Reflections by Meredith Osterman, LMT
In college, I was part of Habitat for Humanity. We took trips every year during spring break to help build houses in other states . The first year or two we went to North Carolina. A year after Katrina hit in Louisiana we went to Slidell, a town just north of New Orleans. It was my first time seeing any kind of true, total devastation.
Driving around the area we saw deserted towns and houses that had been swept away by water. On one of our excursions we were working to gut homes that had been destroyed. We went to a neighborhood that looked almost normal, except that it was completely empty. Before we could go in and start gutting, we had to put on hazmat suits and gas masks to protect ourselves from the black mold. I remember some of the men in the group moving a refrigerator outside and dumping it out. All the food was rotten and putrid water washed onto the grass.
The realization came that I was not equipped to process what had happened when I talked to one of the men from AmeriCorps who was working with us. He was local to Louisiana, and he told me about working in his own neighborhood after the storm. When he told me of the destruction to his home, I felt so bad that I was speechless. It was one thing to observe the devastation in the absence of any people or inhabitants. It gave me a completely different perspective to talk to a person who had lost possibly everything. When he saw I had nothing to say, he laughed at me. He didn’t want my sympathy. I wanted to cry, to feel sorry, to apologize; but he was well past that stage. It was no longer useful to just grieve. At the time it was difficult for me to understand this because I had not suffered any great losses in my life.
As massage therapists (“MTs”), I think we often see clients, and we have a lot of sympathy for them. I once had a client who couldn’t walk, and another MT asked me if working on her had hurt. What she meant by her question was that it was painful to her to see someone in that client’s state. Now, 6 years into my career, I have worked in assisted living and rehab, where I regularly practiced with people with symptoms arising from disorders such as neuropathy, Parkinson’s, depression, and stroke. When we work with people who are compromised, we should ask ourselves at what stage they are in their recovery process. In my experience it seems that people at the beginning stages of a traumatic experience benefit from some sympathy. Later on, it is more beneficial to recognize the client’s resiliency and work with them and help them cope. Feeling sorry for someone else isn’t a useful tool for dealing with large issues. That type of sympathy implies a certain degree of hopelessness. It is much more useful for people to see that there are things they can do to help themselves.
Figuring out whether you are feeling sorry for someone or helping to support them is as much about you as it is the client. Sympathy can cause you to feel bad, and maybe cause your client to feel worse. There is no need to go down a rabbit hole of what-ifs or unnecessary hopelessness. Empathy, on the other hand, can be a productive tool that allows you to appreciate what your client is going through, while also taking space to figure out how you can help and be more proactive.
Some thoughts you might have in sympathy are that client has a terrible life and I feel bad for them or that there is nothing to be done and it’s a sad situation. A lot of the time things can improve or they can be managed. Sometimes it’s small steps and sometimes it’s being able to sit with what is happening. Empathy allows us as therapists to see a bigger picture and take in the entirety of the client’s being, to meet the client where they are in their healing journey - rather than projecting our own judgments about how the client is handling things or our feelings of discomfort. If you meet a client where they are, you can avoid these pitfalls and become a better therapist.
Meredith Osterman is a 2012 graduate of PMTI and currently teaches in the PMTI Professional Training Program as a Level 1 practical instructor. She has recently launched her private practice in Kensington, Maryland: Inner Compass Massage.