Are Massage Therapists A Bunch Of Losers?

By Tim Clark

We need to have a talk.

At the 2018 AMT Conference, I had the pleasure of working with a room full of wonderful massage therapists in a session on the topic of ‘Self-Awareness’. In one exercise, I asked everyone to indicate how much they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements, such as ‘I always feel like something bad is about to happen’ or ‘It’s important to always please other people’, which I hoped would draw out some insights about beliefs we hold that aren’t necessarily helpful.

Of the eighteen statements, the one that garnered the most ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ responses was:

‘I often compare my accomplishments with others and feel that they are much more successful.’

Obviously anyone, regardless of their occupation, could agree with this statement, but the fact that it was the most popular view in a room full of massage therapists – and, if I’m honest, one of my own personal bugbears – made me think about what it is that predisposes us in particular to see things this way.

Why do so many of us feel like we don’t measure up?

Why do we think we’re losers?

How do we measure success?

Let’s have a look at how we measure our success.

First, perhaps most commonly in Western mainstream culture, we use numbers. Numbers allow us to be specific about measurable things like revenue, client retention, market share, staff numbers and booking rates. They offer us a clear point of reference for comparison to others, which can make us feel either superior or inferior. Knowing that my friend is booked out three weeks in advance might make me feel like a bit of a loser if I’m struggling to fill my schedule. Put your hand up if you’ve ever felt that way.

Second, we make subjective appraisals of other people. We look at how they present themselves, what their website says, what qualifications they have, how experienced they are, and we judge – consciously or not – where we sit in relation to them.

We think: Oh, that person has been a therapist for thirty years. I’ve only been one for five years, so they must be better than me. Or: That person works with elite athletes. I couldn’t do that, so they must be better than me.

And we don’t just compare ourselves to other massage therapists. It seems to be a defining characteristic of healthcare professionals that we’re keenly aware of our place in an occupational hierarchy, based on some unspoken social agreement about value and prestige.

To paraphrase something a friend recently said to me: massage therapists like to distance themselves from sex workers because we all need a dog to kick.

Whether you think that’s true or not, it certainly captures the essence of the hierarchy, in which every group except Group Number One is the subject of another’s derision.

Not exactly helpful.

Yes, numbers and subjective appraisals can be helpful, but not in the examples I’ve given here. Looking at others as better or worse has little to do with how we work as therapists. Superiority might feel nice for a moment, but it can lead us to over-estimate our abilities and reduce our capacity for empathy. Conversely, seeing ourselves as inferior can leave us feeling depleted or depressed and, therefore, unable to give our clients the positive energy they really need.

Are We Losers?

For some of you, this is obvious stuff, but coming to this conclusion myself has been a long, slow process. If, like me, you were raised to give precedence to an external locus of control i.e. you allow forces outside you to govern what you do, it can be really hard to figure out what it is that drives you from the inside and to build your internal locus of control. The messages around us in Western society and its institutions, especially the media, foster a culture of competition and comparison, which can make it hard to see what we’ve chosen for ourselves and what others have coerced us into believing. These messages are drilled into us from childhood so by the time we’re adults, they’re basically hardwired.

Numbers and subjective appraisals are more helpful if we are able to balance them against our own goals and values. Personally, the idea of being booked out three weeks in advance sounds like prison to me. Of course I want a steady stream of clients so that I am financially secure and feel fulfilled but to me it’s equally important to live at a steady pace, to have freedom and flexibility, and to enjoy what I do. I can handle earning less if it means I’m happy and healthy. Others may treasure the idea of a non-stop work cycle because they value the financial security it brings above all else. They are able to manage the stress that comes with that because they’re driven by what they see as a greater purpose. Neither perspective is correct or incorrect. Both are based on the ability to prioritise certain aspects of life over others.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

The way around this, then, would be to really sit down and look at, and into, ourselves rather than out at others, to be very clear on what it is that we want out of life and what we consider to be ‘accomplishments’ and to stop relying solely on comparison to teach us what we do and don’t want to be. (Incidentally, this is typically a goal of life coaching, counselling and psychotherapy. If you’ve never considered using a professional to help you figure these things out, maybe now is the time?)

Importantly, we need to recognise that no journey towards this kind of self-understanding is smooth or easy, that there is no success without failure, and that we can fail and be successful at the same time. Sometimes I forget or get confused about my values and I act in ways that invariably lead me to guilt or shame, which leads me, after a while, to want to turn it around. It’s a constant effort to keep those prime values in sight and to return to them when things feel hopeless.

In some ways, and at some times, this gives me the quality another friend of mine once called ‘un-f*ck-with-ability’. What this somewhat inelegant term means is that, as long as I am living according to my values and achieving what is important to me, the external comparisons become redundant. I can’t be messed with. Whether I’m a winner or a loser is irrelevant because I’m not even playing the game. I’m over here doing what is important to me as a massage therapist: helping someone feel better, improving someone’s quality of life, nurturing someone’s soul.

And that’s plenty for me.

*The author wishes to apologise for the clickbaity title of this article. The editor makes no such apology*

About the Author

Tim Clark’s diverse background includes teaching, screenwriting, laundry work, cabaret, retail and small roles in at least two low-budget horror movies. Oddly enough, he believes all of these experiences inform his work as a massage therapist and psychotherapist. Watch his presentation on the Pleasure-Purpose Principle at AMT’s 2018 national conference

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  1. Well said and written, can relate to this in many situations

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