Have you ever had a client that, no matter what you tried, they just never improved? How did that make you feel?
If you’re like a lot of massage therapists I’ve met, you might feel disappointed, which is ok, or you might feel like you’ve failed, which is not ok.
Getting overly attached to client outcomes is a fast track to burnout
It’s one of the signs of countertransferance. It is not helpful to the client/student. It is not helpful to you. So just stop.
What is countertransferance?
Countertransferance occurs when a therapist becomes emotionally entangled with a client. An example might be when you consider your longest, most regular clients to be your friends. This happens more frequently than you think. Unfortunately, many therapists have learned, the hard way, that that ‘friendship’ was a one-way ride. The client doesn’t consider you a friend, just a great service provider.
Ok, so now that we’ve reviewed countertransferance a bit, how does it apply to clients who don’t get better? Or, more specifically, to how we react when a client doesn’t get better.
We’ve all had that client. They come in hurting. They’ve tried everything. They want to try massage, because it worked for a friend. You’ve treated them a few times. You’ve tried a few different techniques. They’ve done their homework. But they just aren’t improving. You’re both a bit bummed. If you’ve had this happen and your response to the client, and yourself, is:
Sometimes, massage isn’t the answer
you have good boundaries and a healthy attitude towards your client and their health.
If you get angry or disappointed, then you probably have weak boundaries and an unhealthy attitude towards your client. If you begin to doubt your abilities as a massage therapist or the effectiveness of massage as a treatment, it’s likely that you are too emotionally attached to your client and their outcome.
Yes, we all care about our clients, that’s not the issue. The problem is when you get overly attached to, or emotionally invested in, the outcome.
This blog post was triggered by a status update from Pam Slim, of Escape From Cubicle Nation. Pam is a business coach and had just posted about a client’s success and how happy she was. A bit of back and forth and Pam wrote this:
To clarify what I mean by attaching to outcomes, it is easy to get caught up in your client’s goals and attach your value and worth to whether or not they achieve them. This is dangerous because then you tend to assume ownership for something that is not really yours. That said, I love totally caring about my clients and their goals, and do everything I can to empower them to reach their own goals. – Pam Slim
In 2 sentences, she said everything I spend about 10 minutes trying to explain during ethics classes. Your client’s goals, failures, and successes are theirs. Not yours. You can support them. But when their outcome affects how you feel about your value and worth as a massage therapist, you can end up hurting yourself.
It’s our job to provide the best, correct massage we can. If your client isn’t seeing any improvement, then you should be referring them to another health care provider for a more detailed evaluation and diagnosis. Sometimes, that pain they are having is not muscular. Sometimes, the cause behind the pain requires a different treatment. Sometimes, your technique isn’t the right one for their problem.
What’s not ok is to let this affect how you feel about your skills, yourself, or your profession.
I’ve talked to massage therapists who have been so disheartened when a client fails to improve that they consider leaving the profession.
“Nothing I do makes any difference.” Did you do your best? If yes, then let it go. Don’t give up or think yourself a failure just because there was someone you couldn’t help.
Sometimes, you can be a great massage therapist, but not the right massage therapist. Sometime, you can be the best massage therapist, but massage isn’t going to help their problem. If you let their outcomes affect how you feel about your massage, in both cases you are going to devalue your skills. Feel badly enough about your skills and, eventually, you’ll quit believing in yourself. Quit believing in yourself and you’ll burn out and drop out.
Trust me, it happens.
Have you ever had this happen to you? How did you deal with it? Let’s hear it in the comments.