As humans, and even as mammals, wanting connection with others is central to who we are. To be seen, understood, accepted, heard, and touched…all of these are part of a core set of wishes that we are born to pursue without hesitation—our very survival depends on it.
But at some point, this gleeful pursuit doesn’t go as we had hoped, and we begin to hedge our bets, hesitating in these pursuits or even creating subconscious psychological strategies that block our awareness of these wishes to varying degrees. For many people, this leads to an adult life that is characterized by a simultaneous longing for connection juxtaposed with a potent aversion to it. The longing is the original wish of our true selves, while the aversion is the protective strategy that emerges, and these two opposing forces create a tension or dilemma that becomes a central theme in that person’s experience.
In addition, the issue of connection is one not only of connecting with others but also with connecting with ourselves, which is to say that we feels ourselves or feel our bodies. So along with the simultaneous desire and aversion to connect with others, there’s also the emergence of a simultaneous desire and aversion to feel ourselves. The more one has this aversion to feel, the more one engages in behaviors that attempt to block awareness of feeling (e.g. alcohol, drugs, staying busy and distracted, exercise, etc.) while also engaging in behaviors to get back to feeling something (e.g. extreme sports, extreme sensations, etc.).
In a utopian world, the prospect of being in a classroom would only be a gleeful one, given the inherent promise of engaging with others. In the real world, however, individuals experience some combination of glee and doom—an excitement for possible connection mixed with an aversion to connection.
Massage education will attract a disproportionate number of people who experience this connection dilemma more strongly and see massage as a way to pursue the connection that they haven’t been successful at achieving. But what they realize is that this connection dilemma makes a massage classroom different than other classrooms because massage itself is putting everyone on a train that’s headed straight into the heart of this dilemma. This is the case because not only can massage and touch be retraumatizing, but also because as a massage student (or client), one WILL be seen and touched and (hopefully) accepted, and this will be both wonderful to the true self (that is still wishing for this) and horrifying to the protective self that is averse to all of these things. So, students WILL be getting exactly what they wish for, which also happens to be exactly what they are averse to.
In those moments in the massage classroom where the protective self wants to separate and be alone, the student might be giving or receiving a massage instead, and over time this builds up the tension in this dilemma. That tension won’t be experienced in these clear conceptual terms, however—it will be experienced as a desire to quit or lash out towards others or collapse psychologically. This will lead to the reduction of social safety, a possible collusion with others experiencing this dilemma the most strongly, and a plummeting of the quality of the classroom environment. For faculty who are not educated about what is going on, it’s like they are placed in a burning building without any water, completely lacking the knowledge and tools necessary to understand, much less navigate, these dynamics.
This is why massage therapy educators need to be trauma-informed, where trauma-informed does not simply refer to education around shock trauma but also involves sufficient education about developmental trauma as well. Requiring a trauma-informed perspective makes sense even if the only thing a school cared about was money, because this issue is key to dropout rates and reviews and reputations. Individuals who are not facilitated effectively in this process are going to drop out and/or contribute negatively to the school’s reputation. But far more important than this is that without having trauma-informed relational skills as an instructor, one can’t hope to impart to the massage students the kinds of relational skills that are truly needed to be optimal massage therapists with their clients. Clients need massage therapists who are trauma-informed, and we can’t make therapists trauma-informed if we don’t have schools and educators who aren’t trauma-informed.
To really be trauma-informed, one must understand that this dilemma (around connection and other needs as well) arises when one moves towards something that is both wished for and opposed simultaneously. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s not going to help the person cheering them on to embrace their true self’s wishes—in fact, that will indubitably make matters worse as the protective self will push back even harder. To be trauma-informed, one must understand anxiety not simply as an autonomic state but rather as a sign of increased tension between the wishes of the true self and the strategies of the protective self, and that’s not what a short course on trauma is going to provide. Understanding these dynamics and how to respond effectively is a minimum requirement for providing trauma-informed care and trauma-informed education.
Mark Olson, Ph.D. LMT is the director of the Pacific Center for Awareness and Bodywork, a trauma-informed and neuroscience-based massage school in Kauai (www.awarenessandbodywork.com). Dr. Olson also offers in-person and online courses on trauma-informed bodywork, trauma-informed care, and trauma-informed relational skills.