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In this Post: Establishing boundaries as massage therapists is an important thing. Vital really. Digging into our own tendencies helps us become better therapists for our clients. So let’s start digging.
Boundaries are a funny thing. Not easily defined, yet vital to having a successful career in the massage field. These limits and rules we set for ourselves in regards to our professional relationships are an integral part of leading a healthy life! They help create a sacred therapeutic relationship. When implemented correctly, they demonstrate reliability, trustworthiness, consistency, and a respect of confidentiality — all critical things in a therapeutic relationship.
Boundaries serve three functions.
- Screen input from the world.
- Protect from subtle and overt abuse.
- Reserve our energy so it can be expelled appropriately.
As massage therapists, we have a two-fold job concerning boundaries. One, we must educate ourselves about boundaries and model to our clients what healthy boundaries look like. And two, we need to educate our clients about boundaries and help them develop healthy boundaries. Especially in cases of trauma and abuse, where reinstating healthy boundaries is essential to the healing process.
So how do we accomplish this task? First, we must understand our own tendencies, and where we may lack healthy boundaries. We may have clear and healthy boundaries with everyone in our life, but one person. You know the person, the one who pushes all your buttons, maybe it’s a sister or an ex-husband. This may be okay, as long as we are aware of this inconsistency, and are working to establish more defined boundaries.
While there are many different boundary styles, for the purpose of this article I am going to discuss five.
5 Boundary Styles
This style, also known as under bounded arises when someone has little sense of their true self or personal identity. Someone with this style may have difficulty saying “no”, get easily overwhelmed, and have a hard time protecting themselves from others’ emotions.
Also known as over bounded, dense, or walled, this style is inflexible. Someone with this style is trying to protect their sense of self, they perceive others as a threat, are guarded, and have difficulty with trust and intimacy.
In this style, a person swings from enmeshed to rigid, without stopping in between. Typically what happens is a person opens up too much, which causes pain, so then they completely shut down.
With this style there are holes. It is possible to have healthy boundaries most of the time, but certain situations bring out other disfunction. Emotional, mental, and physical states might bring out these changes. Such as when someone is tired, or sick, or around family.
Healthy boundaries are flexible. They change from moment to moment in response to one’s environment. In a safe environment, they can be open, allowing community to form. In an unsafe environment, they can become closed for protection. A person with healthy boundaries can wholeheartedly say “yes” or “no” depending on the situation.
My mom always said, “Don’t say yes if you can’t say no, don’t say okay if it really ain’t so.” This is how someone with healthy boundaries views the world.
Learn more at Saying “No” as Massage Therapists.
Do you resonate with one particular style? By understanding our own tendencies, we can better create a therapeutic container where we stay objective to the needs of our clients. The more we plunge into our own responses, the better prepared we are to hold space for our clients.
It is crucial that we dive into our pasts and get clear about any triggers which might present obstacles to our roles as therapist. Do you have a turbulent touch history? If so, it is vital that you work through your traumas before you can be truly present for your clients. Our goal of conducting client-centered sessions can only happen when we put our clients needs first and don’t get distracted by our own past.
While there are guidelines when it comes to our profession, each therapist will have a unique spin on establishing boundaries. There are some hard and fast rules. Such as; don’t have sex with your clients, which are inflexible. But for the most part, it is okay that therapists take their own spin on drawing their boundary lines. We must get clear on what works for us, what is healthy for us as individual practitioners who have a variety of past, present, and future experiences.
Types of Boundaries to Establish As Massage Therapists
Power Differential –
There is a power differential we must be sensitive to in the therapeutic relationship. Our clients come to us for help. Therefore we hold a position of power. Because we are in the position of power, we must hold ourselves to a high standard of ethics and professionalism. Our clients may be extremely susceptible to suggestions we make. Therefore, we must be careful to avoid giving advice.
Dual relationships –
Dual relationships are when we have more than one type of relationship with a client. Maybe our hairdresser becomes a client. Or maybe, we became friends with a client after seeing them for a period of time.
While dual relationships are not ideal, they do occur. Especially if you live in a small town. It is important if you enter into a dual relationship that you have clear boundaries. That the therapeutic piece of the relationship is being treated with the same respect you would any other client/therapist relationship.
The one type of dual relationship I would strongly advice against is a romantic one. If you and a client develop mutual romantic feelings for each other, NCBTMB recommends waiting at least 6 months after discontinuing the therapeutic relationship to enter into any type of dating scenario.
How much talking is appropriate during the course of a treatment? If a client is talking more than seems necessary, you can try to bring them back to their body awareness. Questions such as, “How does it feel when I work this area?” are effective ways to bring thoughts to the goals they are trying to achieve.
Sometimes the excessive talking isn’t coming from our clients though. Sometimes it is us. A little bit of talk is okay, but make sure that the session is client-centered. When a client becomes quiet, don’t continue to ask questions or relay your personal stories! Please, just shut-up!
Some therapist believe hugging should never occur in the therapeutic relationship, while others are fine with it. I have seen a therapist implement the following protocol when she felt inclined to hug a client. She asked if it would be okay to hug the client. If the client agreed, she would then proceed to hug them. Maybe you, as the therapist are really uncomfortable with hugging, you can develop a policy that you just don’t hug clients. This way if a client ever tries to hug you, which they will, you can simply say, “I’m sorry, I don’t do hugs.”
Gift Giving –
While small gifts may feel okay to you, be wary of clients who seem to be wanting more, whether sexually or in return of favors. Maybe a client is always late, and they give you a gift to try to have you forgive their tardiness. This could become an issue of overstepping your boundaries.
Are clients respectful of your time? Are you of theirs? Do they always show up late, or miss appointments? Do you go over on time, thinking you are doing them a favor? All of these are boundary violations.
Removal of clothing –
Picture the scene, an older woman begins peeling off her clothing as you are trying to conduct your initial intake.
You say, “I will leave the room so you can undress.”
Client, “Oh, I’m not modest, you can stay.”
But the thing is, this is not honoring a boundary. We shouldn’t be in the room when our clients undress, regardless of if they are a sweet grandma type, or a super chiseled model type.
Seductive or sexual clients –
If a client becomes seductive, it is perfectly okay to “fire” them. Sometimes we think if we ignore sexual inuendos, they will go away, rarely is this the case. We have worked too hard in this industry to de-sexualize massage not to address this issue head-on! You have the right to refuse massage if someone makes you feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or they continue to sexualize a massage after you have warned them to stop acting inappropriately.
Transference and countertransference –
Because of the intimate nature of the work we do, we are particularly susceptible to transference. Transference is when clients transfer feelings, thoughts, or behaviors related to a significant person in their life onto their therapist. When this process occurs, the therapists assume a more significant roll in the client’s subconscious mind.
Countertransference is the opposite of transference. When the therapists are the one bringing unresolved issues into the therapeutic relationship. This occurs when we fail to maintain a professional distance from our clients.
If you notice one of these tendencies is occurring, develop awareness and understanding of how it can affect the therapeutic relationship. Then avoid behaviors which intensify these tendencies.
How we communicate with our clients is a form of boundary establishment. Whether we do it via email, social media, texting, or through good old fashioned phone calls, we must feel good about whichever method we choose.
Social Media –
Some therapists may choose to keep their social media handles entirely private from their professional life. Others may use them in their marketing efforts. Either way is fine, but remember if you choose to open up your social media world to your clients, stay professional. Be conscientious about what you post.
Having clear boundaries will help you find more longevity and joy in your career as a massage therapist. Somatic awareness, particularly having a ‘felt sense’ of healthy boundaries, is a strong resource for developing boundaries.
If you move too fast, neglect to set boundaries, or don’t understand the boundary style of your client, confusion, and disintegration may occur. Teaching our clients about boundaries is tremendously empowering, and helps with their healing process.
Establishing clear boundaries is an always-evolving process. Once we get good in one area, new issues arise in another. This is why it is especially important to be working on self-development continually. Keep digging in therapists and do the work needed to maintain happy and healthy boundaries for your life!
- Boulder College of Massage Therapy Graduate
- Nationally Certified through NCBTMB
- Colorado Licensed Massage Therapist
- Certified CranialSacral Level 1 through Upledger
- Certified Herbal Therapist through Nutrition Therapy Institute
- Certified Fujian Massage through Barefoot Masters
- Fort Lewis College - Majored in Art, Minored in Business Administration
- 6 Year Winner of Best Massage Therapist for "Best of The Boat" Competition
- Massage Business Owner Since 2008