Role Reversal

When Therapist Becomes Client

By Douglas Nelson
[Table Lessons]

I was tired. Really tired. The kind of tired my mom used to call “bone tired.” Seeing an opening in one of my therapy staff’s schedule, I jumped at the chance to get some work done.
Jennifer walked me back to her treatment room and asked what my goals for the session were this evening.
“First, I am exhausted. I’ve been teaching and traveling for many weeks in a row, plus I have seen many full days of clients.”
“Any specific areas bothering you?” she inquired.
“Yes, my neck has been an issue for the past several days.”
“Where specifically?” she asked. “Is it pain or lack of range?”
“Well, umm, it, uh ...”
You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought to myself. I sound inarticulate. My neck has been bothering me for days and, yet, when asked, I sound like I checked my brain at the door. Hmm. Have I ever wondered why clients aren’t more clear about what they feel?
Thinking more about this and moving my neck, the problem became clearer. “It is worse when I turn to the right,” I replied. “I seem to have pretty good range to the left, but turning to the right is restricted.”
“When you turn to the right, do you feel it on the right side of your neck or on the left?” she asked.
Again, I had to stop and think about this and do the movement again. Jennifer waited patiently for me to answer, and I took another inventory of my neck. While doing so, I was momentarily transported back to a hotel in Japan in 1992. I had just arrived that evening, the first night of a five-week Rotary scholarship to study the Japanese health-care system. I was exhausted from the flight but discovered that the hotel offered massage, and I was excited to try a session in Japan.
Due to my terrible Japanese language skills when calling the front desk, I wasn’t sure if I ordered a massage, food, or laundry service. Luckily, a massage therapist showed up about 20 minutes later. As she entered my tiny hotel room, I suddenly realized I had no idea how this process would work. There was no massage table and very little space available. She began politely explaining what would happen, none of which I could understand. Assuming she was asking me to disrobe, I began removing my suit and tie, and then shirt. The horrified look on her face told me I was doing something quite wrong, so in the end, I stood there like a 3-year-old with my arms outstretched as she prepared my attire for the session.
How humbling. I couldn’t help but wonder if this is how my clients feel when I run through the process far too quickly. I vowed to be more patient right then and there.
I suddenly realized Jennifer was looking at me, waiting for an answer about my neck.
“The left,” I blurted out. “It hurts on the left when I turn to the left.”
“Fine,” she said confidently. “It could be one of three things. Why don’t you lie face-up on the table, and let’s find out which one of the three is the culprit.”

A Two-Way Street
The clarity and confidence of her approach put me completely at ease. She had a defined goal with three possible threads to explore. It was clear she knew what she was doing and, more importantly, why. I immediately thought about how important the therapist’s clarity and confidence are from the client’s perspective, and how that confidence is communicated through both the therapist’s language and touch. While we assume that through palpation we are reading the client’s body, they are in turn reading us, as well. Communication is a two-way street.
Jennifer’s exploration of my neck musculature was akin to a guided tour of my own body. The experience was like someone with a flashlight walking me through my house, exploring the empty rooms I had forgotten to reopen after a long, cold winter. Some areas had a sense of immediacy and relevance, while my nervous system sensed other areas as old and once problematic but now relegated to the background. How many times have I heard clients say that? Furthermore, how does the nervous system really sense that? It is an amazing mystery.

Serving the Server
The longer and more often we do massage therapy, the more possible it is to become immune to the profoundly personal experience massage can provide. The purpose of this column has always been to celebrate every session as an opportunity to learn and grow in the work. Sometimes, the best way to learn is through role reversal, putting oneself in the position of being served.

Douglas Nelson is the founder and principal instructor for Precision Neuromuscular Therapy Seminars, president of the 16-therapist clinic BodyWork Associates in Champaign, Illinois, and a trustee for the Massage Therapy Foundation. His clinic, seminars, and research endeavors explore the science behind this work. Visit, or email him at