Why I don’t get professional massages

A friend asked me a while back why I was so averse to getting a massage from a professional. Here's the answer.

I feel a little weird about posting this, because the bad stuff that happened wasn't, in the greater scheme of things, all that bad, and because the ability to get a professional massage is already at a pretty high level of privilege, so complaining about it seems, I dunno, gauche or oblivious or something. But at the time, this incident was very distressing; and I think this story ties in, indirectly, with my recent body autonomy post. And I guess I publicly complain from a position of privilege all the time, so that's nothing new. So I'm gonna go ahead and post this. (Can you tell from the elaborate disclaimer that this is one of those feeling-vulnerable things?)

The first pro massage I received, sometime in the '90s, was okay but nothing special. I was uncomfortable being mostly nude in front of a stranger, even covered by a sheet, and I didn't communicate well about what I did and didn't want; the result was a massage that wasn't awful, but certainly wasn't as good as the back rubs I've been getting from friends since high school.

My second pro massage was in March of 2005, a couple weeks after my father's death. It was a fairly nice massage. It wasn't amazingly wonderful, but it was reasonably relaxing.

So after my car accident a couple of months later, I figured I would try another one. Things were really pretty awful in most areas of my life, including work and relationship difficulties; I was under a huge amount of stress and was barely coping.

I went in for the massage on Friday, May 6, 2005. It started out fine, with some work on my back, but then the massage therapist moved on to my legs. I didn't really enjoy the leg part of the massage, and then the foot part of the massage was a little unpleasant—just a little painful, but not awful. There was some kind of brief discussion—I don't remember what—about my feet that managed to somehow convince her that I was the sort of person who pays very little attention to their body and what it's telling them; I suspect that her mistaken assumption figured prominently in her later mistakes.

So I didn't stop the therapist, and she moved on to my arms, which was also not very enjoyable, and then to my hands. She pressed quite hard on the palm of my hand, especially on the front (palm side) of where my knuckles are, and it was pretty painful and unpleasant. I told her that that hurt; in my experience with nonprofessional massage, saying that something hurt was a non-confrontational way of getting the massager to stop, or at least pause or press less firmly. This particular therapist, however, apparently interpreted my remark as an indication that she was doing something right, because she kept doing it.

After a little while, I gathered up enough emotional energy to object more explicitly. I told her again that it was painful, and not in a good way, and asked her to stop. That should have been the end of it.

But she objected. She told me that it was okay for the massage to be painful, and that it was only hurting because I was so tense, and that the massage would help me relax and then it wouldn't hurt.

I was really shocked, and very upset. I had never encountered a situation like this before, and I was already very low on emotional resources. I tried to explain to her that I know the difference, in my own body, between the pleasant ache that comes with a firm massage of sore or tense muscles, and the sharp pain of having someone exert too-hard single-point pressure on flesh against a bone just under the skin. I like the former, and it does help me relax. I hate the latter, and it makes me more tense rather than less. That, again, should have been the end of it.

But she explained to me that she had years of experience as a massage therapist, and nobody had ever objected to her doing this before, and she knew what she was doing, and that her continuing to do this thing would be good for me.

I finally flat-out told her NO, you have to STOP. At that point she finally realized that things were going very wrong indeed, and after a pause she asked me gently if there was anything she could do to salvage the massage. I am a very non-confrontational and conflict-averse person, and I was feeling extremely emotionally vulnerable as well as physically vulnerable (having most of my clothing off), and so instead of just getting up and walking out, I told her miserably that she could focus on my shoulders and leave the rest of me alone. She spent a few minutes working on my shoulders—which was fine, and would probably have been very helpful if it hadn't been immediately following a disastrously bad interaction—and then I left. I was far more tense leaving the massage than I'd been going into it.

I thought about writing this all up at the time, but I couldn't cope with it—I just wanted to set it aside and not think about it. It wasn't until mid-2007 that I managed to write the above, to send it belatedly to the people who run the massage program.

And I didn't want her to get in trouble over it, because in retrospect I think most of the problem was an honest miscommunication.

She was making assumptions based on (a) her many years of professional experience, and (b) her earlier mistaken assumption that I was completely out of touch with my body. Her main general mistake was in not recognizing that this was a situation that was outside her experience. Her main specific mistake was in not taking no for an answer—though to her credit, I don't think she actually continued doing anything when I told her to stop the first time; I think she stopped but then argued verbally about it. Even so, arguing with a client who has just explicitly and firmly told you to STOP shows really poor judgment. (Years later, I told the outline of this story to another massage professional, and he agreed that she had behaved very badly and was completely out of line.) (I also think she displayed bad judgment in asking if she could salvage the massage; I think it should've been clear to her by that point that it was beyond salvage, and she should have apologized and ended things gracefully and let me leave.)

I, on the other hand, was making assumptions based on my many years of experience with (a) my own body, and (b) getting nonprofessional massages from friends (including friends who've been in training to become professional massage therapists); my main general mistake was in not recognizing that she wasn't making the same assumptions I was. (My main specific mistake was in not calling a halt to the whole thing the minute it started to get out of control.) (And I guess also in not making clear to her the extent of the fragility of my emotional state. I had told her about the car crash, but not about everything else; it didn't seem relevant, but in retrospect I should have made clear to her from the start that I was having a truly extraordinarily bad year and that I needed her to be careful/gentle with me.)

My other mistake was in not figuring out sooner that I didn't really want anyone massaging my limbs. Most of my experience with friends has been back, neck, and shoulder massage; I hadn't really had enough experience with getting my legs and feet and arms and hands massaged to recognize that I just don't find it pleasant or helpful. But now I know, so I can avoid that particular part of the problem in the future.

Since that bad massage experience, I've had several professional chair massages, in which I sit in one of those massage chairs and a professional massages my back and shoulders. Those have always gone well, though I need to be very explicit upfront that I don't want my arms or hands touched at all. So I'm not entirely averse to professionals.

I've found one massage therapist in particular who's amazingly good, and after several chair massages, I eventually even got a couple of table massages from him that focused entirely on my back. Those were good, too, but he's the only pro I've trusted enough since that 2005 incident to be willing to try it, and I was still more comfortable with the chair massages.

(Wrote this entry in early 2009, based on the email I sent in 2007; didn't get around to posting it until now.)

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