to get to know them better and see where it
goes. But then the client/therapist relationship must be dissolved,"
Eabry says. "You must refer the client elsewhere."
Nina MacIntosh, author of The Educated
Heart: Professional Guidelines for Massage Therapists, Bodyworkers
and Movement Teachers (Decatur Bainbridge Press) has this to
say: "First, I'm struck by the use of the phrase 'inappropriate
attachment,' which has a hint of judgment. It's not at all unusual
for a client to develop a strong attachment or have a crush on us.
For that one hour a week, we are touching them with care, focused
on their welfare, and nurturing and compassionate. It's normal for
some of our clients to idealize us and to want more of that kind
of attention. We have to remember that those feelings aren't really
about us - they're about the role we take on in our work.
"We want to be respectful of a
vulnerable client who has a crush and also be clear about our boundaries,"
MacIntosh continues. "In this case, the massage therapist may
not have been clear enough in the beginning, and so the client is,
naturally, continuing to test. When the client gave the first expensive
gift, the practitioner could have said, 'I appreciate your generosity,
but it's not my policy to accept expensive gifts from clients.'
We can make it about policy and not about the client. In the same
vein, when a client asks us to do something social, we can say,
'I see how much the work we are doing together means to you, but
my policy is not to socialize with clients.' We can tell them that
we've learned that socializing outside usually detracts from the
special atmosphere of the therapy room and negatively affects the
benefits the client receives - because it usually does."
In addition, MacIntosh says, "The
practitioner probably doesn't want to respond by phone to voice
messages, unless they're related to business-changing an appointment,
for instance. However, she or he could acknowledge the messages,
without judgment, at the beginning of the next session, 'I got your
message about how much you liked the last session.' Put the focus
on the professional relationship. The messages and other such behavior
will probably fade away once the client hears clear boundaries [set].'"
- Charlotte Michael Versagi,
L.M.T., N.C.T.M.B., is a journalist and a massage therapist who
specializes in manual lymph drainage and work with clients with