Beware the Hipster-izing of Cupping in Massage Therapy

Aug 16 / Tania Velásquez
Originally published on January 13, 2017


Massage therapy can go down in the books as a healing art, but all art is healing on some level. Be it physical, psychological, or emotional, or all of the above. Art is creative, intuitive, and dynamic. Music is art. Writing is art. Dancing is art. Psychology is an art. Sculpting is art. Surgery is art.

As massage therapists we are artists who may be catalysts for some sort of processes via touch, but we are not healers. To assume the title of healer places an unrealistic burden on a practitioner and robs the client of realizing their own true innate ability. It also lends to a ludicrous exaggeration of our role by claiming victory over a resolution that isn't ours.

Who is the healer?

Our clients are the only healers in the room. Just because we happen to be present at the time, does not make us the conductors who orchestrate their healing process in any way. It's happening in spite of us and will continue to do so. However, being present gives us the honor of witnessing it on occasion.

Our clients are the conductors. We are both the audience and ready instruments. But our instrument does nothing unless the conductor raises the baton of consent and allows us to behold their musical composition. A place in their orchestra is not guaranteed. The show will still go on.

It's easy to take credit for being at the right place at the right time and think someone was "healed" all because we performed a special technique, but it's not exactly warranted. What about all the times it doesn't happen so dramatically, if it happens at all?

This isn't to discredit the wins by any means, it's to dismantle the idea that there is a healer outside of anyone's own body. A win is still a win. However, healing is a complex phenomenon we have no business taking credit for, as tempting as it may be sometimes.

We are helpers.

When a client feels better after a session with me, I realize someone else could've been just as effective (there are many other qualified professionals on the planet). It could be the luck of the draw, but everything that went well with that client happened as result of them trusting me enough to allow a pure connection at that moment. That is the nature of the therapeutic relationship.

Though there is nothing magical about that idea, it is profoundly meaningful and humbling. When you think about the delicate nature of our work, it is a privilege when a client chooses one of us to help them. We are helpers.

I admit, helper doesn't sound as majestic or glamorous as healer, but that's just the ego being nit-picky. For some reason, there are those who prefer the mental image of us as cloaked druids with glowing auras upon Crystal Mountain as opposed to just being regular-Joes who give someone a hand-up after a fall.

Our job is to be like Joe. Druids are considered weird nowadays and incantations don't actually work (we should at least agree on that much if you're on this website), but it is genuinely cool and beneficial to lend a helping hand. That is what we do. I like to think we offer that very well.

I used to be mildly Type A-ish

I understand the earnest desire to try to "fix" something. Humans are wired to want to improve upon any kind of condition, internal or external. But when we find we can't, it becomes very frustrating. This is where egos can get bruised and things get weird.

Healer-types can go in 2 extreme directions: the Type A of martyrdom or the Type Z of complete delusion, with non-binary degrees in between:

  • Type A: the martyr is prone to unhealthy self-punishment and will think something is broken when their "healing powers" don't do anything extraordinary. This leads into the lonely abyss of sacrificial lamb-ness and the fantasy that client's are somehow "draining" their precious energy reserves. Counter-transference much? Clean that up!

  • Type Z: the delusional guy goes so far as to absurdly attribute ailments to obscure past life karma and/or resort to victim-blaming the client when his "healing powers" fail to work. Often it's to the tune of you're just not believing in my special powers enough (suuuure, nothing to do with being a total nut-job   ).

    No joke. I've actually heard things like, "he completely healed me of my of my past life whatever and then my headaches were gone". To which I say, that is a sweet illusion. You healed yourself by means of a belief. And that's awesome! But it is you who accomplished that.

    Your "healer" only helped remind and convince you of your own healing capacity, somehow, at that moment. Hello placebo effect. And that surely does take a skill of some sort. Whatever that skill may be, however it may be applied, and the environment it is applied in is the art part. We have helping skills.

Vague truth

Certain arts will appeal-to-or-actually-help certain people often, sometimes, or not at all and that may very well be attributed solely to belief. It is indeed rewarding when someone believes in you enough to trust you with their discomfort and understand you will do your best to help them. No matter what the scenario, trust is sacred. I call that a humble-win-win.

It's not just semantics, it's just annoying


Paul Ingraham of PainScience.com addresses this exact point here and coins the term healer syndrome. He writes about it with such pointed accuracy that anyone, even self-proclaimed healers, would have a hard time denying it.

"I know a massage therapist here in Vancouver who actually refers to herself as a “healer” on a regular basis. She seems to go out of her way to use the word, looking for excuses to mention that she’s a healer.

Ick.

It’s arrogant and distasteful, obviously. It’s an absurd conceit, incompatible with competence and professionalism. Humility is an essential ingredient in health care: if you don’t have it, it’s almost impossible to do a good job...

When therapists wear the healer identity on their sleeve, it makes them easy to avoid! Unfortunately, not all of them do. Acute healer syndrome is just the tip of an iceberg of less obvious ego problems among freelance therapists. For every therapist who actually uses the word “healer,” there are a dozen who have the attitude without being foolish enough to put it right on their business card." 

—Paul Ingraham

Paul nailed it. It's tacky at best, evokes the barf-factor, and warrants a deep, slow eye-roll.

Selling healers

When I was younger, I was sold on the idea I could be a healer and consequently believed I was after completing massage therapy school. I mean, who wouldn't want the ability to miraculously heal someone else? There were so many classes and CEUs selling healing with YOU-as-healer, and yes of course I'd like to do that, sign-me-up.

It was new and exciting. But professional maturity and common sense eventually sets in. I discovered this is a realm where helping someone relieve a back ache, walk a little straighter, or rehab a sprained ankle was considered a "healing" by many. Bonus if that ankle was also sprained in a past life! Please.

The idea may be born from a good place, but invariably the ego gremlin gets fed and it turns into a case of healer syndrome. That holier-than-thou mentality gets in the way of a client's true healing by blocking their access to a deeper understanding of themselves and their sovereignty. Who would ever want to do that? Oh, a "healer" would.

The truth is the whole "healer" bit is just marketing. It is a term and concept that appeals to the ego. And everyone's ego loves a good stroking. Oh, look what I did! (um..... this time... sorta? errr... ummm...). I have no issue with sales of safe and ethical techniques, just recognize what someone is trying to sell you. Check within to see if it's marketed to feed your ego or if it can truly help your client.

Hint: if it involves a "guru", "master", "proprietary technique" (may use the word "ancient"), or has the gate-keeper-secret-certification kind of model, it's probably a marketing shtick ;) Basically, all bodywork is "ancient". Duh. I bought into enough of these gimmicks before, and can now smell them a mile away, and it's not always because of patchouli, ifyaknowwhatimean. There are better places to invest your money.

Think about it

You know those amazing surgeons who perform hours-long life-saving heart transplants? And the nurses who tend to critically wounded vets on the battlefields? And seeing-eye dogs? And nuns that devote their lives nurturing children in orphanages?

And the scientists that help extend millions of lives by improving upon medicine and technology? If I could crown anyone "healers" it would be them. Realize even they don't address themselves that way and look at what they do. How dare anyone else? Please.

When a client tries to credit me by saying "thanks so much, you fixed my....." or something like that, I must point out: "I couldn't have done it without you, so thank YOU. Your body did the work". We work together and they deserve all the credit. That's the truth and it is our job to remind our clients and ourselves of it every chance we get.
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