As massage therapists, we get a lot of practice helping other people to take care of themselves. Some of this is a direct result of our hands-on work—helping to release tension, improve circulation and heal injuries. We also help indirectly whenever we educate clients about changes that can improve their quality of life (for example, reducing stress, exercising regularly or eating more healthfully). For many people, simply taking time out of a busy week to get a massage is a big investment in their emotional and physical health.
In each of these ways, we play a crucial role in our clients’ practice of self-care. However, it’s easy to neglect the most important step we can take as effective therapists: caring for our own health and well-being. All too often, individuals who work in helping professions have trouble asking for and accepting help for themselves. You may notice this tendency in yourself. Do you tend to work hard to meet others’ needs, but leave your needs out of the equation? You may be naturally drawn to serving other people, but have little sense of what is nourishing and sustaining in your own life. You may even see others’ needs as more important than yours, believing you should “love your neighbor more than yourself”. Perhaps you feel guilty about putting yourself first, or think it isn’t right to care for yourself with the same kind of dedication you give to your clients and other people in your life.
The surprising reality is that in order to provide optimal care for others, you must take care of yourself first—before your partner, your children, your parents, your employer, your client or anyone else. This is not to say you shouldn’t care for other people—not at all! But you’ll do this much more effectively after you’ve addressed your own needs. Taking good care of yourself will give you the stamina, support and grounding that you need to do your best.
It’s important to be able to know when you need help and to find the appropriate types of support. If you’re experiencing emotional trouble or difficulty with your relationships, you may benefit from seeing a psychotherapist. If physical ailments are causing you pain or limiting your activities, you may find relief from a doctor, an acupuncturist, a massage therapist or another type of bodyworker. Whatever issues you face, you don’t have to face them alone. Whether you need help to improve your diet, develop and maintain an exercise program, manage your busy schedule or expand your business, there are experienced professionals who know how to assist you. If you have trouble recognizing when you need support, ask people who know you well to give you that feedback. Even though I am a coach myself, I have a coach and friends who let me know when I need help and haven’t asked for it.
Even if you’re not having any particular problems, it’s good to take some time every now and then to notice how your current schedule and work/life balance are working for you. Are you feeling overwhelmed or dissatisfied in any way? Are you engaged and stimulated by the work you’re doing? How is your energy level from day to day? You may find that there are small changes you’d like to make, such as adjusting your office hours, investing in some professional development or setting aside more time to exercise, rest or visit with friends. Self-care is more than just avoiding illness and burnout; it also means doing things you love to do, laughing and having fun, maintaining satisfying relationships and being connected to a larger community (professional, personal or both).
Once you’ve identified a step you can take to help care for yourself, make a commitment to follow through and set clear boundaries around it. For instance, if you’ve decided to spend each Tuesday evening going to a yoga class, getting a massage or having dinner with friends, make that an official appointment. Stick just as firmly to those plans as you would to a doctor’s appointment or a session with a client.
Having a well-balanced life is an important part of success in your practice. Your clients will learn as much, if not more, from the example you set as they will from your advice. If they see you setting good time boundaries, staying healthy and fit, taking regular vacations and being relaxed and focused in your work, they’ll want to know how you do that. By taking good care of yourself, you inspire others around you to start doing the same.