The therapeutic relationship between client and therapist can get tricky when there is transference. This is a psychological phenomenon where an unconscious redirection of feelings occurs between people. These feelings are usually rooted in a relationship pattern from childhood yet unresolved. Some level of transference is normal and quite common. For instance, a client might pick a therapist who reminds them of their mother, transferring that role of nurturer onto them. However, when transference gets in the way of the therapeutic work it can put professional ethics and boundaries into question.
Today was the first time I let transference affect my work. I ended up resenting a client over something that had absolutely nothing to do with me. Here is what happened.
My client had literally no range of motion in his neck. He could neither actively nor passively turn or flex his neck any way but straight forward. I had never encountered this level of rigidity before, but I was inspired by the challenge. During our intake, he told me he had a stiff neck more years than I had been alive. With a slight sarcasm he said, “Let’s see what you can do.” In that moment, my client became my father, a man I had attempted to please my entire life to no avail. The emotions surrounding being constantly not good enough followed with that transference. His statement became a dare to see if I could FIX him. An affront to my skills set and experience. A sign that I was being set up for dismissal. Of course, I accepted the challenge determined to prove him wrong.
See daddy, I know something; lots of somethings.
I dug into my tool box of techniques and, while manually supporting the weight of his head with one hand, I used the strength of my fingers and fist to try and “melt” the cement strips that were his neck muscles. I worked methodically and repetitively on every muscle I could access in the posterior and anterior neck. With each little glimmer of movement, I became hopeful that his range would improve. By the time the massage ended though, I had only been able to get limited improvement. I didn’t FIX his problem. FAIL.
The thing is, the dare he posed to me was probably based on a presumption that the massage was not going to do anything for him. He arrived closed off to the work and with an unwillingness for change. When one is not open to change, nothing changes. Case in point, his stiff neck stayed as rigid as ever. As I gave him advice on aftercare, he kind of grunted and waved his hand in the air at me. It’s unfortunate that he disregarded my expertise, but I didn’t have to take it so personally.
The resentment bubbled up as the rest of the day progressed and like a good little masochist, I started to feel guilty about my transference. My more experienced colleague reminded me that our job as massage therapists is not to FIX people, despite our innermost desire at times to see an outcome immediate; a change enacted from our work in the flesh, so that we can feel a sense of accomplishment. I have that glitch within my matrix. I love it when a client says to me, “Oh my god, I feel like I have a new body” and other things to that affect after coming to me in some state of restriction/imbalance/rickety-ness. I should have derived my sense of accomplishment from the sheer fact that I gave him the best care possible despite his limitations. I’m taking today as a humbling reminder that I am not in the profession of FIXING. All I can do is invite them into a therapeutic environment, where they can feel safe to let go. Beyond that, I can only FIX myself.