By Jennie Hastings Stancu
[Savvy Self-Care]

The desire to help people release their pain and heal is what draws most of us to the massage and bodywork profession. This is a wonderful mission and yet it can be a challenge to keep something as intimate as physical touch contained in a professional manner.
This is where boundaries come in. As massage therapists and bodyworkers we must be clear and consistent with our boundaries in order to protect our clients and ourselves. This may feel like an insurmountable challenge. Boundaries may feel rigid and unyielding, which is the opposite of the result we are hoping to create in our clients’ bodies.
But let me assure you, having strong boundaries enhances your clients’ abilities to relax. When your clients trust they are in safe, capable hands, and when they are not wondering about things left unmentioned, then you have created the perfect place from which to begin the healing process.

Square One
Establishing boundaries starts from the very beginning. You can do this by being clear in your early communication about the hours you work, the way you accept payment, and the results people can expect.
I find that nothing is better at establishing certain boundaries than having policies in writing for clients to read and sign before we start working together.
On my client policies form, I give information about my missed appointment policy, severe weather closings, and payment policies. There is also a disclaimer that clearly states my scope of practice—both what I do, and what I don’t do. This form not only spells out everything about the business side of our relationship, it also sets the stage for what will happen in our therapeutic relationship.
The next way I create boundaries is by establishing certain practices that act as a cue both to myself and to my client. This includes little things: the words I say before they get on the table, how and when I use music, and the offer of water after a treatment. These details all serve to create the therapeutic container. Having some consistencies in your routine provides structure to the magical mystery of healing.
Being punctual and consistent with time also helps to clarify boundaries. Most people are on a schedule and they need to be able to trust that they can come in for an appointment with you, fully let go for the allotted time, and that you will bring them back from their relaxation in time for them to be available for their next commitments.
These basic boundaries of written policies, consistent practices, and honoring time are foundational and should be a part of the way you interact with all clients.

Special Circumstances
But what happens when the person you are seeing has been through an intense emotional trauma, like a wounded warrior, or a victim of violent crime? How do you feel the pain their experience has created in their bodies without letting it affect you? What do you do if your own emotions are triggered?
The short answer is, you let it be about them.
It is possible to “feel into” another and extrapolate what they are feeling without making it an emotional burden for yourself. You can know the pain they feel without making it your own. Even if you’ve been through something similar in the past. Even if your heart breaks for them. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about them.
If you find that working with a traumatized survivor is difficult for you, you may need to take a step back and evaluate. Can you strengthen your boundaries and find the detachment necessary to support them without taking on their feelings? The answer might be no, in which case the best thing to do is refer them to someone you think may be better able to help. But if the answer is yes, there are some things you can do to help yourself feel stronger.
Spend extra time on self-care. Make sure you eat a solid breakfast, and take a moment to meditate, stretch, and move your body before you begin working. Write down your feelings, or three “I am …” statements in your journal. Review your own policies and mission statement. Say a prayer asking for protection and guidance, if you find this helpful.
If you’ve been through something similar to your client, do not assume you have a better understanding of how they feel because of your experience. People respond to similar situations in different ways. Do not impose your feelings on them. Do not slip into their experience.
If your clients need to talk about their feelings, know where to draw the line. Some verbal release can be very helpful in a massage, but if you feel your client is beginning to use you as a counselor, it is time to refer them to a psychotherapist. This can be a delicate interaction, but if you hand them the business card of someone you trust to help them, you might simply say, “I think so-and-so could be a great addition to your support network.”

Holding Space
What if a client has an emotional response on the table? Let them have it. Do not judge or impose anything onto their experience. Don’t make it about you. Hold the container. Breathe. Feel your feet on the floor. Draw your experience back into yourself. Let them have their experience. Honor them by creating a safe space for their pain to be released.
I like to imagine pain being sent as energy to a cosmic compost heap deep in the earth, where it is broken down and recycled into something new and more useful.
Your boundaries are like the walls of a beautiful, sacred vessel. By strengthening the walls, you protect your client, yourself, and the flow of healing energy. It may take some practice and some regular tweaking, but not only can you do it, it will make you better. 

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, and sings to herself for fun. Find out more at