Massaging The Enemy

By Tim Clark

Most of the time, I really like my clients. My marketing tends to attract people who have similar values and similar outlooks on life. But, of course, that is not always the case. There are clients who, for one reason or another, I just don’t click with. And there are some client relationships that start out on good terms and head south. Very occasionally, I meet someone I actively dislike and the laws of probability suggest there are clients who have actively disliked me.

This is all part and parcel of working in the health field and, dare I say, of life. As in life, natural attrition often takes place but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to deal with. Feeling the need to like people and to be liked can make therapeutic relationships difficult.

There have been a number of posts in the AMT Facebook group that demonstrate that we can struggle when we don’t like our clients, or if we feel disrespected or unliked. Some examples:

  • Frustrated by a client making excessive contact between appointments
  • Annoyed by a client who spent the supine portion of the massage checking their phone
  • Insulted when a client asked for reduced rates
  • Wanted to offload a client who was a ‘weirdo’.

These therapists had the self-awareness to recognise how they were responding to their clients, and sought guidance from other professionals on how best to handle it, which is nothing less than admirable.

The range of responses suggests that it can be a deeply personal matter to figure out how to deal with clients when the love simply isn’t there.

What Can We Fall Back On When We’re Not Sure What To Do?

The first step is recognising that there is a problem.

From there, we can either place blame for the problem entirely on the client – which may be entirely appropriate if the client has done something illegal or grievously offensive – or we can look at it as a relational problem in which two people, ourselves included, are experiencing some sort of clash. This means we can play a productive (maybe even therapeutic) role in resolving whatever the clash is.

Seek To Understand Yourself

To better understand our reactions to people, we can consider the three elements of feelings, thoughts and behaviours.


What am I feeling about the problem?

In the examples above from the AMT Facebook group, the therapists felt annoyed, frustrated, insulted and uncomfortable. Feelings like these start out as adaptive (or healthy) reactions to perceived threats but, unchecked, can lead us to respond in unhelpful or perhaps even harmful ways.

If you’re not in touch with your emotions and their physiological signs, you might struggle to even recognise there is a problem in the first place. Consciously check in with your emotions during treatments. Are you noticing anger? Disgust? Fear? Surprise?

Without trying to shift the emotion, notice:

  • What does it feel like for you?
  • Where do you feel it in your body?
  • Is there tightness in your chest?
  • Is your face flushed?
  • Are you holding your breath?
  • Is it painful to feel or is it somehow comforting? (For example, if you’ve lived with unresolved anger long enough, its absence will feel less comfortable than its presence.)

When you can recognise what particular emotions feel like in your body, it’s easier to notice them when they arise.


What am I thinking that is contributing to the problem?

It can be helpful to know what our core beliefs are. These are the beliefs that drive our actions. They include beliefs about how people should be and how people should treat us.

Imagine your client spends half the massage swiping through their phone. If you see this as disrespectful and your core belief is ‘I can’t tolerate being disrespected’, there is going to be a problem in the relationship. If you see it as disrespectful and your core belief is ‘I don’t deserve respect’, you are going to finish the massage feeling depleted, with your negative self-beliefs confirmed. When the client rebooks, those thoughts will be stirred again and you’ll start the treatment from a position of vulnerability.

Obviously, neither of these situations is ideal.

If, however, you see it as disrespectful and your core belief is ‘I deserve respect, but people won’t always know how to give it to me’, it’s going to be easier to move on and allow the client to get from the massage what they can. While the client’s treatment is not what you would like it to be, it’s going to leave you feeling less negative once the client has gone, and perhaps lead to a more neutral attitude of curiosity rather than emotion-laden judgement, e.g. ‘I wonder where the client learned this behaviour’ or ‘I wonder what need this phone use fulfils for the client.’ This is more likely to lead us toward helping the client.

Also, consider your beliefs around likeability. Do you require your clients to be likeable? Do you give yourself permission to dislike people? Can you still relate and empathise with people you don’t necessarily like? Do you need people to like you? How do you respond if you sense that someone doesn’t like you? Is likeability a black-and-white concept? Is it okay to like some things about people but not other things?


Think about how your feelings and thoughts determine your behaviours.

Let’s consider the therapist who wanted to stop treating the ‘weirdo’ client. Even though the client had not done anything ‘untoward’, the therapist recognised an uncomfortable feeling and asked the clinic receptionist to make up a story so they could avoid seeing the client again. This way they could remain comfortable at work and avoid directly insulting the client: a practical and reasonable response (as long as the therapist could tolerate the potential discomfort of lying).

We could get more out of the experience by adding one more step to the process. It might be helpful to dig into this impression of the client’s ‘weirdo-ness’. What was it, specifically, that seemed weird? Were there specific triggers for the discomfort? Was it a specific tone of voice? A laugh? A physical feature? A gesture? A turn of phrase?

These might be difficult or unpleasant things to think about, but knowing that those triggers evoke discomfort could make them easier to deal with next time they show up, and could help to separate the client’s issues from those of the therapist. Knowing where our problems end and the client’s problems begin allows us to be clear about our boundaries, which helps to protect us and our clients.

Seek To Understand Your Clients

If self-awareness is the first step in managing relationships with clients, the second step must be something like ‘other-awareness’, which is the result of an attitude of curiosity and concern.

Curiosity helps us to ask questions and seek understanding. The questions we ask out of genuine curiosity are not rhetorical – we don’t have an answer in mind when we ask them. They are open to all possibilities and may well result in an answer of ‘I don’t know’. Curiosity is, therefore, free of judgement. It allows us to set aside our prejudices and wonder about what our clients’ experiences might be. This doesn’t mean that we spend our whole session asking the client questions. It is more about fostering an attitude in ourselves.

Let’s go back to our ‘weirdo’ client. Whatever it is that the therapist finds off-putting in this client’s behaviour is likely to have been received similarly by other people in the client’s life. Perhaps there is an aggressive undertone to the client’s way of speaking. It’s inappropriately loud and high-pitched. As massage therapists, it may well be outside our scope of practice to take on the responsibility of telling them. So we may decide that it’s something we cannot tolerate and make up a story to offload the client. No real harm done.

Or we might wonder about the client’s situation. What could have led to the client speaking in this way? Maybe the client was raised in an environment where that was the normal way of speaking. Maybe the client has life stressors at the moment. Maybe it’s a way of masking anxiety. Maybe the client has never been told that their manner of speaking comes across as aggressive, because maybe people are too scared to tell them. We might never know the answer, and that’s okay.

But because we’ve been curious, we’ve taken the ‘weirdo’ element out of play. The client has gone from ‘weirdo’ to ‘person’. From that point we can begin to formulate a treatment plan that addresses the needs of the person in front of us, not the weirdo we think they are.

Concern, like curiosity, is an attitude, and I use the term to suggest something closer to ‘care’ than ‘worry’. Rather than being sidetracked by our client’s ‘weirdo-ness’, we approach them thinking: something is causing you distress and I’d like to help reduce that distress. It’s true – some clients will make it difficult for us to be concerned for them. There are many reasons why that may be the case, so we go back to curiosity.

But if our desire to help a client reduce their distress has vanished, we really need to check in with ourselves and ask if it’s something we can get past. If not, moving the client on may well be the best option, but try to couple it with a healthy dose of self-examination or you’ll find yourself turning away every client that causes you any degree of discomfort.

Consult, Consult, Consult

It can be really hard to see your way out of a dilemma when you’re in it, and a fresh pair of eyes to look over the situation can help put everything in perspective. There are lots of ways to consult.

The AMT Code of Practice is a great starting point and can offer clarity on issues like professional boundaries and when to terminate or refuse service. Social media groups (like AMT’s private group on Facebook) allow you to draw on a huge bank of knowledge and experience, but it’s worth remembering that the people responding to your question may have a very limited impression of the problem and can’t necessarily customise their response the way a close peer might be able to. You might get a more in-depth response from a fellow massage therapist you trust, to whom you can chat on a regular basis. But then you need to remember that it’s only one person’s perspective.

The aim of consultation is to open up possibilities that you may not have considered. It’s then up to you to weigh those possibilities up against each other and find the solution that best satisfies your values system and your responsibilities as a professional.

While it might not be possible to like every client who walks through the door, it is essential that we carefully manage our relationships with clients to maximise benefit and minimise harm. With some self-awareness, curiosity, concern and consultation, it’s do-able.

About the Author

Tim Clark is a massage therapist and psychotherapist. His first research article, The Psychotherapeutic Relationship in Massage Therapy, is due to be published in the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork later this year, and Tim hopes to soon produce his first album as a singer-songwriter.

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