Red Flags: Exceptions

By Nina McIntosh
[Heart of Bodywork]

Most of us understand that we’re running a business as well as helping people heal their bodies. We know that businesses need policies to keep our practices within boundaries and allow us to do our best work. For instance, perhaps you charge $70 for an hour, don’t work after 8 p.m. or on Sundays, and you reject clients who make sexually inappropriate remarks. But, if you’re like many massage therapists, every now and then you make an exception and you may give a client a $10 discount or schedule a Sunday afternoon massage or let it slide when a new client flirts. They seem like such small exceptions—what could be the problem?

When you make an exception to your policies, it could be no big deal or it could turn into big trouble. It depends on why you made the exception. You create your policies for good reasons—for instance, to make enough money to live on, to give yourself enough down time, to protect yourself and your reputation, or to honor your values. The way you set up your practice provides a safe structure for you. When you make an exception and step outside that safe structure, you need to have a good reason for doing so.

There are some good reasons for making an exception to policies you’ve established: you might give discounts to students or senior citizens who are on a fixed income or you may work during your normal off-hours for someone who is in town for only a short time, see a client in crisis during your off-hours, or excuse a regular client who tells an off-color joke if you think he means no disrespect.

There are also some not-so-good reasons for making exceptions, reasons that send a wrong message to the client and that should send up a red flag to you: “Warning! I’m about to get into a world of trouble.” The rest of this article concerns itself with those reasons.

In my own practice, both minor and major disasters have resulted from making special arrangements for a client without good reason. At the time, I justified those exceptions in my own mind, but I was usually just making excuses for not setting limits well, for not taking good care of myself, or for giving in to a manipulative client. Here are some examples of those flimsy justifications.

 I want to be nice

When I was a certified Rolfer, I had a client who was a massage school student and wanted a 10-session series. He wanted to stretch out the full payment for the series over several months, finishing up his payments some months after the sessions were completed. Although there were other options for a client on a tight budget, such as spreading out the time between sessions, I gave in to his plan. I wanted to be seen as benevolent toward future colleagues and there was a lost-little-boy quality about him that hooked me.

It didn’t work out well for me. As the work went on, he often cancelled at the last minute with a poor excuse. After we finished, he didn’t make his payments on time and took a long time to pay off the debt.


What went wrong? When we ignore the professional standards we have for ourselves, we invite clients to ignore them also. Clients may then start coming later, not paying on time, or being out of bounds in some way. I took this relationship out of a professional realm and into one where I fashioned myself as the client’s special helper or perhaps a mother figure. It probably would have served him better if I had treated him like the adult he was and held him to the same standards as my other clients.

When we do a special favor for a client or shrug off a client’s consistent lateness or frequent last-minute calls to cancel, we sometimes tell ourselves we’re being nice. In this instance, “niceness” can come from a fear of not pleasing others. Of course, we may have those fears, but we can’t let them run our practice.


I need the money

I was working in Memphis, where World Wrestling Entertainment has a training ground. A wrestler called, wanting an appointment much later in the evening than when I like to work. In addition, rather than the usual series that might help him become more aware of his body and relieve broader tension patterns, he wanted just one session that would focus on an injured shoulder. His goals for the session—a quick fix that could allow him to return to wrestling—were contrary to my wish to help others learn to be kinder toward their bodies. However, I was having momentary financial concerns, so I agreed to see him.

Halfway through the session, I asked him to stand up so I could see how his body was adjusting to the work. When the big guy sat back on the table, he landed like he was hitting the canvas. The supporting wires popped and the table collapsed. (Luckily another bodyworker in the office had a spare, which I used for finishing the session.) In the end, the cost of repairing the table was about the same as the fee for the session. (Alas, he didn’t offer to help pay for the table.)

So much for the extra income.


It’s difficult to say whether the client’s lack of sensitivity was directly related to my own lack of sensitivity to my policies and values. Perhaps his behavior was more out of habit than out of disrespect. However, being off-center and insecure isn’t the kind of emotional energy that I want to bring to a session. I wasn’t proud of myself or in any way pleased with the experience.

Financial needs can be compelling, and it’s tempting to think that they should come first. But, most practitioners find that exceptions made because they “needed the money” weren’t worth it.

I don’t want to offend the client

I had a great deal of trouble with a client who was, as time revealed, mentally unbalanced. In the first session, she asked for a $5 discount and I gave it to her. I told myself it was a small amount of money and didn’t matter, but the real reason was the woman scared me and I didn’t want to cross her. Wouldn’t you know? At the end of a series of sessions, she was totally unsatisfied. She ended up criticizing me all over town and even threatened a lawsuit until I gave her money back.


This incident is the only threat of a lawsuit I’ve had in 20 years of practice and one of only a handful of clients who haven’t been happy with the series.

Looking back on the experience, I can see that things started to go wrong during the initial interview when I gave in to her wishes for a discount. Five dollars doesn’t seem like much, but my willingness to make a rare special arrangement for this client should have been a red flag to me. I should have paid attention to my apprehension about her by either not taking her as a client or, at least, not giving her a special deal.

Not every client who wants you to make an exception will be mentally ill, but some mentally disturbed people are very good at manipulating others and pushing guilt buttons. When you feel within a short time of meeting them that you have to bend over backwards to placate new clients, or you start feeling responsible for them in some way, those are warning signs.

Set Policies Ahead of Time

Often when we end up with a troublesome situation, the problem can be traced back to making small exceptions. You came in on a holiday, you worked an hour and a half for an hour’s pay. We end up not only setting a bad precedent for the client, but, depending on the circumstances, practitioners can end up tired from working on their day off, annoyed with themselves because they worked with someone who was disrespectful, or resentful of a client who they felt took advantage of them. In the long run, it’s not good for us or for our practices.

We all make exceptions; especially for clients we’ve known a long time. We can make exceptions for long-term clients with less risk than we can for new clients because we’ve already established a solid relationship and there’s less chance of them misunderstanding or taking advantage of the situation.

What should you do to make sure you don’t end up in the bothersome situations I’ve experienced? The best rule is to decide what your policies are, and then be very careful about making exceptions to them. If you decide ahead of time when and for whom you would feel comfortable making an exception, you’ll be less likely to be swayed by a charming client who wants special favors or an aggressive client who has a hard time hearing no.

Be careful of the little voice that tells you that this client is special and can’t be held to your usual standards. Of course, all our clients are special. That’s why we want to provide the safety of a consistent structure for them as well as for ourselves. We need to make decisions based on our values and what’s best for the professional relationships. Those kinds of decisions are best made before you even talk with a client on the phone—and best not changed without a great deal of soul-searching about why you would do so.

A friend of mine has come up with a saying to remind herself to resist others’ attempts to manipulate her to do something she knows isn’t in her best interest: “Dare to disappoint.” In the end, you’ll be a lot less disappointed yourself.

 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. To learn more about professional boundaries and ethics, visit Contact Nina at

 To learn more about illustrator Mari Gayatri Stein, visit