The nature of the relationship between a massage therapist and their clients, that therapeutic relationship, is a many faceted thing, and has the potential to be or become something very precious. At least in my opinion. I think part of me has always acknowledged and respected this, but over the past year I have come to realise just how much I learn, grow and develop as both a practitioner and as a person through the relationships I have with my clients.
Firstly, I would like to thank my clients for being the wonderful people that they are. Current clients, past clients and future / potential clients. I really am so very lucky to do something that I love to do, but even as I sit trying to find the words to explain what it is about massage and touch that means so much, I realise it all comes down to connection. A very clear, boundaried, body to body, soul to soul connection of one being meeting another being, just as they are.
That in itself is a privilege. But my work as a massage therapist has the potential to be so much more, and on occasion it really is.
Clients as teachers
Recently I’ve had several articles mulling in my head which may or may not develop, but one is about how much I learn and my work develops thanks to my clients. I have long standing working relationships with several clients who are living with a number of issues and who are willing to allow me to learn more about their conditions and experiences as we work together. I now have a few clients who have been diagnosed with Parkinsons, several clients have Hypermobility Syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, clients who have suffered a whiplash injury (recent or ancient history), panic attacks, depression. The list goes on.
When it comes to massage, I like to think of myself as an exceptional generalist – I am rarely concerned by what symptom, syndrome, illness, diagnosis or label a client will walk in with, because as they put their trust in me to do no harm, they also bring with them the most valuable of information. How it is for THEM. That doesn’t mean I am an expert in dealing with any of these issues in particular, but I trust that in working with my clients, and doing my part (reading up, learning and developing my knowledge about what is physically going on for them) we can find a way to meet their needs in each massage appointment.
Boundaries and baggage
I have written before about the therapy in massage therapy, and the gift that is being ‘present’ with a client – even my choice to use the term ‘massage therapist’ comes with an understanding of the etymology of the word ‘therapy’ (originates from the Greek word therapeia meaning ‘attendance’).
Being boundaried is not the same as being fenced off and completely distant from a client. Rather it is about being clear with how I can best hold a safe space for my client to let go – physically and sometimes emotionally – of what they have been carrying so that they might relax and feel the work. Some of my clients have very physical issues they would like addressed and as we work, we natter about anything and everything. Others come to see me to bring some physical discomfort that may or may not have an emotional element to it, and they need to feel secure in order to start letting that go. Others still book appointments because they are completely overwhelmed by life and our time together gives them a chance to take the mask off, fall apart, deeply relax and return to the world, mask in place with a little more capacity to cope.
If we carry around a really heavy rucksack for too many days in a row our shoulders, back and neck will ache. There will be a physical manifestation of carrying this load, in the soft tissue. I believe that the same is true with emotional baggage, and as I work to invite the tissues to release that tension, there is also an invitation to let go of the ‘stuff’ which is held there.
At the first hint of a tear or even welling up, most of my clients are very British and apologise, even though there is never anything to be sorry about. As I work, I welcome whatever my clients feel is important to be discussed or to come out. We are all so familiar with the concept of carrying around ‘baggage’ that I invite my clients to put down as much as they feel safe to, and offer them the opportunity to leave as much or as little behind as they would like. After they leave I offer to take care of the rest on their behalf, and sweep it away.
I am not a counsellor, life coach, psychotherapist or qualified in talking therapy in any way, shape or form. But, I am a massage therapist. I listen, I attend, I support. Sometimes I will work with a client once or twice before realising that perhaps they’d be better off being signposted to another practitioner or another form of bodywork. I’ve recently had a couple of telephone calls from prospective clients where the conversation has suggested that they’d be better served by physiotherapy. Sometimes we can figure out that actually, talking to someone might serve them better, or in addition to our work.
But there is more to the therapeutic relationship than just the skill of the practitioner. There has to be that connection.
As much as my work is about the body, about soft tissue and the story contained therein, it is, and always has been, about the whole client – what is going on in their life, their work, their relationships, their joys, their sorrows. Supporting my clients through all of these is the real privilege.
Life and death
When I asked for case studies when I was completing my pregnancy massage diploma a few years back, one of my long term clients volunteered her services even though she was yet to become pregnant! Working with pregnant ladies, there are times when we work to engage with the three (or in some cases four!) of us in the room, and this work blows my brain each and every time. What a privilege, to be trusted and invited by these ladies to work at the start of their new life as a mother, and at the start of the life of their child.
Over the past five years, I have worked with clients as they have cared for ill loved ones, grieved for parents, friends, colleagues, been made redundant, battled anxiety or depression, been working to overcome trauma. Clients have undertaken physical challenges, run marathons, climbed mountains, cycled continents. Lives have changed through house moves, career changes, new relationships and divorce. Sometimes I act as a witness to these events, sometimes I shed tears in celebration, in grief on behalf of my clients. Their lives touch my soul.
Recently circumstances were such that I was able to say goodbye to a very dear client just hours before they died. As I stood stroking their cool hand, looking into their peaceful eyes I knew I didn’t need to say goodbye. We both knew. What generosity of heart for the family to enable this to happen. This is not the first time that a client has died, but it is the first time that I have seen someone with the knowledge that their end is close. Additionally, our relationship was different and deeper to the other few to date - we'd worked together on a regular basis for a number of years, and started before they became ill. Whilst the professional boundaries were still very clear, we had gotten to know one another, shared stories, giggles, I felt as though I knew the family as they sat in that hospital room.
Today there is a gap in my diary and in my heart. I will remember our time together with a smile, the lessons I was granted through our connection will remain in my heart and in my hands until the end of my days.
So when I say my work is a privilege, this is no small sentiment. It is with heart felt gratitude.