March 23, 2013

When You Can Object

Most of us, I reckon, have some opening spiel with our clients about letting us know if they don't like something we're doing. Mine goes like this. It's usually the last thing I say: the client's on the table, all covered up with the sheet & blanket. I've laid hands on their back. I lean down a bit and say, “If anything I do makes you uncomfortable, for any reason, tell me right away.” They make some little sound of acknowledgment, or a little nod. I go on, to drive it home, “Don't lie there thinking, God, I hope he stops doing that pretty soon. Just tell me.”

In other words, the answer to “when can you object?” is clean, simple, and categorical. Any time.

This is important. It's on my mind because I found myself reiterating it recently, with a client I've seen many times. Because it's easy for a sense that one shouldn't object to grow up, maybe even especially inside of an ongoing therapeutic relationship.

It got me thinking about various reasons you might decide you couldn't object. Here's three:

He knows what he's doing, and I'm here to avail myself of his expertise. A client of mine once said, when I was checking whether something was OK, “You're the boss!” and was, maybe, surprised by the forcefulness of my response. I said “No, you are the boss. You're hiring me, and you're the expert on your own sensations. I am not the boss.” I don't want any vagueness about that at all. The client is the boss, by virtue of paying me, and they're the owner of their body, by inalienable right. I refuse to be the boss of anyone else's body.

I haven't objected to this before, so I have no right to now. I don't know how common this is, but I sometimes worry about it. What okay one time might not be another. There are places that are sensitive and vulnerable, by nature, by culture, or by personal history. Every therapist knows this, and approaches them cautiously if at all: the abdomen, the inner thighs, the inside of the upper arms are common ones, but it can be practically anywhere. I've had clients who could not stand to have their feet worked, or to have their ears touched. There are certain positionings that for one individual or another are too much: I know someone for whom, due to old trauma, lying on her side for a massage nearly always brings tears. The first time we work a delicate area or reposition you, we usually check in ahead of time, and are alert for signs of discomfort while we work. But after we've decided it's okay, we may not be watching out, even though we know these things shift. You should always object if you're not liking it. It may take a while for you to figure out you don't like something, after all. And you don't have to object for all time. It is perfectly legitimate to say “Oh, not the calves, not today.” And it's still legitimate, even if you really liked the calves last week. That was then.

I can't object without impugning his motives. You may be thinking: I know he's not trying to grope me, I know this is my own discomfort and comes from my own history, so I shouldn't lay this old baggage on him.” This is nonsense. Saying “I'm not comfortable with this touch” is not an accusation, and no legitimate therapist would ever take it as one. If you do think your therapist is trying to grope you, rather than just objecting, you should end the session and go inform the state massage board. We don't want those people in the business. But if you're unsure, the best way to make sure is to say, clearly, “I'm not comfortable being touched there.” Any legitimate professional will stop at once, and be grateful for the feedback. They may explain why they were doing that particular move in that particular way, and they may ask for clarification about where “there” is, which is fine: but if they try to convince you that you should be comfortable with it, or try to keep doing it, red flags should be sprouting before your eyes like crocuses in Spring. Those are not professional responses.

I'm sure there's lots more reasons why you might think you shouldn't object, but this is one of those few questions that has a simple, clear, straight-edged answer. When can you object? Any time. You don't need a reason, or a precedent, or a principle. You can just say, “I don't want to be touched there,” or “I don't want to be in that position,” or “I don't want to be touched that way.” And if objecting doesn't feel entirely comfortable or natural to you, it may be all the more important to do it. You might even just want to practice – object to something even if you are comfortable with it. You can just cheerfully say, “I don't want my stomach touched.” And – without being offended, or asking for justification, or being perturbed in any way, I will simply not touch your stomach.

Of course, we will (hopefully) have asked you in the intake interview if there's any areas you want us to avoid, or any place you don't like to be touched. When I'm asking I usually add some examples: “Face? Feet? Abdomen? Glutes?” But you don't always know ahead of time, and before the first massage you don't really have any idea what my touch is going to be like. Even if you like heavy work on your feet, you might hate a light touch there. When you realize that I might actually do light tapotement (drumming) on your belly – I've been known to do it, it's a standard in tui na massage – you might decide in a hurry that it's not the touch you want there. You don't sign away your right to control how you're touched by signing the intake form!

Any time. And sooner rather than later, please. The massage doesn't work if you're not comfortable.


  1. another point: sometimes touch in a certain area will be okay on one day, but not on another. People need to be allowed to change their minds.

  2. My problem is that voice is not fast enough. By the time I realize I don't like something, then figure out words to describe what I don't like, then try to say it, the therapist is on to something else, or a different spot, so it would be hard to communicate what exactly it was that I didn't like. I think they'll interpret that I didn't like what they did just now, instead of what was five seconds ago, which was actually what I didn't like. I'm not sure what might be the solution to this.

  3. Michael, I'm like that too. Not that I am often uncomfortable during a massage! But not long after one starts, I'm very far away from the verbal world -- it would take me a long time to put together words and get them out.

  4. Thanks for the reminder about a massage that works and ones that don't.

    I tend to get warm really fast but once I got cold during a massage and I thought about saying something to my therapist but she was almost finished so I wondered about saying something so close to the end but she realized that my feet were cold and turned up the table warmer.

    When she mentioned that my feet were cold, I realized that I should have spoken up.

  5. Hey Drea! Yes! Late is better than never. There's usually something that can be done to address the discomfort.

  6. I once had what is referred to as a DEEP TISSUE massage, I had no idea how deep that was until the next day when I was actually in pain from it! Now I know to speak up even when I get to the point where words aren't coming fast enough I can use sounds that relay objection!

  7. Maryann, yes, deep tissue doesn't have to hurt, at the time or after (and in my opinion usually shouldn't), but that's how some people do it. I said my piece about deep tissue massage a while ago ( It's a pretty vague term that can mean a lot of different things, one of which can be "massage by someone who thinks hurting you will do you good."

  8. Dale, thank you so much for reiterating so eloquently what cannot be reiterated enough.

  9. I really like and appreciate this, Dale.
    Part of my intro to clients is "I can feel a lot of things, but I can't feel how YOU are experiencing what I'm doing so please speak up..."

  10. Thank you very much for sharing this useful information. I was doing a project and for that I was looking for related information. Some of the points are very useful.

  11. This is quite a refresher Dale. I usually ask the client how hard or how much force they wanted or tolerate and then ask if i was doing it right as I go along. This is a good read.

  12. I found you because someone posted one of your articles on Pinterest. It's funny that I came across this now because I had one of the most painful massages last week! I'm still a bit sore in my neck from it, all because I didn't tell her how sensitive I am. Even when I was in searing pain, I thought surely this is good for me, I shouldn't be so weak. So thank you for this post. I really appreciate it, and I will never hold back again.