professionalism in massage therapy

“I am a fully licensed professional massage therapist” – sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Especially in the United States the “professional” title is taken very seriously, and it can be easily defined.

It generally means you have taken your 500 hours of training or whatever your state requires, and passed the state’s massage board licensing exam. Easy definition, and now you are a real professional. Or are you?

Let’s look at a number of different scenarios

  • You are licensed in one state but not in another. If you do a massage in this other state, are you still a professional or are you an offender, someone who broke the law?
  • You are licensed in the US, and now you go to a country which has no licensing laws for massage. If you do a massage there, is that a professional or unprofessional massage?
  • You are a licensed massage therapist, but you got into this profession because you know you can make $60.- an hour and that sounded appealing. But now you realize that it is not your calling, and you just don’t have the right touch.

    You are not happy, and you cannot attract many clients. Are you still a professional massage therapist just because you have your piece of paper?

  • I happen to live in Thailand. There are many excellent Thai Massage therapists living in villages who have learned their craft from their mother or a friend. They have never seen an official massage school from the outside, what to speak of from the inside.

    And they don’t even know the meaning of certification.But they have helped hundreds of people for many years. They have the healing touch, the skills, the experience, and the intuitive knowledge of what to do. Are they professionals or not?

  • Recently a neighbor of mine came to me asking for help for her excruciating pain in the upper back. I worked on her, but I did not charge her anything. It was just a goodwill session for a friend and neighbor.

    Was that a professional massage session or not? Her pain subsided greatly and she was very happy. If I would not have had some official paper that certified me, would that have been an unprofessional massage despite its professional results?

  • You get a session from a licensed therapist, but it does not feel good, it is painful, and the touch just doesn’t feel right. You can’t wait to get out of there and decide to never come back. Was that a professional massage?
  • You are a highly experienced and qualified long time therapist. But you let your licence expire. What are you now? Are you still a professional, or are you an unlicensed professional?

    Are you unprofessional now, or are you an amateur suddenly? Did your qualification and ability to touch people expire along with your license?

“Unprofessional” does not have to be a dirty word

“Unprofessional” has this real negative connotation. It makes you think of a sleazy setup, no official licensing, bad technique, improper touching etc. But looking at the above examples, it becomes obvious that this definition is quite lopsided.

Personally I have received lousy sessions from licensed professionals, and wonderful sessions from therapists who had no official certifications, and vice versa. So a piece of paper doesn’t seem sufficient as a definition for “professional massage therapist.”

Who exactly is a professional?

What does “professional” really mean? Is it just the fact that you have a piece of paper that says so? Or is it the fact that you committed to following a certain code of ethics?

Or is it the fact that you live in a certain part of the world that recognizes certain standards of certification and ethics?

Then what about very skilled, experienced, and effective therapists who live in countries where different codes of ethics apply, and where licensing might not exist or is not enforced? Can we just write them off as unprofessional?

What are the possible solutions?

  • My first suggestion is to recognize that the word “professional massage therapist” only makes sense in certain locations and cultural settings.
    Once you leave such a geographic location, for example your state in the US, then you need to be open to very different standards, ethics, settings, and definitions.

    It does not make much sense to apply the laws, cultural standards and ethical definitions of your home state to the rest of the world.

  • My second suggestion is that we all need to be careful, even in our home state in the US, how we define these words.It is not a black and white issue, and it takes a lot more than a piece of paper.

    Therapists might have to be licensed in certain parts of this planet, but they also  need to be experienced, skilled, intuitive, committed to their career, possess a touch that feels good, be able to connect with their clients, have an empathetic nature, and have a sincere desire to help others.

  • My third suggestion is that although an official piece of paper might be required in certain parts of the world, the true meaning of the words “professional massage therapist” are found in all those characteristics that I listed in the previous paragraph after the licencing requirements.

    This directs our focus to the essence of healing arts, and it allows us to include our colleagues from all over the world as equals rather than relegate them to a lower status of non-professional.

    It also allows us to travel the world with an open mind without needing to judge others based on our standards.

Words do not have the same meaning everywhere

Words and definitions are linked to certain languages, cultures and laws. They are not universal truths. Often it can be better to decide with our hearts who is a professional massage therapist than with our laws.

We might need the laws, but as therapists we will not be able to keep our clients based on a piece of paper.

We get to  keep them if we greatly expand the definition of “professional” to include many characteristics that cannot be mandated or enforced by laws, but only perceived and applied through our hearts and open minds.

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The author, Shama KernThe author, Shama Kern, is the founder and director of Thai Healing Massage Academy and the creator of 20 online Thai Massage video training courses. He has been practicing and teaching Thai Massage for 16 years.

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