Why I Love … Massage Therapy

When was the last time you received an entire hour of focused unconditional positive regard? Errrmmm … maybe a year ago? Maybe never?

Massage therapy isn’t just just about feeling good. In addition to improving circulation, relieving stress and pain, naturally increasing levels of dopamine and serotonin and a host of other frequently quoted benefits, the most
satisfying part of massage therapy is the skilled, concentrated attention.

I liked massage therapy so much that I went back to school to study it. I wanted the opportunity to make other people feel as good and as cared for as possible. If you’re a therapist your job is to treat the needy. Not always “needy” in terms of money, but needy in terms of “they are sooooooo needy.”

Not everyone who needs attention is “needy.” What’s the difference?


Image is author's own

Any type of therapy job will attract those who need attention. However, to actively seek attention in the Western world is culturally constructed as a feminine activity. In fact, it’s seen as admirable not to want attention—to be stoic—the “logic” being that if you were worth something, you wouldn’t have to ask for attention because people would just naturally give it to you. So then we have these terms to describe people who go looking for it: Attention Whore, Needy, Drama Queen, Emotional Vampire, or, as Freud would have it, Goldfish.

Who we are in society can affect how this goes for us as well: very poor people are conditioned not to expect too much attention, or if they get it, it may be negative. The most “needy” are the middle-ish classes, striving for upward mobility: then it’s good to get noticed. Men are less likely to seek help or verbally express “needs”, as doing so could make them appear less powerful. Think about the term “Mama’s Boy”: a man who wants and enjoys attention and affection. It’s not exactly a compliment.

Our culture tends to be pretty clear about when it’s okay to seek attention and when it’s not. But are there really differences in who needs attention?

Who “deserves” attention … and who doesn’t?

The people at the top of the heap, who are the most powerful and control the most resources, also tend to receive the most grooming. This group usually consists of very wealthy white men, and no one ever calls them needy.

The people who massage therapists most often see in the office are the ones who perform the most social grooming in their day to day lives. These are the people who ‘pay’ the most attention- the wives, mothers, and daughters of more culturally powerful ‘others’. Doubt it? Take a look at The Onion’s satire piece from a few years ago, entitled “Mom Hogging Family Therapy Session”. Strike a chord? Did you laugh? If you did, you recognized the underlying current that makes attention a palpable need for a large segment of society.

Of course, it’s not just women who need attention, but they are the ones who are more likely to seek help. When people receive zero social grooming or experience repeated rejection, they tend to behave quite badly. Or, they accept the situation, ignore their feelings about it, and get sick. And then you’ll definitely see them on your table. Everyone needs attention, period. In fact, a new study shows that feelings of social rejection cause the same feelings of “hurt” as physical pain.

That puts kind of a new spin on “attention-seeking,” no?

Massage can help

The beauty of massage therapy is its ability to connect directly with people without requiring them to put into words how they feel. It’s like it ‘magically’ makes you feel better, establishing a physical connection between you and another person without the work of using conversation to try to find common ground. It’s perfect for people who have a hard time verbalizing how they feel.

However, a few words of caution:

  1. There is such a thing as a bad massage:
    What makes for a bad massage experience? A tired, unfocused therapist is not good, nor is one who is lacking in social skills or training and understanding. Increase your chances of a good experience by trying to find a skilled practitioner (not just trained in a bunch of fancy modalities), who is perceptive, knowledgeable, and able to focus for long periods of time.
  2. You may have a breakdown on the table:
    In the long run this isn’t so bad. It sounds bad, but it’s actually good. That may surprise you, but it’s true. It’s common for people to cry on the table or laugh hysterically when muscle memories are triggered. Depression, eating disorders, body image issues, rape, and trauma—all those stored memories may come rushing back and you may need to find another level of support if that happens to you. The key thing to remember is that being flooded by intense feelings while on the table does not mean that something is going wrong. Starting to experience buried emotions is a part of the process of letting them go.

On a final note, compassionate touch promotes trust. “Being physically touched, whether with a kneading massage or a comforting pat on the shoulder, seems to encourage cooperative behavior,” says author Dan Ariely. Touch is such a basic comfort to us and we tend to seriously underestimate its power to heal and to make us feel connected to other people—an essential part of being human.

The best part of massage is the psycho-social benefit of being well-cared for. So if, like me, you’ve been called needy and if you have, er … issues, get a massage. It may deepen your awareness and just plain help you “feelgooder.”

Have you experienced the benefits of massage? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

Leigh Stevens is a certified massage therapist, artist, humorist and co-founder of whereapy.

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  1. I haven’t had a professional massage in over a decade. I think it’s time to book an appointment.

    People in general would be much happier and healthier if they could schedule a weekly massage into their lives. We as humans do need that soothing touch.

  2. Leigh, I like your description of massage as “skilled concentrated attention”. When massage is applied by a skilled, empathetic practitioner, it can be a very effective remedy for problems connected to muscular tension. I have tended to look at massage in that way – as a physical remedy. But I also see the truth in your point about attention – about the psychological benefit of touch. That is something I can recognise in retrospect as an important benefit of massage therapy – just as important as the physical treatment of muscles.

    Thank you, Leigh, for this post. I have found it very helpful. Now, I am wondering if I can put off my next massage any longer due to excuses of “too much work to do” or “not enough time”. To avoid feeling emotionally drained is just as much a reason for regular massage therapy as muscular problems.

    • Hey Andrew! You’re thoughts point to an important issue – massage is so often publicized as a luxury that, of course, everyone puts it off – either thinking they don’t “deserve” it or don’t have the money for it. But basically, if you can afford a nice meal out you can afford a massage once a month.

      Being in the states, I sometimes wonder is it just a US puritan morality that holds people back or something else. What is with the extreme self denial on one hand and the flat-out gluttony on the other? And… I’m at all not sure but, I’m thinking it has tons to do with marketing pressure and the prevailing ideology. In the states it is your civic duty to consume. Nuts!

      When you go for a massage you’re not really supporting any corporate need – you’re meeting your own needs.

  3. I had a manager once who was disgruntled because she felt that too many of the staff were using our benefits plan to access massage when they didn’t really ‘need’ it. I was working in a hospital at the time, surrounded by stressed, overworked health care professionals, and I was thinking to myself, ‘how can you possibly think that any of these people don’t NEED a massage?’ I think part of our collective problem is that we still see things like massage as luxuries, instead of just basic human maintenance. And like everyone here, I keep meaning to go for one and then never seem to manage it, even though I feel like a million dollars when I’ve had one…….

    • Exactly Heather! A “high” quality of life full of human connection, attention, and healthy practices should not be considered a luxury… it’s a fundamental need.

  4. Hello Leigh, Beginner MT here. I came across your article in a search for “unconditional positive regard” and “massage therapy.” I am currently in massage school and after learning how to feel with my hands and memorizing anatomy and techniques with my mind, I am realizing how important feeling LOVE with our hearts is in therapeutic relationships. Thank you for your words.

  5. Great thing to give yourself a good massage therapy.

  6. Great site. A lot of useful info here. I’m sending it to several buddies ans also sharing in delicious.
    And obviously, thanks on your effort!