There are often some misconceptions about the differences between sympathy and empathy. Empathy is the ability to feel and relate to another person’s story. Sympathy has its place, but there is usually a lack of perspective or shared emotions. In my practice, I have to remind myself that I am only here to try to help clients through their pain, I can’t fix their pain for them. My practice has allowed me to gain a better understanding of other people’s emotions.
Before I became a massage therapist in 2001, I went to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Women’s Studies. As a freshman, I started as a chemical engineering major and quickly realized that this was not my path. It was time to grow up and figure out what I really wanted to do, not what would make other people happy.
A lot of issues surfaced for me when I first moved away from home. I went through a period of immense sadness and anger due events from my past. Psychology became interesting to me, and I felt that it could help me understand what was going on in my mind. Women’s Studies also gave me inspiration and hope that I could move past the space in which I found myself.
Once I figured out that I wanted to help other people, particularly young women with similar experiences, I did very well in my classes. I took on a volunteer commitment through the Every Women’s Center (EWC) to perform hotline work and peer counseling for survivors of rape, sexual abuse, and physical abuse. I also participated in several support groups and individual counseling through the university.
The community that I was a part of at UMass was amazing. There was so much acceptance and open-mindedness, but after graduation, I began working in the mental health field. I quickly became aware of the reality of the public mental health system and the limitations for those with severe mental illnesses.
I found that the clients were not disheartening, but rather, the system that seemed designed to keep people where they were. The clients were encouraged to survive, but they were also discouraged to thrive. If a client wanted to get a job, the focus was placed on the loss of benefits instead of the excitement of getting a career. Visiting people’s homes and working in the inpatient setting made me reconsider my career path due to the lack of progress I was seeing. I couldn’t bear the thought of spending years in community mental health in order to become a clinical psychologist.
During my first year of working in community mental health, I was dating a guy who was in massage therapy school. I was already used to giving massages to my relatives, especially to my grandfather, who had muscular dystrophy and my grandmother, who had severe osteoarthritis. I remembered how massage therapy would always make them feel better physically, and how it changed their mood. I felt optimistic about my potential to help other people through massage therapy, so I decided to enroll in massage school.
I wasn’t sure that I could handle being touched without my clothes on. This was one of the most challenging personal problems that I had with massage school. I got through nine months of the massage therapy program, and my fear was eased. Now I can’t get enough safe touch! Providing massage has always been so rewarding for me. Receiving bodywork can be cathartic in itself. It’s not a replacement for talk therapy, but it can allow you to be comfortable in a completely safe environment.
My clients’ stories are always a gift to me, whether they are happy, sad, or angry. I experienced trauma at a young age, but I’ve realized that it can help me empathize with other people. In my treatment room, I am now able to listen and experience painful physical and emotional moments from my clients, and I feel that I can truly understand where they are coming from.
My background in psychology plays an important role in my current practice. I am always making sure that the session is aimed toward holding space for the client, regardless of personal “stuff” coming into my head that I can now process at a later time. Helping people to feel better physically and emotionally is what drives me to continue in this field for so many years.
If you have any questions about the psychology of massage therapy, email me at [email protected], or call me at (603) 321-6387.