Massage & Bodywork

JANUARY | FEBRUARY 2022

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but they are powerful nonetheless. When we talk with our clients in these ways that aren't helpful, we: • Narrow our ability to see the whole client • Narrow how our clients see themselves • Narrow the possibilities for our work together These threads are complex and interwoven with each other, so let's try to untangle them one at a time. Narrowing How We See Our Clients One of the most profound advancements of our profession in the last few decades is the infusion of scientific research and critical-thinking skills. We now have an increasing sense of rigor in how we understand and treat the body. We are dispensing with massage myths daily. Science is, again and again, our guide. But it is easy to lose sight of the limits of this knowledge. It is natural that we want to tell our clients all the awesome stuff we know. On a base level, we want to impress the people we work with. We want to be taken seriously, both as individuals and as a profession. As massage therapists, we fight hard to have our expertise recognized, and to elevate the reputation and seriousness of our profession. As it should be. We have knowledge and abilities in certain areas that rival what doctors and chiropractors and physical therapists know. But in our efforts to become more "advanced," it is easy to lose sight of what we offer and how we benefit our clients. We are not doctors. And we shouldn't be thinking like them. If we "think like doctors," it is easy to start to see our clients as a bundle of symptoms and label them as a series of conditions. But who does this sort of myopic thinking ultimately serve? A client comes into your office and complains of finger numbness. You may assess and palpate and suspect your client has thoracic outlet syndrome. Knowing that is very valuable as you approach the session. Nevertheless, that is just one tiny portion of who this client is. We want to treat the whole client. Similarly, if we focus too much on medical conditions, we risk creating a hierarchy of clients. Is that client of yours who has cancer more valuable or worthy of a massage than that other client who sits at a desk all day, or that other client who doesn't have a terminal illness but has twin toddlers? Of course not. All of our clients are equal. And yet it is easy to start prioritizing the ones who have X disease or Y condition or Z ailment, because they seem to be more worthwhile, and they have the potential to make us seem like more advanced therapists because we work on them. But that is a wrongheaded and counterproductive way to think about our clients. We must give ourselves equally to every single one of them. One of my favorite assignments while I was in massage school was to sit in the park and watch people go by and identify their postural distortions. I felt like I was decoding a secret part of the world. I did this religiously for a few weeks. But then I realized that this way of looking has its limits. After a while, the world just starts to look like a sea of upper-crossed syndrome, tipped pelvises, and compressed lower backs. You start to see everyone as problems, rather than as individual people. The purpose of diagnosis is to pinpoint one specific thing out of a huge amount of information, to narrow down the possibilities of why something is happening, in order to arrive at the cause of that problem. You are reducing the vast complexities of the daily life of a person down to a few details. That kind of reduction is really helpful when you are trying to figure out a serious issue. When you think you might have cancer, you want your doctor to do all the lab tests possible to narrow in on precisely what is happening and figure out if you do indeed have cancer. But diagnosis is arguably not helpful in much of our lives, which are inherently amorphous, full of ambiguity, and always changing. We must use all of our assessment skills, and all the wisdom that comes from our palpating hands, but we must use it in the service of the whole person. We must attend to their carpal tunnel symptoms, and then attend to the rest of them as well! Similarly—and too often forgotten—we can dig into specific muscles all we want, but if we are not working with an awareness of their nervous system, and trying to enable the "rest and digest" functions of the 52 m a s s a g e & b o d y wo r k j a n u a r y/ fe b r u a r y 2 0 2 2 parasympathetic branch, then we have no hope of making any lasting change. Here's another way to think about this differentiation: Diagnosis is all about narrowing. I think massage should be about expanding a client's sense of who they are and who they can be in their own body. The massage session should be a place where they can simply revel in the feeling of feeling good in their body, not to continue to label that body as one problem or another. A massage session should be a reminder of the possibility for change that is always around us. When we get too focused on labels and diagnoses, it is too easy to lose sight of this much deeper and more pervasive reality: We are always changing. The best thing we can do is enable, rather than preclude, the inevitable evolution of life. To do so, we want to expand our understanding of our clients, rather than narrow it. Narrowing How Our Clients See Themselves The second reason to be mindful about how we think about, and talk to, our clients, is because the words we offer can impact how our clients see themselves. We humans are, first and foremost, storytellers. We are always constructing narratives. And one of the most detailed, and most important, narratives we construct is the story we tell about ourselves. That story, in turn, can build our own resilience and help us stride through life, or it can become a trap—something we get stuck in and are held back by. Unfortunately, I see more of the latter in my clients than the former. Again and again, I find we are drawn to the stories we tell ourselves that hold us back—I am always so stressed out. My back is always tight. My shoulders are a mess. I am falling apart. On and on and on. I think one of the most crucial gifts we can offer our clients is to help complicate this narrative—to expand it, to allow for a wider array of possibilities in the story of the body. And yet, I think the words we offer can all too easily reinforce this narrative instead. I am still surprised at how often a new client comes in for a session, and during our intake mentions something a previous

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