I’ve been separated from my clients for six weeks now and no one really knows how long it will be before the new reality is set in place. COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders put my massage therapy practice on hold. I’m now a massage therapist without access to non-verbal channels of communication with my clients. Although I’m unaccustomed to verbal displays of emotional release, I have to use my words now. They’re all I have bridging the gap between you and me. That means I must dig deep and reflect on the reasons why I chose this as my life’s work and the special gifts my clients bring to me.
To help me with this process, a friend recommended I listen to the book Start with Why, by Simon Sinek. She seemed adamant that I not focus on “what” I do for a living, or “how” I do it, but instead figure out “why” so that I can become the resource I want to be for my community.
The Scientific Reason Why Releasing Emotions Through Words Is Difficult
Sinek explains in the book that the part of the brain responsible for decision-making— or “why”— is found in the limbic system; The same part of the brain responsible for feelings and behavior. The reason it’s so hard to articulate why you love something is because the limbic brain has no access to language. Language, as well as as all other higher-order brain functions, is controlled in a different part of the brain called the neocortex. When we feel a strong emotion, the cognitive, language-based, neocortex struggles to reason the complex feelings presented by the limbic system.
The take away from the book is that you must take a deep dive into your personal history to figure out the life themes and operating systems that have been subconsciously motivating you since adolescence.
“You must take a deep dive into your personal history to figure out the life themes and operating systems that have been subconsciously motivating you since adolescence.”
For the past two decades I have been driven to learn everything I can about the needs and aspirations of those I serve—people suffering from pain as a result of living an active lifestyle. In the beginning, I used to set up my massage table at popular running clubs and alongside public running paths in Austin. I would offer my services to the runners for free and eagerly soak up all the information they shared with me. At one point, I saw between 140 to 160 clients a month.
Sensing the moods and emotions of my clients came naturally to me, as did an instinct for how to approach the bodywork they needed. I began to notice definite patterns of muscle compensation across all the people I worked on and it led me to develop the Iler Method®.
But, what was it that drove me to such dedicated study and why was I so at ease with my clients, even when they were total strangers?
At the advice of Simon Sinek, I looked to my own personal history to find some clues.
I’ll Give You Something to Cry About
In my family of origin, we were discouraged from expressing our feelings. Children were seen and not heard and we did what we were told, not what was modeled to us. The phrase, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” was hurled at us with frequency.
I was left to believe that I couldn’t have feelings in response to being hurt.
My siblings and I shut down emotionally, unable to be a support system for each other. I learned self-reliance and accepted the emotional isolation that comes with it.
After high school I stayed close to home for about a year and then, suddenly, I just had to leave and could not explain why. With little resources at my disposal, I reasoned that the most expedient way to leave was to enter the military. I joined the Air Force and, in less than 6 months, found myself in battle dress uniform under F-15 fighter jets on a base in North Carolina. No one who knows me can conceive of how I made a decision that landed me on a 110 degree tarmac fixing munition systems and loading bombs and missiles. Not surprisingly, I was miserable.
Speaking in Tongues
I had little solace during my life in the military other than hiking on the Appalachian Trail and riding my motorcycle along the beach. That is, until I found the Southern Baptist Church on base. I didn’t go there to practice religion or to be absolved of my sins. I didn’t even converse with any members of the congregation and I can’t say I learned a single lesson from the pulpit.
Like me, most of the congregants were members of the military or military family. As a culture, these were not expressive people. Still, the preacher had a fun-loving, knowing nature. Each week at the service, as the music built to a feverish pitch, the choir would beckon everyone to let out their feelings. Then people would take to the aisles with their heads hanging low, clapping their hands, and tapping their feet. Some would cry and bemoan a deep-felt loss or grievance, and some would roll on the floor, speaking in tongues.
In an instant, I understood the release they felt and I found myself crying, too. The joy of witnessing people, not only having their emotions accepted, but actually being encouraged to express them, was unprecedented for me. I went to that church often while I was in the Air Force and it left an indelible impression on me.
Ask Culture vs. Guess Culture
There’s an old post from a 2007 message board that makes its way around the internet every few years. It explains there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who were raised in an Ask Culture and those who were raised in a Guess Culture. People who grow up in families with an Ask Culture learn that it’s okay to ask for anything at all, but realize they might get no for an answer.
“In Guess Culture,” the post explains, “you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.”
Needless to say, I grew up in a Guess Culture family. The principal survival skill of those who come from that sort of household is a high proficiency at intuiting emotions. Knowing how my clients feel the minute they walk into my office is a superpower. Rather than continue a legacy of Guess Culture, though, I realized something through this soul searching exercise. I vowed years ago to hold a space for others where they can freely express emotion without judgment.
“I grew up in a Guess Culture family. The principal survival skill of those who come from that sort of household is a high proficiency at intuiting emotions. Knowing how my clients feel the minute they walk into my office is a superpower.”
Which brings me to my Why Statement:
To hold a nurturing, non-judgmental space, so that others can realize their fullest potential.
In my office, clients can feel that their body language is heard and their vibration is felt. I actually believe it’s more important than the bodywork I’m doing.
Massage therapy not only aids in the release of muscle pain, it also aids in the release of emotions stored long ago in the nervous system. Massage therapy students are trained to recognize when an emotion comes up and help the client to return to the present moment.
This component, I realize, is what makes my work truly special to me. I am called to hold a healing space for others. I can’t wait to return to that space as soon as it’s safe to do so. For now, stay home and stay well!