An MT's Search for Connection in a (Sometimes) Lonely Profession

By Kristin Coverly

Massage therapy is a sometimes lonely profession. It’s an unspoken truth that isn’t addressed in massage schools, and is not often discussed among therapists. But understanding this lonely dynamic might be just as important to the well-being of an MT as good body mechanics.

From the outside looking in, the massage and bodywork profession seems like a social profession that would fulfill a therapist’s needs for connection and support—we see clients all day long, right? The reality, however, is that this profession can sometimes leave therapists feeling isolated and disconnected if we let it.

What those on the outside don’t realize is that even though we may see many different clients throughout the day, we’re not interacting with them in a way that feeds our need for connection; we’re purposefully engaging with clients in the way that meets their needs. And while our work fulfills us in many meaningful and wonderful ways, it’s an intentionally one-sided relationship: clients identify their needs and we try our best to meet them. Not vice versa.

Most therapists I’ve spoken to about this topic—whether they’re in a private practice or an employee setting—have emphatically agreed that massage therapy can be a lonely profession. But here’s the danger: since we didn’t talk about it in school, or with each other, we may not have the tools to cope with it. We feel resigned to it and stuck in it.

I’ve felt the impact of this professional loneliness to different degrees since I began practicing in 2001, but my most significant and difficult experience, by far, was in January 2008. A month earlier, the massage school where I worked full-time as an instructor and administrator (in addition to maintaining a part-time practice) closed. I immediately went on a three-week healing arts trip led by a close friend and colleague to learn Thai massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with 14 other massage therapists. I found myself at a loss a few days after we returned. When the jet lag wore off, the loneliness came flooding in. I had gone from being immersed daily in a close-knit group of colleagues to sitting alone in my massage home office wondering, “Now what?”

Effects of Working Solo

The number of US employees working remotely is on the rise, and these new work-from-homers are being introduced to challenges massage therapists working in a private practice have known about for decades: working alone, in whatever your setting, can have a negative impact on your health and wellness.

Studies show that people who work from home report increased stress, anxiety, and incidences of depression. It’s not necessarily surprising data, but it’s data we shouldn’t ignore. It’s a flashing warning sign telling us to take a close look at our own lifestyle and identify steps we can take to enhance our immediate and long-term health and wellness.

There are many similarities between a therapist with a private practice—especially with a home office—and an office worker working remotely. Both experience limited opportunities for social interaction, face-to-face brainstorming for shared problem solving, and connection with peers. Maybe more importantly, there’s a diminished sense of belonging and contributing to something bigger than the individual.

Sure, there are also differences between an office worker who sits alone on his laptop in their home office all day and a massage therapist who sees four clients in their home office in a day. The massage therapist has a reason to shower and change out of their pajamas and will physically see those four people throughout their workday. But that interaction with clients doesn’t—and shouldn’t—fulfill the need to share, to be heard, and to belong. To connect.

In a Forbes magazine article, author Alice Walton cites a meta-analysis in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review that looked at 58 studies that included 19,000 people in 15 countries. The participants worked in a wide variety of fields—including health—and were asked questions about their work life, their feelings about their colleagues and companies, and various aspects of their mental and physical health. Participants who identified more strongly with colleagues had greater psychological well-being and also better physical health. Walton quotes psychologist Suzanne Roff-Wexler: “For freelancers or people without social connections at work, it is in their best interest in terms of mental well-being to connect in other ways. Social isolation is not good for our health.”

In fact, in a Psychology Today article, Stephen Ilardi writes, “Social isolation is a huge risk factor for the onset of major depression, which has more than doubled in prevalence over the past decade.”

What Do Other MTs Think? 

I have been a certified massage therapist for 21 years, and for the past 17 years, I have had a full-time private practice that I love, but I acknowledge such work is isolating. In addition to private practice, 10 percent of my work is done as an employee of the Centura Health Integrative Medicine department at Longmont Hospital in Colorado. There, I get to work with many practitioners I used to teach with, and we all share the passion for helping guide massage therapy into the mainstream hospital setting. Our director is amazing, and she has cultivated a wonderful team whose skills in complementary and alternative medicine are unparalleled. One aspect that makes our team so unique is the depth of personal connection we have with each other. Many of us have been with the hospital for 15 years or more, so our roots with each other are deep.

For the past 16 years, my massage trading partner and I have a regular monthly standing appointment with each other. We are not only colleagues but are also good friends. In addition to regularly helping support each other’s self-care, we often connect between appointments, providing a sounding board for each other both professionally and personally.  

            —Kala Spangler, LMT

It’s so important to know which environment best suits your personality. Currently, I balance a sole proprietorship with parenting and honestly, I need the quiet and calm of my office. I’ve also enjoyed polar opposite environments; bustling spas and busy massage locations. I was never lonely or short on laughs. The key is to know yourself, be authentic, and figure out what environment, or mix of energies, will help you thrive. 

            —Joan Laubacher, LMT

What About Employees?

We often think that an employee setting equals instant community. We’re wrong. I’ve been an employee in several different settings—including a massage clinic and hospital—and they’re inherently just as lonely a setup as a solo practice. You’ve got other people in the same building, but the majority of the time you’re still alone in a room with a client. The exciting difference, though, is that there’s the potential for community. If you’re not lucky enough to work for a forward-thinking clinic owner who incorporates team building into their ongoing management strategy, you may need to proactively take steps to create a community. And, no, saying hello to them when they walk past your room as you’re changing the sheets between clients doesn’t count.

You don’t have to be working in an absolute state of social isolation for stress, anxiety, and depression to manifest. Limited social interaction, or social separation, can have the same effects. Also, you don’t have to be in a deep state of depression to experience the negative effects of the lack of a close community. It’s not all or nothing; there are degrees of affliction. Diagnosed depression rates are simply a measurable yardstick that indicate an increase in the larger societal problem that individuals are feeling disconnected. And with depression rates on the rise, we MTs need to be cognizant of, and proactive about, our own mental health more than ever.

In January 2008, I was a single therapist with a home office who overnight had gone from being around other massage therapists every day to working solo. I was everything these studies warn us about: isolated, anxious, and on the verge of depression. I had made the decision to build the part-time massage practice that I had always maintained into a full-time practice. I had a lot of work to do, and my support system was missing in action. I felt like I was all alone.

In retrospect, I had been really lucky in my job as an instructor/administrator. I was surrounded by colleagues who interacted with one another, listened to each other, and genuinely cared about helping each other be our best. Most jobs in the massage field don’t allow for that amount of in-depth interaction; everyone’s in their own individual treatment rooms doing their own work. But as wonderful as that environment was, having that readily available support team didn’t give me the tools I needed to know what to do now that I was on my own. I had to learn how to identify what—and who—I needed personally and professionally. I had to learn how to proactively reach out to others. I had to learn how to create my own community. My life shifted, and I needed to shift with it.

Your first thought might be to jump to the conclusion that a massage therapist who is single, lives alone, and has a private practice with a home office (like I was) is in the most danger of experiencing the negative effects of professional isolation, but a therapist with a family that works in a clinic may feel even more isolated if they are physically surrounded by people but don’t feel heard, valued by, or connected to those around them. Feelings of loneliness and isolation can sneak up on you no matter what your situation. They’re not picky and no one is immune.

Take a moment for a self-evaluation:

• Do you have people who you have face-to-face interactions with regularly who support you?

• Do you feel connected to others in your community?

• Can you rely on people in your network to encourage and help you when you need it?

• Do you encourage and assist people in your network when they’re in need?

• Can you say that the groups you’re connected to help you rise to be your
best self?

If the answer to any of these questions is a tentative maybe or an emphatic no, it’s time to cultivate your tribe.

What’s a Tribe?

The language of “finding your tribe” has made a resurgence in the last few years in the mainstream media and particularly on social media—often in the form of inspiring memes with happy people smiling and doing yoga together. Why now? Why is this particular message resonating so deeply with the American public? Because—even though we’re at a higher risk for it—it’s not just sole proprietors or remote employees who are feeling disconnected and experiencing depression.

A societal shift has taken place that has people looking face-down at technology and not eye to eye with their neighbors and community. These often-hollow electronic interactions with strangers can leave us feeling unfulfilled and disconnected. People also feel overwhelmed with the busyness of their schedule and commitments and allow less time for socialization in favor of longer work schedules, errands, and tasks.

These changes aren’t going unnoticed. We innately recognize the importance of going on the journey of life side by side with others who understand and support us. Just as if we were in a life and death situation, where we would rely on others to physically survive, we know we need others to help ensure our emotional survival. We recognize when we don’t have the relationships we need to thrive and when our life is becoming more isolated. We know there’s something missing. But we often don’t know how to take the first steps toward creating change.

Cue Sebastian Junger. His 2016 book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (Twelve, 2016)struck a chord with its message of tribal connection and brought the term back into the popular language (and onto memes). Junger has an interesting perspective on modern American society and its effect on individuals. As a journalist, he was embedded with American soldiers in Afghanistan and observed the effects that leaving a tight-knit community and returning to a “lonely society” had on the soldiers: anxiety, depression, and adjustment disorders. His targeted look at modern society spotlighted several ways that a society many believed was progressing toward a more promising future was actually less functional or healthy than it had been in the past.

Junger references self-determination theory, which “holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others.” Which of these are many of us in modern society missing? Feeling connected to others. Technology and convenience have all but eliminated our need for help from others. With a supermarket every half mile, people aren’t popping next door to interact with their neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar like we did in the past.

In fact, many of us don’t even know our neighbors or have any interaction other than a quickly murmured hello as they pass in the hallway or parking lot. Neighborhoods have become just a collection of houses. Even within the home, Junger identifies the social fracturing of the human bond that occurs when every individual is on a different device and not communicating face to face, when people are prioritizing online interactions over relationships with those who are immediately around them.

Junger reminds us that people feel deeply content when they have safety, meaning, and connection. Independence does not always equal contentment. And it’s easier than ever to be independent to the extent of isolation.

What does all this mean for you? It’s highly probable that the isolation and social fracturing that Junger talks about on a larger scale—the modern American society—are happening in your own life to some degree. They were in mine. Are you creating opportunities to connect with and rely on others on a regular basis? Are you spending time looking at an electronic device in place of connecting with others face to face? Add an isolating profession like massage therapy to an increasingly isolated society and you have potential cause for concern.

Junger isn’t the only one calling attention to the importance of connection. In a Psychology Today article, Marianna Pogosyan, PhD, reports, “Emotional consequences of belonging have been well studied. Bonds with other people can become causes for happiness. Supportive social networks can act as buffers against stress. The feeling of being connected to others can be a protective factor against depression.”

When I was building my part-time practice into a full-time practice, I should have been building my tribe at the same time, but I wasn’t. I often went days without having a meaningful conversation with someone else. I was consumed by building my own practice. I was providing chair massage to the staff at the local hospital during the day and seeing table massage clients in my home office at night. There was a lot of client-centered conversation, but not much Kristin-centered conversation. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I needed to reach out and connect with others, that this pattern wasn’t healthy. But honestly, I was working 10–12-hour days and giving a lot of myself emotionally to my clients. I wasn’t making time for my friends and had lost touch with my school colleagues.

Then, one day I had dinner with a friend who is also a massage therapist with a private practice and—amidst the life talk about politics, dating, and our parents’ health—we started talking about our practices and marketing and how challenging it is on every possible level to not have a fixed and reliable amount of revenue coming in every week. And I exhaled a deep long breath that I wasn’t even aware that I was holding. And a shift happened in my being. And I got it. I got how down-to-the-core important it was to have someone to talk to. Someone to bounce ideas off. Someone to understand the challenges and, just as equally, the joys of the work. I understood that I didn’t have to be independent. That there was no prize for doing it all by myself. That, in fact, there was a greater prize in sharing the journey. In that moment, I learned how important it was to make time for a tribe.

The language of “finding your tribe” resonates because deep down we recognize we need to connect with others. Whether we feel isolated personally, professionally, or both, we know we want and need to find or strengthen our tribe. But how do we do that?

Creating Your Tribe: Overview

First, let’s acknowledge that belonging to a community isn’t a magical elixir for life. Not every moment of your existence will be full of sunshine because you’ve connected with your “people.” But if you’ve found the right group of people, they’ll support you through the tough moments just as fiercely as they will help you celebrate the good ones. They’ll be honest with you and hold you accountable when you need it. And you’ll do the same for them. It’s a group where you don’t need to maintain pretenses or tell white lies about how things are going in your life. You can truly let down your walls and be your genuine and authentic self. And, most importantly, be accepted for it. Life and work challenges will seem more doable and less daunting because you’re not navigating them alone.

Secondly, know that you may have a few false starts as you seek and build your tribe. Trust your instincts. If you experience a false start, do a check-in before moving on. Were you being your genuine self, or were you bringing old self-defense habits into the experience? Like online dating, you won’t make a meaningful match if you’re not being honest about who you are today—not presenting who you want to be in the future or who you were in the past.

Third, it’s not usually a one-tribe-fits-all scenario. It often makes sense to cultivate relationships with several different tribes: work, personal, hobby-based, etc. For example, a massage therapist who has young children and who enjoys running might have separate local communities that include family, close friends, bodyworkers, other elementary school parents, or fellow runners.

Fourth, not all tribes are lifelong fits. You know the phrase about friendship being for a reason, season, or lifetime? Same goes for tribes. Evaluate the communities you currently interact with: are they still a good fit for you? As we change over time, our needs and wants evolve and the interactions and people that fueled us before might now leave our tank on empty. If you find a current tribe is still a good fit, ask yourself if you’re as engaged as you’d like to be, or if it’s time to reinvest some time and attention into those relationships.

Fifth, the visual that tends to pop into people’s minds when they hear the term tribe is 10–15 people, but a tribe can also be—and often is—two to three people. I tend to gravitate to these smaller tribes. When I really want to share and brainstorm and be totally honest about what I’m thinking and feeling, I want to do that with one or two other people. I want to make eye contact with my tribemate. And be shoulder to shoulder with them on one of our solve-all-our-problems walk ’n’ talks. I don’t want to try to do that during the commotion of a larger group.

This Only Applies to Introverts, Right?

There’s so much discussion about the differences between introverts and extroverts and what comes easier to which group. The first reality is that most of us are a complex mix of the two. The second reality—and this is the important one for this conversation—is that even if you are mostly an extrovert and you find it easy to make connections with others, it doesn’t make the massage profession any less lonely. Extroverts still spend most of their time working alone in a treatment room with minimal interaction with anyone other than clients. Extroverts still need to put time and effort into creating and cultivating community, just like an introvert. The two types may just go about it differently. Extroverts may seek out a larger group of people and spend a lot of time with them. Introverts may connect with one or two people at a time and balance time with others with time alone. As the Thai phrase goes: same, same but different. Same lonely profession and society, same goal of finding community, just different ways of going about it.

5 Ways To Create Your Tribe

We’ve arrived at that often-precarious precipice where ideas meet action. You recognize the importance and value of creating a tribe, but you freeze before taking the first steps toward cultivating those relationships. Usually that’s because you either have some internal work to do to overcome fears and/or you’re not sure what steps to take to move forward. I wish you luck with the former and offer the following to help you with the latter.

Here are five steps to help you find, build, and benefit from your tribes.

1. Clarify

Start by asking yourself, “What do I want?” and “What do I need?” What gaps can you identify in your current support system? What do you have to offer others and what would you like to gain? What type of tribe would meet your current and most-pressing needs? The answers to these questions will help you focus your efforts and spend your limited time wisely.

2. Identify

There are many different categories of tribes you can belong to and benefit from. Where do you start? To avoid feeling too overwhelmed, it may help to think of them in terms of two general categories: personal and professional. Then, within those categories, make a list of the different subsets that align with your interests.

For example, I love triathlons, so I’ve been a member of running groups, but I had never joined a cycling group. I identified that I’d like to connect with other cyclists in my area (even though I’m a bit afraid of the dangers of big group rides on busy roads) so that went on my personal list.

Prioritize your lists and identify one personal group and one professional group you want to focus your initial efforts on.

3. Research and Act

Now that you’ve identified which two categories of groups you’re excited to connect with, you’ve got to find them, join them, or create them! Sometimes it’s as easy as identifying that you want to expand your connections with other small business owners so you attend the chamber of commerce speaker series or, for me, joining a local cycling group. Other times, you have to do some legwork and research.

Use online resources and tools—like Meetup, Facebook, and Nextdoor—to help you find local activities with like-minded people. Read the online newspaper’s upcoming event section to discover opportunities to meet others with shared interests.

If you can’t find a planned activity, you may need to be proactive and create your own connections. Call that acupuncturist you’ve been wanting to brainstorm with and invite her to tea. I chose to proactively get back in touch with my massage school friends and colleagues and rekindle the relationships that were naturally lost when we were no longer working in the same building together. The key here is not to give up if your tribe isn’t preexisting and readily available.

Let’s not sugarcoat it: the taking action portion of “Research and Act” is often the hardest step, isn’t it? It’s pretty easy to identify groups you want to connect with, but showing up in person and putting yourself out there can be a palm-sweat-inducing, pit-of-the-stomach experience. Getting a friend to go with you—even if he’s not a small business owner and has no interest in the chamber of commerce speaker series—and reminding yourself of all the potential rewards (over and over like a mantra) can often give you the courage to take that first step.

4. Engage

The journey isn’t over when you find or create your tribe. You need to actively engage with them. To show up. To participate to make time for them. And when you do show up, you need to give as much as you get. A tribe is founded on mutually beneficial relationships. It’s different than a group of acquaintances that you see in person a few times a year. They’re people you see regularly so you can offer ongoing support to each other. And the act of giving and supporting will have as many positive repercussions as receiving.

I joined that cycling group, but then I didn’t make time for them. I didn’t attend a single group ride or social event. Partially because of my fear of the group rides on the busy roads, sure, but mostly because I was letting my practice consume me. And then I realized that I needed to prioritize making time for other people. That running my full-time practice could easily take all of my time and energy and leave me isolated if I let it. And that it wasn’t healthy to let that happen. That I needed to do better.

5. Benefit

The benefits of belonging to a supportive tribe are boundless. They give you the opportunity to brainstorm, troubleshoot, problem solve, and reenergize. Feeling connected to others affords the reassurance that you’re not in it alone. You can flourish because you have allies on the journey who fill your needs for connection and support.

My Tribe

Looking back over the past 10 years since I found myself alone in my massage room and started actively rebuilding my tribe, I’m overwhelmed to think of all the experiences we’ve helped each other through: inappropriate behavior from clients, office moves, practice-halting injuries, kids, divorce, and the loss of a parents. All of these and thousands more major and minor conversations over the years make up the fabric of my tribe. We share the joy of our successes and help each other through the challenges and disappointments. I’m grateful for every single member of my tribe. I don’t take them for granted.

From one member of this (sometimes) lonely profession and society to another, I wish you all the best on your journey to find your tribe!


Fábrega, Marelisa. “How To Build Your Tribe—Finding ‘Your People.’” Accessed September 2018.

Fox, Maggie. “Major Depression on the Rise Among Everyone, New Data Shows.” Accessed September 2018.

Ilardi, Stephen. “Social Isolation: A Modern Plague.” Accessed September 2018.

Junger, Sebastian. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. New York: Twelve, 2016.

Lambert, N. M. et al. “To Belong is to Matter: Sense of Belonging Enhances Meaning in Life.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 39, no. 11 (2013): 1,418–27.

Pogosyan, Marianna. “On Belonging: What is Behind Our Psychological Need to Belong?” Accessed September 2018.

Steffens, Niklas et al. “A Meta-Analytic Review of Social Identification and Health in Organizational Contexts.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 21, no. 4 (July 7, 2016): 303–35.

Walton, Alice. “Why Work Relationships Affect Our Mental And Physical Health.” Accessed September 2018.

Kristin Coverly, LMT, is the manager of professional education at ABMP. She’s a massage therapist with a business degree who cares about you and your practice and loves providing tools and education to help you succeed. Watch her webinars at and contact her at