Emotional Freedom

Dr. Judith Orloff and the Importance of Internal Balance for MTs

By Lynda McCullough

“Be like a warrior—go in, do your work, move on.” That’s the advice of Judith Orloff, MD, noted author and founder of energy psychiatry. As an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, Orloff works with massage therapists and understands the gifts and challenges of their profession.

But how does one practice massage as though she is a warrior, and what is the value in that? Orloff says the path starts with knowing how to work with one’s own energy and emotions before ever laying hands on a client. Finding emotional balance creates emotional freedom, all of which helps the practitioner be a better “healer.”             

In her New York Times bestselling book, Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform your Life (Three Rivers Press, 2011), Orloff outlines how to find this emotional balance, and to live free of the constraints of negative emotions and energy.

Massage and Emotion

Massage, says Orloff, is both a vehicle contributing to emotional freedom in clients and a testing ground for the therapists who work with them. As a therapist and healer herself, Orloff particularly understands the sensitive connection with a client and the nuances of that relationship. As an empath, she understands the need for self-care in the context of that work.

“I work with a lot of massage and yoga practitioners who get burned out from taking on other people’s energy, and they can’t stand to do it anymore because it exhausts them,” she says. Emotional health is what these practitioners must have to stay grounded and balanced in their everyday work with clients.

Orloff says massage is an invaluable tool for releasing trauma and memories, while making way for healing. “You have to get into your body, which has memories, traumas, or trapped energy,” she says. “You have to dislodge all that.” She, herself, regularly seeks massage for her own emotional processing and healing, and she often refers her patients to massage therapists as well.

Finding balance is part of what we all seek; achieving energetic balance is what Orloff helps her patients discover.

Through touch and energetic balancing, we can learn about our biological and energetic states, ultimately becoming more attuned to our sensations, Orloff says. This balancing can help us ease tension, alleviate stress, and provide a baseline for what it feels like to be centered. Such work can help clients access awareness on many levels; the release of negative energy can make space for more positive energy and a sense of well-being.

Yet, this intimate work that touches the psyche can create problems for the therapist. How does one not only separate from the experience of the client, but also refrain from bringing negative emotions or conflicts into the work? Orloff says components of this journey toward balance include working with the energy, understanding oneself and one’s emotional life, mastering emotion, and self-healing.

How to Ground and Center

Massage therapists, more than most, understand the intimate connection between the physical and emotional, and are aware that emotional experiences are stored in the body. Some feel exhausted after working with clients and attribute their fatigue to pain and trauma held within clients’ bodies that the therapist is exposed to as she works. And yet, understanding this connection doesn’t alleviate the dilemma: the energetic exchange is tricky territory, and negotiating it, Orloff says, takes knowledge and practice.

Massage is a powerful vehicle for exchange of energy between therapist and client, and therapists need to learn to center and clear themselves in the midst of their work, Orloff says. “Massage therapists have to be sensitive, but they do not want to take on the energies and emotions of their clients. It’s not healthy. It is very important not to take on what isn’t your own. I want to underline the fact that you don’t want to do that; it doesn’t make you a better therapist,” she says.

The very sensitivity massage therapists bring to their work makes it more likely they will become overwhelmed by negative emotions and energy, pain, or struggle that their work alleviates in others.

“Separating from the client’s energy involves ‘Life 101’ skills, particularly if you work closely with others,” Orloff says. “Massage therapists and yoga teachers can absorb what is going on in others because energy fields overlap. Some practitioners get headaches and anxiety—empaths in particular will become exhausted.”

Orloff says massage therapists have to go into each session with the attitude that it’s not their business to take on other people’s stuff. “Some therapists feel they have to do that. A good example of that belief is that of faith healers at the turn of the century; many were obese, and they claimed they had to be fat so they didn’t take on their clients’ pain. Fat works, it buffers symptoms, but there are healthier ways to deal with the energies.”

These healthier ways, Orloff says, start with meditating and centering before and between seeing clients. She offers a quick, three-minute meditation: Sit in a comfortable, quiet place. Focus on your breath to quiet your thoughts. Breathe in calm. Breathe out stress.

“It’s important to completely detach when a client leaves,” Orloff says. “Don’t let them linger. Learn to move forward, to ground and center yourself between clients.”

Another helpful technique is to visualize an energy shield around you keeping negative energy out. In addition, she says, consciously think about how to prepare for a session, how to have your head in the right place, and how to protect yourself. After work, she suggests immersing yourself in water in the bath or shower, and meditating again to purify your body and spirit.

“Learn to set aside your personal problems,” Orloff says. “Be like a warrior—go in, do your work, move on. Do what you do 100 percent, then leave. It takes having strong boundaries.”

Such a strategy is as important for the client as it is for the therapist, Orloff says. “So much energy gets transmitted through the hands, and clients are vulnerable during massage. They want the therapist to be centered.”

Orloff had an experience herself that illustrated this reality. “I was speaking at a conference in Las Vegas on emotional freedom,” she says, “and I was given a beautiful gift of a massage in the hotel. But when the therapist started the session, I felt incredible stress and anxiety coming from her hands. I wrestled with myself about mentioning this and, finally, even though it was very hard, I had to stop the massage. I was very polite and sweet with her, but it was hard. She started crying and said she was under so much stress that she felt horrible. I empathized, but a practitioner shouldn’t work on someone until they clear the stress from their bodies, or it will get transmitted to the client.”

She explains that what happens to you during massage is imprinted on you energetically. So, just as a client can revisit and reuse the deep breathing exercise that was incorporated into her massage session, so, too, can she inadvertently revisit any of the negative energy that was part of her session. As an MT, your job is to not let that happen.

Understanding Emotion

Orloff describes subtle energy as one of four components of emotion. (The others are biology, psychology, and spirituality.) Being aware of these components as we learn to work with our emotions and to heal can bring insight to the process.

For example, when you are angry you can observe the biological effects of that anger, such as tightened muscles, constricted breath, pressure in your head, or an impulse to yell. Your amygdala stimulates adrenaline, and you get an energy rush that rallies you to fight. Blood flows to your hands, your heart pumps faster, you breathe harder, your pupils dilate, and you sweat. You become aggressive and you may yell, flail your arms, or barge into someone’s personal space. Biological variables that make us more susceptible to anger include built-up stresses. Anger and resentments that smolder over time can take their toll. When anger is chronic, the stress hormone cortisol can tire the body and make you feel edgy. The effects of anger are cumulative and may result in heart disease, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, or migraines.

Looking at anger psychologically, we find underlying fears, feelings of rejection, pain, or traumas, Orloff says.

Ultimately, we need to “uncover the spiritual meaning of anger and compassion,” she says, and consider how to bring compassion to ourselves and to others. Compassion “is a radical form of spiritual activism that lets you see deeper into anger than you’ve ever seen before. It requires observing this emotion from the top of the mountain, instead of at its own level. It involves a leap of consciousness to more understanding and empathy, and the ability to try to get needs met more peacefully.”

In moving from anger to compassion, set your intention to release resentments, cultivate forgiveness, make amends, and resist revenge, Orloff says. Learn from your past, and learn the skills of compassionate communication.

It is also important to learn how the energy of anger and compassion feel in one’s body, Orloff says. The energy of anger can feel “red hot, fiery, steamed up, like machine gun fire, battering, blistering, hurtful, impulsive, like you want to attack or do harm, like pressure building until it bursts.” In contrast, the energy of compassion feels warm in your chest—your heart opens, your body softens, and your mind quiets down. This energy, she says, feels nourishing. “It generates a palpably positive connection to others and spirit, unconditionally loving, intuitively on center, physically and emotionally cocooning and healing.”

Recognizing anger’s initial signs gives you the opportunity to transform it and move toward kindness. “Catch anger in the early stages, de-escalate it by working the perspective of compassion—train yourself to do this by becoming familiar with how the first energetic flickers of anger and compassion register in your body,” Orloff says. “Even though anger is loud and imposing, the quiet, calm energy of compassion, when focused, can override it.”

Working with these tools leads to what Orloff calls emotional freedom: “increasing your ability to love by cultivating positive emotions and being able to compassionately witness and transform negative ones, whether they’re yours or another’s.”

Orloff says “achieving emotional freedom doesn’t mean becoming bland, numbing our feelings, or spewing them indiscriminately toward others. It entails striving to develop everything that is positive within us, as well as being accountable for our full spectrum of feelings, mastering them, and realizing we’re so much larger than they are.”

Engage in Self-Healing

Being a healthy, grounded therapist also means practicing self-healing, Orloff says. “Learn to work with your own difficult emotions so they don’t clog you up. It is a life-long practice.”

“Consider life as a healing laboratory—part of that is healing emotions. It starts with committing to being aware of your emotions and your body. Then meditate. I am a big believer in meditation as a way to center yourself and connect with something higher than self. I don’t know what I’d do without meditation.”

Orloff says she also receives regular bodywork and acupuncture. “I depend on it to clear out toxins from my body, to clear the energy, to relax. Visions and memories come up. Negative emotions that become stuck in the body come up and flush out.” Regular movement, stretching, and yoga are important in self-care, as is using the breath to help center and relax you. Another tool is placing the hand over the heart to calm and nurture yourself and reduce stress; spending time near water can also help soothe the body and mind.

Emotional Vampires and Other Challenges

In striving for emotional health, it’s important to be able to recognize and deal with emotional vampires. “Most of us haven’t been educated about people [who drain us] or how to emancipate ourselves from their clutches. Emotional drain is a touchy subject. We don’t know how to tactfully address our needs without alienating others. The result: we get tongue-tied and destructively passive. We don’t speak out because we don’t want to be seen as difficult or uncaring.”

The worst of the emotional vampires can make people feel they are unworthy and unlovable, Orloff says. “But their antics are unacceptable, so you must develop a successful plan for coping with them.”

You can recognize someone who falls into this category by realizing the effects they have on your energy and body. You may feel your eyelids getting heavy (like you are ready for a nap) and your mood may take a nosedive. You might also feel put down, or that the rug was pulled out from under you, she says.

To handle encounters with emotional vampires, take a breath and center yourself; listen for intuitions signaling danger (such as getting the creeps or a tense feeling); stay calm and matter-of-fact; pause and develop a plan to handle the situation before you react; and communicate clearly, firmly, and with a neutral tone when setting limits.

Bringing it All Together

“It’s so relevant for massage therapists to learn these skills,” Orloff says. From understanding one’s sensitivity, to healing one’s own emotions and learning to manage them, to clearing and balancing energy, one can be more centered and find more satisfaction in their work when they’ve achieved the emotional freedom to which Orloff speaks. Clients will benefit from the clearer boundaries, and massage therapists are less likely to burn out. The connection can be mutually nourishing without exhausting the therapist.

 “Working with the emotions is part of becoming a whole person,” Orloff says. If you want to reach attainment, be aware of your mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical selves, she says, allowing healing to occur on all these levels. “Integration is the cornerstone to emotional freedom.”

Lynda McCullough is a freelance writer and yoga teacher who lives in Loveland, Colorado. She has written for magazines and trade associations that support mental and physical well-being. Contact her at mccullo3@msn.com.