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Client, Control, Editorial, Guest, massage ⋆ The Massage Client is in Control [Guest Editorial]

The person on the table—the massage client—is, and always should be, the one in charge: in charge of where they are touched, with what they are touched, how they are touched, and how intensely they are touched.

Is There Such a Thing as Good Pain?

“There may be some discomfort, but there is good pain and bad pain. Good pain is OK.” Perhaps those aren’t the specific words a person has heard as a massage client, but something similar.

I would beg to differ.

Being a massage therapist puts one in an interesting position: We know more about human anatomy and physiology than the average person; however, we are not doctors or nurses.

In regulated states, there are clear boundaries about what massage therapists can and cannot do to a person on the table. It is a given that in any situation, sexual touch and advances are explicitly prohibited. But sometimes there seems to be a gray area with the concept of pain—or even what area is considered acceptable to touch.   

The person on the table—the massage client—is, and always should be, the one in charge: in charge of where they are touched, with what they are touched, how they are touched, and how intensely they are touched.

A good massage therapist never pushes these boundaries, lets their ego dictate what happens on the table or has anything to prove. They simply do bodywork to the best of their ability and within the comfort level of the client.

This means practicing something that not everyone in our culture is well-versed in: Communication. 

The Massage Client in the Spa Setting

Many massage therapists work in relaxation environments; soft music or white noise is playing in the background; perhaps a fountain is trickling gently over rocks. The client’s eyes might be covered with a lavender-scented mask. In these cases, the therapist can easily get lost in the setting themselves; or, perhaps they have been trained to not disturb the client.

However, what is more disturbing: a touch that is unwanted or uncomfortable, or a brief check-in with the client?

Just because a spa or salon has a set procedure doesn’t mean therapists should be locked into it—and most especially not if a massage client doesn’t want part of that protocol. Just because the face and feet are part of the practice, for example, doesn’t mean a massage client will want those body parts touched. Asking for permission takes mere seconds, saves the massage client a lot of potential discomfort, and can ensure repeat patrons.

The Massage Client in the Clinical Setting

On the other end of the spectrum is the physical therapy office or medical massage setting. These environments are not often as soothing or relaxing as a spa; the massage client frequently is there with a goal in mind—not of relaxation, but to heal. This leads to its own set of potential problems.

This is the realm I have a lot of experience in, and many times clients have the belief that “more is better”—and by more, I mean more pain. They want deeper, painful touch. This is not always therapeutically called for.

This calls for a different kind of communication with the client about boundaries and what is beneficial to the body. There is such a thing as too much, and it can be counterproductive to the goals the massage client is trying to achieve.

The Brand-New Massage Client

At times, the therapist will have the brand-new-to-massage client. In some ways, these can be the people for whom creating boundaries might be most difficult. They do not know what they necessarily want or expect. Ideally, they have come to you because you specialize in a specific modality or have been referred to you by another client.

In these situations, asking probing questions before the session may be the best way to set the tone for the client. You can ask what they know about massage and what their goals are. Always asking before doing would not be unwarranted. And, telling them they are the ones in control of the session could be crucial to creating a sense of safety and comfort.

Responding to Emotional Release

Finally, as many therapists know, sometimes a massage client will experience a somato-emotional reaction to the work they are receiving. These can be the trickiest waters to navigate, especially if one has training in a modality that normalizes these experiences.  

Simply put, we don’t live in the bodies we are touching. We are massage therapists, not psychotherapists. We don’t know how our massage clients are feeling, physically or mentally. It is not in our scope of practice to encourage or “force” anyone to do or feel anything.

In cases like these, unless the practitioner specifically has training in psychotherapy or counseling, and the massage client is there with the express desire to fuse the two experiences, it is the duty of the therapist to stop; ask the client what they need—be it a tissue, a glass of water, some time alone, or to end the session—and to honor that requirement

Boundaries are as simple as that: acknowledging the client as an individual, with a unique body, brain and history that they come to the table with. As therapists, we are simply there to facilitate the type of massage experience they are requesting, within their level of comfort.

About the Author

Andrea Potyondy-Smith

Andrea Potyondy-Smith  is a graduate of Blue Sky School of Massage in Wisconsin and has passed the MBLEx licensure exam. She is a Certified Massage Therapist (CMT) who also holds Wisconsin state licensure. She has over 750 hours of initial training, and 400+ hours of continuing education in various modalities, both manual and energy techniques. She specializes in working with athletes, those healing from injuries, and people in chronic pain.

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