Your Belief System

By Terrie Yardley-Nohr
[Ethics and Etiquette]

Understanding and recognizing your own personal beliefs and values is important in the massage and bodywork profession, because these beliefs and values contribute to your professional ethics.

Examining the varied aspects of your personal beliefs, values, morals, and ethics will help you develop guidelines for your successful practice in bodywork. Success in your practice means not only financial success, but also the development of valuable and healthy therapeutic relationships with your clients and peers. 

Beliefs, Values, Ethics

A belief is what one personally feels is true, while a value is something that one holds in high esteem. Every person develops their own beliefs and values throughout their lives. A person’s beliefs are strongly influenced by family, culture, and exposure to a variety of situations. Some beliefs stay strong and true, while others can change as a person is exposed to different situations.

Often when individuals are asked who had the greatest influence on their lives, they naturally say it was their parents or other close family members. This is understandable, because it is these individuals with whom a person spends the most time in the first 15–18 years of life. Children trust that what they hear at home is right and true; only when they are exposed to other points of view do they begin to see there are other opinions and beliefs besides their own. During adolescence, one begins to see the wide variety of beliefs and values the world has to offer. 

The culture in which someone is raised also can define customary beliefs, habits, and traits, such as religious and social groups. The environment in which a person grows up can truly affect what a person believes. For example, a person who was raised in a rural setting versus an urban upbringing will most likely have different beliefs or values. The exposure one has had to world events, news, education, and other belief systems can also greatly influence how both a therapist and client think.

A community’s shared beliefs are generally influenced by tradition. A massage therapist opening a practice in one town may be looked upon as a welcome addition to the community, while in another community, a therapist may encounter opposition due to ordinances or rules enacted in the past to drive out prostitution.

As therapists, it is important that we examine our own beliefs and how they can affect our business. Personal beliefs can potentially interfere with how we interact with clients. Being an instructor of massage for more than 10 years, I have encountered a number of situations with students that could affect the relationship a therapist has with a client. For example, I’ve heard students complain that feet are dirty and gross, while others expressed difficultly working with someone who is overweight or from a different culture. It is important that therapists look outside of their environment and know that each time their beliefs are questioned, it may be an opportunity to learn and expand.

Values and beliefs define who we are, but can also limit the possibilities that may exist as a therapist. For example, if a therapist believes that feet are gross, she may decide not to work on the feet of her clients. What happens to the client who thinks that having his feet worked on is the best part of the massage? This client may seek out another therapist who can meet those needs. Therapists need to question if a belief is limiting their practice and relationships with clients.

Cultural differences, race, religion, and political beliefs are just a few beliefs that could be brought into the therapeutic relationship. Although we say these should not make a difference in a massage session, they can. Clients have values and beliefs, which are shaped by their life experiences, just as your values and beliefs are shaped by your experiences. Knowing when your beliefs may need to shift is an important part in your growth as an MT.

The key is knowing when beliefs and values should not change. Your values and beliefs contribute to your own personal code of ethics, which along with the ethics in the profession of massage, will determine how you act and treat other professionals and clients. Your values and beliefs will help you set your boundaries and parameters that ensure safety for both you and your clients.

Outside the Massage Room

Throughout their careers, most (if not all) therapists have encountered the “wink-wink” comments and innuendos at social gathering, once their profession has been disclosed to the group. Oftentimes MTs will avoid the debate, but when your profession or skills are called into question, it might be the perfect opportunity for some public education. Here are some hints to handle these uneasy moments.

Don’t Get Angry or Defensive

When you encounter an off-hand remark about your profession, remember that you have nothing to defend. You are trained in a wonderful career that has a very valuable place in society. Instead of getting angry, take a moment to share your enthusiasm. You might begin by saying, “You may not know how many doctors these days are sending their patients to massage therapists. Lots of research has shown how massage helps people become much healthier.” It doesn’t hurt to have a few of those research facts tucked away in your brain for someone who might be eager to hear the science of the profession.

The Person Making the Comment May Just Be Kidding

Friends and family like to have fun with each other. You might say, “I know a lot of people think being a massage therapist is not a real career, but I can’t wait to work in the health-care community and help people feel better.”

Take the Opportunity to Educate

An important responsibility of all massage therapists is to educate the public about what they do. Most negative comments are made because people simply do not understand this type of work. You might say, “There are so many misconceptions about what massage therapy really is. To practice in most locations, we are required to have extensive training, such as a minimum of 500 hours of school. In most states, we are a licensed profession, much like doctors, nurses, and physical therapists.”

People are Often Fearful of What They Do Not Understand

Educating the public about the positive values of massage will help them learn what bodywork is all about. You can help calm their fears with information about the profession. You might say, “MTs are educating the public about the positive benefits of massage and working with clients to provide the safe and nurturing aspects of this work.” Remind them that before technology changed the course of the nurse-patient relationship, hospital nurses would often give massages to patients to help ease their pain and comfort them at night, and that nurses remain huge advocates of massage therapy today.

Learn to Walk Away

There are a few people you will not be able to educate or convince. Because of something in their background or belief system, they believe that bodywork is not a good thing, and no amount of talking will change their minds. These people will not become your clients. Sometimes it is better just to say nothing at all. 

Inside the Massage Room

We’ve all had clients who have made uncomfortable comments during a session. The client could be expressing a personal political opinion, telling a bad joke, or referencing a subject with which a therapist does not agree. This can cause a shift in the session and the relationship with the client.

Getting angry will easily translate into your hands and change the focus of the massage session. We have to put those conversations aside and concentrate on the bodywork that is being performed. Having the client work with you in the session with breathing and feedback can help move the session away from the conversations and back into the therapeutic relationship. Bring the conversation back to the reason the client is there: “Why don’t we take a quiet moment to focus on your massage so that you might fully get the benefits of this session.”

If the comment is out of line in regards to massage or overstepping personal boundaries, then by all means the session should end. Make sure you have good language on your client intake and health history forms regarding inappropriate client behavior during a session, and the consequences that will ensue, and make sure all new clients read, sign, and date that passage.

Talking with a mentor or other professionals in the field may help to reinforce your values or see the need to make a change. It is important for therapists to develop a strong foundation and become comfortable with, and proud of, the work you do. Clients, other health professionals, and the general public will gain a strong respect for who you are when they see how your values and beliefs are part of you as a practitioner. Your foundation needs to encompass not only massage skills and techniques, but also your beliefs and values in the massage and bodywork field.

 Terrie Yardley-Nohr, LMT, has been a massage therapist for 18 years, working both in private practice and medical settings. She began teaching massage techniques and ethics 13 years ago and became program manager at Anthem College in St. Louis, Missouri, 10 years ago. She is the author of Ethics for Massage Therapists (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006). Contact her at