Where else does one remove all or some of her clothing minutes after meeting someone and allow that person to touch their body in an intimate, familiar way in a dimly lit closed room for an extended period of time, with no one else present, and likely being encouraged to close their eyes?
That scenario requires a lot of trust; trust that must be earned, not assumed, by a practitioner.
I taught professional boundaries and ethics to the massage community for over 20 years. It’s a topic dear to my heart and one I wish bodywork schools took more seriously. Even if you think you have a good understanding of professional boundaries, one thing I would ask you to remember is that many of the people who come into your space have had their boundaries violated – and sometimes by well-meaning, but ignorant people. The responsibility to re-frame someone’s experience of receiving reflexology as a safe event, therefore, will fall on you.
So, what are boundaries?
Boundaries separate me from my environment; from the surroundings that include people, not just inanimate objects.
Boundaries are both innate and learned (what we grew up within our families and in our culture) and dependent on context and location (work, public or personal environments, country or region).
There are 5 types of boundaries.
In this culture, an arm’s length (two to three feet) in front and back is comfortable for most people; one foot on the sides. In other cultures that distance can vary.
In somatic practices, contact is expected and appropriate during the session. It’s questionable before and after, depending a lot on culture. In Latin-speaking countries, for example, hugging is more prevalent than in the Anglo-Saxon based cultures, where a hug might feel forward.
Do you automatically reach out to hug your clients when they arrive or are about to leave? Have you asked if they would like a hug that day?
How do you feel when clients grab you for a hug without checking in first?
Emotional boundaries are essential for all healthy relationships, both personal and professional. And this is an area where boundaries can be radically different depending on context (friends vs. the first-time client vs. retail store clerk) and culture (African-American vs. Caucasian, for example).
Are you aware of how different cultures feel about sharing emotions and/or personal information with strangers?
It is important that clients not feel that they are expected to share emotions or personal aspects of their lives that don’t directly relate to their reason for seeing you.
Sexual boundaries are actually a subset of physical and emotional boundaries.
Everyone has the right to determine with whom, when, where and how s/he expresses herself sexually. The healthcare relationship is one in which sexual safety must be paramount. Somatic practitioners should not have sexual relationships with clients, period.
A person’s thoughts, opinions and beliefs form her identity. To ridicule, criticize, ignore and/or dismiss another’s opinion is a boundary violation.
Many seasoned practitioners have put discussion of potentially heated topics such as politics or religion off-limits in the clinic room; if for no other reason than discussions such as those put someone in their head rather than in their body where relaxation is initiated.
The human body conducts electrical currents through an electromagnetic field. As practitioners, we must prevent being influenced by a client’s energy at the same time that we protect the client’s energetic boundary.
Some therapists are somatically intuitive and can ‘read’ other people’s energy. It is a boundary violation to share unasked for perceptions. Always remember that the person has come to you for a reflexology session, not an intuitive energy reading.
I’ll close with a few ways you can strengthen your professional boundaries:
1. Increase your awareness of your client’s experience. Pay attention to what your client is asking for and not asking for, both verbally and non-verbally.
Does your client:
* pull back when you try to hug them?
* avoid answering certain questions you ask?
* tense up when you touch a certain place or move their body in a certain way?
2. Manage the energy field. Before and after each session consciously direct your energy to build a protective bubble around both you and your client. Release it all when you are done, either through a physical practice or by spraying the room with an essential oil blend.
3. Learn to identify clients’ behaviors that indicate a crossed boundary. Example: muscle tension/eyes open/stubborn behavior or a change in customary behavior.
4. Ask questions that identify when you suspect a boundary has been violated:
“I’ve been asking you some personal questions in the last few minutes. Have any made you uncomfortable?” Or, “Let me apologize if any made you feel uncomfortable.”
Show respect for client boundaries. Admit and apologize when you overstep. This will go far in building trust.
5. Teach clients how to establish their own boundaries and to articulate their experience. Fully explain that you have no way of knowing what the session will feel like to them, and since you want to give them the best experience possible, you need them to partner with you by informing you of what is working and what is not.
Regarding getting feedback during the session, ask, “How do you respond to pain? Do you grin and bear it, or do you say something?”
If a client says she doesn’t want to break ‘the spell’ by speaking up when receiving, establish non-verbal cues that can be used to inform you when you’re on a point that wants attention or if pressure is too much.
Do you have a particular behavior that you practice that delivers strong professional boundaries? Please share, so we can all learn.