For Crying Out Loud

This week, I had a bad day. I had a neck tension headache, with some real anguish behind it. I saw a client who had suffered profound loss in her life, and as I considered her in session, I found myself overwhelmed with sobs as I worked. How did I handle this?

Very, very quietly.

Weeping and crying are as welcomed in my massage office as bad jokes, snores and burps. “I may cry,” some clients like to warn me before they get on the table, as if divulging a bad character flaw.

“If it happens, let it happen,” I always counter. “I’ve got a great big box of tissues here for a reason. Plenty of tears in this room, mine and everyone else’s.”

Nearly empty, as you can see

Nearly empty, as you can see

When I attended the Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge, Mass. in the late 1990s, we learned many helpful things in the Skills and Dynamics of Therapeutic Relationships class. Although it bugged the hooey out of me at the time (I was perenially annoyed in school, it almost doesn’t bear mentioning, but I was. I had no idea what was happening to me and the not-knowing was disquieting), we did discuss what to do when clients come in and fall apart: be respectful of their grief, their personal space, hand them tissues, don’t explain away their sadness.

Basically, keep your heart open and your mouth shut.

They didn’t teach me what to do when *I* came in my office and fell apart. I had to learn that by myself, but inspiration came years after from an unlikely source.

I am – on top of being a massage therapist – a trained actress, with years’ worth of performance (acting and singing) under my belt. I spent the first 6 or 7 years of my life here in Midcoast Maine doing community theater and some semi-professional shows up at Penobscot Theater in Bangor.

I was in a production of “The Laramie Project,” directed by John Clancy. The ensemble was an actor’s dream come true: the material was heartbreaking, educational, terrifying and funny. The play dealt with the reaction to the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming.

During rehearsal we needed to enter the heartbreaking parts. We had to get accustomed to the incredible discomfort it brought up for all of us. Clancy, however, modeled sorrow: we wouldn’t be sure at all how we were impacting him, because he was so still when he watched us, but then we could see, at the end of our scene work: tears just rolling, rolling, rolling down his face.

Not a sound, not a shudder, not calling attention to himself in any way: just: pure grief.

As an actor it took your breath away, not only to know you were impacting your director in such a manner, but also that he was letting himself fall apart so fully, yet with respect to what you were trying to accomplish. It was beautiful to see him being so fully human — guileless, all heart — and so fully considerate.

Now, when I am broken by sadness while massaging someone, I spend very little time trying to decipher who’s pain I’m feeling. It’s theirs, it’s mine, who knows? Especially if you are moved to tears by a client who keeps losing, yet fights valiantly on. It can unleash savage, wracking sobs, where soon you’re crying for all humanity.

It has everything to do with how I behave, however. Like Clancy, I know what I’m feeling, but I want to let my client have what they’re having. Just because I’m crying doesn’t mean they have to 1) see me crying 2) know why I’m crying 3) join in. Maybe this massage is the first time they haven’t cried in 2 weeks; they don’t need seeing me all bunged up with waterworks. If it happens, I let it happen: but mostly, I think holding even this boundary firmly in place is important in the therapeutic relationship.

I want them to rest, which means, for them, not wondering why I’m crying. I owe it to them to keep it together enough to give them the massage they’ve been anticipating: I owe it to myself to let myself cry. And, blow my nose, wipe away my tears, and then sanitize my hands, just like I would if I had allergies or a cold.

And remind myself to get ANOTHER big box of tissues next time I’m at the store.

In closing: one of the great massage stories, courtesy of Trager.com:

Bodyworker in audience: “Do you encourage emotional release?”
Trager: “No, if it happens, I take care of it”.
Bodyworker, (seriously, notebook and pen poised for the response): “How do you take care of it?”
Trager: “I console them.”

What you just read is not my fault. It’s because my friend, colleague, co-conspirator and pants kicker Rowan Blaisdell talked me into it, and also, because I cannot resist a write-off: 31 Posts in 31 Days August Blog Challenge, Business Blogging School. Caution snuffed, perfectionism cast off like a smelly cloak: this is blog #17.

12 thoughts on “For Crying Out Loud

  1. As a massage therapy client who has been through a lot over the years, thank you for this. Thank you. I never knew/felt it was ok to cry. Never, until reading this. Your empathy and understanding is astounding and can be felt through your writing, despite never having met you.

    • Thank you so much Abi. I am so sorry you’ve been through a lot…I’m glad my post helped you feel understood. It’s okay if you cry. It really is. I hope you can have a massage where you feel it’s okay to cry, if that feels natural.

  2. Dear Kristen,

    I’d like to write the following about professionalism in the research literacy book I’m developing. Would it be ok with you?

    Thanks for considering it,

    Raven

    ==========

    Why meaning is important to us as aspiring healthcare professionals

    Now that we’ve got a clearer idea of how meaning operates, let’s talk about why it is so important.

    Throughout this book, I will claim that one of our main jobs is to create a safe place for clients to experience and make sense of their own meaning about themselves, their bodies and minds, their health and illnesses, and whatever else they are dealing with.

    For us to be able to create this safe space for clients to grapple with their own sense of meaning, we MTs must be secure enough in our own senses of meaning that we don’t need to lay them on our clients.

    It’s very important to state this professional principle explicitly, because treating massage as only a means of artistic self-expression or as only a business has no inherent or built-in brakes on this. If what we really want is to become healthcare professionals, then more responsibility is demanded of us.

    I suggest you take a moment right now to go read “For Crying Out Loud” by Kristen Burkholder. It’s really worth the time to do so. I think she did an excellent job of walking the walk, professionally speaking:

    “Now, when I am broken by sadness while massaging someone, I spend very little time trying to decipher who’s pain I’m feeling. It’s theirs, it’s mine, who knows? Especially if you are moved to tears by a client who keeps losing, yet fights valiantly on. It can unleash savage, wracking sobs, where soon you’re crying for all humanity.

    It has everything to do with how I behave, however. Like Clancy, I know what I’m feeling, but I want to let my client have what they’re having. Just because I’m crying doesn’t mean they have to 1) see me crying 2) know why I’m crying 3) join in. Maybe this massage is the first time they haven’t cried in 2 weeks; they don’t need seeing me all bunged up with waterworks. If it happens, I let it happen: but mostly, I think holding even this boundary firmly in place is important in the therapeutic relationship.

    I want them to rest, which means, for them, not wondering why I’m crying. I owe it to them to keep it together enough to give them the massage they’ve been anticipating: I owe it to myself to let myself cry.”

    ==========

    • Hello Ravensara. Yes, please, I would consider it such an honor to be included in what looks like the incredibly important book you’re writing. Thank you so much for quoting me. I couldn’t agree with you more: especially that we are there to create a safe place for our clients. “treating massage as only a means of artistic self-expression or as only a business has no inherent or built-in brakes” – YES. We are handling a most exquisite creation: a human being: for an hour or more: we cannot assume a thing, and that includes what we think they might like or need or appreciate from us. As Emily Rose Proctor says (Twitter @EmRoseProctor) ” Self-care prevents boundary crossing. Each person decides what their boundaries are. You don’t get to decide someone else’s boundaries.”

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