She schedules her massages about once a month, for a half hour each time. At the end of every session, she sits across from me, holding her glass of water in both hands. She says, over and over again, “You’re so good at what you do. Do you know that? You’re just so good at what you do.” She looks stunned, mystified. She looks like she has just seen the Statue of Liberty disappear. She looks like she has been touched by magic.
It would be so easy, and (I’ll admit) so satisfying for me to just lean in to everything I think I see and hear from her. It would be so easy to believe that this effusive praise, this stunned, magic-struck look comes from something deep and deeply special in my own hands. It would be easy to believe, just for a minute, that I am magic.
And here is where the beautiful swelling musical score in my head turns into a scratching record and heavy, ticking silence. If I start believing and accepting that I am magic, I am, in fact, setting both of us up for some serious harm.
Let me back up a minute.
I have been a massage therapist for about nine years now, a few years past the average therapist “sell by” date of 3-5 years. It sometimes feels like I’ve passed a lot of people in a crowded race, and I am sailing forward with a clear road ahead, and with sure knowledge of my own strength. I have also been teaching for several years, and through this I often have the opportunity to answer questions about factual knowledge which make me seem like an expert. I am working very hard to keep both of these things from erasing the true and sure knowledge that I have much to learn.
I have worked with and met so many therapists — excellent human beings, all of them — who have completely bought into the idea of their own magic. They talk about their magic hands, or their healing touch, or about how they are the only one who knows how to fix their client’s [insert discomfort here].
This strikes me as an extraordinary burden to take on.
This strikes me as a dangerous story to tell.
We come to this profession for many different surface reasons, but at bottom, I truly believe we come to this profession because we want to find a way to alleviate suffering. For most of us, I think, that begins with our own suffering. We bring our bodies into this profession with a profound respect for every human body, just as it is. By doing so, we begin to heal whatever issues we have around our own bodies, minds and spirits.
Then clients come to us, sometimes, and they feel better, sometimes. A few of these clients don’t quite understand what they are feeling, so they turn it back onto us. They tell us we have magic hands, or that we have a healing touch, or that we are the only one who knows how to fix them.
And it feels good to hear these words.
It feels good to know that another human being feels better after something we did.
It feels so good that we decide to believe in our own magic.
Here is where the harm comes in.
When we believe in our own magic, we remove from ourselves the need to continue rigorous study. We take away our beginner’s mind, the mind that wants to always know better and be open to new ideas. We set ourselves up to miss important information about the human body in general and about our client’s body in particular because we settle into a place of knowing it all already.
We also remove from our clients their own agency and responsibility for their own body. If we are magic healing fixers, what need do our clients have for self care? Why do they need to listen to their own bodies if we can tell them everything? And how in the world will they know when to tell us that something we are doing is not quite working?
I am on a quest to eliminate magical thinking from the massage therapy profession, starting with myself.
For me, this starts with ever vigilant awareness of my own work. Letting every client finish their own sentences, even if the story feels familiar. Asking real questions rather than questions that will just confirm what I already think I know. And gently reminding every client who thinks I fix them that the real work is done in their own nervous system. I am, in the truest, Latin-root sense of the word, the facilitator. I am here to make it easier for their own body, mind and spirit to join forces and move towards whatever that client desires. It’s not magic. It is humble, aware application of continually growing knowledge and education.
Rebecca Sturgeon is an instructor for Healwell. She maintains a private practice in Louisville, Kentucky and works as part time faculty in general massage therapy programs there. As a former teacher of writing at the college level, Rebecca is passionate about the written word and about all forms of human communication. In her massage practice, she focuses on integrating therapeutic massage as part of overall health and wellness care. She is an active volunteer for Hosparus Health and Gilda’s Club of Louisville, and a member of the Society for Oncology Massage.