holding space with hands and heart

Being a massage therapist has many incredible and rewarding aspects I can discuss easily—but there are some parts of this life that are harder to describe, especially the concept of holding space, and all the emotional aspects that come with it.


I Develop Close Relationships

When I work with a client, as much as I keep professional boundaries, there can be a closeness that develops. This closeness can develop over five sessions or five minutes, and I never chase it away. I accept it, even enjoy it, because I have a laser focus on where I end and the client begins, because I know who I am. I know what my role is. And I know what it is not.

One night as I was departing from a house call for some clients I’ve been working with for years, the husband stopped as he was escorting me to the door.

“You know, Kelly,” he said, “I always feel so good when I see you … like you really care about me.” His tone and bemused look showed that he was basically congratulating me on doing such a good job of faking it.

I stopped, smiled and told him, “That’s because I do.”


I Witness Lives

To my clients I am not a friend, psychotherapist or family. But I am part of their experience on this Earth and a witness to their lives. I am part health professional, part educator, part cheerleader. I watch them grow and succeed, and I watch them stumble and struggle. That last bit is the most challenging aspect of what I do.

I joke that I have the best job ever because everyone is always happy to see me. The reality, though, is that while lots of clients share generously with me their joy, sometimes they bring me their deepest sorrows. From relationship and financial trouble, to a child’s emotional problems, to their own serious health challenges, I have worked with clients on some of their worst days or months. I have seen them discouraged, devastated and stooped over from the burdens of living.

There’s a certain look I’ve seen in so many contexts now. It’s a combination of fear and emotional exhaustion, and it says to me, “Please. Please, can you do something to make this hurt less? Can you please give me a break from this?”

I have taught clients that my space is about them. Their sessions are a time when they hold no obligation to anyone in their lives, when their job is to focus entirely on their own needs. I am there to assist and support them.


I Provide a Break from Pain

In especially hard times, clients’ eyes say to me, “How can you possibly help me now?”

I’ve even had people ask that out loud.

Once a new client came to me and broke down in tears during the intake as he told me the heartrending story of his life over the last year. “I didn’t plan on telling you that,” he said. “I don’t know why I did. I don’t know what you could do about that.”

“Well,” I said. “You’re right—I can’t do anything about that. But if you felt compelled to say it, I’m glad you did.”

I thought for a minute. How could I best serve this person who had endured so much? This was nothing that any stroke or technique could address. “As far as what I can offer you,” I tried, “How about an hour of not that?”

He paused for a second, laughed, and said yes, an hour of not that sounded really good.


I Touch Compassionately

As massage therapists, we are frequently placed in a position where people are deeply vulnerable to us. Sometimes the vulnerability is physical, because we are in charge; the clients are on the table, often unclothed, as we stand over them. Sometimes their nakedness is figurative.

Every time I see that vulnerable look on a client’s face—every single time—something deep within me stirs. It is the well of my compassion. It’s the place I go when I need to be the most I can be for another.

My mind’s voice responds, “Yes. Yes, fellow being, I see you. I will not look away. I will not flinch. I see you and I honor your humanity. I will stand next to you in this time. You will not be alone.”

There’s so much I can’t do in this world and in this life. I can’t fix people. I can’t make mutated cells stop spreading. I can’t make hearts un-break. But there is one thing I can do.

For these next 60 minutes I can hold you in my care. I can hold this space around us as a place of peace and security. Of compassion.

In my mind I invite my clients into that place of compassion. Come swim with me. I will anchor you as you float. May your body feel from my hands the stillness I am holding for you amidst the swelling tides of life. May the sound of my breath, steady and deep, remind your lungs to drink this same air, to find your own steadiness.

Sometimes I am called to give with more than my hands. There is no part of me that will ever say, “No, there is nothing I can do for you.”

I believe there is always something one person can do for another, even if it is “just” holding space.


3 Steps to Holding Space

Holding space for clients is about being as neutral as possible so they have a clean, protected space in which to realize their own healing. The commonly uttered directive to “leave your baggage at the door” is helpful in this regard, but how exactly do we do that?

  1. Secure your own oxygen mask first. We’ve heard this instruction from flight attendants and the same applies to massage: Care for your own needs first. Be aware of what it is you need physically and emotionally to feel balanced and cultivate a practice of giving it to yourself. Adequate sleep, physical activity (aside from work), good nutrition and proper hydration are the basics. If we’re not fulfilling these basic needs, it’s likely this deprivation will accompany us into the massage therapy room.
  1. Know where you begin and end. Those who are great at holding space tend to know themselves very well. When something crops up on their emotional radar screen during a client session, they are able to differentiate between “this is mine” and “that’s yours,” letting go of misplaced feelings and reactions that may start to appear during the work. Making time for deep personal reflection—even if it’s just a few minutes a day—is key. Many therapists find having a yoga, mindfulness or meditation practice particularly helpful in this regard.
  1. Open your presence. When I did my fascial certification, our instructor began the course by requiring us to sit with our clients, holding their heads or feet, and wait to sense a shift in their nervous systems to welcome the work. And wait we did, sometimes for 30 minutes or more. It seemed agonizing at first, but we got over it and, in the process, learned the art of presence.

You don’t have to hold still touch with your clients that long—though I encourage you to try it at least once if you never have. Try just five minutes. Have clients take a breath and breathe it along with them, allowing an opportunity for both of you to come fully present to the work.


I Change Lives

Holding space is a part of a massage therapist’s life that can be difficult to describe, and every therapist who does it has his or her own way of achieving it. Combined with our skills and knowledge, holding space lets us provide a massage experience that communicates to clients that someone cares about their well-being and their existence in this world—and that can be life-changing.


About the Author

Kelly S. Madrone, L.M.T., is on faculty at Potomac Massage Training Institute and at Central Maryland School of Massage. She is based in Frederick, Maryland, and works with a wide variety of clients ranging from office workers and professional athletes to teens to retirees. She wrote “Massage as an Adjunct to Mental Health Care” for MASSAGE Magazine.