“Learning how to set boundaries is a necessary step in learning to be a friend to ourselves. It is our responsibility to take care of ourselves—to protect ourselves when it is necessary. It is impossible to learn to be loving to ourselves without owning our self—and owning our rights and responsibilities as co-creators of our lives.” —Robert Burney, author and therapist
Learning to be a friend to ourselves is something many of us in healing professions don’t do well enough. We certainly have the knowledge to keep ourselves healthy—but, although we spend all day using that knowledge to help others, we often don’t follow our own professional guidance. We eat the wrong foods, drink what we know we shouldn’t, and skimp on rest. We, of all people, should know better—yet we experience some form of disconnect between what we know and what we do when it comes to our own health.
I routinely receive massages for my own health and well-being, and I have noticed many excellent massage therapists simply do not give the same great care to themselves as they give to their clients. Some of the best massage therapists battle chronic illnesses or have weak immune systems. You are masters at relieving stress and promoting health in others, but not in yourselves. And of the healing professions, I believe massage therapist would be one of the highest on a list of stressful occupations.
The work of massage therapy is much more physically demanding than many other health professions. Most massage therapists are self-employed or independent contractors, so your career can be financially stressful. And because of the intimacy of the work and deep connection formed during sessions with clients, the work is often emotionally demanding as well. You are in a profession you love, yet you may end up feeling exhausted and burned out at the end of each day.
As a healing professional myself, I had to learn to develop my own boundaries and set them in every aspect of my life, from how many clients I treat in a day and what I eat to the money I spend and make. When I get out of bounds, I pay for it, becoming stressed, cranky and physically exhausted. I lose the sense of joy and satisfaction in the work and people I love.
When I stay in bounds, I feel I can play the game of life fully. I feel energized by my work and enjoy my family and friends. Life feels balanced and meaningful. This is what I call self-mastery.
Here are some areas to direct your attention as you develop good boundaries:
1. Is your work environment a good match for you?
We spend many hours and lots of energy at our workplace. But a work environment that is a perfect fit for someone else may not fit you. Working in a cruise ship’s spa may be an exciting adventure for some massage therapists, for example; however, if you crave the satisfaction of long-term client relationships, a cruise ship spa won’t give you what you desire. Likewise, while some massage therapists enjoy the hustle and bustle of working with athletes in a busy gym, if the gym management doesn’t appreciate your work or you prefer a quiet, calm environment, working in this gym will be a strain for you. For some massage therapists, working from home can be a good way to save money—but if you feel you have lost your private space at the end of the day, it may not be worth it.
Your work environment should match your energy, as well as your values and goals for yourself and your career. Staying in an environment that is not a match is like continuing to eat food that gives you stomach cramps. You may not be able just pack up and leave that mismatched environment today, but make it a priority to find a workplace that will nurture and support who you are and who you want to become. This will effect a shift in your sense of well-being.
2. Discover your tipping point.
As healing professionals, massage therapists usually want to help as many people as possible. But there comes a tipping point when we try to see more clients than is good for our own well-being. There is a fine line between feeling eager for the next client to walk through the door and dreading the thought of one more session. If you feel dread or find yourself watching the clock and wishing the day was done, you may be trying to work with more people than you should.
There is no magic number for everyone, and the number of clients we can handle varies not only from person to person, but also in the seasons of our lives. Your co-worker may still feel great after working with eight clients, where you may feel fatigue after six or even four. Be aware of your personal tipping point and adjust your schedule accordingly.
3. Give yourself a break.
This sounds simplistic, but taking a break is one of the most important things healing professionals can do—and one they are least likely to do.
We schedule clients back to back, spending as much time as we can with each one. But in the healing professions, and especially in massage therapy, it’s critical to take regular breaks to clear ourselves and come back to center. Without this time of centering and relaxing, we carry the issues of one client over to the next, and lose who we are in the process.
At a minimum, take at least two 30-minute breaks in an eight-hour day, and try to spend those breaks outside for some fresh, cleansing air. Rehydrate by enjoying plenty of water, stretch and relax your body, and refuel with healthy snacks. If you have a centering or clearing process you practice, use that practice several times throughout the day.
4. Get in control of your finances.
For your sense of well-being, it’s critical to get a handle on your financial life and feel good about it. Financial balance in your life allows you to relax and feel more joy in your career as well as your personal life.
It is especially important to create good financial boundaries when you are self-employed or an independent contractor. Money has two aspects: income and outflow. An imbalance in either aspect will add unnecessary stress to your work and sap the joy out of your life.
First, let’s look at the income side. You probably didn’t train to become a massage therapist to become wealthy, but you definitely should be well compensated for the valuable work you do. Many massage therapists sell themselves and their work short. They hesitate to charge more for fear of straining clients’ wallets; however, it’s important to show self-respect by charging appropriately.
Ask yourself, “What is my time worth?” Take into consideration the actual time spent seeing each client, as well as preparation time and follow-up. Factor in the value your clients receive and the benefit you bring to their lives and their health. Look at what others in your field are charging, then test different rates. The answer to “What is my time worth?” is unique for each individual and must feel congruent to you.
Once you have the rate that feels right to you, you’re ready to look at outflow. Use your net income to keep your expenditures in balance. By not spending more than you make, you will avoid the painful strain of being in debt.
5. You are what you eat.
As a massage therapist, your most valuable asset is your body. If it is not healthy, how can you continue in the career you love?
If you eat in response to stress, watch your caloric intake. You should make sure to keep a regular eating schedule that includes a nutritious breakfast. Snacks should be high in protein to help keep your insulin levels steady. Healthy fats will keep your nervous system calm, so adding coconut, olive or grape seed oil to your diet could be beneficial to you.
Experience the Joy of Healthy Boundaries
The self-mastery that comes from setting and keeping boundaries is not selfish; it is necessary to our well-being and the gifts we offer others.
By establishing clear, healthy boundaries, we can continue to play the game of life fully, offering others our best while experiencing the joy in life we are meant to have.
About the Author
Tasneem Bhatia, M.D., is an integrative-and-holistic medicine expert and founder and medical director of the Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine. She is a contributing editor to Prevention magazine, and a frequent guest on programs including the TODAY Show, CNN and The Dr. Oz Show.