An Emotional Release: Searching for My “Why” During COVID-19
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An Emotional Release: Searching for My “Why” During COVID-19

I've been separated from my clients for six weeks now, and no one knows how long it will be before the new reality is set. COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders put my massage therapy practice on hold. I’m now a massage therapist without access to non-verbal communication channels with my clients. Although I’m unaccustomed to verbal displays of emotional release, I have to use my words now. They’re all I have bridging the gap between you and me. That means I must dig deep and reflect on why I chose this as my life’s work and the special gifts my clients bring to me.

To help me with this process, a friend recommended that I listen to the book Start with WhyStart with Why by Simon Sinek. She seemed adamant that I not focus on “what” I do for a living or “how” I do it but instead figure out “why” so that I can become the resource I want to be for my community.

The Scientific Reason Why Releasing Emotions Through Words Is Difficult

Sinek explains in the book that the part of the brain responsible for decision-making— or “why”— is found in the limbic system, and the same part is responsible for feelings and behavior. The reason it’s so hard to articulate why you love something because the limbic brain has no access to language. Language and all other higher-order brain functions are controlled in a different part of the brain called the neocortex. When we feel a strong emotion, the cognitive, language-based neocortex struggles to reason the complex feelings presented by the limbic system.

The takeaway from the book is that you must take a deep dive into your personal history to figure out the life themes and operating systems that have been subconsciously motivating you since adolescence.

man sitting beside cup of coffee
Photo by Viktor Forgacs / Unsplash
“You must take a deep dive into your personal history to figure out the life themes and operating systems that have been subconsciously motivating you since adolescence.”

For the past two decades, I have been driven to learn everything I can about the needs and aspirations of those I serve—people suffering from pain due to an active lifestyle. Initially, I used to set up my massage table at popular running clubs and alongside public running paths in Austin. I would offer my services to the runners for free and eagerly soak up all the information they shared. At one point, I saw between 140 to 160 clients a month.

Sensing the moods and emotions of my clients came naturally to me, as did an instinct for how to approach the bodywork they needed. I began to notice definite muscle compensation patterns across all the people I worked with, which led me to develop the Iler Method®.

But what drove me to such dedicated study, and why was I so at ease with my clients, even when they were total strangers?

At the advice of Simon Sinek, I looked at my personal history to find some clues.

I’ll Give You Something to Cry About

In my family of origin, we were discouraged from expressing our feelings. Children were seen and not heard, and we did what we were told, not what was modeled to us. The phrase, “Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about,” was repeatedly hurled at us.

I was left to believe I couldn’t have feelings in response to being hurt.

My siblings and I shut down emotionally, unable to be a support system for each other. I learned self-reliance and accepted the emotional isolation that comes with it.

After high school, I stayed close to home for about a year, and then, suddenly, I just had to leave and could not explain why. With few resources, I reasoned that entering the military was the most expedient way to leave. I joined the Air Force and, in less than six months, found myself in battle dress uniform under F-15 fighter jets on a base in North Carolina. No one who knows me can conceive of how I made a decision that landed me on a 110-degree tarmac fixing munition systems and loading bombs and missiles. Not surprisingly, I was miserable.

Speaking in Tongues

I had little solace during my life in the military other than hiking on the Appalachian Trail and riding my motorcycle along the beach. That is until I found the Southern Baptist Church on base. I didn’t go there to practice religion or to be absolved of my sins. I didn’t even converse with any congregation members, and I can’t say I learned a single lesson from the pulpit.

Like me, most of the congregants were members of the military or military family. As a culture, these were not expressive people. Still, the preacher had a fun-loving, knowing nature. Each week at the service, the choir would beckon everyone to express their feelings as the music built to a feverish pitch. Then, people would take to the aisles with their heads hanging low, clapping their hands, and tapping their feet. Some would cry and bemoan a deep-felt loss or grievance, and some would roll on the floor, speaking in tongues.

In an instant, I understood the release they felt, and I found myself crying, too. The joy of witnessing people not only having their emotions accepted but also being encouraged to express them was unprecedented for me. I went to that church often while in the Air Force, and it left an indelible impression on me.

white and blue airplane under cloudy sky during daytime
Photo by Bro Takes Photos / Unsplash

Ask Culture vs. Guess Culture

An old post from a 2007 message board makes its way around the internet every few years. It explains two kinds of people in the world: Those raised in an Ask Culture and those raised in a Guess Culture. People who grow up in families with an Ask Culture learn it’s okay to ask for anything but realize they might get no for an answer.

The post explains that in Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re sure the answer will be yes. I Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. The offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.”

I grew up in a Guess Culture family. The principal survival skill of those from that household is a high proficiency at intuiting emotions. Knowing how my clients feel when they walk into my office is a superpower. Rather than continue a legacy of Guess Culture, though, I realized something through this soul-searching exercise. I vowed years ago to hold a space for others to express emotion without judgment freely.

“I grew up in a Guess Culture family. The principal survival skill of those who come from that sort of household is a high proficiency at intuiting emotions. Knowing how my clients feel the minute they walk into my office is a superpower.”

Which brings me to my Why Statement:

To hold a nurturing, non-judgmental space so that others can realize their fullest potential.

In my office, clients can feel that their body language is heard and their vibration is felt. I believe it’s more important than the bodywork I’m doing.

Massage therapy not only helps release muscle pain but also emotions stored long ago in the nervous system. Massage therapy students are trained to recognize an emotion and help the client return to the present moment.

I realize that this component is what makes my work truly special to me. I am called to hold a healing space for others, and I can’t wait to return to that space as soon as it’s safe to do so. For now, stay home and stay well!