What we provide, as massage therapists, is more vital than ever for the health of our clients. The time our clients have on our tables, of slowing down, tuning in and relaxing, is more than a welcome oasis of quiet and tension relief. In today’s world, it provides the very foundation for a healthy immune system.
But what about us, the massage therapists providing these stress-relieving sessions?
The pace of life in our culture is speeding up, and economic-and job-related tensions are running higher than ever. This causes additional stress at the level of our home and family life—for therapists and clients alike.
Health challenges are on the rise, as our immune systems are suppressed due to the chronic stress of all of the above. More clients present not only with muscular tension, but with emotional issues as well, and the release of those emotions can often come out on the table when clients relax and let their guard down.
As massage therapists, we must update our energy-presence skills in order to maintain our own health and well-being and be successful in this wonderful and challenging field we have chosen.
This involves a combination of a strong therapeutic presence and healthy therapeutic boundaries. These two characteristics go hand in hand, and support each other as well as ourselves.
Consider these three scenarios:
When John enters Gail’s massage office, it is clear he is holding in anger. His demeanor is tense and his voice is clipped. As his massage session unfolds, he vents about an unfair event that happened at work that day.
Gail is initially relieved he is not angry with her, but then she notices she is getting as wound up as he is about the unfairness of it all.
By the end of his bodywork session, he says he feels a little better than he did when he arrived, but Gail stews about his situation for hours afterward, feeling depressed and unable to let it go.
Massage client Nancy comes to therapist Janice for her regular massage session just days after her husband told her he wants a divorce. She had been expecting it, but it is still an emotional blow. She spends most of the session sobbing almost uncontrollably.
Janice feels bad for Nancy because she had a similar experience happen 10 years earlier. As Nancy cries it all out, Janice notices the tension level in her own body is rising. She feels helpless to fix Nancy’s dilemma, and she remembers the difficult years following her own divorce.
When Nancy leaves feeling only slightly better, Janice feels tied in knots and does not feel well for several days. Slowly the feeling dissipates, but she vows to not let anything in from now on. She is worried about how to handle Nancy’s next sessions. She is a regular client and Janice needs the income—and she cares about Nancy.
Client Debra arrives late for her appointment with massage therapist Tom, looking worried and upset. Her chronic migraines have worsened in the last month and she feels overwhelmed. Recently, she has had a lot of additional stressors, due to multiple issues with her children in addition to a change in her husband’s job, causing her to feel anxious most of the time.
Debra’s underlying tension level is palpable in her musculature, and she has a hard time letting go of it, even on the table. Tom puts 110 percent into the session, feeling sorry for how difficult Debra’s life is.
At the end of the session, Debra says she feels better, but Tom somehow has the symptoms of her headache. It takes him the rest of the night to get rid of it.
These stories represent typical dilemmas faced by massage therapists in practice today, due to the increased stress and tension we all face in our lives.
So how do we, as bodyworkers, update our energy presence skills in order to maintain our own health and well-being? With therapeutic presence and healthy boundaries.
(Click here to read the advice Suzanne Scurlock-Durana gives Gail, Janice and Tom, the massage therapists whose stories were presented in this article.)
Presence & Therapeutic Boundaries
Therapeutic presence is the capacity to hold a healing space for another with your calm and centered state of being. This presence amplifies the effectiveness of whatever technical skills you already have and contributes to healthy treatment outcomes.
It is a quality of being, a rapport, which feels healing, steady and safe.
Healthy boundaries are defined as the awareness of where you stop and the rest of the world begins. A healthy therapeutic boundary allows nurturing resources in and filters out what is life-taking or draining.
In order to meet the needs of our clients today, both of these are necessary. We can no longer afford to ignore the unspoken, unseen connection between therapist and client that occurs in every therapeutic bodywork session.
Making the most of this connection means learning how to remain grounded, connected and fully present in the face of whatever presents itself. It means being empathetic without taking on the client’s pain. It means facilitating a healing process without inadvertently violating the client’s boundaries or losing your own.
In short, it means learning how to be in touch with and nurturing of yourself, so that your therapeutic presence can catalyze and nurture the healing process for others. And, at the end of your sessions, your therapeutic boundaries are still intact and you feel good.
The 9-Step Process
Here are nine important steps to a stronger therapeutic presence and healthier boundaries.
Step 1: Begin every session by taking a reading of where you are on the inside. Knowing how to read your inner landscape will help you to know if you are energetically full or depleted. If your energy is low, take a moment to fill yourself before you start the session. The best way to have a healthy boundary is to be operating from a full container.
Step 2: Be connected to healthy resources, to what nourishes you most deeply, so you can enter every session with a full, steady sense of presence.
For one practitioner, this might mean feeling your feet on the ground and the steadying, nurturing energy the earth can provide to you. For another, it may mean taking a few slow, deep breaths before walking in the door of the session room. For a third, it might mean taking a moment to call on spirit or summon the image of a special mentor or teacher.
Step 3: Set a clear intention. Be responsible, but not overly responsible, for the healing process of the person on your table. One of my favorite ways to do this is to say to myself, “I am here today to hold a strong, therapeutic presence for (client’s name), to meet him where he is and to facilitate his healing process in whatever ways I can.”
Step 4: Affirm your current realities so that you are not constantly trying to override what is actually happening. Letting go of expectations and limiting beliefs is the first step in creating a plan for your session or your day that nurtures you rather than drains you.
Step 5: Hold a compassionate space of acceptance for your client and where she is in her life. This level of simply being with her as a nonjudgmental witness has a remarkable healing effect in itself.
Step 6: Stay full and grounded throughout your session. This makes it easier to establish and maintain clear boundaries. When you are present in your own body, knowing where you stop and your client begins, you can sense when you are leaning into your client and unconsciously invading her space. As you learn to stay within your own field, it will feel safer and more comfortable to them as well.
Step 7: Know when your own issues are being triggered and what you can do about them. Signs of this might include suddenly feeling uncomfortable, needing your client to be a certain way (such as out of pain completely in order to feel successful) or to see you in a certain way (expecting him to see you as the authority in his healing process), trying to control the session more than is helpful or needing to talk when silence would be golden.
When you discover any of these hidden agendas, let them go. Drop it, and come back into the deep wisdom of your own system.
Step 8: Do the best job you can, being as present and grounded as you can be that day. Your client’s own healing process will occur naturally with you facilitating it, but not controlling it.
Step 9: Close every session with an attitude of gratitude and acceptance for what has transpired. This will help you to stay in the present moment with each client, rather than be caught up in regrets of things you didn’t do or worries about what might be coming next.
Acknowledge what you have done well, note the changes you want to put in place during your next session and then let go of what is beyond your capacity to do at this time.
Healthy boundaries and a strong, unconditional therapeutic presence are keys to better outcomes in your sessions, but more than that, they enable you to drop into a deeper state of resonance with clients—to whatever degree they are able to connect.
Our work is richest when we can be in each moment with our clients, in a space of caring and compassion that enables us to receive as well as give to them in every session.
Suzanne Scurlock-Durana, C.M.T., C.S.T.-D., is creator of the training and audio series Healing From the Core: A Journey Home to Ourselves (healingfromthecore.com). She’s also the author of Full Body Presence: Learning to Listen to Your Body’s Wisdom and the forthcoming Spring 2017 book Reclaiming Your Body: How Your Body’s Wisdom Can Help You Heal From Trauma. She has taught CranioSacral.