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Don't Pick up the Client's Negative Energy: From White Light to Neuroscience

by Su Fox(more info)

listed in clinical practice, originally published in issue 134 - April 2007

How many of us were taught to protect ourselves from the potentially horrible consequences of picking up a client’s ‘negativity’? I was always a little skeptical about this attitude, disliking the implication that we practitioners are so pure that we should avoid contamination from our impure clients but I did my white light protections, a bubble round the whole body for general situations, a pair of white light gloves on my hands when beginning the massage and carefully holding my hands under running water afterwards to wash off anything I might have picked up – and I’m not talking about MRSA here, I’m talking about negative energy. I wasn’t sure whether the white light was selective, or if it shut out positive energy as well. I was concerned that I might miss something important or that my palpation skills become less sensitive if I used these protections.

And now here’s Babette Rothschild, body Psychotherapist and author of several excellent works on stress and trauma, asserting, in a new book,[1] that clients can infect us, that we can become contaminated and, what’s more, there’s scientific evidence to support her claim. We do pick things up from others, some people being much better at it than others. When used consciously, this ability is a real gift. It’s called empathy.

We tend to link empathy with emotions. Laughter is infectious, we talk about ‘feeling for’ another and we know how easy it is to get carried away in the emotion of a crowd. Babette Rothschild suggests that empathy has a somatic component, in fact, that it starts in the body. Drawing on research from diverse areas, she shows how our nervous, endocrine and muscular systems can mirror those of another person, thereby enabling us to ‘know’ what he’s feeling.

Suppose your client is feeling angry. His facial muscles will tighten or relax into a predictable pattern, as will other muscles in the body, and his autonomic nervous system will trigger predictable changes in heart rate, breathing, tension in his gut muscles and so on. Certain neurochemicals associated with anger will pour into his bloodstream. If he feels happy, a completely different, but also predictable, set of muscular responses and internal changes will occur.

You can try this relationship between external, muscular, and internal for yourself. Right now, contract your risorius muscles – smile! Notice any changes in your gut, chest, breathing pattern? What feeling do you usually associate with these sensations?

The observable muscular patterns of another person can be consciously copied, and you may do this as part of your practice, to get a felt sense of a client’s body. But it appears that we also copy each other’s body movements unconsciously. Next time you’re having coffee with a friend, try altering your body  posture – cross or uncross your legs, lean forward or back, cross your arms – and wait and see how long it takes your friend to follow suit.

But it appears that we copy each others’ movement patterns on an unconscious level too. Scientists have discovered the presence of nerves in the brain that they call mirror neurons. These are motor nerves that fire when watching another person perform a particular action, as if the person watching were doing the action herself. So, if you watch someone break into a big grin and refrain from copying, the neurons that contracted your risorius muscle a moment ago will be firing, as if you were grinning too.

So it seems that our bodies copy the body of another person, on many different levels and this is the basis of empathy, and evidence that we may indeed pick things up from our clients.

What relevance does this have for us as massage practitioners? I found myself wondering whether the tense upper body muscles that I can develop after a day’s massaging might not be down to poor self-care on my part, over-using certain techniques, for example, but could be muscular patterns I’d picked up through somatic empathy from my clients. And then my mind moved onto whether practitioners who habitually work with certain client groups might pick up and be left with different somatic aspects pertaining to that group. Do practitioners who work in prisons, for example, exhibit high levels of ANS arousal at the end of the day? Those who work with pregnant women experience lower back pain? Specialists in frozen shoulders develop pain or discomfort in their own shoulder girdles?

Away from these speculations, I turned my attention back to the book, whose subtitle is Self-Care Strategies for Managing Burnout and Stress.[1] The author states that empathy, particularly the unconscious sort, can lead to compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. In other words, if we as practitioners don’t take seriously our own somatic empathy and know how to monitor it as part of an essential self-care routine, we’re likely to get into trouble. How to do this? Well, you’ll just have to buy the book and find out.

Reference

1.    Rothschild, B. with Rand, M. Help for the Helper. Self Care Strategies for Managing Burnout and Stress. W.W. Norton & Company. New York London. 2006.

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About Su Fox

Su Fox BSc PGCE UKCP Reg MTI Reg CSTA Reg has worked as a complementary therapist and psychotherapist since 1988. For over twenty years she taught massage and related skills in day care centres for the elderly, people with learning difficulties, and mental health issues as well as professional massage qualifications at Hackney Community College. She was director and chair of The Massage Training Institute between  1991 – 2000 and during that time co-authored, with Darien Pritchard, Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology for Massage and authored The Massage Therapist's Pocketbook of Pathology, which has just been revised and reissued as The Massage Therapist’s Pocketbook of Pathology  published by Lotus Publishing.

During this time she was also running a successful private practice in psychotherapy at The Burma Road Practice in North London, focusing particularly on trauma work. She is a trained EMDR practitioner. Su has always believed that the talking therapies need to address the body, and that alternative therapies often failed to consider mental and emotional health, and this led her to write Relating to Clients. The Therapeutic Relationship for Complementary Therapists, published in 2009. In 1993 she added craniosacral therapy to her qualifications and has been a regular contributor to Fulcrum, the journal for the Craniosacral Therapy Association, including a series entitled ‘In The Supervisor’s Chair’. She currently serves on the supervision committee for the Association.

Her current interests are spirituality and its contribution to well being, and the psychology of the ageing process and end of life issues. Su can be contacted via sufox56@gmail.com   www.burmardpractice.co.uk/therapist-counsellor-london-n16/13-su-fox-therapist-n16

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