Tackling Tough Times

By Nina McIntosh
[Heart of Bodywork]

How are you weathering the financial downturn? Has the challenge gotten your practice-building creative juices flowing or do you find your professional self-respect dwindling with your client numbers? Is all this gloomy talk getting you down? Here’s a note from a recent massage school graduate:


Help! I just graduated from massage therapy school and now I’m wondering if all the training was worth it. I’m trying to start a small, private practice and I’m also working in a spa where all the massage therapists complain constantly about the economy.

I love doing massage, but I have several concerns. First, are things really that bad by comparison with a few years ago? Will I be able to earn a living or should I give up and train for some other profession? Second, do I need to lower my standards to be able to have enough clients? I was taught to have high professional standards and to honor professional boundaries. But some of the massage therapists at the spa tell clients they are expert in techniques when they aren’t. The clients don’t seem to know the difference. And third, should I be more aggressive in winning and keeping clients?

There is a very competitive vibe at the spa among the massage therapists, a dog-eat-dog atmosphere. It makes me uncomfortable. I could use some advice and encouragement.

L.S., Houston, Texas


Thanks for writing. I’m sure you speak for many graduates, as well as experienced practitioners, who may be feeling discouraged in the current economy. What follows is some advice that I hope will be helpful in keeping both your professional pride intact and your confidence high. I conclude with what I think is the key to any massage therapist’s success.

Keep Your Spirits Up

For most people, building a massage practice has never been easy. Right now, everyone knows the economy is going through a rough time and it’s taking a toll on some people’s practices (but not everyone’s). And no one knows when things will begin to turn around.

Though it’s not useful to dwell on the negative, that’s easier to say than do, especially if we judge our self-worth by the number of clients we see each week. So, the first rule is, don’t blame yourself for what is beyond your control. The second is, given the slow economy, you might want to find a financial backup right now—something that makes money and keeps you from feeling desperate. Third, keep networking and trying new ways to attract clients. Some people like to give talks to groups to get better known, others like to fine-tune their website or think of new ways to drive traffic to their website, or to offer discounts. All of those approaches can work, so do what is easiest and most fun for you.

My own experience sounds magical, I admit, but I found that when my Rolfing practice was slow, if I put my energy into just about anything—whether it was planning a Rolfing demonstration in a nearby city or even doing volunteer work unrelated to bodywork—pretty soon my practice was healthy enough that I didn’t have time to do the demo anymore and had to excuse myself from the volunteer work. Maybe it seems obvious that sitting around waiting for something to happen isn’t useful, but many of us have had to learn that lesson over and over.

If you tend to be hard on yourself when things aren’t going well, try instead to be gentle with yourself. If you spend an hour today on practice-building efforts, give yourself a pat on the back. (Although being kind to yourself isn’t the same as being self-indulgent, a rewarding scoop of chocolate ice cream sometimes can’t be beat as a motivator.)

Appreciate Your Clients

These days when clients may be difficult to recruit, it’s good to be extra appreciative of the ones who are there—both in your heart and in that extra warm towel for their feet. Again, this doesn’t mean loosening your boundaries, which can be confusing to clients, but making sure they feel welcome. Small kindnesses can make a difference.

Right after completing Rolfing training, I had lunch with an experienced Rolfer, a woman in my community. She had a solid practice and I was eager to hear her advice about how to build mine. However, I was dismayed when her only recommendation was, “You need to smile more.” I brushed this off as a trivial suggestion. It took a long time before I realized she was right. Looking somber can make clients feel judged. Clients need to feel that we care for them.

Don’t Lower Your Professional Standards

When the rent is due, it may be tempting to fudge a bit on your usual values. For instance, you may consider telling a client you’re accomplished in a technique you barely know, working when you’re sick, or even ignoring a new client’s inappropriate sexual remarks.

But a red flag should go up when you hear yourself justifying your choices with “I need the money.” Stepping outside your usual principles puts you off center and clouds your judgment. I learned that lesson the hard way more than once, but this was the most dramatic example:

When I had a Rolfing practice in Memphis where the World Wrestling Federation grooms its rising stars, I received a call from a wrestler who wanted just one session to fix his shoulder. Several things about his request were outside my usual way of working. First, I preferred working with people who intended to go through a 10-session series, which gave me a chance to balance out the work. It was often physically and personally transformational for the client. Second, it didn’t fit my idea of helping people become healthier by doing a quickie repair on his shoulder so he could go back to slamming people on the canvas and being slammed. Third, this client wanted an appointment later in the evening than I liked to work.

But I told myself I needed the money. Halfway through the session, I asked the client to stand up so I could see how his structure was holding the work. When he sat back down on the not-so-new table, he landed hard, as though he were in the ring, and popped the supporting cable.

I finished the session on another table, and he didn’t offer to pay for the broken one. It cost me more than the price of a session to get that table fixed. So much for needing the money.

Certainly, there are times when we have a legitimate reason for making an exception for a client, but be sure that your reasons aren’t driven by finances. When we lower our standards, clients may also lower their respect for us and assume their inappropriate behavior is fine with us. Or they will challenge our boundaries in other ways, such as not giving enough notice when they cancel (or even not treating our tables gently).

On the other hand, if lowering your standards means pitching in when your spa boss asks you to help clean up the spa, you may need to swallow your pride and be glad you have a job.

Build a Supportive Community

This is my number one recom-mendation. In my experience, by far the most beneficial action you can take to help your career is to align yourself with other massage therapists whom you respect and with whom you have regular contact.

Having a competitive attitude with other massage therapists is a counterproductive mind-set. No one else has what you have to offer—your skills, style, enthusiasm, and unique personality. You will attract your own clientele. You want to be clear and assertive in selling yourself, but keep focused on what you have to offer rather than on besting a colleague.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that those who survive in this business don’t isolate themselves by having a competitive attitude. They have strong bonds with others in the profession and they put energy into those relationships. My own practice is healthiest and happiest when I am involved with colleagues I value who are enthusiastic about our work.

Let’s face it: as massage therapists and bodyworkers, we’re still swimming upstream. The culture recognizes us as having a legitimate profession more than it did 30 years ago, but the work, nevertheless, is not solidly accepted. We need all the support we can get.

When I teach massage school students, I urge them to stay in touch with their school buddies after they graduate. I also encourage schools to set up ways for alumni to get together on a regular basis. Having a strong community can make a big difference.

The fact that you love doing massage will carry you through the rough times. Clients sense when your heart is in your work. Join with other like-minded therapists to keep your spirits up. These days, people need massage and bodywork more than ever so that they can feel their best and be more peaceful during the challenging times.


 Nina McIntosh combines more than 20 years of experience as a bodyworker
with her previous years as a psychiatric social worker. She is the author of The Educated Heart: Professional Boundaries
for Massage Therapists, Bodyworkers, and Movement Teachers (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2005). To learn
more about professional boundaries and ethics, visit www.educatedheart.com.

 To learn more about illustrator Mari Gayatri Stein, visit www.gypsydogpress.com.