Shrinks and Sensual Massage do Not Mix: A Primer on Guilt

My mother was in town recently, and took me to a salon for a massage. I’d never been and the idea didn’t excite me like it does for many others. Not only am I not much of a “toucher” (e.g., I don’t particularly enjoy hugging or the perfunctory faux-kiss hello), but the notion of paying someone to pleasure me while she could be doing much better things with her day made my stomach twist. I was actually about to pay someone money. To rub me!

I could never do this for a living. I feel sorry for them. Ugly people like me, wanting their backs and necks and who knows what else kneaded for carnal pleasure.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” my mother asked, watching me as I was apparently rocking back and forth in my seat.

“This is just so awkward,” I said, and when the receptionist offered me some complimentary wine I not only said “Yes!” with some palpable anxiety, but I threw back the entire glass in one shot.

“Why is it awkward?”


“I don’t like the idea of someone…pleasuring me for money,” I said. “This woman is going to rub her hands all over my body, for my benefit, just to make a living. It feels like some sort of glorified prostitution to me.”

“That’s ridiculous, and actually insulting to massage therapists. The ones I know say they get great pleasure out of helping someone with a lot of pain.”

“But there’s nothing wrong with me,” I insisted.

“Oh, there is. It’s just in that stupid brain of yours,” she concluded, taking her hand off of her magazine to point at my head. “She’ll need to massage that skull of yours for hours to get out whatever is making you all weird.”

I tell my clients that anxiety is 99% anticipatory. Rarely, if ever, does the event match the way you’ve played it out in your head. But when anxiety gets too high rational thought cannot prevail, so I easily dismissed this point. That’s true for most people, but not me. I wish I had a full body condom just to make the therapist feel more at ease. Or at least know we were having “safe” massage.

The massage therapist, a mid-50’s woman, sensed I was nervous – probably from the flushed face and sweat that appeared after she said “take off all of your clothes except your underwear” – and made lots of conversation as she worked, probably to distract me from the task at hand. And she was so free about it, as if we weren’t even engaging in some sort of subtle and vile sex act together! She asked me about my job and family and even told me that she and her friends give each other massages at a discount.

“What kind of a discount?” I asked.

“Oh, very special discounts” she said.

I knew it! This is some sex racquet. “Like…50% off? Plus…benefits?”

“No, just 15%. But that’s more than you’ll get uptown,” she was quick to add.

“Oh,” I said, quickly losing the idea that my experience was representative of an experience inside a grand sexual pleasure dome.

All this as I lay face down on the table, her hands were digging deep into first my feet, then calves and finally my hamstrings. Physically it felt nice. And yet, the entire time, I couldn’t get out of my own way. I’m doing something completely unacceptable. This woman doesn’t want to be here. She’s disgusted with me and my body and the fact that I’m using her for my own filthy enjoyment. I’m a John!

The reality is that people don’t think all that much about you. They rarely, if ever, put you under the spotlight for more than a fleeting moment or two. You do that to yourself, believing that others are spending mental energy thinking negative things about you. It’s just not true. So while I’m thinking that she’s thinking about my body’s flaws – I actually tried to flex my back muscles to make me appear slightly less repugnant – the reality is she was probably wondering what she would have for dinner tonight.

Why don’t others view a massage as some low-grade sex act? Why can millions of people just enjoy the socially acceptable service they are paying for? Beliefs are learned, not innate. Somewhere along the line I either picked up the idea that paying for certain labor is “bad,” or other people simply learned that there’s nothing inherently unsavory about having your muscles kneaded for pleasure or therapeutic effect. I certainly didn’t absorb this guilt from my mom; I’m sure she was enjoying every cent of the experience. Was this an issue with body image? Objectively I know I’m not in all that bad of shape, and when push came to shove I wasn’t all that interested in the massage therapist’s opinion of how tight my quads were. So that was a lost lead as well. People can actually spend years in psychoanalysis discussing the origin of belief systems. But since my mother only paid for an hour I was on my own on this score, and I ended up drawing a blank.

Guilt is the mind’s way of telling you that you might have done something wrong, anti-social, damaging to another entity. Some will argue against this, but it differs from the concept of “shame” in the sense that guilt is about what you do, while shame is what you are. Per this distinction, shame is more painful than guilt because it encompasses your entire being. When you believe you acted like an asshole you feel guilt, when you believe you are one you experience shame. It’s a subtle yet important difference. Fortunately I was only saddled with guilt. At least today I was.

You have two options to take away the sting of guilt:

1) Determine that your actions were not, in fact, the cause of another’s pain and that the emotion is misguided.

2) Make amends, either through self-forgiveness or apologizing and perhaps rectifying the situation.

Option 1 was not in the cards for me. I believed; no, I knew, that what I was doing was “wrong,” whatever the hell that meant. Viewing it any other way was simply not in the cards, probably because I had told myself over and over that paying for a massage was unacceptable. Essentially I had brainwashed myself into believing that I was acting horribly.

Option 2 was possible, although it seemed a bit awkward to come right out and apologize for employing the woman. I’m sorry for making an appointment and keeping it, just like thousands of other people do every day. Please forgive me! And I couldn’t fly around the Earth like Superman to reverse time, rendering the event as having never have happened. So I did the next best thing when my 30 minutes were up: gave her a ridiculously large tip and got the hell out there as fast as I could. “Thank you,” I said, pulling on my t-shirt and jeans. “That was…lovely,” as I fearfully released a bunch of bill onto the table like they were some sort of deadly virus. It was only later I realized how ironic it was that I used money as a way to assuage the guilt that had been generated by paying this woman in the first place.

“I gave the woman a nice tip for dealing with a neurotic freak like you,” my mother said later in the cab.

“You did? So did I.”

“Blood money, huh?” my mother said, looking at me with a combination of mocking and pity.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“You’re so stupid,” my mother said. “Are you sure you’re my child? Maybe you’re the mailman’s kid.”

I had no clue how that could logically play out, so I just let it be. Why was it so easy for her to treat the massage therapist the same way she would a waiter while I viewed my hour of “pleasure” as some sort of carnal sin? I thought of asking of her but then remembered her prior experiences and how she was told that they enjoyed providing physical therapy. And obviously many others don’t have a problem with this because massage therapists can make a decent living at what they do. Clearly my erroneous connection – at least in this case – between a massage and payment for something I perceived as sexual, got in the way of a relaxing time. And telling myself over and over that’s just not something I can get comfortable with killed any chance of viewing it in a different light. So essentially I spent a ½ hour mentally treating my massage therapist as a hooker, something that probably would have pissed her off beyond belief.

I looked out the window of the taxi, watching the buildings fly by, thinking that paying someone for a common service without feeling guilt is probably a problem. Just add it to the list of neuroses! And since I can’t walk around the city apologizing to massage therapists all day, I’m going to have to do some research into their job satisfaction in hopes of debunking my own myths that they are miserable people because of greedy hedonists who are treating them as if they work the world’s oldest profession.

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32 Responses to “Shrinks and Sensual Massage do Not Mix: A Primer on Guilt”

  1. cathy says:

    It’s totally cool that you don’t like massages. They’re not for everyone, for a multitude of reasons, but what’s up with your mom for dragging you someplace she seems to know you don’t like?

  2. April says:

    Maybe the next time you need/get a massage you should book an old male masseuse and it will seem less like paying for sex work?

  3. Laithia says:

    I had the same issue about the fact my mum hires a cleaner (I live with my parents). I mean, a cleaner is someone you invite into your home, to pick through your mess. It’s actually quite a personal thing, imo. Anyone else you invite home, you tend to do at least a cursory tidy before they arrive, unless you know them well. Whereas this person, you’re not simply laying it out for them, you’re laying it out without regard for them, and expecting them to pick it up.
    Anyway, I talked to my mother about this, and she thought I was ridiculous (rightly so). Simply put, she has the money to employ someone, and someone wants to be employed. She has lunch with our cleaner, she talks to her, she gets work done when she’s here, rather than sitting watching tv or something (as I occasionally do -> something that adds to my guilt). In short, she treats her like a real person, rather than an autonomous vacuum machine.
    Maybe it would help not to think of a massage as a faceless transaction, but rather, someone, with a family, has trained in something, and you’re a part of their day, in the same way that they’re a part of yours. It may feel hedonistic, because you’re only taking, but if you give (not just a tip, but maybe, a genuine smile and a thankyou, something with humanity), it would remove the percieved seediness of the transaction.
    Personally, the idea of therapy to me, as much as I understand and agree with the theory, is still something that I dislike, as I associate it with (only in the case of myself, not for anyone else), with hedonistic narcissim; being overly open with someone, paying them, for your own personal gain.
    In short, I think my point is that trying to find out their job satisfaction wouldn’t help ease your guilt, because that’s still creating this faceless idea. From personal experience, it’s remembering humanity over employment that helps with social guilt.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I know this sounds incredible shallow and cliche but I think you really need to just get laid! I am sure if you hang out with Dr. John for the weekend you could get this accomplished for free.

  5. sandy says:

    “guilt is about what you do, while shame is what you are”
    Interesting. I’m going to take this one with me.
    I think you have a 3rd choice. You have no way of knowing what she thinks. Recovery,Inc says to put this under the category “outer environment.” i.e., I have no way of knowing what she thinks, I’m probably dead wrong with my anxious thoughts, so I might as well push it out of my mind and think about something else.. thought replacement .. or in this case, focus your mind toward the physical sensation and pleasure of the massage.
    I’ve only had a few massages, maybe only one was for the pure relaxation of it. The other times? Treating injury, deep tissue which HURT. But each time, I’ve had to work at shutting off my tendency to overthink. Too cerebral, we shrinks. Not enough practice on the physical (which may be why my tennis is so therapeutic for me?). So I can certainly relate.
    With your dislike of hugs and other forms of casual affection? I can see how you’d find massage an affront. It’s not a huge leap. But … I’m cheering you on to work through it and give it another try.
    Thought provoking post!

  6. Marie says:

    Dude. She had you leave your underwear on?

  7. Colin says:

    “It feels like some sort of glorified prostitution to me.”
    Don’t most jobs?

  8. selement says:

    I find strange your insistance that massages are sexual. Maybe its because I’m female but I would see as more of a relaxation technique than a way of recieving ‘pleasure’, its not an experience I would consider arousing. Also I thought Happy Endings being on offer were really quite unusual and only in particularly seedy places, but perhaps this is me having too innocent a view of the world. There is nothing seedy about being a normal masseuse and you shouldn’t feel guilty for their services, I’m sure they’ve massaged plenty of people worse than you and knew what they were getting into when they chose it as a profession!

  9. Anonymous says:

    The entire time I was reading this, this was in the back of my mind:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gf89-zpFM8Q

  10. NicoletLeigh says:

    That’s an interesting distinction you make between “guilt” and “shame.” I always saw the difference as being between the “private” and “public” interpretation of the same emotion. I feel guilt when I judge myself, but I feel shame when others judge me. I will be giving a lot of thought to your analysis this week!

  11. range says:

    In Asia, when you get a haircut, you get a 10 minute back massage and 15 minute head massage. When it happened the first time I was surprised, but I started liking it pretty quickly. I didn’t lie down, she just started on my back while I was sitting. It was a damn good massage and I look forward to it every time I go there.

  12. OMG! That is insane! I love getting massages, and I have no idea how you even think it’s one step short of prostitution. Is getting a haircut as traumatizing???

  13. HybridV says:

    You have excessive guilt, and some sort of Mother issues going on. As you portray her, I count 2-3 instances of namecalling, maybe more (neurotic, freak, stupid, crazy), her taking you somewhere that you don’t want to go like you’re still a child, and her meeting social protocol on your behalf with the tipping. Not to be an armchair psychologist, but this stuff really jumped out from the page for me.

  14. Freud would have had a field day with this:
    1. Massage w/ mom.
    2. Guilt @ touch/pleasure.
    3. Comment @ mailman’s kid.
    4. More guilt.
    5. Mom castigating you.
    And on, and on, and on.
    😀

  15. mm says:

    That last post by TR is spot on!!
    Like some of your other readers, I also found the distinction you put fwd between guilt and shame – haven’t heard that before.
    Your hang-up about massages is bizarre. It obviously runs a lot deeper though and is the issue professions that include physical contact and is that then linked to body image or as you touched on, your version to physical contact (although this can be probed further too). After all, people working in the profession learn to be good at what they do and like using their skills to the benefit of their clients, like most other workers. The chiropractor isn’t all that different or the physiotherapist or for a different take, the shoe salesperson. Whatever your thoughts on massages, you’re allowed to feel good. Just because someone else does it is ok. Based on my minimal experience with massages, you’re lucky she let you keep your jocks on.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Funny, I feel similar about paying for therapy… like a rent-a-friend.

  17. Amber says:

    Ok first off from the sounds of it you weren’t at a rub and tug so you have nothing to feel guilty about, second…dude if I ever make it to NY you’re getting the biggest hug…whether you like it or not.

  18. Clindos says:

    Like the first poster said, “Massages aren’t for everyone.” Personally, I love them. But, there also not sexual for me. Yes it is a pleasure, but it is a relaxing pleasure. But, thats is just me. Some others might become aroused by a massage. To each their own. As for the poor messuse. They trained for that job specifically. Its not like they feel on hard times and decided to work the street corners. They persude the job. They wanted it. No pimp is forcing them to touch you against their will. I doubt they cry in the shower every night/morning, trying to scrub the touch of your skin from their arms and hands. It is kinda messed up that your mom knew you had a problem with it and still took you.

  19. JayEddie says:

    You’re confusing a spa/salon with a massage parlor, and a massage therapist with someone who is untrained and basically is a prostitute. Dr. John experiences happy endings because he visits parlors, and yes, has the type of sexual encounters you were imagining. The difference between that and a massage therapist is a world apart.
    Dr. Rob: I didn’t confuse them. I’m just neurotic.

  20. Wayland says:

    I think it would be helpful for you to take a similar situation into your own hands; setting up the appointment beforehand and all that good stuff.
    I was almost offended by your comparing their “physical” therapy to prostitution when you could easily call yourself a prostitute of sorts.
    I’ve actually thought of doing massage therapy because, like you, I want to help people. I could actually begin the program at the end of this month. I would be able to use massage therapy along with the athletic training that I think I still want to major in.
    No matter, I forgive you and your neurotic nature. Remember to keep being awesome. Love yourself first and then you can love others. [end session: now pay me :D]

  21. Anonymous says:

    I think are ashamed of your job and it makes you feel like “whore”. I think you are avoiding facing this by defining “being a whore” as something that requires physical pleasure, and surely not something mental like you do, therefore anything that involves physical pleasure that is provided by someone else is shameful.
    OK, so maybe not, but I do find some of your base assumptions kinda odd.
    1. You feel guilt because what you are doing feels like prostitution. But why is prostitution inherently dirty?
    I know that the first thing that pops into everyones head is a strung out crack whore, but that throws on even more assumptions, lets flip this on its head and instead think “gigolo”. Whens the last time you heard someone talk about the plight of the gigolo? Instead its looked at as something that really lucky guys fall into. “Wow he gets paid to have sex with lonely house wives. Where do I sign up?”
    Also lets not forget that everyone has “prostituted” themselves in some way. I have done non-sexual and sexual things for women that were all for them and not at all for me, with the expectation that I would receive some form of “repayment”. If you think I am spending the entire holiday vacation with your crazy family you can bet that I get to decide what we are doing for the next holiday. Does the movie have any explosions or car chases in it, cause if not you can expect the next movie to have enough to make up for it. I don’t think makes me dirty, on the contrary I have been viewed as a great boyfriend/husband for it. “Wow he did that? you lucky girl don’t let him go. i can’t even get my lazy boyfriend/husband to…”. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that everything you do in life is selfless, you don’t love someone who won’t love you back, and those few who do are labelled as idiots, mentally disturbed or stalkers.
    2. Why is it that money makes something dirty? You made the situation “worse” by giving her a overly generous tip? Like you have never helped a “friend” move just because you wanted them to help you move at a later date. How is “owing a favor” any different from money? you perform services in exchange for a currency that will get you services in return… stick a presidents face on it and thats what we call money. So why do feel like your money is dirty, unless you don’t feel you earned it? Last time I had a freind help me move, who I had not been able to help when he moved, I felt pretty guilty. So do you feel your money is dirty because you don’t think you earn it? Sounds like someone feels like a bit of a whore, doing things to make other people feel good, but not really earning the money you make? But of course you aren’t a “whore” because whoring is a “physical” thing, and what you do is mental. Therefore!! Any physically pleasuable thing that you pay money for is dirty!! TAA DAA!
    Or maybe not, and your just a dumbass that over analyzes things and can’t let a person earn a respectable wage for an honest days work without throwing all kinds of over analyzed crap into the mix.

  22. Tina says:

    Dr Rob, I’m totally with you on massages. I don’t personally equate them with prostitution, on anything “dirty” but I’m just not comfortable with someone I don’t know touching me in personal places (and I don’t only mean my naughty bits. My bare back is also a very personal place). I am “touchy-feely” with my friends; most are the huggy-kissy type and we frequently touch each other. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with personal, non-sexual, contact. But, I just don’t like it to be from someone I don’t know.
    When the last baby was born, the hospital offered all new moms a complimentary massage. It lasted about 15 minutes and, while it was “nice”, it certainly didn’t relax me. I kept thinking many of the things you were thinking. “She has 100 other things she’d rather be doing. Does it irk her that I get to lay in bed and relax while she has to work?”
    On another note, do you feel guilty when you pay for other personal services? Do you feel guilty when you pay for a haircut? Someone is performing a service for you, for money. They are doing something that involves personal contact and it’s something that will make you feel better. Yeah, I don’t feel gilty paying for a haircut, either. So why do we get all weird about ba massage?

  23. Anonymous says:

    As an actual real live massage therapist, I will try to reassure some of you about what I am and am not thinking when I do massages:
    1. “She has 100 other things she could be doing.” Well, yes, and so do you when you’re at work. I get compensated pretty damn well for my time and it’s a relaxing job, so please, don’t waste any tears on my account. Besides, I get a lot of satisfaction out of my job. Not only do I get the satisfaction anyone gets when they do well at whatever they’re doing, but I get the boost of knowing that most of my clients feel physically better after I see them than they did before. How is that not cool?
    Like someone up there said, I absolutely do not cry in the shower or anything because I have to touch people all day. Sometimes I wash my hands twice if they are really stinky (I mean like peed-your-pants stinky, not normal person stinky). Your body will not disgust me, I’ve had any squeamishness beaten out of me long ago by now. I don’t think you’re weird for wanting a massage – that would be pretty silly, wouldn’t it, since I am actually in business to provide massage? Why would I go into business to cater to people I look down on? I won’t remember how your body looks tomorrow.
    If you’d been a client of mine, I would probably have gone home that day and worried about why you didn’t relax and wondered what I did wrong to not put you at your ease. That would disturb me far more than anything about your body ever possibly could.
    Poor Dr. Rob, I realize you were just being neurotic, but I felt like you might be interested in what a real massage therapist actually thinks.

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  25. Annie says:

    I understand how you feel about the massage, but it goes a deeper than how you take it. It´s not about pleasure, but the massages, in a way I don´t really know, help to release stress. It is a form a therapy, like the one you provide your patients with. I mean, if you think about, it´s worst to pay someone to have him, sitting there, listening to all of the inner issues. It should get a bit overwhelming to be spending all day listening about other´s people suffering.

    I have a close family member who works with by giving massage. I wasn´t comfortable with the idea of receiving massages, but during the past two weeks I fell under a heavy spell of depression and I was unable to cry or to talk about my issues. My aunt gave me of her therapies and I was able to finally cry. I can´t describe the feeling, but it was helpful. She was actually my last resource since my shrink is outside of the country.

  26. Tippy says:

    I’ve had only two massages, but I felt pretty uncomfortable during both- same thing when I got a pedicure. I felt guilty for paying some poor woman to do things to my feet that I could do myself.

    Sandy, above, is correct: Deep Tissue Massage is PAINFUL. A large Swedish woman( no kidding, Swedish;) at an Arkansas spa/natural springs resort almost made me cry.

  27. Kimberly says:

    I think it’s interesting that you feel so bad about paying someone to do their chosen profession given your chosen profession. I totally understand why you could feel this way — I don’t like going for a massage when I feel fat or gross — but, honestly, I feel similarly about going to my shrink when I feel boring or ashamed (or fat or gross). I feel bad they have to listen to me, look at me, etc, and like there must be a million other things they’d rather be doing. And like I’m paying them to do something for me (better, hopefully) that a friend who genuinely cared for me could do for free. So I think as someone with these feelings of anxiety at a massage and as a therapist you are in the unique position of being able to explain to me why I SHOULDN’T feel guilty at my shrink’s office! That would take a load of my mind!

  28. Cam says:

    First: I was trying to read this post Friday night at dinner to my husband and his sister and I couldn’t keep a straight face. You have a highly entertaining way of writing.

    Second: I practice yoga with a massage therapist and we were talking about this today. Something about our culture seems to take issue with the concept of healing with touch. Our dressing room yoga group decided it was probably rooted in intimacy issues.

  29. KML says:

    What the heck is so bad about pleasure? Pleasure is one of the purposes of life! And one of the ways we grow is to expand our capacity for pleasure (the kind of pleasure that harms no one – pleasure at anther’s expense is hopefully, not pleasant at all).
    Dr. John, you say you’re not a toucher/hugger, but I hope, for your sake, that someday you can grow into these very human, very healing pleasures.

  30. Di says:

    I know that this is an old post but I found this funny because I work at a spa and some of the comments here were right on… you are confusing a massage parlor and a massage therapist… also there is nothing wrong with not being comfortable being massaged. I’ve worked there 8 years and at the most have had one massage a year. I don’t like someone looking at me that closely when I don’t even look at myself. I do have to admit, the thinner I am the more comfortable I am at the idea. So no matter what… if in our crazy brains we are uncomfortable your mother calling you stupid is not going to fix it. I know that the way you wrote this… you were having her talk more in a joking way… but calling your own child (regardless of age) stupid and crazy and whatever else she proceeded to call you doesn’t make me wonder at all why you don’t like touching or hugging. You never learned about kindness and compassion…poor thing… lol. (I get your mom loves you… she took you to get a massage) but she needs to lighten up! 😉

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