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I wanted to share with you all an experience I've had in my private practice so that we can all discuss and learn from it. A client became inappopriate with me and I have to terminate our relationship, but looking back on it now, I can see that there were some red flags...
Dan (name has been changed) was a yoga student of mine and regularly attended classes. He was a dedicated student and clearly had been practicing yoga for years. One day, he approached me to give me some feedback after class. I informed him that I have a massage practice in town and I handed him my card, thinking that he might be interested in receiving massage.
About a week later, I received a call from him stating that he would like to book a 90-minute massage with me. I was happy to have a new client and especially someone with whom I have a similar interest. I had him fill out my paperwork and lead him to the table to explain that he was to undress to his level of comfort and lay facedown underneath the topsheet. Our first massage went well, I noticed that he was directive and would indicate exactly where he would like me to work on and for how long, then move me on to the next muscle group. He requested very deep pressure. Afterwards, when it was time to check him out, he asked for the "super best friend's discount." I laughed and told him that I could take $10 off his total.
Dan came in for massage about once a month for the next four months or so. During our second massage, Dan asked if I would like to come over to his house some time to practice yoga with him. During another massage, he suggested that we could do a massage trade sometime, because he has had a lot of massages and he thinks that he would be a good therapist. And during our third massage, he started to undrape himself to expose his buttocks and gluteal cleft while I was working on his back. I would continually redrape him, and he would continually undrape himself. I asked if he was hot, and he replied no. I redraped his entire back and moved on to his posterior legs.
During the last massage, I felt things were getting inappropriate. It was a 90-minute massage and I worked on the posterior side of his body for an hour before having him turn over. He asked me to work on his quads so I undraped his left leg. He started talking, "You know, I've been divorced for 10 years but my ex-wife and I used to massage each other all the time. It was really nice; I miss it." I told him that I only receive massages from professionals. He then asked, "Well since we know each other, do you think you can give me something extra?" I replied, "Absolutely not. That is not what I do." He said, "Oh, I figured you'd say no." I finished the massage as quickly as I could because I felt uncomfortable, however, I did not want to escalate a situation by being rude--I was alone on the floor of the building where I work.
After the massage, I ran out of the room and ran up and down the halls to make sure that no one else was in their office. I even ran upstairs to the apartment above, just to let someone know what had happened in case things escalated when I checked him out, but no one was around. I went back to my office and Dan was waiting for me by my desk.
He handed me his payment and said he was sorry if he upset me. I asked him what had given him the idea that it was ok to ask me that. He said that it was nothing I did, that it was him, his energy is all messed up. I explained that I have a professional practice and that I would need to speak to other professionals to see how to handle this. He became upset, whiny even, and said what I good therapist I am and how his judgement was just off. He said my massage has helped him so much and how sorry he is to upset me.
I told him that I appreciate his apology, but that I do need to think about how I wish to move forward because I want to maintain the integrity of my practice and that this has never happened to me before. His response was, "Oh, really?" as though he was surprised that I have not encountered this behavoir before. I told him that I do not want to take on the role of counselor, but that it seems, based on what he said, that he is having some feelings of loneliness that would lead him to do something like this and that he needs to learn how to control those feelings. He said, "I think a lot of people are lonely though." I told him, "I don't want to be targeted for those emotions."
Now I am thinking about a proper email to write Dan to explain that he has crossed boundaries and should not be receiving professional massage until he is able to make clear distinctions between a therapeutic massage and a massage given to him by his ex-wife. I am thinking back to what I learned in ethics class and some of the terms we learned. Does anyone think that there was some transferrence here? What do you think about the events leading up to his suggestion? Do you think I could have stopped this progression much earlier on? Thanks all for listening and I am looking forward to discussing this with a group of professionals.
It's too bad you have had this experience, but of course we learn from these experiences.
To answer your last question first, "do you think I could have stopped this progression much earlier on". The answer is "yes". There were boundaries being crossed from the very beginning. In my experience, people rarely LEAP across boundaries, they "push" the boundaries to see what reaction they will get. If the professional permits the boundaries to be stretched, they will push some more.
The first boundary was pushed when you gave him a discount as a "special friend". This indicated to him that the relationship could be something more than the professional client/ therapist.
You say that Dan invited you to come to his house to practice yoga, and invited doing trades, but you don't indicate if these activities took place. If they did, it was another boundary violation. If they did not, this would have been a good time to establish very firm, clear boundaries and explain the professional relationship to him
During the last massage, you had to continually re-drape him. This would have been the time - the first time it happened - to stop the massage and explain that the draping absolutely must stay in place and that if he removed it again, the massage would have to end.
I am not trying to be cruel, I am trying to point out to you how this client was pushing the boundaries and trying to get a feel for how far you would permit him to go. Your signals were not firm enough, and it is no wonder that he mis-read them
You are quite right. Of course there was transference! There is always transference. He was thinking of you in a role other than your proper role as his massage therapist.
Now you have to write to him to explain that the professional relationship has gone off the rails and you cannot continue to be his massage therapist.
We all have these experiences that come our way to help us learn and grow as therapists.
I think you have a lot of insight into what happened with this one, and you will grow as a result of this experience
Be clear and vocalize the intent. He is looking for a girlfriend and misses intimacy. Be aware that many guys will keep trying to move the boundary to find out if they can get their needs met. Be clear with them that you are not going to provide that but if they want a good therapeutic massage that is what you do. Don't wait for it to go further before making it clear.You could have discussed it when he shifted the sheet. Many men do not regard it inappropriate to ask hoping they get lucky. For men it crosses the line when no is not accepted as an answer. And even I have been asked by men. They can then decide to enjoy the massage you do and remain a client or go find another for the next massage.
Thank you both for your input. I agree with Lee, where our professional relationship has been derailed and it is best to discontinue seeing him. I realize that I need to be more current with my ethics so that when issues arise, I will be able to recognize them easier. I think my problem was that I did not know how to interpret my client's actions early on, and had I been more aware of ethical issues I would have been able to communicate with him about my boundaries. It is unfortunate that I am losing a client, as things could have been different, but I am committed to learning from this experience, which is why I wanted to share it with others for their benefit as well. Thanks!