Holding the Line

How to Overcome the Fear of Communicating Boundaries

By Cindy Williams
[Classroom to Client]

Why does communicating a boundary feel scary? There are some people who skillfully and effortlessly hold their ground, but for many, it can be quite stressful. In a recent class I taught to entry-level massage students, simply discussing the topic caused them to sweat with anxiety, lose eye contact, and retreat. We hadn’t even gotten to the part where they practice using their words to communicate where the line is drawn.

Holding a boundary line doesn’t mean we are at war with anyone. Yet, the mere idea of doing so creates a thought of potential threat—otherwise the physiological response of fight-or-flight wouldn’t kick in. Regardless of the discomfort, it must be done.

Let’s explore why it’s so important to define boundaries, how to communicate them, why we might fear speaking up, and how to muster the courage to move forward rather than retreat.

Boundaries Defined

Ben Benjamin’s and Cherie Sohnen-Moe’s The Ethics of Touch, an excellent resource on ethics and the therapeutic relationship, defines boundaries as follows:

[Boundaries] are elusive, yet personally discernible, lines that distinguish you from everything and everyone around you. They define your personal space—the area you occupy which you appropriately feel is under your control.1

A few notable reasons why boundaries can be a tricky and uncomfortable subject is seen in the definition alone. Boundaries are elusive, meaning they are “difficult to define or comprehend,”2 they vary from person to person (as well as profession to profession), and they are controlled on an individual basis.

The challenge in setting boundaries starts with defining and communicating your own personal boundaries. The challenge then continues with reading, hearing, and responding to your clients’ boundaries, and carries on as we embrace our responsibility to uphold professional ethical boundaries that have been set before us.

Why Communication is Essential

Communication is essential in all healthy and positive-functioning relationships, personal and professional alike, because it clarifies parameters of the interaction. Therapeutic relationships in massage are unique from other professional relationships due to the inherent intimacy of the session. Therefore, clear communication is imperative to the safety, integrity, comfort, and overall physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health of everyone involved in the interaction.

Think about it. A stranger comes to you for a first-time massage session. You ask personal questions to gain a big picture of their wellness profile so that you can choose effective ways to support them. Asking them which medications they take can feel very personal, let alone asking what kind of stresses they are experiencing in life. You ask them to remove their clothes, and then you touch their body. In many modalities that involve the client being fully clothed, the client still lies on the floor while the practitioner hovers over them. Even though they have opted to be there and have this experience, in some cases—and without proper management of tone and presence—it can create confusion in the mind of the client, as well as the mind of the practitioner, resulting in potential boundary crossings.

Drawing the Line

Setting boundaries starts long before a potential boundary crossing occurs. Confusion is supported by subtle, yet powerful, cues that you and/or your client may not even be aware are being conveyed. In addition to communication, consistent awareness is a powerful force against confusion. Here are some ways you can set preemptive boundaries that reduce the possibility of subsequent confrontation.

Use professional words to market yourself. “Dr. Rubdown” would convey something far different than “Expert in Therapeutic Touch.” Using the word professional in all marketing communications is recommended.

Avoid unnecessary touch. Hugging without permission, holding a professional embrace for too long, or placing your hand on a client’s arm, leg, or back while interacting with them off the table, etc., can convey the message that nonprofessional touch is OK.

Avoid standing or sitting too close to the client during the intake and postsession feedback processes.

Choose a professional office space and location that offers an environment that is safe, relaxing, and supportive of privacy.

Wear a uniform or other modest attire.

Keep the conversation limited to what is pertinent to the session. This doesn’t require complete avoidance of personal conversation. It does, however, require keeping the client primarily focused on the therapeutic value of the work they are receiving and asking them to be present in their body rather than their head.

Provide an informed consent document, explain their rights as a client, and set expectations of the session from the very first appointment. Do not skip this step! It is the first in establishing a professional and clear interaction.

Explain to the client how the session will go—where they will undress, how much clothing to remove and why (and that it’s ultimately up to them to choose), how draping works, even what words they can use if they feel uncomfortable. Let them know you will check in periodically and follow through on that plan.

Understanding Fear

Fear comes from stories we create of things that have not yet happened. Stories of future outcomes might be based on previous experience, but present moment fear is still about the potential threat of what might lie ahead. Following is a small but common list of examples from students and therapists I have worked with. Be aware of your fears and face them with clarity.

Fear of losing a client by not offering them what they want. This example isn’t specifically referring to, or limited to, sexual wants. It encompasses the scenario of being unable to provide the service they desire, such as deep-tissue massage, energy work, or a modality you are not yet trained in. Performing a skill that you are not capable of, or trained in, crosses a client boundary, even if they are not aware of it. It is completely OK to tell a client you cannot offer what they are asking. Trust that either your client will be satisfied receiving what you can offer, or that another client who seeks your style of work will replace that client.

Fear that you are being too sensitive to, or misjudging, a situation. Let’s say you sense a client is flirting with you. They don’t say the words directly, but you sense it. Perhaps they talk negatively about a spouse. They might overcompliment you. They might bring you gifts. Whatever the case, if you feel uncomfortable, you must speak up.

I once had a client tell me he found me attractive while I was completing a massage session. I told him I felt uncomfortable and asked that he stay within professional boundaries by not making such comments. He replied, “Well, it’s not like I’m going to leave my wife for you. Calm down!” After he paid for the session, I told him I didn’t think we should work together further and referred him to another massage therapist. Perhaps some might say I was too sensitive. For me, it is more important to keep myself safe. Trust yourself.

Fear that a client will judge you and your choice of boundaries. As humans, we sometimes seek approval from others as ground upon which to lay our standards. We also like to be helpful and accommodating. That is fine, as long as you aren’t compromising your self-care, time off, happiness, or well-being. If a client asks you to schedule outside of your work hours, allow yourself to decline and offer the next available appointment instead. If a client keeps you well past the end of the session to talk to you about their personal life when you are preparing to leave the office, be OK with telling them time is up. It’s much healthier to the therapeutic relationship than resentment.

Mustering Courage

The best way to master any skill (and communication is a skill) is to practice. Ask a colleague or teacher to talk with you about how to address challenging situations, then practice. Discussion alone will not hone your skills. Engaging in practice of the skill will. Brainstorm possible boundary-setting scenarios, identify solutions, and script actual words that you might use in those various interactions. Role play with your colleague. It might feel awkward at first, but over time, you will gain the confidence and clarity you need to courageously move forward and through any scenario.

Lastly, put your feet solidly on the ground, take several deep breaths, and remember that setting boundaries does not mean you are in conflict or at war with anyone. Rather, you are setting valuable standards that support you, your clients, and the profession as a whole. You are a role model for your clients and colleagues. If you are preemptive, using professionalism as your safeguard, you are far less likely to end up on any battlefield.

Since 2000, Cindy Williams, LMT, has been actively involved in the massage profession as a practitioner, school administrator, instructor, curriculum developer, and mentor. She maintains a private practice as a massage and yoga instructor. Contact her at cynthialynn@massagetherapy.com.


1. Cherie M. Sohnen-Moe and Ben E. Benjamin, The Ethics of Touch, 5th ed. (Tucson: Sohnen-Moe Publications, 2014).

2. “Elusive,” Definition, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, accessed November 2019, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/elusive.