Things I’ve Learned as a Massage Therapist

People are the same, wherever you go!


All Bodies are Beautiful

Seems an odd statement to make, yes? I mean, in my industry, I see all types! Big, small, fat, scrawny, broken, limbs missing … you name it, it’s crossed my table.

But the difference, I think, comes in how massage therapists view things. First of all, when you’re on my table, you’re none of the above. At all. You’re a person asking for my help, and that is what I see. Before you got on my table, as we spoke, I considered what you said, already assessing what you’re saying with what I’m seeing; body posture, gait, stiffness of movement. Combining all these things gave me an idea on where to begin, in order to try to resolve at least one of the issues you mentioned.

Next, you need to understand that in order to work toward your best benefit, I need to see you first as a person, not a project, and not what you look like. Simply, a person. A spirit housed in flesh seeking help with one or more problems. Granted, my time with you is limited, so I don’t see the fullness of who you are. But what I see is enough. You see, I witness our shared humanity. I feel your pain through my fingers, and I feel the spirit that overcomes that pain, daily, in order to accomplish the tasks that you’ve defined as your lot, your responsibility. Is it making money to support your family? Or is it having the strength to carry your children? Is it working to propel your body into its highest state, an athlete perhaps? Whatever it is, that spirit defines you more, in my eyes, than whatever shape you wear.

Lastly, and most importantly, the act of giving care, for me, creates a temporary state of love. For the time you’re on my table, and I’m working on you, I’m working from a position of love, care, and compassion. When seen through these lenses, how can any body be anything but beautiful, housing as it does the myriad pains, and triumphs, that living a full life has brought about?

We don’t see the shape, we see the essence, and within our limited repertoire, that’s what we work to help, to heal, to care for. Because of this, all bodies that spend time on my table are beautiful.

No Two Bodies Are The Same

Seems simplistic, but it’s not. To understand why this is such a huge deal to me, you need to understand that I’m OCD, specifically what I’ve come to think of as “Stereo OCD.” Basically, if something happens to a body part of the left side of me, I attempt to make sure it happens on the right, as well. Stub my left toe? I’ll have to at least apply pressure on the right matching toe, or things feel “uneven” to me. And it’s not just left-to-right, it’s also right-to-left. Brush my right thumb against the wall? Ok, I’m gonna have to brush my left thumb against a wall, too. All things must match, left-to-right and right-to-left.

However! Bodies don’t work that way! People come in a delightful assortment of differences! Some are right-handed, some left-handed. Some are right-dominant, and some left. So on and so forth. Then, there’s the way our bodies accommodate posture and movement to accomplish tasks. And the way our bodies are made — some leaner-mass musculature, some denser. All so different, yet many with similar or common ailments.

In short, all this means that the techniques that work best on Person A will not, necessarily, work best on Person B. And even from person to person, there are differences. Some people have issues equally from side to side, but most have significant levels of disparity from side to side. I had an instructor in school who called herself “left-side-stupid,” meaning that she finds it impossible to do anything that leads from the left. For this reason, she has massaged for years by making sure that all tasks she has to accomplish can be done from her right side. This meant that her body spent all these years supporting her from the left; you’d think her right side was the bigger mess, but it was actually her left! Another friend of mine is “right-side-stupid,” but in her case, her left (dominant) side is also the side requiring the most work.

So, one of the first lessons I had to learn was to let go of my own stereo needs; sometimes, I have to spend more time and effort on the left, or the right, or the center; some people I have to use more pressure, some less, in order to effect the positive change we’re both seeking.

Each person who places themselves on my table must be seen in their own light, and handled as the beautiful, unique creature they are. This means that, while I may have “tried-and-true” therapeutic techniques I’m fond of, I can’t only use those. I can’t limit myself to “this-much-time-here-and-that-much-time-there” for all clients. For my clients’ benefit I must treat each one differently, even if those differences are only slight. To fail to do so, to stick to the “same-old-same’ol,” would be to belittle the unique nature of each person’s body, and to short-change my clients.

To Care for You, I Must Care For Me

Again, seems simple, right? But it’s not. As an LMT, I’ve dedicated my skills and my energy to caring for other people. This in and of itself speaks to a type of person who would be inclined to put their needs below the needs of others — and many in our industry do just that. Working weeks, or even years, without receiving care for themselves is only one of the traits our industry is famous for.

Why is this a problem? According to the AMTA, “Upwards of 90% of massage therapists say they are in pain at any given time.” I mean, let’s look at a therapist’s hands, for starters. Much of the work we do, especially when we’re working around the neck region, requires small, fine, delicate finger and thumb work. Supporting the head, turning the head, requires that our hands have the strength and dexterity to move, regularly, in configurations that can take them far out of the neutral range. If we do this, repeatedly, day in and day out, without seeking the proper amount of care, we’re going to end our career early. Why? Our muscles, used and sometimes misused frequently, can become tired, fatigued. Lack of proper body mechanics means that our joints, as well as muscles, can become fatigued or even arthritic. Muscle tension can compress nerves, which can affect the strength of our movements. Without receiving regular, proper care, our careers will be very short, and thus, or ability to care for others will be curtailed.

Learning self-care is one of the most important lessons we, as therapists, can learn, I think. We are, again, driven by the desire to help others. But if we don’t care for ourselves, give ourselves the appropriate rest and the appropriate care, then we’re actually limiting the amount of time we can care for others. Where on earth does that make sense?

However, the truth is that if you poll 100 therapists, I’m pretty sure a good solid 60% of them (at least, that’s the number I’m aware of in my own circle) would indicate that they don’t receive the proper care to nurture their bodies, thus prolonging their career. As of this writing, I couldn’t find anything that actually provides statistics for this; however, if you google “massage therapist self-care” you’ll find a ton of articles about the necessity, as well as common injuries that can sideline or even end our careers.

In short, my dedication to my own care can be seen, also, as my dedication to continue my care for you. I think this is pretty important, and it really does help drive away some of the sense of “selfishness” we tend to feel when we actually do strive to take proper care of ourselves.

Some Clients Want Education, Some Only Want “Care”

Why is this a thing? Well, for me, at least, there’s the simple fact that I’m an information junkie. Additionally, I’m a natural teacher. You combine these two things with being a caregiver who’s trained to find the origin of the problem you’re seeking help with, and it’s a potentially dangerous combination!

For me, receiving aid and assistance means gathering all the information available about it. What’s causing it? Is it something I can resolve myself? Is it something I can take steps to work on, so that I don’t have to rely on others? I can’t tell you how much physical therapy annoys me! Ok, I have 15 visits, so I can come in and do the same exercises you showed me in visits 1 and 2, over and over and over. Just show them to me, let me go home, then let’s check in six weeks and see if I’ve made the appropriate improvements.

Most people, however, don’t seem to work that way. Here’s a for-instance scenario:

  • You come in because you “carry all your stress in your neck and shoulders”
  • In talking with you, I learn that you work at your desk 10 hours a day, and your desk isn’t ergonomically set up. This means that you’re sitting all catty-wampus to your body’s neutral positions and, most often, your head is leaning forward, and your shoulders/arms are curled around your keyboard and mouse.
  • I explain to you that, based on your statements and my observations of your body posture and movement, I believe that your pecs are tightened/shortened, medially rotating your shoulders, and that your anterior neck muscles are also tightened/shortened, pulling your head forward off your centerline.
  • After explaining this to you, I ask you if you’ll mind me spending some time on these issues, so that we can attempt to resolve the problem, spending less time on the “symptom” — the tight muscles between your shoulderblades and in your posterior neck

At this point, some people will happily say “Sure, whatever, work what works best!” However, a huge amount of people look at me blankly, having tuned out most of what I’ve said, and just respond with “It hurts back there, that’s where I want you to work.”

At this point, I have two choices. I can choose to become frustrated because you’ve just completely ignored what I’ve said, and I know for a fact that we’re only band-aiding your problem, not actually resolving it.

Or, and this is a really big “or,” I can gracefully accept your request because you’re my client, and this is your massage.

To me, it’s pretty much a no-brainer. You’re my client. You’re coming to me for care, for a respite from the pain. Maybe this’ll be a one-off, and I’ll never work on you again. But maybe, if the trust builds well enough, I’ll be able, eventually, to begin working on the issues and, as you see improvement, we’ll both work together to overcome the problems.

It really isn’t part of my scope of practice to force my knowledge, skill, and experience on any of my clients. It is part of my scope of practice to do all in my power to help with the problem, but sometimes, for some people, the resolution to the problem is just having someone care enough to listen to their wants, needs, and desires. If I can’t respect that, in each and every client who comes across my table, then why should I expect that you will respect my want, need, and desire to help you as fully as I can?

All relationships involve compromise. For me, as an LMT/NMT, that compromise means that I don’t get to work on what I consider the problem; for you, my client, it means you don’t get the overall work that can improve it. Both of us have lost something. But you, my client, have gained a therapist who’s willing to completely listen to, and respect, your wishes, and I have the potential to gain a client who recognizes my dedication to their personal care.

For many people, I’ve found, getting a regular massage is a “luxury,” an investment of time and money that’s difficult for them to regularly manage. How can I, as a dedicated therapist, do other than respect that client’s wishes, during the time they’ve set aside to actually seek care for themselves? Who cares if they don’t want to be educated; they want to be helped. I can do that. Eventually, the education may come into the relationship, but the basis of that relationship must, always, be the clients’ needs having primacy.

There are many, many other lessons I’ve learned, like, we don’t care if you don’t shave. Or, cell phones in the session are the devil (I personally will stop working on someone until they put their phones down). Lots of others. But for me, the ones above have been some of the most jaw-dropping lessons I’ve learned as I’ve worked my way into this rich, rewarding career field. Some of these are client-centric, and some are caregiver-centric. I think one of the things that appeals to the OCD in me is that they each balance each other. Care for you means the need for care for me so I can continue to care for you. Whether my self-care is a nice, long, relaxing massage or Continuing Ed, it’s still time and care I’m pouring back into my ability to care for others.

Maybe that’s the biggest lesson of all? Because we’re all interconnected, what I do for you I do for me, I do for you.

And that brings me full circle back to one of my earliest epiphanies; I am You are Me.


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