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Why it's important to be your clients' massage therapist and not their counsellor

female massage therapist writing down notes whilst speaking to client on massage table

Entering a room, undressing, lying on a table, being touched by someone who, to begin with, is a stranger….the entire process of going for a massage is one that is open for people to feel at their most vulnerable!

Over time the trust developed between massage therapists and their clients is enormous. Massage therapists' work often helps to relieve the stress and negative emotions clients carry with them, but it can be easy for the conversation to spill into topics more commonly seen in a counsellors office. Especially when life throws it’s inevitable curveballs, our clients & patients can be left extremely vulnerable.

Client dealing with grief facebook post from Ellie Nole

Client dealing with grief facebook post from Jo Tylor

We all want to do our best to help our clients in these distressing times. However, it is easy for the bond that develops between massage therapist and client to cross the line into one of counsellor and patient.


So why is this such a problem?

As a massage therapist, it is crucial to understand that if you find yourself in situations where lines are becoming blurred, whilst you might have the best of intentions, crossing the boundary from massage therapist to counsellor can lead to legal trouble, threaten your massage therapy business and do serious harm to your client.  

To be a counsellor requires years of training and hours of supervised sessions before finally being allowed to work one on one with clients. Whilst offering friendly advice might seem harmless, by entering into these types of conversation with clients, in what is a therapeutic space, massage therapists would be stepping beyond the scope of their training and can lead to legal issues in the most extreme of cases.


Protecting your client ...and yourself!

Another reason why it is important to maintain the boundaries between massage therapist and client is that it can have a negative impact on your mental health and a knock on effect on your career as a massage therapist.

Counsellors are trained, for years and in depth, to spot the signs of different mental health challenges and more importantly to know how to support someone who is experiencing these difficulties.

As massage therapists, we are not trained to deal with these situations, situations which can be uncomfortable and challenging. As therapists, we can feel out of our depth and as a caring bunch we are reluctant to upset or offend people we can see are in pain.

Add to this many massage therapists are often entrepreneurs, who work hard to get clients onto their books and you have a pretty exhausting melting pot!If dealing with your clients’ emotions enters into this realm of counsellor, the relationship becomes too intense. It can take away the energy you need to give great massage treatments to your other clients and over time you can burn out.

So what can you do as a massage therapist, to support your clients but not cross any boundaries?

  • Remain empathetic, listen to your clients if they need to get any of their troubles off their chest, but use the first opportunity to return the conversation to the context of the massage.

  • You can use phrases such as “It sounds like you are having a really tough time at the moment” or “there has been a lot going on for you lately, that can create a lot of stress in relationships / in the workplace etc.” to avoid giving any advice without seeming unsympathetic.

  • Quickly refer to the ways you can help them to relieve any stress. Ask where they think they are carrying their tension or whether there is a particular scent of oil they find more soothing, to help move the conversation onto the massage therapy you are delivering.

  • Trust your instincts, it is common for people to want to share their feelings of stress or upset with their massage therapist. However, if a customer is anxious or struggling with their emotions over a prolonged period of time they may need more support than you can provide.

  • Create a list of local counsellors, doctors surgeries or government services someone who is struggling can access. Print these out and have copies handy somewhere discreet in your treatment room. Be gentle when offering someone this list, it may be something they haven’t considered themselves and the stigma around mental health is still a big problem. Gently suggest that maybe it might be worth them speaking to someone to help them reduce their stress to complement your work together with massage therapy.  

  • If you are aware someone is seeing a counsellor already, either because they have been referred to you or they have told you themselves, explain that you are only hearing a small percentage of what they will discuss with their counsellor and you wouldn’t want to jeopardise the work they are doing together. A subtle reminder of how massage can help them with any tension held in the body etc. can return the conversation to the value of the work you can do together with massage therapy.

  • If you have concerns that your client is suicidal, offer them the number of an emergency helpline like theSamaritansand urge them to seek help. If they continue to speak to you about their suicidal feelings without seeking help, speak to them softly about the impact this is having on the boundaries you need to keep and consider ending your sessions with them. If someone tells you directly they are going to kill themselves, leave the room calmly and call 999 for assistance.

  • If you find yourself with lots of client’s suffering from a specific mental health challenge, such as PTSD, anxiety or depression, do some research and look into training options. Gaining more knowledge can help you to be more understanding, feel more confident and learn techniques to maintain the appropriate boundaries.

  • Use resources likeThe Grief Massage Conversations and sharing experiences with other massage therapists to lighten some of the emotional load and feel confident in your approach.


Logo for the grief massage conversations podcast

We would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please share your experiences or comments with us in the section below. 


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