Proceed at Your Own Peril

13 Terrible Tips for MTs

By Ruth Werner
[Mind of an MT]

Did any of you choose a life in massage therapy because it looked like the path of least resistance? I didn’t think so. How many of you had to sacrifice, take risks, and invest more of your heart and soul into this job than you ever thought possible? And lastly, how many of you have strong feelings when you see others treat—both inside and outside our field—your job and your profession like it isn’t valuable?

Good. Because here’s a problem: when one massage therapist behaves like this profession isn’t important or has no value, it affects every one of us. Maybe not a lot, maybe not directly, but individual impressions aggregate and lead to larger attitudes. And those attitudes are spread to people outside the profession as well. When people see someone with the title of massage therapist behaving like their work doesn’t matter, it is much harder to make the argument that massage therapy is a respectable profession or that it is a useful option for health care and wellness.

So, I feel compelled to encourage every massage therapist to take your profession seriously. Which is a little different from taking yourself seriously, which I don’t suggest—and I hope this distinction is very clear.

So, in the fierce spirit of love for our profession, in appreciation of the importance of excellent self-care, and in the spirit of taking massage therapy—but not ourselves—seriously, I’d like to offer this not-exhaustive list of Terrible Advice for Massage Therapists.

1. Treat Every Client Like a Piece of Meat on the Table

Remember, that person is the least important and least interesting thing in the room. Instead of paying attention to them, use your time to mentally compile your grocery list, or, better yet, to strategize your next career move.

I have to tell you, I recently got a massage at a very high-end spa in another state. It was by far the most expensive session I have ever paid for, and I was really interested to see how it would go.

Here’s how it went: the therapist never made eye contact with me. She led me to my room and took no information about my health, my challenges, or my reason for seeing her. We were 20 minutes into a 50-minute session when she asked me about pressure. And when I was supine, she was going over my shoulder and it really hurt, and she didn’t seem to notice. And she was doing it over and over. I really should have ended the massage and said, “This is not working out for me,” but I sort of wanted to see how far this might go. So, I started wincing really hard. She didn’t notice. Then, I held my breath. Nothing. She was clearly in the wrong job.

2. Give Exactly the Same Massage Every Time

If it works for one person, it will work for all of them. After all, the body on your table at 10:00 a.m. is essentially the same thing as the body on your table at noon, and also the same as the one you’ll see at 2:00 p.m. Why go to the trouble of learning a variety of skills?

3. Never Learn Any New Skills

You have enough to get started; that should be enough to keep you going through an entire career. Why muddy the waters with new techniques, new skills, new ways of thinking about your work? That’s just a ridiculous waste of time. Clients really hate it when you’re excited to share a new skill that might help them achieve their goals.

4. Never Seek Out Any Sense of Community with Other Massage Therapists

You have nothing to learn from them, and they’re only competition. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to complain about other MTs to your clients, to make sure they always come back to you.

5. Don’t Take Notes or Keep Any Records

If clients are important enough people, you’ll remember all the key details the next time you see them. And if not, who really cares? Clearly this client is not holding a significant place on your radar.

And here are a couple of corollaries:

A. If you work in a setting where more than one therapist might see the same client, be extra sure not to leave any useful information in their file. No one else needs to know about a recent sprained ankle or that they don’t like to be in a face cradle.

B. Writing “same” on your record card for a repeat client is plenty of information for any future reference.

C. You can save yourself loads of trouble by simply filling out all your records for the day first thing in the morning. Who needs a pesky client to tell you what hurts anyway? This is a practice that also works well with sheet stacking: why change the sheets for every client? Just stack up your six bottom sheets at the beginning of the day, and then peel them off as you go. (I wish I could tell you I was making this up. I’m not.)

6. Talk About Your Clients to Other People

There are so many ways to make this work. It’s always a hoot to name-drop your famous clients, for instance. I once was at a dinner where a massage therapist regaled the table with his funny stories about working with a famous person, and then he imitated her amusing way of getting on and off the table. It was just fabulous (fabulously inappropriate).

7. Talk to One Client About Another Client

Who wouldn’t like to hear about your client who is a super-gorgeous, fit, and trim gymnast while receiving massage on their own imperfect body? And just because you freely discuss personal things about one client with another, I’m sure that no one would ever suspect that you might do the same with them.

8. Post On Social Media About Today’s Client

You know, the one who has stinky feet. Or hairy-back guy. No one will ever see Facebook or Twitter, right?

9. Convey Lots of Judgment Toward Your Clients

You can judge what they eat, if they drink coffee, if they smoke … I once had a fascinating conversation with a young man who was eager to open his practice in which he intended never to work with overweight people. And there was that delightful Facebook thread in which a woman posted that she adds a “fat surcharge” to her overweight clients because they’re so much more work. I wanted to know if she also charges more for tall clients, since they require more steps to move from the foot to the head of the table.

10. Fill the Quiet Spaces in Your Session with Friendly Chatter

This is especially true when you talk about religion and politics. Sometimes clients will want to talk about personal challenges. Be sure to interrupt them and change the subject to talk about you: they especially love to hear all about your own injuries and illnesses.

11. If Your Client is Not Getting Better on a Schedule That Suits You, Be Sure They Know It’s Their Fault

If they flinch or wince during their session, also their fault—they should know better.

12. If Your Client is in Pain, Emphasize That They are Brittle and Maybe Going to Break

“Boy, you’re a real mess” is a phrase that’s sure to keep ’em coming back. Treat them like they’re made of spun glass. Don’t teach them any self-care or home-care strategies; that will just shorten the time they need you. Build a culture of dependence: that’s what leads to long-term clientele.

13. Stay Up Late, Get Up Early, Work at Full Speed Every Day

Eat whatever you can find, whenever you can find it. And for heaven’s sake, don’t ever get any quiet time or exercise. Because you will be this young and strong forever.

Please Ignore All That Which Came Before

Would you seek massage from someone who behaves like this? I hope not. And yet, these actions are not uncommon. I see them being done and discussed in public forums every day. I have seen people using our title of massage therapist complaining about clients in public. I have seen people using our title who allow their liability insurance to lapse and then cause a serious injury. I have been treated like a piece of meat on the table. I’ve been scolded by my massage therapist because I flinched when her touch was too deep, too fast.

How does this happen? How did those fresh, eager, motivated people end up like this? I think lots of reasons contribute, but the biggest one is that somewhere along the way people lose their belief that the work has deep value that goes far beyond an hourly rate. That’s when the shortcuts begin to creep in. That’s when we stop taking care of ourselves—physically, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually, and that’s where things begin to fall apart. When you don’t take care of yourself, you don’t thrive. Your clients don’t thrive. And the profession doesn’t thrive.

So, today, I have a call to action for all MTs. First, take care of yourself. Second, watch for behaviors in yourself and in your colleagues that devalue our profession. Offer your supportive feedback to make appropriate adjustments in those behaviors.

Because we need you. The profession needs you. So few people can claim to have a following that is so clearly and purely devoted to service and to making the world a better place. We need your heart, your energy, your dedication, and your mindful influence on the future.

I am a pretty realistic person. I would love for you to remember that a geezer like me has every faith that you not only can but will move our profession forward. What does that mean? I hope it means you will take your work seriously. I hope it means you will remember that from the moment you greet a client to the moment you wave goodbye, you are setting a standard—not only for yourself, but for everyone who calls themselves a massage therapist. Set that bar high.

I’d like to finish with a thought by an Indian poet named Rabindranath Tagore:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.

I awoke and saw that life is service.

I acted and, behold, service was joy.