(It is b)etter to feel bad for a moment saying no – and stop it – than to get harmed.
― Aspen Matis, Girl in the Woods: A Memoir
Massage can be an effective tool for victims of violence and abuse to regain confidence in their bodies and to learn self-compassion on their road to healing.
There are many ways in which massage can facilitate the process. In the two previous blog posts in this series, I looked at how massage helps:
This time I discuss ways in which massage offers a safe space for victims of violence and abuse to learn to set boundaries.
As Julia Felton, author of Unbridled Success explains, “(l)earning how to set boundaries is a necessary step in learning to be a friend to ourselves.
“It is our responsibility to take care of ourselves—to protect ourselves when it is necessary.”
But she adds, it is “impossible to learn to be loving to ourselves without owning our self -and owning our rights and responsibilities as co-creators of our lives.”
That however, is easier said than done in particular for survivors of trauma, abuse and violence.
Although well-meaning, the phrase “You need to set boundaries” is in fact a very unhelpful solution says Amelia Diamond in her article A Therapist’s Guide to Setting Boundaries and Actually Keeping Them.
She calls it IKEA advice: as if we are like a desk or shelf which you have to put together yourself.
“Setting boundaries sounds good, makes a lot of sense and comes with a confusing instruction manual — if it comes with an instruction manual at all.”
“In theory, I get it, she says, “but how does one do it?“
WHAT ARE BOUNDARIES?
A boundary, according to the Oxford Dictionary, could be a line that divides but it can also mark the limits of something physical or abstract.
A boundary can create limits and it can isolate.
But healthy boundaries can also protect, preserve and empower.
Having healthy boundaries is a lesson my mother taught me from an early age.
In fact she has taught me a lot but the two important things I learnt from her are firstly, to never go on a date without money and secondly, that people treat you the way you allow them to treat you.
“By setting a good example, you are providing a template by which others can set appropriate behaviour" says Beard.
But not everybody grows up or finds themselves in a situation where they can set their boundaries, particularly not as a child.
It was easy following my mum’s advice because my parents had created the environment in which to practice doing it. I was fortunate to never have experienced violence or abuse as a child.
In an emotionally healthy relationship or family, says Dr Michael Foust, clinical psychologist , marriage and family therapist, boundaries are “flexible and changeable, responding moment to moment to both inner and outer conditions. “
FUNCTIONS OF BOUNDARIES
Why is it important to set boundaries?
1. BOUNDARIES PROTECT
Boundaries shield us from harm, both physically and emotionally.
However, when this protection becomes rigid and fixed, Foust explains.
“(W)e move from healthy protection to defenses".
And defenses are unconscious conditioned reactions or patterned responses. In other words we react without conscious thought.
2. BOUNDARIES ENCOURAGES DISCERNMENT
Boundaries encourages discernment – what to allow into our world and what or who not.
It enables us to “screen input from the world, to know what input is appropriate to let in and assimilate, and what input we need to protect ourselves against," according to Foust.
“We are constantly making choices, saying 'yes' to some things and 'no' to others. This is a natural process of responding to information and novelty from our environment.
"A healthy discrimination responds to each choice from a sense of being with oneself and of knowing what is appropriate to take in and what is appropriate to keep out.
"With healthy boundaries we can make choices that support who we are and that leads to satisfaction in the various aspects of our lives.”
3. BOUNDARIES HELPS US CONTAIN OUR SENSE OF SELF.
Boundaries help us contain our sense of self. It preserves our sense of inner integrity, it distinguishes between me and my relationship with others.
It is our ability to distinguish among:
That way we can maintain both connection and differentiation according to Dr Foust.
“With boundaries we create a holding environment for our individual sense of self and we also can be sensitive to and respect the rights and boundaries of others, he explains.
“When this function is intact, we also respect and allow the containment of others; we enjoy differences and variety.“
We no longer feel contained, our boundaries become blurry and we may even dissociate.
Dissociation as a result of trauma and abuse may lead to detachment from physical and emotional experiences to protect ourselves. As a result Dr Foust says, we form various boundary styles that limit our capacity for both intimacy and containment.
According to Dr Foust, healthy, effective boundaries and trauma do not co-exist as trauma violates our boundaries.
After traumatic events have overwhelmed our boundaries, he explains, “we lose connection with our innate ability to make healthy choices that enhance our lives and need help to re-establish healthy boundaries. - Dr Michael Foust
HOW MASSAGE CAN TEACH HEALTHY & FLEXIBLE BOUNDARIES
We set boundaries on at least four levels:
1. MATERIAL BOUNDARIES
Material boundaries refer to our possessions even our time and favours, services or labour.
Massage is a form of self-care and self-care require a commitment of time, financial resources and emotional investment. By booking a treatment, you set limits on how much you give to others and how much you invest in yourself.
Good advice from Jennifer Rollin on Psychology Today: "You deserve to treat yourself with the same kindness and compassion that you give to others. Set aside some weekly time for acts of self-care, which can help you relax, recharge, and connect with yourself. ... You can even put it in your planner as a way to hold yourself accountable."
2. PHYSICAL BOUNDARIES
Dr Foust defines physical boundaries as external limits pertaining to:
“If our physical, external boundaries are healthy, we can clearly set appropriate physical boundaries by deciding how close or distant to be physically and if, when and how we are touched."
The safe space provided by the massage therapist makes it possible for you to practice setting your boundaries. You can decide what areas of your body you want massage and which not. You can decide how many and which pieces of clothing you want to remove.
However, says Canadian massage therapist, Jocelyn Vincent, it is important to remember that the client may not feel confident enough to make requests and that certain requests e.g. to disrobe, may generate fear. It is therefore important that the therapist ask the right questions to give the client the "healing opportunity to be assertive about her wishes."
"Communication about these issues prior to the massage session is a powerful way to establish a comfort level for the client and improve the connection between client and therapist", she says.
Audra Hixson, programme coordinator of the Center for Women Students at Penn State University. agrees:
"When a survivor of abuse feels vulnerable on the table, she may not feel safe speaking up on her own about personal boundaries. This may result in an internal struggle that clearly detracts from the benefits of the massage."
It is not unusual for someone who has suffered abuse to allow me to only massage their hands and feet for a few sessions until they feel more at ease. We might then move on to massage neck and shoulders while the client is fully clothed and maybe only much later we progress to a full body massage ... or not.
But all the time the pace is set by the client and the therapist honours their process.
3. MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL BOUNDARIES
Mental and emotional boundaries include being aware and valuing our own and others’ internal processes and the behaviours resulting from these processes.
Internal processes are:
According to John Stibbs on the Hidden Hurt - Domestic Abuse Information website, personal boundaries can be considered the limits we set in relationships that allow us to protect ourselves from being manipulated by, or enmeshed with, emotionally needy others.
During a massage treatment, just as with physical boundaries, you have the right to set your mental and emotional boundaries.
However, for someone not practiced at this life skill yet, the therapy room is often also a safe space in which to express views and ideas otherwise concealed and to use the therapist as a sounding board.
A professional massage therapist is trained to develop a healthy sense of self and strong emotional boundaries. We know how to distinguish our own moods, thoughts and feelings from those of our clients to prevent transference and counter transference.
Last word goes to Audra Hixson: "Asking about clients’ comfort level gives them another opportunity to participate in the structure of the massage session and provides evidence that the massage therapist cares about their experience."
Body-mind or mind-body? If you are struggling with physical and mental pain and feel that the dominant health paradigm’s dualistic approach to mind and body seems inadequate to explain anything, I want to talk to you. Join me under the tree in my garden for a cup of rooibos tea and let’s talk massage and SomaSense!