Massage as therapeutic relationship

by Clare Carey

As I prepare to shift into a new phase in my career, I have been reflecting on my time as a massage therapist.

When I finished my Advanced Diploma of Massage, I left feeling like a miracle worker – healing people with my hands, lengthening and loosening people’s tight muscles, relaxing them, and making them feel better than when they walked in. 

Sixteen years on, I know that massage is not just rubbing “knots” out with balm: the most powerful healing can come from the therapeutic relationship. As I close the chapter of full-time massage and say goodbye to my clients, I have realised that building and maintaining therapeutic relationships is my favourite and most cherished part of the job. 

A therapeutic relationship is defined as an interactive relationship with a patient and family that is caring, clear, boundaried, positive, and professional”. (Science Direct) 

We weren’t made to get along with everyone. I’ve learnt that it doesn’t matter how good your manual therapy skills are, if your therapeutic relationship lacks connection then your treatment will be less effective. I used to say that you know you’ve made it when you fire a patient or refer them on because you felt that you weren’t the best person to help them. It’s an even bigger step to be okay with it and understand that not everyone is going to like you. 

Some clients you connect with immediately, while others may take a few sessions. If a client has had a history of less-than-satisfactory massage experiences it might take even longer to build their trust. Some clients want to know a bit about you before they tell you more about them, and I love that I’m still finding out new things about my clients after seeing them for 7 or 8 years. 

I do a lot of work with sporting teams but I often decline one-off sports work because it’s the relationship-building I enjoy more than being able to say I worked for X team when they played in Canberra. The most rewarding sessions I have had in elite sport is when it’s just me and the athlete: the conversation is much deeper and we end up having the most wholesome exchanges. One of these ended with the athlete telling me I should be a sports psychologist.  

Accidental free therapy with your massage? 

The best thing about being a massage therapist in any setting is getting to know the person inside the body. I have been there through my clients having their children, and now their children are teenagers, and I’m treating the teenager. I’ve been there as they grow from a troubled teen into a beautiful adult, listening to their stories, supporting them through their training or being the safe space where they cry and let go … all while massaging their bodies and making them feel looser and lighter.  It’s the reason that I think people find massage so effective – they are seen and heard and we don’t spend the whole session talking about their pain or injury. 

Over the years, my clients have been just as big of a part of my life as I have been in theirs. They have seen me through being a student; a new grad student; a break up with a long-term boyfriend; playing soccer; taking up CrossFit; taking up weightlifting; moving into my apartment; two work moves; supporting a friend and travelling to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games; volunteering at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games; the birth of my nephews (age 5 and 8); and the birth of my niece. They want to hear my stories as much as they want me to listen to theirs. I don’t schedule social media posts but when I do post, the greatest engagement comes from when I share small snippets of my life. 

Leaving my clients isn’t just a change for me, but a change for them too. Like any relationship breakup, they are starting all over again with someone new. For some, that will mean less travel as they started seeing me when they lived or worked near my location and kept seeing me after I moved because of our therapeutic relationship. Some will look for options closer to home, others will try the therapist who moved into my treatment room and, for those clients, I have transferred their files to ensure a smooth transition so that they don’t need to explain their whole story all over again. 

My heart is so full. Many tears were shed in my last weeks of my clinic. Goodbyes aren’t easy but I’m excited for what’s next and will cherish these therapeutic relationships forever.

About the author

Clare is a sensible girl who reads more than she implements. She has a specific interest in chronic pain after developing it while sitting down at a chronic pain workshop. She has an ongoing drop foot condition and is commonly known amongst her peers as flappy. She is now quitting massage to listen to people face to face fully clothed. 

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  1. Andrea Rivas
    28/06/2023 - 11:34 pm

    Great Story Claire! While you were telling your story. Couldn’t help to find similarities in my experiences throughout my 15 yrs of being a massage therapist. Wishing you all the best in your new ventures!

  2. Louella Jolly
    14/07/2023 - 6:16 pm

    Thanks for sharing your journey with us Claire.
    I almost teared up myself thinking about the relationships I have with my clients. I definitely have found the better the connection with someone the better the treatment.
    Wishing you all the best in your new endeavours.!

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