Emotional Fitness

Be Peaceful, Centered, and Confident

By Jennie Hastings Stancu

Life has its ups and downs. Some days it feels like we are drifting gently down the stream. Other days it feels like we are navigating Class 5 rapids without a helmet or life preserver.
How we handle ourselves in this ebb and flow of life, both in and out of the therapy room, is affected in large part by our emotional fitness. Just as with physical fitness, emotional fitness plays a large role in our quality of life, but it’s even more important when it comes to the success of our practice. Stop a moment and consider—how healthy are you when it comes to emotional fitness?

What is Emotional Fitness?
Emotional fitness means being able to maintain a sense of balance, inner peace, and strength throughout the fluctuations of daily life, and being present and aware of our circumstances without letting our emotional reactions to those circumstances overwhelm us.
Being emotionally fit does not mean we do not experience emotions like anger, envy, fear, sadness, or even rage and despair. It means we have a healthy way of dealing with these emotions when they come up, and we take care of ourselves so that most of our time is spent in a peaceful, centered, and confident state of being.
Not unlike other good (and bad) habits, emotional fitness is something we learn from the people who surround us. What we learned in childhood factors greatly into how we handle life’s ups and downs. Yet, regardless of how we were raised, at some point we all grow up and must begin to take full responsibility for our lives, including our emotions.
Part of this growth process is learning to use our emotions as signals that let us know if we are steering toward our best life or veering off course. It takes self-awareness and being in touch with our emotions to use them as our guides. The more emotionally fit we become, the better we can “hear” the guidance our emotions are giving us. We can respond to the whispers before they turn into shouts.
Ultimately, emotional fitness means being capable of feeling without letting your feelings overwhelm you. It means being in touch with yourself, which gives you a solid foundation from which to approach others.

Bodywork and Emotion
Emotional fitness is especially important for massage therapists and bodyworkers because of our intimate physical connection with other human beings. We may be trained to work with muscles and fascia, but every person we touch brings all of their emotions to the therapy room, too, and dealing with emotions is something we are not taught much about in massage school.
Western culture and medicine teach us that emotions are separate from muscles, but most in this field know that’s not the case. When you spend any amount of time with your hands on a person’s body, you begin to pick up on the emotions he or she is feeling. You might also notice a client’s disconnect from her emotions. Just as you can sense a client’s emotions, oftentimes she can sense yours, too, if you haven’t done the proper self-care and grounding ahead of time.
So how do you handle, or process, all these client emotions?
You just be with them—whatever they are. For most people, their time on your table is one of the few moments in their week when everything slows down enough for them to truly feel what is going on inside themselves.
Your ability to be with a client’s emotions without trying to change or alter them allows the emotions their validity—and that can be truly healing. Confident, kind touch will help a person emotionally, regardless of how thoroughly you massage or what techniques you use. The release of emotions may be gentle or it may be more eruptive. All you have to do is allow the emotions to flow, stay in your center, and be an anchor for your client.
My first instinct is to say that the ideal therapeutic environment is free of the therapist’s own emotions. It makes sense that creating a neutral environment for your clients will facilitate their healing experiences, where they can feel their emotions without reacting to yours. However, I also believe that if we are to fully understand massage and bodywork, we have to recognize there are two human beings involved in the process—two parties working toward a common goal.
This duality means the therapist’s emotions are also valid. You cannot remove them from your own being. A facet of emotional fitness is being aware that you bring your emotions with you into the therapeutic environment. Being aware of, and controlling, your own emotions is key.
It is not our job to help clients feel positive emotions. It is far more productive to be present, aware, and emotionally fit enough to be able to allow clients to have their own experience, while you have yours.
Certainly, it does not hurt to approach your client from an emotional state of connection, peace, gratitude, or joy. It does not mean you have failed if your client does not reach a similar state. Your positive vibration will be felt regardless of anything you say or do. Remember, it is not your job to fix anyone emotionally. All you have to do is be with them and hold space for them.
Emotional fitness allows you to be aware of where you are in your own self so you can make good decisions about how to approach your client. Simply being able to tell the difference between which emotions are coming from you, and which emotions are your client’s, will help you better serve your client.

Daily Emotional Fitness Practices
There are many ways to stay emotionally fit. The particular recipe for each individual will be slightly different. Following are some ways to get started.

Create a Gratitude Journal
The daily practice I find the most useful is keeping a gratitude journal. I have a little memo pad in my kitchen, and every day I write the date on the top of a page and make a list of at least three things I am grateful for that day. It’s like a vitamin pill for my soul. Gratitude is one of the quickest ways to increase emotional fitness.

Work Toward Physical Fitness
Another thing that keeps me emotionally fit is physical movement. I love practicing yoga, walking, dancing, or doing a 20-minute session on the elliptical machine. Movement, connected with breathing, is naturally stress-relieving and helps get me out of my head and into my body.
Staying physically healthy is important for emotional fitness because the body is the vehicle for our emotions. Imagine how much easier it is to maintain positive emotion in a body that is healthy and functioning well, compared to a body in pain or disease. This is one of the reasons massage therapy is so beneficial. As our bodies begin to feel better and we release physical pain, the easier it is for us to get in touch with our true emotions of joy and happiness.

Feed Your Body
A clean diet is important for emotional fitness. If you feed your body unhealthy food, you are giving up precious energy for digestion that could otherwise be used to manage stressors in your life. I’ve found that eliminating food from my diet that does not serve me well—in my case, gluten and dairy—not only helps me feel better physically and maintain my weight more easily, it also alleviates a lot of my anxiety.

Learn Self-Value
For us to truly be emotionally fit, we must have self-value and self-respect. One of the most emotionally strengthening exercises of my life has been learning to stand up for myself and constructively use my voice. I do this through the way I manage and market my business, my writing, and in my direct relationships with my clients, friends, and family.
Sometimes it is difficult to say things that I know must be said because I am afraid of how my words will be received. I always find that facing my fear and speaking my truth makes things so much better. Even if it is a difficult conversation, being able to discharge my pain and discomfort by acknowledging it is necessary for me to move on. Even if my circumstances don’t change at all, I feel better knowing I’ve been honest and expressed myself.

Extend Kindness Into the World
Another exercise for emotional fitness is to practice acts of kindness, even something as simple as picking up litter on the street. When you extend kindness into the world, you can’t help but feel that kindness in yourself.
I like to do things like bring people flowers or send them cards in the mail. I hold the door open for others, or let them go ahead of me in traffic. I smile, wave, touch, and laugh. Sometimes I give lavish gifts, and sometimes they are simple. Whenever I extend kindness, I am humbled by the gift it gives me—a feeling of peace, love, contentment, and joy.

Stop and Smell the Roses
Being with beauty is another way to increase emotional fitness. Life moves so fast that it’s easy to miss the many tiny miracles that surround us all the time.
Take a moment and look around you. Notice the quality of the light in the room; let your eyes move to something that pleases you. Find a way to incorporate what you find beautiful into the spaces you spend the most time in.

Schedule Self-Care on a Regular Basis
Finally, consulting a professional coach or counselor is always a good route to take if you are concerned about, or working on, your emotional fitness. Make sure you receive regular massage and bodywork, and any other kind of health care you need. You are worth the time and the expense—every bit of it.
What would you tell your clients to do if they asked you for exercises for emotional fitness? Whatever your answer is, it’s probably a good place to start yourself.

Shaken and Stirred
How do you know when you are emotionally unfit to work? Is such knowledge even possible?
Most of us have good common sense and are self-aware enough to know that there are certain circumstances that would make us emotionally unfit to work. But what about less obvious circumstances?
The question you must ask yourself is: “What takes me out of my center?” To arrive at the answer, you may need to evaluate certain aspects of your life. Do emotions rise when you spend time with family? Does travel wear you out? What if you’ve been partying all weekend?
As noted earlier, emotional fitness is really about present awareness. Begin to pay attention to how your energy changes depending on what you’ve been doing. You might start to see patterns emerge.
I tend to make my biggest mistakes when I’m not grounded. This imbalance usually arrives in predictable ways. Flying is a big one for me. I need to remember to always give myself a full day after flying before I work with clients. It makes much more business sense for me to return from vacation grounded and connected to myself than to come back to my clients jet-lagged and tired.
I also need to take time to do nothing and recharge on a regular basis. If I haven’t done this in a while, it is an indicator to me that I may need to slow down a bit. I have to learn that doing nothing is actually doing something for me—and my clients—in the long run.
Some people get emotionally stressed from visiting family and need to take time off afterward to reground. I had a bodyworker tell me this recently—she never schedules clients the day after a big family get-together.
There are many experiences, unique to each of us, that conspire to take us out of our place of peace and centered confidence. Recognizing that we are a bit off-center does not mean we need to start calling our clients to cancel. We need to recognize that we will never be perfect, so we cannot be too hard on ourselves for our own challenges. What we can do is decide to be aware enough to be discerning about what we are feeling and make smart decisions.
If you’re coming into a session and are feeling a lot of big emotions that you think may start to take over, you can try a technique I learned from a former associate of mine. Therapist Ali Leighton once told me that if she is having a hard time managing her own emotions, she comes into the office and puts all of her “stuff” in an imaginary box just outside the office door. She goes into the session unencumbered by her emotional baggage, and she can be fully present for her client.
She laughs when she says she knows she has the option of picking up the stuff on the way back out, but usually by the end of a session with a client, she realizes she doesn’t need it anymore.

The Big Picture
How does emotional fitness tie in with other kinds of fitness: physical, mental, spiritual, or even financial?
It’s all the same thing! We are each whole, complete, integrated beings, and we could never survive without every aspect of our being—physical and energetic.
The food we eat, the thoughts we think, the love we allow ourselves to give and receive, even the money we allow to flow through our lives are all connected to our emotional state. Caring for any part of ourselves is caring for all of ourselves.
Like physical fitness, emotional fitness is not something you achieve and then keep forever without effort. Being healthy takes work and dedication. It is about showing up and playing the game of life. Here’s to finding yourself in the present moment and enjoying what you’re feeling.

Jennie Hastings Stancu, LMT, is the author of The Inspired Massage Therapist (Massage Blossom Books, 2012). She lives in Portland, Maine, where she practices massage, yoga, and coaching with clients.

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