I have been involved in the therapeutic bodywork field as both a teacher and a practitioner for many years now and I realise that I have come to believe that most of the techniques and skills that I have learned are secondary to the relationship I have with my clients and that it is this relationship which needs to be at the heart of my practice. I set out to write about this mainly in order to clarify my own thoughts and discovered along the way that I had more questions than answers about the unique work that we do. I present here some of these thoughts and hope to open a debate on a few of the ideas raised. The article is largely composed of a selection of those questions and I believe that the answers will be different for each one of us, but I think that considering these ideas may help to keep alive the spirit of inquiry and exploration that we each brought to our training.
This particular line of inquiry really started several years ago when I co-authored a book, Every Body Tells a Story. As Craniosacral Therapists my colleague and I noticed that none of the books in our field described what it actually felt like to have a treatment as they focused on the technical aspects of our work. We aimed instead to show how a series of treatments might unfold and, more importantly, to show the magical and alchemical transformation that can take place between the two participants by including the viewpoints of both the client AND the therapist. In our book we see how the relationship between the fictional therapist and client evolves and develops and how both participants transform and grow through their interaction. It was and is our premise that the therapist plays a fundamental role in the treatment and that her journey is a complementary process to the whole encounter. We describe our fictional therapist sometimes feeling unsure of herself and her work as it is an issue that is common to us all and is rarely discussed. Most of the time our work can be incredibly simple; we listen and offer rest and resourcing. It can often be mundane. We don’t offer to cure or heal or see into the future or the past, but
we do put our hands on people, and something happens when we do. For many years I felt inspired and intimidated in equal measure by the writings and work of the leaders in the field but have sometimes despaired of finding their level of technique and/or mastery in myself. I suspect that I am not alone in feeling daunted by the technical skills of others and I want to affirm that there is a place for all of us; it was for this reason that we wanted to reflect the everyday experience of being in practice without losing sight of mysterious and inspirational quality of the work.
What are my Core Beliefs about myself as a Complementary Therapist?
One of the most important questions to ask is what is it that we believe about ourselves as therapists, and about therapists and therapy in general? How and why did we originally come to be therapists, and do our individual journeys affect or colour our work? Many of us come to practice our particular Therapy by way of an attempt to tackle our own issues and become so fascinated by the experience that we decide to train ourselves. How much, therefore, does our own background and life experience impact on the way we work, either positively or negatively? Does the way that we see ourselves as practitioners determine the type of clients that are attracted to us? Do we always tend to attract clients who are like us, or each other, or are we drawn to those who have similar problems or life stories to our own? Who do we work with best and, perhaps more revealingly, which clients or problems do we feel that we are not so successful in treating? What, in effect, does it mean to be a therapist, and how do we embody that role? What do we each want from this role? What do we get from being a therapist and is what we want or get appropriate? Are we here to alleviate pain and suffering or are we just engaged to listen? As bodywork practitioners we listen with the hands as well as the ears, but each of us listens in a different way. How do we interpret what we hear? Is pure listening enough, or are there times when we need to be more proactive? Does doing so feel invasive or as if we are doing something wrong? Are we flexible enough to respond to each client individually? What else makes us comfortable or uncomfortable in our practice? We face questions like these on a day to day basis and they get to the heart of how we work and present ourselves as practitioners.
Am I a Good Enough Practitioner?
I realise that over time my attitude to my work has changed considerably. It is now much easier to be quiet and to wait, and my expectations for a quick ‘fix’ are not as high as they once were. However, despite many years in practice I can still feel as unsettled as I did right at the beginning. Even the most basic questions can still haunt me such as ‘where do I put my hands? What am I feeling?’ What does this person want/need from me and can I provide it? What can also be disconcerting is that some people seem to be harder to work with than others and often what they present with is not echoed by what I feel when I make contact. Sometimes I feel something completely opposite to what I was expecting, and occasionally, scarily, I feel nothing at all, making me feel clueless and inept. You have to continually expect the unexpected in a session, and sometimes it’s hard not to get thrown.
There are disappointments too. When a client disappears without warning, or when I feel I have given a sub-standard treatment, I have to remind myself that this kind of therapy is not for everyone and that it doesn’t invalidate either the work or my skill as a practitioner if I am not the right therapist for a client on any particular day. One of the benefits of experience is that anxiety and bewilderment are less liable to confound and that, with time, it becomes easier to accept whatever unfolds, even if that means feeling almost nothing. It is not a comfortable position, but years of practice have made discomfort easier to bear.
How might I limit myself as a Practitioner?
I have also noticed that predetermining the scope of the work can, paradoxically, limit both its breadth and effectiveness. Sometimes being receptive to the needs of our clients can mean that we unconsciously slip into serving our own by, for instance, being wedded to outcomes. If we can truly let go of our own agendas within the therapeutic relationship, we might have the opportunity of opening the door to something more appropriate and meaningful. As Complementary Therapists we are fortunate enough to have the time and space to treat everyone as individuals. We have probably all had the experience of visiting a practitioner where we have been on a conveyor belt on which the same questions are asked of each person and the same treatment given. There is a sense of fitting into someone else’s predetermined theory rather than being seen as a unique person with our own individual history. As Complementary Therapists we can be more spontaneous, more flexible, and more in tune with our clients and their emotional and spiritual needs. Being less hidebound by performance anxiety has increased my ability to meet my clients in a more natural and empathic way and it has generally become easier to let instinct guide me rather than slavishly following any specific technique or protocol.
Some of us specialise in physical ailments and others deal with all comers and diverse conditions. Many of us find that we work best with stress and those weird and unfathomable psychosomatic ai lments that have a strong but hidden emotional component. Even though our work IS often about alleviating aches and pains, both physical and mental, as bodywork therapists we also often find ourselves meeting the core of a person’s being. Because all thought and emotion manifest throughout the entire body, we address not only the external and physical but inevitably the emotional, mental and even spiritual beliefs of our clients. This is one of the reasons it is such a privilege to work as we do; there is often the opportunity to engage with every level of a person. However, when confronted by physical symptoms such as a bad back or a frozen shoulder, it is only natural to look for a cause. We might ask ourselves if they are mechanical injuries resulting from a repetitive strain, or are they the outward expression of a sense of feeling trapped in an untenable situation? Any ‘problem’ is rarely the result of one cause but limiting ourselves to the physical, may mean not considering the underlying factors and unknown roots that may be contributing to the pain. We may not necessarily reach a conclusion as to the source of the discomfort, but the beauty of working in this way is the entirely new and subtle approach that we can offer.
What boundaries should I hold as a Therapist?
Part of being a therapist is learning how to walk a fine line between being human, and the need to present a professional front. The ability to be open and vulnerable is inherent to any therapy whatever its modality, but it is useful to look at how much we need to be in control. At the same time we do need to know exactly what we are doing to preserve a sense of safety and security in our practice, but when does a boundary become a wall between us and our client? Perhaps as we work might help to imagine that we are like the cells in our body, each of which have walls permeable to some things and not to others. The intelligence of a cell lies in knowing what to admit and what to exclude. Discriminating in this way is a skill and we need to learn to re-negotiate boundaries from moment to moment throughout each treatment. Being a therapist means always being in an ongoing energetic exchange with your client, which has the quality of a complex dance. It requires you to follow both the dynamic flow of the relationship whilst at the same time ensuring that your footing is as sure as it can be. Time and experience give us a chance to hone these finer skills which are not necessarily fully developed by the end of a training course and which need constantly refreshing and reanimating over the course of a career. As therapists we need to guard against becoming fixed in our beliefs about ourselves and our clients and maintain the ability to be flexible enough to meet her/him where they actually are rather than where we (or they) think they are.
Ours can be a solitary profession; after the training course is finished and the certificate awarded, the newly qualified bodywork therapist finds that practice essentially consists of two people alone in a room with one person touching the other. It is a relationship unlike any other and can be an astonishingly intimate connection. In psychotherapy, supervision is usually mandatory, but for many bodywork therapies it is often only required for an initial period, if at all. This seems an anomaly, particularly as touch can be such a volatile evocative area. I have found that Supervision is an essential part of the way I look after myself and, indirectly, my clients. My disciplines are the Alexander Technique and Craniosacral Therapy, but I believe that these concerns are relevant to all bodywork therapists. Finding support in individual supervision and personal introspection is important and I have learned so much from listening to colleagues describing their successes and difficulties with clients or conditions and sharing their own struggles with some of the issues I have outlined here. We must continue to look after and feed ourselves, (physician, heal thyself!) or we risk burn out. The well-known Psychotherapist Carl Rogers used to tell himself before a session _ “I’m not perfect… But I’m enough.” It is a good lesson for us all!
Daška Hatton is an Alexander Technique Teacher, Craniosacral Therapist and author. She runs Post Graduate Workshops for bodywork practitioners of all disciplines with her colleague Liz Kalinowska – https://jointpractice.co.uk/ and https://daskahatton.co.uk/
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