We, as human beings, use boundaries as a way to understand how to relate to the world. In order to maintain a mutually respectful client/therapist relationship it is of great importance, as a massage therapist, to be able to recognize the ways that boundaries are identified and utilized.

Since many clients come to a table or chair massage session with a variety of pre-conceived notions of what is a ppropriate in a client/therapist relationship, it is the responsibility of the massage therapist to display the highest example of appropriate, healthy boundaries. In this article we will discuss the uses of boundaries, ways to identify different boundary styles, how to work towards a healthy, flexible boundary style and ways to make your policies about boundaries clear.
What Are Boundaries?

Boundaries are, by definition, something that indicates a border or limit. This can be a physical boundary, such as a fence that protects what is inside and keeps out what is outside, or that of one's skin, acting as a boundary, keeping the inside of the body safe from the outside world, allowing only certain things in or out. Boundaries can also be physical/emotional. In these cases there are invisible limits people have that, if trespassed, can cause the person to be extremely uncomfortable.

These limits can be spatial, such as only feeling comfortable when standing a certain distance from people. There may be certain actions that make people feel their boundaries are being encroached upon. According to Pat Ogden, Director of Hakomi Integrative Somatics, boundaries have three functions, Screening, Protection and Containment. We screen input from the world in order to decide what to let in and what to keep out. We use boundaries as a way to protect ourselves from accepting subtle or overt abuse and to perceive how not to overstep others' boundaries. With a healthy set of boundaries, we can learn when it is appropriate to contain our emotions, thoughts and impulses and when to express them.
Set an Example of Good Boundaries

If a massage therapist does not pay clear attention to the boundaries of the client, there is a risk of moving too quickly beyond their comfort level. A client can react to this by shielding themselves and disengaging from the bodywork as a way of protecting their boundaries. This will inhibit trust and relaxation from the client and block any possibility of growth or change.

If the massage therapist maintains clear, healthy boundaries of their own and can remain open to the boundary needs of the client throughout the table or chair massage session, there will be great potential for growth and progress in the client/therapist relationship and in the general healing of the client. Being exposed to a gentle, nurturing experience of healthy boundaries can be a transformative experience for many clients. This positive experience of touch may be new to some clients, while for others it may be a welcome reminder of a better way to relate with the world.
Clearly Communicate Your Boundaries

In a client/therapist relationship there is not only a need to tap into what the client's emotional and physical boundary needs are, there is also a need to specifically define what behavior and attitude is expected of both the massage therapist and of the client. Having simple, clear policies on these types of boundaries is the best way to dispel any misconceptions the client may have.

One very effective way to make your policies clear from the very first table or chair massage session is to have them clearly outlined as part of an initial intake form that the client must read and sign before the session begins. In the case of a client who is nervous or tentative about the level of your professionalism, this sort of contract can ease their mind and help to develop a mutually trusting relationship.

Alternatively, some clients incorrectly perceive a bodywork session as an opportunity to ask the therapist on a date, receive sexual favors, or otherwise push the boundaries of an appropriate client/therapist relationship. If it is the client's initial intention to attempt to dissolve boundaries, he or she may be quickly dissuaded by being asked to sign an intake form that clearly defines the client/therapist boundaries. If a client still persists in pushing the edges, be it intentional or oblivious, the policies can easily be referenced, thereby making the subject easier to approach without ambiguity. If a written form does not suit your practice, then a verbal agreement can sometimes be effective.

Ultimately, it is the massage therapist's responsibility to set the example of healthy boundaries, thereby educating the client on how to develop them. This can be done in a variety of direct and indirect ways.

Direct methods of educating clients about healthy boundaries:

- Talking
- Intake forms
- Taking a client through boundary exercises

Indirect methods of educating clients about healthy boundaries:

- Setting an example by displaying healthy, flexible boundaries.
- Working intuitively with the client during a table or chair massage session.
- Offering non-verbal support towards healthy interaction.

Author's Bio: 

Alana Eve Burman is a massage therapist with 12 years of professional experience. She is currently a co-owner of JoyLife Therapeutics, inc. a company specializing in chair massage for the office, convention booth, conference, wedding and other special events. JoyLife also provides more continuing education resources for massage therapists at it's website. You can find more information about both at www.joylifetherapeutics.com.