Establishing Your Personal Boundaries

establishing massage boundariesChances are the ethics classes you had in massage school were focused on the boundaries of the client. They may have also fallen short—some schools only do the minimum required by the state, and in many states, that requirement isn’t very much. Here in my state (NC), the requirement is only 15 hours. That doesn’t really get the tip of the iceberg…and then you’re cast out there in the real world without adequate preparation. Of course we do need to recognize and honor our clients’ boundaries, but just as important, we need to establish our own, and honor those as well.

There is a lot of overlap in the Code of Ethics versus Standards of Practice. The Code is meant to ensure the safety, the modesty, and the comfort of the client.  The Standards are meant to define the accountability and responsibilities expected of professionals. In reality, those documents are there for our own protection, as well as the client’s.

Maintaining your personal boundaries from the outset is much easier than not having any, or trying to break bad habits after they’ve gotten entrenched.

Let’s talk about sex.

If you’ve never been confronted with sexual comments or sexual behavior from a client, do you know what you’ll do the first time that happens? There’s only one thing to do: address it immediately. If you don’t, you have just given that person permission to carry on with bad behavior.  If you get that time-honored question “Is this a full-body massage?” the correct answer to that is “I do therapeutic massage. I don’t offer sexual services.” If they’re already on the table, take a step back and repeat that message. You might add “Would you like to continue under those conditions or would you prefer to pay for the session and leave now?”

If you work alone, whether in an office or doing outcalls, don’t endanger yourself. Keep your phone and your keys on your person so you can make a quick exit if necessary. If you’re doing outcalls, always let someone know where you are and when you will return or call to let them know you’re safe. Sexual behavior from a client is usually limited to an inappropriate comment, “accidental” exposure, bumping or grinding, or an attempted grope, but better safe than sorry. If you feel afraid for your safety or intimidated by someone when working alone, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom and run out the door, and don’t come back in alone.

Let’s talk about money.

Do you have the “I’m just here to help people” mentality, or would you also like to be earning a comfortable living? There is more involved than getting paid what you’re worth. If you’re employed by someone else, you’ve agreed to work for what they offer. If you’re self-employed, you can set your own fees. If you’re the boss, you can also offer a discount, package deal, or sliding fee if you feel led to do so…but if you’re not led to, don’t let someone guilt you into doing  it. With Groupon, Living Social and daily deals abounding, some therapists who don’t participate in those have reported getting calls from bargain hunters, saying “XYZ Spa is doing a Groupon for $20, are you going to match that?” Personally, my answer would be no, but that’s up to you. If you give a discount you don’t really want to give, you’ll end up feeling resentful of that.

In the same vein, do you have a cancellation policy, and do you enforce it? You can see your house payment, your grocery money, or other financial obligations going down the drain if you have a week full of no-shows or last-minute cancellations. Your time is your money. You have to value it. If you don’t, no one else will. That being said…

Let’s talk about time.

If you’re self-employed, you’re the one in charge of your schedule. If you’re a night owl, you may want to sleep all day and work the night shift. Take weekends off. Work every Sunday or never work on Sunday. The point is, it’s your call. If you want to accommodate every person who calls, go ahead. But if you have promised your son you will be off on Saturdays to attend his ballgames, or want to be at home to have dinner with the family every night at 7, or whatever is important to you, then stick to that. One of the independent contractors in my own office told me when she started working that she would be taking Thursdays off. She showed up every Thursday, and when I would ask why, the answer was always “Well, this is the only day so-and-so could come.” I told her no it wasn’t, and that if she would be firm about saying she was off on Thursdays, they would miraculously find another time that they could make it. It took her awhile to get that, but eventually she did, and she didn’t lose a single client. They all did indeed find some other time they could come.

Let’s talk about your personal life.

No, let’s not. Clients may ask questions that are too personal and that you don’t want to answer…and you shouldn’t facilitate that by being the one to bring up your divorce, or your financial problems, or your out-of-control teenager that just got arrested. Keep it out of the massage room. You can just politely say that it’s your policy to keep your work life and your personal life separate. The same goes for politics and religion. Turn the tide by saying “If we have a debate on Obamacare, the focus isn’t going to be on your body, where it should be. I have a policy of never discussing _____ in the massage room. It just stresses me out and affects my massage. Let’s get back to the issue with your neck.” Say it with a smile.

When we enforce our own boundaries, and let our clients know what we expect in the way of mutual respect, we’re actually doing them a favor as well as ourselves. When we enforce our own boundaries, we are preserving our financial security, our time, and our own mental health.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /