I remember the first client I “took home” with me. This was fifteen years ago when I had first started my practice. I was massaging a woman once a week, who was my age. She was kind, funny and relatable. We were in very similar places in our lives and I just adored her. We made each other laugh. We could talk during the massage or be silent, either way we were comfortable with each other.

From the outside no one would have ever known how much she suffered physically.  In my opinion, she had the worst kind of chronic pain, which I call “invisible pain.” My description of invisible chronic pain is: Conditions that make you question if you are crazy, if you are exaggerating how much you actually hurt. Conditions where you are continually searching for answers, cures, seeing doctor after doctor, losing hope and then finding it again when you hear or read about a new treatment.

Many people with invisible pain do not even tell other people that they are in pain because they receive comments like “but you’re so young and healthy,” “I saw you running yesterday,” “But you never complain,” “I thought that was a made up disease,” “Have you tried taking vitamin B?” In fact, it was not until several sessions into seeing me that my client felt comfortable enough to break down in tears and admit just how much she hurt. And that is when I started to “take her home.” I had not learned yet at that point in my career to built a boundary between what was “hers” and what was “mine.”

I would come home and my body would ache. I would have a headache. Most of all, I would have a deep heartache. I researched in books and asked other therapists, doctors and anyone who was willing to answer my questions what I could possibly do to “cure” this woman. Knowing that she only had the money to see me once a week and even more, that her insurance did not cover her massage, I would break my own body trying to heal hers. I would give her an extra half an hour each session for free. Do you know what happened? She stopped seeing me. By having no boundary with her, she had to be the one to set one with me. I was burdening her, which is exactly why she did not share with many people that she had the amount of pain that she did. For her, intuitively sensing the pain that she was causing me was not helping her heal at all. Wow! What a wonderful lesson to learn early on in my career.

The owner of my massage school told the students that the average massage therapist is in practice for four years. I am sure that not developing a self-care practice is a big reason why this can be a “burn out” career.

I now have several self-care practices for letting go of my day, which I call sacred rituals and are essential to my day. I feel like they honor my clients just as much as they honor me because my clients do not need to take home what is not “theirs” just as much as I do not need to take home what is not “mine.” I begin my day by walking my dogs and naming all of the things I am grateful for in my life. I always include the clients that I am seeing that day in that list. I find that when I start my day with gratitude, I come from a place of fullness instead of lack.

I try to arrive at my office early so that I can smudge the room with sage. Mystics say the Native American practice of smudging, or purifying a room with the smoke of sacred herbs, can help clear negative energy from a space. And the apparent benefits are steeped in science—when burned, sage and other herbs release negative ions, which research has linked to a more positive mood. My intention is to create a clean space for my clients so that they can leave what they need to behind before they rejoin their own families, their jobs, their lives. I end the massage by saying to myself “please keep what is yours and I will keep what is mine.” I smudge again before I leave at the end of the day. The first thing I do when I get home from work is to take a shower and visualize all the extra energy that does not serve me washing down the drain.

Sacred ritual is found in every culture. I continue to deepen my personal practice by going to workshops and retreats. There are so many knowledgeable teachers and inspirational mentors in this area. Please visit the Resources section of my website for more information.

I saw my client that I told you about at the beginning of this story about a year ago on the escalator at the movie theatre. It had been over a decade since we had seen one another. We both had our children with us and she still looked perfectly vibrant and healthy.  We gave each other a long hug and I made sure to add her to my gratitude prayer the next morning. She was one of my greatest teachers.

Written by Joy Dunning, LMP