Abrasive Clients

Other people’s moods and attitudes affect us. It’s an obvious statement, but still worth pointing out. We’re social creatures by nature, empathic. It helps us communicate when we can share the same emotions. Your friend is telling you about her great day, bubbling over with excitement; it doesn’t take long before you’re smiling too, happy both for her and with her.

Of course, it also cuts the other way. Bad moods can be unfortunately contagious. Your partner has had a rough day at work, and when you see him it shows. No eye contact, defensive body language. Every question you ask is met with a short, irritable response. You’re trying to cheer him up but pretty soon you feel like you were the one who had a terrible day.

Imagine that sort of interaction with a client, right before giving a massage. If I let the client’s bad mood rub off on me, it’ll affect the quality of the massage. I might be distracted or worried, or I just won’t be feeling my best. And I certainly don’t want that to happen. I want to care about my clients’ emotional well-being (which is very much connected to their physical well-being), but I also need to maintain enough distance to keep my head clear. How do I find the right balance?

Up through college, most of my jobs involved working with kids. Learning to handle mood swings and foul tempers in the younger population prepared me well for working with people my own age. On the one hand, clients would never be outright cruel to me (telling me, for example, “I don’t like you! You’re not my friend!”, as I remember one three year old doing). On the other hand, when working with peers instead of children (and so, less of an age/maturity difference), it’s much easier to let their words and moods bother you.

The best advice I’ve ever received came from the aforementioned three year old’s mother: Don’t take it personally. The girl didn’t actually hate me; she just hated that when I was around, it meant her mother was not. Likewise, a client’s bad mood has nothing to do with me, so I can’t let it bother me or affect the massage.

While that’s certainly easier said than done, massage therapists do learn tricks to deal with such situations: Grounding and Centering. These mean stepping away from the client’s emotions (and your own emotions) while taking a step forward towards the massage session. Little things such as taking a few deep breaths, visualizing a calm setting, or doing a quick stretch can help to shut out the distractions and properly focus on the massage.

There’s no way to “solve” the issue of abrasive clients. If we didn’t allow people to get massages when they were in a bad mood, we’d be out of a job pretty quickly. And anyway, why wouldn’t I want to make someone feel better with a massage? I love seeing my clients leave with a spaced-out grin and a cheerful demeanor, especially when they arrived at the clinic in a less-than-perfect mood. The solution, rather, is internal – the therapist needs to know when and how to step back from an aggressive situation, while still remaining close enough to heal effectively.

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