“Just relax your shoulders, now. I’ve got it.”
“I know, I’m always trying to help.”
“Yes, I understand, I really do. But you help more by not helping.”
This is a conversation we have, you and I, when you’re supine on my table and I go to skootch under your shoulders with my hands, so I can get to your upper back muscles, and I feel you tense and lift. Or when I go to work down your arm: When your arm is stiff and your elbow locks and you hold out each finger for me when I go to massage them.
This is the little bit of conversation we do have, since there’s not a lot of talking, and when I say “just relax now” I am using what I hope is the most encouraging, friendly tone. Because I do understand. I really do.
Helping is a lovely quality, whether we’re moving our limbs around for our massage therapist, or picking up our neighbor’s newspaper for him and tucking it in his mailbox, or hoping to inspire a family member to quit drinking. Our intention is undeniably excellent. A gold star, five gold stars, for The Helper. I give myself props for it whenever I can. “Good for you, Kristen” I say to myself. “You really want to make a difference. I like that about you.”
“Helping” is what a lot of us do to ensure another’s happiness. We don’t want to put anyone out. We are scared of looking like we don’t care, or seeming selfish. We want to be the one who makes a difference.
There’s basic courtesy, mutual respect, and then there’s helping. I’ve waited tables and had customers try to help me figure out which table is going to open up first, or try to help me seat people. Pretty easy to spot how how incredibly annoying that is, right?
But when we do it, what we say to the other person is, “Well damn. I was just trying to help,” and behind that is quite a healthy dollop of indignation. Don’t get annoyed, because I was trying to help, could be the subtext. And, even farther under that, could be: you idiot.
So we help even when it hasn’t been requested. Even if we’re paying someone. And oh my goodness are we good at it. Sometimes, the better of a job we’re doing, the more annoying it is. Heated conversations — with mean words and a lot of stomping about — usually involve the phrase “just trying to help” at some point.
I’m not saying everyone who tries to help me by lifting or moving their limbs around in session is a Helper, but when I watch my clients try to help me in session it makes me consider what helping is. The sunny side of helping is: we really do want to help someone. The dark side of helping is: we don’t trust them.
For a lot of us, this is based on cold hard experience: we’ve been hurt, we’ve watched people go down the tubes, we’ve become increasingly annoyed by a bad situation and so we just start helping, just to do something to fix what is unbearable. We start anticipating more and more when help is required, then, and it becomes A Thing we do without even realizing it.
Even when the best, maybe healthiest response, is to step back. Relax. Watch things unfold. Unclench our grip.
“Not-Helping” in a massage session is a great opportunity to practice kinesthetically what might be difficult for us to manifest behaviorally. Often what we learn in the body brings simpler, more relaxed understanding to parts of ourselves that cannot and will not be nudged, budged, or unlearned by any other means.
Massage therapy is so good for so many things, not the least of which is learning when to engage, and when to let go, and you and I are both doing this during your session.
Because you know what? Sometimes I really do need your help. One of those moments where I absolutely, 100% require it? Is when it’s time for you turn over. Yep, I cannot do that for you. (interestingly enough this is one of those moments where I get the least amount of cooperation: I’ll never forget the time that, after I finished my back work with one long-term client, I gently encouraged her to roll supine. A substantial amount of time passed, and I thought she might be completely asleep. Then, in a very petulant tone, from the muffled depths of the face cradle, she said emphatically: “NO.”)
More occasions for you to help: I’m not going to put the bolster in or take the bolster out without lifted knees, please. If you could move up into the face cradle a little more that would be good.
Also? Please let me know if something isn’t working for you. This past week another long-term client finally remembered to tell me she couldn’t breathe well when lying prone. Together, with “creative bolstering” as I’ve learned it from Tracy Walton, we got her comfy.
But the rest of the session: I’ve got it. I can help your body if you don’t try to help me with the helping. When I go for your arm, let it flop into my hands like an overcooked noodle. When I go for your shoulders, let them unfurl over my fingers. If I scoop up under your lowback or knees: it’s better for us both if you just let it happen.
Speaking of knees: today I saw a client who did not want me to work with them. Not only not work with her knees: not touch her knees. She described why, and my first response was, “But massaging your knees…could…help that?”
Here is where *I* work with my five-gold-star-ness. I wanted to help her, you see. I felt that I knew better than she did about what she wanted.
I saw it, claimed it, tagged and bagged that thing, and immediately followed the question with, “…but of course I won’t even touch them. What *would* feel good for your legs?” And we came up with a plan of action for her leg massage, that did not involve me touching her knees, and in session I honored that request completely, even though everything in me wanted to Help Her Knees by massaging them.
And that’s the good news, is that when we stop helping we start listening. What would really be helpful here? What does this person need from me, truly? If I love them, if I like them, even if I have the most basic regard for this person (like my neighbor with his sluggish paper retrieval), it might feel better — for both of us — if I’m more curious than assumptive.