My journey as a bodyworker began 25 years ago, when I met my Hawaiian massage teacher and trained with him over a 12 year period. I was in my early twenties and didn’t really know yet what I wanted to do when I grew up. Now I had found it. He told me I had a healing gift in my hands, and I was excited to share it with the world. Right from the beginning as a bodyworker, I would pick up a lot of non-verbal information from clients, and was very perceptive in noticing physical, visual, and auditory cues and seeing patterns. These cues would form as images in my mind.
I would also pick up undercurrents of emotions in my clients. But I didn’t really understand cognitively what I was picking up. And I didn’t know how to interpret it. It was often confusing to me in the beginning. Sometimes overwhelming. I would ask my Hawaiian teacher about it, and his guidance was that it was common for a sensitive person to pick up “energies” and information and that he did it himself. It was helpful to me that he normalized it. He advised me to ignore the information, and not engage with it. I thought, I got the information for a reason, that I was supposed to do something with it. But he said no, and called it “psychic abilities” and saw them as distractions away from a spiritual path to enlightenment. It was not to be used in the practice of Hawaiian bodywork.
At the same time, he would teach that when you work as a healer, you can’t help but pick up other people’s “energies” and get slightly drained by it. You just couldn’t completely avoid it. It was in the nature of the healing aspect of Hawaiian bodywork and part of the sacrifice you made when you followed your calling. Your duty was to practice self-care to replenish and nurture yourself so you could carry out the work.
His teachings followed me for a long time and they were both helpful and somewhat hurtful. The hurtful aspects led partly to my burnout. Some of his advice helped me maintain a boundary, and some of it didn’t. One of the best boundary-setting practices I learned from him was to imagine washing off the client’s “energy” when you washed hands after giving a massage. It also acted as a threshold, signaling to myself that now my healing work with this particular client had ended. He said to imagine that the energy went down my body and into the ground. This helped me in my earlier years of doing Hawaiian bodywork, and I would come away rejuvenated after giving a massage.
Part of the work code for Hawaiian bodywork as taught by my teacher was availability. You should always make yourself available for clients needing a massage. When I shifted into working full-time as a bodyworker, I started feeling more and more drained. Grounding myself by imagining washing off clients “energy” wasn’t enough anymore. Taking care of my physical needs through exercise, sleep, and diet wasn’t enough anymore either. I started showing signs of burnout, but didn’t know how to recognize the symptoms, or what to do about it. My sense of duty, the care I felt for my clients in pain, and my love of the work and devotion to my Hawaiian teacher kept me going. And the positive feedback I got from clients also kept me going. I thought it meant I was supposed to do this work.
But I was giving too much and neglecting myself. I was good at meditating away my stress levels and depression, and keep going. I was accustomed to keep pushing myself and ignoring my own needs and emotions. I was very much in touch with my body sensations, but not so much my emotions. I hadn’t learned to read my emotions as well as I could read a client’s body. After some years I cycled into my second burnout. I was confused but also grieving what I felt was a loss of my love for the work and a let-down of my promise to my Hawaiian teacher to keep the tradition going and be like an ambassador for the Hawaiian body work in the world, as he had asked me to be. I didn’t know that at the time, though. I would just find a way to re-energize myself, take a break, and get back into work. Without addressing the root of the problem.
When I came across Karla McLaren’s work on emotions and empathy, things started to click for me. It started to make sense. I realized there was a long thread going back to my childhood with emotional neglect from parents with empathy trouble. Growing up, I was a sensitive and curious child, who became hyper-vigilant to my parents often boundary-breaking behaviors and to my surroundings. I was often not allowed to have boundaries, and I wasn’t taught how to respect my boundaries, never mind assert them. I wasn’t taught about emotions (but often talked out of them), and I didn’t have a well-developed vocabulary for them, because my parents had trouble with that themselves – like many in their generation.
My unhealed emotional wounds and my hyper-vigilance led to developing hyper-empathy and putting the needs of others above my own. This also got me into some unhealthy work situations where my work, needs, and time weren’t being properly respected. This led to my second burnout. When I learned to understand and work with my emotions, it helped me heal my emotional wounds and learn the skills I needed, but lacked too much in my life. One of the main things that helped me was to develop my boundaries and learn how to define and respect them. Secondly, was to learn how to work with and balance my hyper-empathy.
After I completed my licensing as a DEI Trainer and Consultant, Anchen Texter approached me and asked if I wanted to create a course for bodyworkers together. It was to be on boundaries, emotions and empathy. Together, Anchen and I put our experiences and skills on how to overcome (or simply avoid) burnout and deal with hyper-empathy into an online course. We especially focus on deeper levels of self-care beyond rest, exercise and diet – the emotional hygiene level.
I hope to share what I learned with you in this course.
Read about the online course Essential Boundaries for Bodyworkers here
Starts Monday, April 27th, 2020: Duration 6 weeks. In this course designed specifically for bodyworkers, you’ll learn foundational concepts and practices from the books The Language of Emotions and The Art of Empathy by Karla McLaren, M.Ed. to help you set boundaries, strengthen your healthy empathy, and create a self-care plan just for you.