Most therapists understand that they jeopardize their own emotional well-being when they intimately encounter the pain of others. –Jeffrey A. Kottler
The intimacy of bodywork requires not just firm professional boundaries, but also practiced energetic separation. The intimacy of a massage session is unrivaled, due to client expressions during history-taking and the physicality of touch during treatment. Clients typically share their innermost feelings with their therapist – and some powerfully exude their energy. Regardless of the vehicle, massage therapists are vulnerable to absorbing their client’s afflictions.
Choosing the profession of bodywork implies possessing a genuine interest in helping people. Typically, caregivers find pleasure in making a positive difference in people’s lives. Filled with compassion and empathy, bodyworkers can easily extend themselves too far. Although it may not loom in the conscious mind, healing can be perceived as the removal and absorption of other people’s pain. Arriving at the understanding that even as compassionate bodyworkers with the best intentions, we are unable to fix someone else’s pain. Only the person living in their body is capable of healing themselves. It is important for the massage therapist to recognize their role in healing as a separate entity, acting as an informed facilitator.
Next to overworked hands, the most common cause of practitioner burnout is absorbing clients’ negative energy. Just as a massage therapist must pay attention to the care and protection of their hands for professional longevity, they also must be aware of their own energy, and protect it from taking on their client’s issues. Some indicators of taking on a client’s negative energy include:
- Becoming nauseous or dizzy during or after a session
- Feeling the anxiety, anger or depression your client entered with
- The development of discomfort non-existent prior to the session
- Feeling physically exhausted or emotionally drained after a session
These examples of energy transfer occur very easily, especially when the practitioner does not take separative and protective measures.
The first step in maintaining energetic boundaries is to care for and be tuned in to your own body. It is crucial for therapists to pay attention to their own issues, so they are aware of the ailments, feelings and issues belonging to them. Being clear on what emotions are yours will help differentiate that which are not yours. Tending to one’s physical and emotional health is paramount in avoiding practitioner burnout.
The second step to maintaining energetic boundaries is to ground yourself prior to each encounter. Grounding can be accomplished in a myriad of ways. Some practitioners meditate or perform qi gong exercises to connect them to the earth. The purpose of grounding exercises is to give the practitioner access to universal energy, instead of using their own personal stores.
A simple grounding technique is to take a few moments, stand upright with feet shoulder width apart, vertically align the spine, reach your hands up to the sky and visualize yourself as a tree. Imagine your feet as stable, healthy roots reaching deep into the earth. This gives you access to the earth’s grounding energy. Feel your hands as the ends of the tree’s branches, reaching up into the sky, giving you access to heaven’s intuitive energy. Tapping into the resources of heaven and earth will maintain your role as a facilitator, where universal energy flows to your client, instead of drawing from your own personal stores.
The third step in keeping your energy separate from your client’s is protection. According to Jeffrey A. Kottler, professor of counseling and educational psychology, “Physicians take careful steps to protect themselves from the infection, disease, and suffering of their patients. Rubber gloves, surgical masks, and probing stainless steel instruments keep germs at arm’s length.” There are as many techniques to protect you from negative energy transfer as there are methods of administering massage.
This easy visualization technique is best employed prior to and during a bodywork session. Imagine yourself surrounded by a force field where energy can flow out from you, but cannot be penetrated to reach you. Your imagery can include body armor, a one-way mirror or a ring of light where you can reach out to your clients, but their energy cannot reach or affect you. The more detail envisioned in this force field, the more effective it will be for its creator.
The fourth step to maintaining energetic boundaries is cleansing. After each session (and during if necessary), time must be preserved to shed any energy unintentionally picked up from a client. Again, there are many ways to energetically cleanse to shed anything unwanted.
Some therapists claim rituals such as hand-washing in cold water or feet stomping to be sufficient in metaphorically rinsing or shaking off negative energy. Many Asian bodywork practices include meridian brushing after a session. In meridian brushing, a hand traces meridians proximally to distally in a sweeping motion, brushing off any negative accumulation. Regardless of the chosen technique, cleansing is important to prevent carrying around any absorbed negative energy.
Bodyworkers will enjoy a healthier existence, be more effective with their treatments and can avoid practitioner burnout when the four steps of energetic separation are ritualistically adhered to. Any caregiver hoping to really make a difference in their client’s lives will treasure how practices of self-awareness, grounding, protecting and cleansing maintain energetic boundaries.
Hycner, Richard, Between Person and Person, The Gestalt Journal Press, Inc., Highland, NY, 1993.
Kottler, Jeffrey A., On Being a Therapist, Jossey-Bass, Inc., San Francisco, CA, 1993.