You Can’t Give From an Empty Vessel

By Sharon Livingstone

If life is all about balance, can we also apply that to kindness?

Massage therapists are quite good at showing kindness to their clients – squeezing them in for an emergency appointment, adding on an extra 5 minutes, waiving cancellation fees for a sick child or providing a lovely warm table in the middle of winter – but they are less good at showing kindness to themselves.

Why are we so good at giving kindness but crappy at self-kindness?

During the recent enforced shutdown, I found myself facing a dilemma. I needed help. But I hate asking for help and I don’t know how to accept offered help.

Everything was bleak, as it was for a lot of people facing an indeterminate period of time with no earnings and no financial support and dwindling savings. My anxiety was out of control, pinging around the room, bouncing off the walls, hitting me in the face whichever way I looked and even tapping me on the shoulder as I tried to sleep (hello 4 a.m., nice to see you for the tenth day in a row).

My attention span lasted as long as a hot chip in a flock of seagulls and with it went some of my boundaries, which is how I ended up responding to a simple “how are you” email from an acquaintance by unloading about my finance concerns and wondering how I’d pay my rent. Within an hour I received a response.

“I’m going to pay your rent this month. I don’t want you to pay me back. I’m offering because I’m in a position to. No use arguing with me. Send me your bank details.”

What would you do?

OK, so my first reaction was to burst into tears. Nothing else during lockdown/isolation/no-work brought me to tears but that did.

My next reaction was “No way am I letting them give me that much money.”

I am the giver. Professionally, personally, traditionally. I wasn’t going to quit being the giver.


But I needed help.

After a solid hour pacing around the living room, I said thank you and accepted that help.

It felt strange and unsettling. Although being able to pay my rent was a massive relief.

Another kind gift that sweetened the mood.

I was quite lucky during that no-working period and accepting that first act of kindness opened the door to more kindness. Offers of money, coffee beans, counselling session, a haircut and potting mix were gratefully received. Don’t get me wrong, it still felt strange but saying thank you instead of “she’ll be apples” became easier.

Knowing that there are kind people in my life filled me with immense happiness.

Then came the crunch. It was time to be kind to myself.


If you think of kindness being stored in a vessel – a big bucket of kindness – and when we show kindness to others, we take it from that bucket. We give and give and give until we can see the bottom of our kindness bucket. Since we can’t give from an empty vessel, how do we refill that bucket? Accepting kindness from others? For sure. What about receiving kindness from the biggest giver we know – ourselves?

Of course, self-kindness might be as simple as giving ourselves permission to take an afternoon off and read a good book or re-watch Sex Education. It might be deeper, such as not thinking negative thoughts about ourselves.

When I have challenging decisions to make, I like to have a discussion with Future Sharon. If I make her life easier, it’s a good thing. I don’t want to piss her off. I don’t want Future Sharon to feel animosity towards Past Sharon.

Re-opening after lockdown loomed. I completed the AMT risk assessment tool. There were increased measures to be paid for: cleaning products, storage unit, PPE, signage. There was additional labour allocated to cleaning to get paid for.

Who was going to pay for this?


It was time to call in Future Sharon and ask her how she felt about working longer hours and having more stuff to do and being paid a lower hourly wage.

Then I asked her how her plans were going for that holiday she’s longing for. Savings building up, Future Sharon?

I asked her how much she was loving paying bills without panicking where the money was coming from. Got that credit card spending under control, Future Sharon?

I won’t use Future Sharon’s exact words because she had quite the potty mouth but, to paraphrase, she resented me.

So, who was going to pay my extra wage and for the increased cost of providing massages?

I’m a massage therapist not a wealthy philanthropist. If I needed to apply for and receive government financial assistance to survive, I couldn’t afford to absorb the additional costs of doing my job. It would be arrogance or a misguided assumption if I told myself that my clients would be unable to afford to pay a little more. Who am I to say what my clients can and can’t afford? If a client approached me and told me that they couldn’t afford my new prices, there are workable options like providing a shorter treatment or only providing treatments for that client during traditionally quiet periods of the week.

I made the decision to increase my prices for the second time this year.

It’s a few weeks since I re-opened and I look back at Past Sharon with gratitude, pride and respect. She made her decision so I could feel that I was earning my worth. To enable me to pay my bills and put some money away for the future.

It was an act of kindness from the biggest giver I know. Me.

Increasing my prices didn’t cause even a tiny ripple of discontent amongst my clients but it enormously supported my self-worth, my self-respect and my starved bank balance.

In the end it was an easy decision. By taking the emotion out of it, i.e. worrying that my decision would impact clients/client numbers, it was the sensible thing to do.

Without the kindness of others, I wouldn’t have made it through lockdown relatively unscathed. Without the kindness to myself, I wouldn’t have been able to return to work as a massage therapist.

I wonder how much kindness we can accept and how much kindness we can give, before we decide to show our greatest kindness to ourselves.

Further Reading

Dave Moore wrote a very good thing. No massage therapist should be without it. “How to Set a Price for Massage”. Read it. No, right now. Off you pop.

About the Author

Sharon Livingstone is a massage therapist in Sydney, NSW. A love of sport drew her to the industry but discovering job satisfaction came from helping people live with less pain keeps her in it. Sharon is a writer, keen bushwalker and (very) frustrated traveller who is also a coffee snob.

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  1. Preach, Sharon! Magnificent!

  2. Thanks for sharing, Sharon. Sending you good vibes!

  3. Thanks Sharon, for giving us permission to be anxious, to look to ways to improve our situation and to have permission to look after ourselves and allow others to do for us what we do for them!
    It won’t suit everyone but I loved the Future Sharon concept, it was a positive view that there will be a time when we can work with a much lower risk of Covid19 (but of course the risk will continue to be a consideration until/when there is a vaccine available and utilised by everyone ) and also helped me make some proactive decisions of my own.

  4. Gerhard Hassler
    17/08/2020 - 7:04 pm

    Thank you Sharon 🙂
    So true for many of us.

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