The Goldilocks Principle

By Douglas Nelson
[Table Lessons]

 “I don’t really like massage very much.” “What? Seriously, you don’t like massage?”


I looked at Mr. J. with astonishment. Mr. J. is a very bright guy, full of life and energy, and a barista at a coffee shop not far from where I happened to be teaching that particular weekend. His statement completely surprised me.

“I just don’t like massage. I am sure what you are teaching is helpful, but I have had about six massages and I am done trying.”

“Was it the therapists, the environment, the massages themselves? What was so unpleasant?” I asked.

“My experience has been that therapists either use pressure so light that it doesn’t feel like anything is happening or that the pressure is so great that it feels like they are trying to kill me. There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium.”

“Do you mention this to the therapists? Did they adjust the pressure?”

“When I have tried to do that, the therapist inevitably defends the particular approach being used. Nothing changes. It just isn’t worth spending more money trying to find someone who uses the right amount of pressure for me.”

His words took the wind out of me. How sad is that? Here is a bright guy who doesn’t value the field of massage therapy because he can’t find someone to use the right pressure.

While I was recently teaching in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my friend Christopher referenced the “Goldilocks Principle,” a scientific principle that I have been thinking about ever since. Goldilocks found the extremes of things in the house unsatisfactory, while one was “just right.” In biomedicine, too much or too little of the same substance does not produce the desired effect. Success lies within defined margins, not outside of it.

In the world of massage, the Goldilocks Principle is certainly in play. With regard to pressure, there is an amount that is clearly “just right” for the recipient. Finding that perfect level of pressure is no small task, one that can be thwarted in several ways. First, if the therapist has a personal preference for lighter or deeper pressure as a recipient of massage, that therapist may assume everyone likes that same amount of pressure. Second, finding the pressure that is “just right” implies the client will give honest and accurate feedback.

Truthfully, this does not happen very often, leaving the therapist to rely on his or her perception. (When people have complained about incorrect pressure at my office, clients almost always say they assumed the therapist knew what he was doing and this was the way massage was supposed to feel. Since they had no experience with massage, they relied on the therapist’s judgment.) Remember, however, Mr. J. did give feedback and the therapists he saw tried to educate him as to why that particular amount of pressure was the “right” way.

Pressure alone is not the essence of massage; there are numerous other variables also subject to the Goldilocks Principle. The perfect amount of pressure in the wrong place will not be effective. In a recent session with one of my clients, ascertaining the precise location of his tissue restriction was an elaborate process.

“Try pressing a bit harder,” he said. “Nope, that isn’t exactly it. Close, but not quite. Try angling your wrist a bit. Nope, the other way. Better, but not yet. Wait, let me try moving my leg just a bit forward and see if that helps. Oh, that’s better. Perhaps if I rotate just a little. Whoa! Right there! Don’t move a millimeter!”

Throughout that whole process, I simply followed his directions because he clearly knew the exact spot that would replicate the all-too-familiar pain in his hip better than I could hope to. My job is to know possible suspects; his is to help me target the exact one that replicates his discomfort. The look of satisfaction on his face when we hit the “just right” spot with “just right” pressure said it all.

Pressure and location are only two factors of massage affected by the Goldilocks Principle; others include client communication and environment. The therapist must establish rapport with the client by asking questions and being engaged from the moment they meet. Being too quiet can be interpreted by the client as aloofness and disinterest, while talking too much can be seriously distracting to the massage experience.

The massage environment is also affected by the Goldilocks Principle—professional but inviting, temperature that is neither too hot nor too cold, music that is as ignorable as it is interesting, and a schedule that runs on time but never feels rushed.

With all the factors that intersect to create a wonderful experience for our clients, it is no small task to get it “just right.” There is great satisfaction in the effort; the grail is in the seeking, not the cup.

 Douglas Nelson is the founder and principal instructor for Precision Neuromuscular Therapy Seminars and president of the 16-therapist clinic BodyWork Associates in Champaign, Illinois. His clinic, seminars, and research endeavors explore the science behind this work. Visit or email him at