Want to earn continuing education credit for this article? Learn more.

Longevity in the field of bodywork requires great fortitude; a commitment that goes beyond having strong hands and forearms. Few schools teach massage therapy students about the psychological hazards capable of impairing or even ending the career of a bodywork practitioner. By knowing about three of the most common emotional drains on a practicing massage therapist, individuals in healthcare may better recognize when they are affected and take the steps necessary to change any unhealthy perspectives.

As Jeffrey A. Kottler summarized in his book, On Being a Therapist, “Most therapists understand that they jeopardize their own emotional well-being when they intimately encounter the pain of others.” Working with people under duress can provide clients with relief, but it can also affect the personal life of the therapist. Kottler discusses this irony further, “This impact can be for better or for worse, making the helping professions among the most spiritually fulfilling as well as the most emotionally draining human endeavors. Some of us flourish as a result of this work. We learn from those we try to help and apply what we know and understand to ourselves. And some of us become depleted and despondent.”

As individuals who genuinely possess an interest in helping people, bodyworkers typically find pleasure in making a positive difference in other’s lives. Even though compassionate massage therapists generally have the best intentions, they may not always be able to fix someone else’s pain. Capable of burdening the psychological well-being of any caregiver, bodyworkers must look out for the following three emotional challenges that can arise from working with people in pain:

  1. Worry – With all of the pathology training a massage therapist endures, it is easy to be alarmed by a multitude of signs and symptoms. Having good intentions for clients is healthy, but allowing that to transform into worry may be problematic. So when a client’s legs suggest deep vein thrombosis, their blood sugar levels are clearly uncontrolled or their depressive episode has blossomed into a crisis, take the appropriate and responsible steps instead of becoming overwhelmed with worry. Even though it is a natural response, worrying about the well-being of clients can quickly become a major emotional drain to caregivers.
  2. Guilt – Another human emotion that does not serve human beings well at all, guilt stems from doing or saying what you believe is the wrong thing, not doing what you perceive to be enough or otherwise not behaving in the “right” way. Bodyworkers may experience guilt if their clients report not feeling better at the end of the session or if they unintentionally exacerbate an underlying condition. A caregiver’s guilt is especially biting because it leads to self-depreciation over unreasonable expectations. A practitioner’s belief in him or herself, his or her intentions and abilities are the keys to averting practitioner guilt. Having reasonable expectations is also an important component, as bodyworkers are merely human – despite the common desire to be a miracle worker.
  3. Apathy – Rarely affecting new bodyworkers, apathy is a problem that sometimes plagues seasoned practitioners. Born from compassion fatigue, bodyworkers who have given all they have to their clients without retaining any energy for themselves are prone to apathy. Resulting from physical, emotional or spiritual exhaustion, compassion fatigue causes a decline in a therapist’s ability to experience vitality, joy or to feel and care for their clients. Over time, a low level, chronic clouding of compassion and emotional blunting can develop. The primary way to prevent compassion fatigue is for therapists to care for themselves as much – or more – than they do for their clients. A tremendous lesson many caregivers must learn, taking care of oneself is the only sure way to avert apathy from compassion fatigue.

It is possible for bodyworkers who love their profession to have longevity in healthcare. However, therapists who desire a fulfilling career must be alerted to the hazards of working with people in pain and work to prevent worry, guilt and apathy – three of the major emotional pitfalls of care-giving.

Earn continuing education credit for this article contained in our Health Maintenance – Mind & Body series. Click here to enroll.