The Ineffable Meaning of Us

By Sharon Livingstone

The client wanders out of the treatment room, blinking into the light, eyes glazed and a vague smile playing on their lips and I think, “Good job, me. Another happy client.” And in that moment, they are. They say things like “it feels so much better”, “that was fantastic” or “I can get heaps more movement”.

I go home and sleep the sleep of a satisfied therapist.

Oh, of course I don’t. I’ve been spreading the oil for far too long to fall for that. The post-massage glow sure is nice to see but that buzz lasts until I sit down to write up the treatment notes and have to think about what I’ve actually done.

Not wanting to sound like a crappy episode of Sex and the City, steam rising from a manhole cover to the open window where I’m sitting with my Apple Powerbook G3 pretending to type out some insightful contemplation, but … what am I really doing as a massage therapist? What does being a massage therapist mean to me and to the people who trust me with their most precious asset – their body?

Over the pandemic years, our industry has lost many fine practitioners: a retirement or career change brought forward; the realisation that massage therapy is not pandemic-proof; the lockdown-induced total loss of income; the conflict between personal beliefs and public health orders; or simply a decisive blow to a career that hadn’t been rewarding for a while. Aside from those brave individuals who knew when to call stumps, there were other massage therapists who went to very dark places to ponder their own future in the industry and asked themselves whether they should seek a career change.

What’s it all about?

Lockdown was the best place to contemplate what it meant to be a massage therapist. Was it still a sustainable career? Could the unpredictable nature of the industry, the unreliable income, the mounting requirements and, for some, the government mandates, be borne to stay in practice?

I sat in that dark place. I looked at all of this plus the requirements I had to comply with and fund – on top of what I’d already complied with and funded – and questioned my career.

However, the problem was that lockdown was NOT the best place to contemplate what it means to be a massage therapist. It was too easy to focus on the negatives and forget the positives: the buzz of being a massage therapist, the funny moments, the reward from successful puzzle solving with a client, the times you got through to a client, when they understood your wacky analogy, and all the ineffable moments.

Ineffable?

My apologies to Aziraphale and Crowley. There are times when words don’t capture the feeling. I’m sure there’s some German word that perfectly encapsulates it but I don’t know it. Therefore, I rely on anecdotes.

Many years ago, when mobile phones still fitted into your hip pocket, a lovely gentleman I’d been treating for a couple of years but whom I hadn’t seen for over 6 months, stuck his head into the door of the clinic, where I was chowing down on a meat pie for my lunch. He wasn’t there for an appointment or even to make an appointment. He wasn’t even there to cast judgement on my lunch choice. He was there to tell me a story. It unfolded that during our last session I’d mentioned a lump I’d felt and suggested he have a chat with his doc about it. Well, turned out to be cancer. The oncologist had told him that the cancer, left untreated, would have been a bad one. He’d gone through a bit of treatment and had received the news the day before that the cancer had been successfully treated. He wanted to say thank you to me – for saving his life.

Of course, not all the work we do is with our expert hands.

During a corporate massage, I had to tell a client there was a massive split in her duds and her colourful undies were on display. She was mortified and left to go on an emergency shopping trip with my jumper tied around her waist.

And not all of our work is obvious.

A regular told me as I spread the oil on her back that she was having huge problems with one of her teenagers and asked if I minded if she didn’t chat. I listened to her sobbing, placed tissues near her hand and got on with my manual work. We didn’t speak about it afterwards. At her next visit, she said, “Thanks for the last session”. I didn’t need to know any other details and she didn’t divulge any. To understand that she got benefit from the treatment was enough.

However, the manual work does sometimes makes a big difference to someone’s day or week or year.

Remember how I told you the story of my tradie client who gets migraines? Read that here.

We’ve probably all had a client come back for a follow up session and remark to us how wonderful/great/helpful their previous treatment was. Although, that comes with an expectation that every session will be as wonderful/great/helpful. No pressure!

Ever had a client refer to your “magic hands” or something similar – call you a miracle worker or the person who saved them? It could be because massage helps minimise the impact of a chronic condition or maybe you are the person who gives them space to focus on themselves for an hour. It demonstrates the skillset that massage therapists have. We’re not really magicians or makers of miracles. We have undertaken study, learnt skills, adapted our learning to suit our work, and continue to focus on our clients and their needs. The result of our hard work is appreciation.

Turn on the light

While I was sitting in my dark place, I forgot about the times it felt good to be a massage therapist. That “why” of being a massage therapist.

I’ve been tuning in to those moments of appreciation. My focus has turned slightly away from the post-massage bliss response – although it is still lovely to see and hear – and leaned into the feedback at the follow up treatment. I often return to my treatment notes to figure out what I might have said or done that made a difference.

“What you told me the last time I was here was so helpful,” they’ll say. While it was probably me recommending they watch Sex Education, it might have been something they could do themselves to change their pain or discomfort or the way I explained things or something equally wise. Or the Sex Education thing.

And I get a massive amount of joy working with clients during their pregnancy and sometimes meeting that baby.

Of course, massage is not all sunshine and rainbows. I’ve been working with one client for nearly 20 years who is now in mental decline and it is utterly heartbreaking to witness. And clients get really sick or die. There are clients we can’t help or those we gave unhelpful treatment or advice to. Clients sometimes ignore everything we say – and we must hold our tongues and not be tempted to say “I told you so” if they eventually figure it out. There are the frustrations of the no-show or cancelled appointment or the client who makes us feel like something they’ve wiped off their shoe.

On days of shadows and introspection, frustration and doubt, the best medicine to prescribe is a dose of memory. Memory of the thank yous, the success stories, the made-a-difference stories, the babies born, the laughter and that satisfying deep sleep at the end of a long working day.

Or we can simply remember the post-massage bliss face. And be satisfied.

What does being a massage therapist mean to you? Let me know in the comments below.

About the Author

Sharon Livingstone is a massage therapist based in Sydney, NSW. When not blathering on about how great Sex Education is, she’s usually in some patch of bushland trying not to scare wallabies and dreaming about walking in France.

Cover image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

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Comments

  1. Hi Sharon
    Strange , I thought you were in Melbourne ? Not Sydney.

    Personally I think the massage is about pacing yourself , too much is too much , and you want to enjoy it and not be a slave to it. I find I need to control the booking beast and learn how to say no ✅ , now at 70% booked , I’m not sure of what to do next ? , but I’m really good at cancellations and no shows now , cause I just say , it was not meant to be , and usually don’t rebook that spot. Slow and steady wins the race , remembering if I break , then I don’t help anyone , so I have to look after myself.? One of my favourite parts of a session apart from my myofascial release or skin roll of the back ,,,,, is the end , and the question , how do you feel ?
    Do you feel looser , do you feel freer and just as important , do you feel more relaxed ? Probably the most important question , do you feel more relaxed ? If I can increase parasympathetic nervous system , I think I’m on the right track and strangely enough , it seems to relax me as well. I often take a deep breath some sessions and then say , wow stole a bit of your session sorry , that relaxed me,,,,,,,,, breath in breath out , let it go.✅?.

  2. Really nice article! Thank you! Made me smile and feel proud to be a massage therapist.

  3. Jennifer Miller
    13/04/2022 - 12:26 pm

    Thank-you Sharon, what a fantastic read. I could most certainly relate to almost every scenario you shared – even in my short time as a therapist. I loved the read and your humorous and realistic take on most events. Well done and thanks again.
    Jen Miller

  4. Tereza Bagnall
    13/04/2022 - 1:21 pm

    Sharon, I love reading your work, as you always put into words what we’re thinking, but we don’t always make a connection with it. Sometimes, I think I’m in over my head with some clients, only to see them feeling better, if only for a short time before they return for a follow up and make more progress.

    • Sharon Livingstone
      13/04/2022 - 1:51 pm

      Thanks for reading, Tereza. I think a lot of massage therapists feel the same as you – we’re way better at our jobs than we think we are 🙂

  5. Great read Sharon. Thank you. Your honesty is perfect. I’m not sure if there is any massage therapist that hasn’t questioned their career since the pandemic began. I know I did and sometimes still do, and while I look at my newly acquired Athlegen Pro table – – acquired on the onset of lockdown No. 1 and almost instantly regretted the outlay due to subsequent lockdowns – that massive outlay, damn straight I was going to get some well earn use out of it, and my love of being a massage therapist has kept me going. Whilst not all my clients leave with that dreamy look, they do leave knowing I’ve done my best at that time, for them. For THEM. And they appreciate it. That’s why I am the massage therapist I am. Each client as an individual in their individual time and moment is given all I can give them, hands on, ears listening, mind open, energy flowing and I’m thanked. Crazy huh, thanked for doing something I like doing.

    • Sharon Livingstone
      13/04/2022 - 5:19 pm

      Beautifully articulated! Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Melanie.

  6. Alexander C Rossie
    13/04/2022 - 6:37 pm

    Thank you for writing this balanced perspective. The last two years has been a spanner in the works of our nice, imagined career trajectories. Dark times of contemplating our place in society, the validity of our work, its efficacy. Even after 35 plus years of practice – maybe that should be especially after 35 years of practice – contemplating a future where work would be safe to do again, or worse, ever possible again, has been quite confronting.
    Now that people are treating the pandemic as though it is over and actively seeking treatment again, the trepidation and anxious dread of what may be next remains. The last two years have re-enforced the need to practice all the hygiene protocols learnt in basic training and introduce a whole stack of new ones. That is not a bad thing – sometimes it is easy to get blasé and cut a corner here or another there. This can especially happen in times of no risk when there seems to be no apparent danger. Anyway, proper hygiene, changing all linen with each client, frequent appropriate hand cleaning, mask wearing etc means a better service being delivered to clients.
    I’ve always thought of myself as having good boundaries and not being attached to clients. As part of that I have maintained a cool, non-plussed demeanour in the clinic in the past. But the pandemic made me realise how much I care about my clients. I am now so pleased to see my regulars again that I can be quite effusive. I ‘ve missed quite a few of them – when they tell me the stories of their lives, family etc, even though I don’t comment, I have followed their narratives and thought about what was said. I might never have met their parents, their children, partner or work colleagues, but feel I know them, at least through my client’s eyes.

    As for what we do in the clinic? Yes, we help people out of the sticky spots they find their bodies going to. Their joy in that makes it worthwhile. Maybe that’s the ego driven part. A less ego driven part is that of being of service to them in the greater totality of their lives, even though that’s not a thing I could ever claim directly to a client. But Iwill say it here. My practice boundary is the function of the clients body, what the Greeks called Soma (different to what new age types regard as soma.) Pain, discomfort, even basic, minor niggles can inhibit our clients capacity to a live a fuller life. If we help with those pains, niggles, discomforts then that frees up one part of their life so they can devote energy to the other parts of life that might need attention. Sometimes the physical is so so over-riding it can prevent achieving other things in life that have little to do with the body. You might not notice the dynamics of, for example, a dysfunctional workplace or an unequal relationship if you have had a 24/7 tension headache for as long as you can remember.
    Post massage bliss, appreciative clients are just a manifestation of this. Think of how many lives have been saved by timely assessment from a massage therapist. Skin cancers are the obvious; DVTs another. Carotid thrombosis? Berry aneurysms, atrio-ventricular malformations, pelvic masses, uterine cancers, prostate cancers. We don’t diagnose them, but our assessments can lead to recommendations to visit their GP, either because we want to be sure it is OK to treat or continue working on them, or we suspect something isn’t quite right. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received in my career is that if there is no improvement by the third time you see them, send them to their GP.
    I was going to respond with something quite gloomy, reflective of where my mind has been over the last 10 months, but instead have written down some of the reasons why I feel our work is so important, also some of the reasons why I wall always work (hopefully I’ll quit ahead of senility.) I do enjoy this work so much, but the future is definitely going to be different to what has been in the past.
    So thank you, Ms Livingstone, for such a great article and the reflection it has allowed me!

    • Sharon Livingstone
      14/04/2022 - 9:02 am

      Thanks for reading, Colin. And for taking the time to share your reflections on your long career. Taking a pragmatic approach to our career has certainly been a challenge in pandemic times, and sitting in the discomfort and being honest with ourselves, and pushing our awareness past the obvious, has been extremely helpful.

  7. Stephen Morris
    13/04/2022 - 8:18 pm

    Amazing thoughts Sharon. I love your thoughtful blogs. I moved to massage from 30 years of engineering (not that different, still a bit of mechanical problem solving etc). I find massage SO much more rewarding because I’m helping real people. But I still wonder if I’m doing the best for my clients. Many keep coming back to see me, which is a good feeling, and sometimes I get the feeling I’m helping in other “unseen” ways too.

  8. Louella Jolly
    28/04/2022 - 9:43 pm

    Thanks for your article Sharon, i liked the reflections & anticdotes. I often think about the aspects of what I provide as a massage thereapist & there is so much more than just hands on. The massage bliss & magic hands comments are nice & do provide some satisfaction that you have contributed to improving that persons day if only that. I think people feel valued & nurtured in the treatment space which is what I aim for them to take away with them apart from providing physical relief from their conditions/ailments. I love what I do & hope to continue to do this for a long time. 🙂

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