Inner World, Thoughts on the profession

Interoception

I am committed to making this blog, this website, a safe, neutral space, free of partisan ranting. I have plenty of safe places to rant in my life, and I need all of you to feel welcome in my space.

I also don’t think having agency over all aspects of my body is a partisan issue. That seems like common sense to me. So here we go:

Today I am thinking about what happens when we give over (or have taken from us) full control of our bodies. What, from a physiological perspective, happens when we are not able (or allowed) to fully sense what is going on inside ourselves? And (because the mind and body and spirit are all connected) what happens to our emotional life?

Interoception is our sense of what is going on inside our bodies. This is one of the senses we use to interact with and interpret the world. Interoception is the sense that tells us when we maybe should not have eaten at the sketchy buffet, or that we’ve probably had enough caffeine for the day.

In addition to physiology, interoception helps us associate bodily reactions with emotions. This is the sense that helps you associate your racing heart with either the terrifying new boss or the delightful new love.

Interoception can be so easily interrupted by outside forces, and by the workings of our own minds. How many times have you ignored that prickle at the back of your neck because it seemed “silly”?

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Every time this happens, our sense of interoception takes a hit. It may not seems like much, but this sense plays a key role in identifying and regulating emotions. According to research published in Frontiers in Psychology, “There is compelling evidence demonstrating links between poor or disrupted awareness of sensory information, or interoceptive awareness, and difficulties with emotion regulation.”

Meaning, if we keep denying the evidence of our own bodies, we run the risk of losing it. More or less.

There’s a lot of talk lately (still, for as long as I can remember) about the proper use and care of bodies like mine. Uterus-having bodies, specifically. I am fortunate to have the support and practice to hear this talk and let it fade away. I have over a decade of massage therapy training and work that taught me to trust the evidence of my own body.

Today I’m thinking about those who don’t have that good fortune. Those whose bodies have relentlessly been under attack — wrong size, wrong color, wrong shape, wrong place, etc. I see you navigating through the world that wants to transplant your interoception with someone else’s, and I am in awe of your resilience.

Today, I just want to say that if you need a safe space to listen to and make peace with the wisdom of your own body, I am here. My office is quiet and my door is open.

Massage Tales, MLD

The Right Thing. The Sick Feeling.

I had a new client today. This person saw my card on the crowded Community Board at a local coffee shop and actually called me. He had a serious and extended conversation with me about the type of massage I do and where I got my training.

Once I got over my initial shock that someone actually (a) saw my card and (b) called me, I sank in to the process of interviewing and being interviewed by a potential new client. He asked appropriate questions, offered information about his own experience with massage, and generally did all the things that dispel any creepy vibes. We scheduled an appointment for later in the week.

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I asked him, as I always do, to tell me more about the specific reasons he was seeking massage. He deferred, said the problem was “embarrassing” and that he would rather talk about it in person. I decided not to press him and to wait until his appointment to get more information. And then I made sure two or three friends knew exactly when this new client was coming to my office, and that other people would be in the building while I was there.

I will say now that everyone leaves this story safe, and with their essential trust in human nature intact.

He arrived on time, filled out the paperwork and sat down with me to talk about his health history. He described his current discomforts with candid detail. He answered my questions and listened to my answers to his questions.

He started talking about everything that his condition altered in his life. I felt the frustration in his voice, and my compassion reflexes kicked in. This person is in pain. Witness this. Listen. Honor this experience. Be in service to this human.

And so he asked me the question, “Will this help me? Will this fix the problem?”

And I had to answer him honestly. “I don’t know.”

We talked a bit more and settled on what we both felt would be true — that if nothing else, this could be a time for his body to relax. That felt like enough. I let him get settled on the table and I started the session.

I should mention here that the work we agreed on — manual lymphatic drainage — is gentle work. There is no smashing of muscles or kneading of tissue. It involves rhythmic stretching of the skin that is so gentle it can be done after surgery. It is the kind of massage that one of my clients calls “petting butterflies.”

We discussed this, or I thought we did. I even demonstrated for him (on my arm) how manual lymphatic drainage looks much different than massage. I reminded him that this was his session, and we could switch to massage during the session if he felt like it would be better for him.

About 20 minutes into the session I noticed he had a confused look on his face. “What’s on your mind?” I said.

“I’m just not sure, I mean, I’m not sure this is working.”

I stopped what I was doing. “Okay,” I said, “What would you like to do?”

“I guess, I don’t know, I mean, you’re the professional, right?”

This is where I paused to take a deep breath and save my rants for later. Just because I went to school for a thing and have practiced it for many years does not mean I get any kind of agency or ownership over anyone else’s body. I would like the idea of the expert who also takes a client/patient’s agency to be extracted from every health care interaction everywhere, all the time.

I am the professional, I agreed, and I reminded him that he is the expert on his own body.

Then I got a sense that what he might need was permission. So I said, “Would you like to end the session?”

He sighed and looked at me, relieved. “Yes, I think that would be best.”

He wanted me to be confident and bold in my predictions for what I could do to help. All I could be was honest. He wanted something that he could not articulate, and that thing was definitely was not the type of work I was doing.

It was the right thing to say I didn’t know, to give no assurances where I had none, and to stop working when his mind and body were clearly agitated. We parted on good terms (yes, he paid for the session) and I have no regrets.

Except. There is always the voice from old stuff of the past that snickers in my ear and points at me, laughing, whenever I am not the smartest and most brilliant of them all. She is a persistent little gremlin and I can hear her laughing even as my stronger adult self knows this was the right thing.

I am a human who has chosen work that involves intimate interaction with other humans. There is no way to keep this from reaching in and stirring up all of my stuff. I am reminded, again, today that part of my job is to learn how to balance being an emotional being within the space of my professional work.

Inner World, Massage Tales, On Writing, Thoughts on the profession

Until They Know

The other night, I sat with my partner, talking about life’s work, life’s purpose, and other meaningful things. We have that conversation a lot, both as a way to check in with each other for support and as a way to clarify for ourselves what is truly important. Sitting there, in our middle ages, we stretch forward and reach into what we both hope will be our renaissance.

I was telling my partner about the moment. The moment when I was sitting with a client, presumably massaging them but really being a loving, peaceful presence for them. In that moment, I felt all the struggles and blocks to my creative energy dissolve away. I felt open to receive and translate what ever might come forward. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was in the exact right place doing the exact right work.

My client that day was frail, small, elderly. My client was also an open fount of love and kindness who never let me leave without telling me how beautiful and sweet she thought me to be. She was exhausted from a restless night and bouts of nausea. She was in extremis. From the outside, it looked like all I did was sit next to her and gently hold her hands.

As I finished telling the story, I tried to find a way to explain the rightness of that moment, to translate it into words that could describe what I want my work to be. Finally, I said:

I’m just here to love on people until they realize how much they’re worth.

And that was it. The exact right phrase. I have found my mission statement for the remainder of my career, and, truly, of my life as a human being.

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In my past, I spent several years in corporate America, and in those years I learned to deeply mistrust the idea of a “mission statement.” To me, it had the association of wasted hours in meeting rooms and whiteboards full of meaningless phrases. It meant a lot of back-patting while everyone settled back into the exact same soul-numbing atmosphere as before. Mission statements, I thought, look nice on annual reports or company-branded merchandise, but in practice they meant nothing.

When I hit on that sentence, though, I also hit on a new understanding of mission statements in general. After the political and religious definitions of the word “mission” in the dictionary comes this definition:

a strongly felt aim, ambition, or calling

dictionary.com

I am not a traditionally religious person, but the idea of a “calling” still resonates with me. The truth is, we humans really are intertwined and connected in ways we don’t quite understand. There is a need in the community that each of us is suited to fill. That need has a voice, which calls out and, I think, it is our job to listen, and, on hearing, respond.


A few weeks ago I started out trying to write a few different posts about relaxing massage, gentle massage, and the underappreciated benefits of both. As with much of my writing, I thought I was doing one thing, but the writing eventually led me to a new (better) place.

I thought I was providing some education about physiology and the mechanisms of massage therapy as I understand them. In fact, I was writing my way into my personal mission statement, the guiding force that all my endeavors must support.


I have a postcard on my refrigerator which I got form an artist at the St. James Court Art Show a couple of years ago. It says: “Don’t become famous for doing something you don’t love.” I get that now, in a way I didn’t get it before.

It’s the love. It has always been the love.

Inner World, Massage Tales, Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Chicken Skin and Butterflies

“Rebecca, your touch is so gentle I bet you could pet butterflies.” She said this to me as she dropped into the table and let her arms fall away from her body. She breathed deeply and evenly and within a few minutes I could see that she was asleep, or nearly so. At the end of her session, she smiled at me warmly and said she appreciated being able to fall asleep comfortably.

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She reminded me of my time in Thailand a couple of years ago. I studied Thai massage for a couple of weeks — just enough time to confirm that I really know nothing about Thai massage. The teacher used to joke about “elephant skin people” and “chicken skin people.”

Elephant skin people, to him, were those who wanted more aggressive bodywork. They seemed to thrive on the deepest compressions, the most rigorous stretches, and the rough handling of their bodies. He gave a demonstration on one of these people while I was there. The client, a muscled American motorcycle rider complete with leather vest and chaps, groaned and whimpered his way through the session with my teacher. After the session, he got up from the mat, smiling and testing his newly mobile joints.

Chicken skin people, on the other hand, required gentler handling. Their bodies could not take deep work and they often could not move into some of the postures typical of Thai massage. My teacher teased me that I was a chicken skin person. In that, he was (is) completely correct. I do not respond well to aggressive bodywork.

And, as I am starting to fully embrace, I am a massage therapist for the chicken skinned. I feel most connected and at my best with those whose bodies, minds, and/or spirits require gentle handling and a careful, loving approach.

My client, who found such a vivid and lovely metaphor for the way I work, also gave me the perfect ending to this three week exploration of “just a relaxing massage.” I am here to whisper, gently, to your nervous system and let your body sink into its own healing capability.

Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Just a Relaxing Massage, Part 2

Let’s talk about your nervous system. How about a quick check in? How’s it doing? If you are alive and reading this, it’s pretty safe to say that your nervous system is functioning.

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Your nervous system, the control system of the body, the keeper of the keys to so many other functions, is, for me, the primary target of massage. If I can facilitate a switch in your nervous system from sympathetic (“fight or flight”) mode to parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) mode, then a whole cascade of benefits happen in your body and mind. These include:

  • drop in heart rate and blood pressure
  • decrease in muscle tension
  • increase in energy required to focus
  • warmer body temperature overall

And these powerful effects come from that thing that is undervalued so much — “just” relaxation. Those effects seem pretty powerful to me, and definitely worth an hour of time.

Today I saw a new client. She chatted during part of the massage, talking about how she was always busy, always running, found it hard to stop and sit for a minute. She booked the massage as part of an ongoing plan to take care of herself. She talked about how it was necessary to take care of herself, but she said it in a way that seemed like she was trying to convince herself. For the last ten minutes of the massage, she grew quiet and her breathing deepened and slowed. Her arms, previously held close and tight by her sides, fell gently out to the sides. Her face softened. At the end of the massage, I said “Thank you,” and she said, “That felt good.”

That felt good.

It is enough, more than enough, to facilitate a space where someone can step out of their busy life and feel good in their own body, their original home.

Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Just A Relaxing Massage, Part 1

We make a lot of claims in massage therapy. Some of them are proven. Most of them are not. I was thinking about this today as I went to talk to a local clinic about their massage offerings. Their website included the “improves circulation” and “removes toxins” claims that we hear so much, and that have no evidence to back them up.

Much smarter people than me have written about this, at length and with remarkable clarity. I suggest you check out Tracy Walton’s take here for more detail.

I want to talk about why we make all these claims in the first place. There are days when the entire profession feels like a collection of people tied up in some kind of inferiority complex. And, yes, I am including myself in this whole mix. We make all kinds of claims about what massage can do based on anecdotes, or long-standing oral tradition, or sometimes wishful thinking.

It goes, so often, like this: “Massage is relaxing. . . AND it can increase circulation and boost immunity and it might even make you able to fly.*”

(* — massage will not make you able to fly. Unless your therapist hands you a plane ticket at the end of the session.)

What’s wrong with stopping at “Massage is relaxing?” When did it become not enough to facilitate deep, uninterrupted relaxation? I have the good fortune to live a slow life most days, with time for exercise and reading and general contemplation. Most of the people I know are not so lucky. One slow hour with nothing to do but receive skilled bodywork seems like more than enough.

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This week, I am working on removing the word “just” from my vocabulary when talking about massage — as in “just relaxation.” As I know from my understanding of the nervous system, the effects of relaxation are profound and wide-ranging in the human body. I’m going to stop diminishing that.

Next week, I will explore some of these effects and the profound meaning of calming the human nervous system.

Oncology Massage, Thoughts on the profession

It Depends

There’s this thing that gets said a lot in almost every class I teach, no matter what the subject or how (in)experienced the students: “It depends.”  Meaning: more information is needed before I make a recommendation.  Meaning: every human is different.  Meaning: never stop thinking.

I am sitting at a desk in a remote location, away from home and away from people, planning out my 2019. What are my goals for the year? What do I want to create? What do I need to let go of?

I used to do this on a fairly regular basis, but it has been a couple of years since I actually sat down and wrote out the plan for the next year. The first time I did it, the words came to me faster than I could write them down. There was so much missing from my life at that point. It seemed lots of plans and ideas wanted to rush in to fill the vacuum.

Before I started writing today, I looked at that plan. Most of it didn’t happen. Or at least it didn’t happen in a way I expected. There was one sentence though, stuffed into the middle and written when I was tired and wanted to go to bed, that happened exactly as I wrote it. It was eerie, how precisely this thing happened. This one, half-forgotten sentence that became the thing that shifted my entire life.

So, can you plan an entire year before it happens?

It depends.

To me, this writing is an exercise in continual awareness of the kind we want our students to have when we say, “It depends.” Standing rigidly with knowledge or plans or protocols limits our ability to help. And it kills our ability to find wonder in the unexpected, half-asleep moments of our lives.

We stand, in this profession, in our knowledge and our experiential learning. We are not, should never be, trapped by it. We work with humans, after all, in their infinite variety. Every one of them is different, and if we stop thinking we stop serving.

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Let us not be constrained by the container of our own understanding. Instead, let’s try to flow, like cats do — adapting to the shape of the container before us, or abandoning it entirely when it doesn’t serve.

May your new year be full of awareness, critical thinking, and the magic of conditionality.