What is a Professional Massage Therapist?

“I am a fully licensed professional massage therapist” – sounds impressive, doesn’t it?

It generally means this:

  • You have taken your 500 hours of training or whatever is required by your professional body that you have insurance with.
  • You have passed your professional body's massage board licensing exam.

Easy definition – and now you are a real professional. Are you really sure about that?

Let’s look at a number of different scenarios:

  1. You are licensed in one geographical area but not in another. If you do a massage in a different area, eg in a client's home or in another country, are you still a professional or are you an offender, someone who is not now insured to practice? If you do a massage there, is that a professional or unprofessional massage?
  2. You are a licensed massage therapist, and you got into this profession because you know you could pass the examinations But now you realize that it is not your calling, and you just don’t have the right touch.  
  3. You are not happy, and you cannot attract many clients. Are you still a professional massage therapist just because you have a piece of paper that says so?

I happen to have lived in Thailand, Sri Lanka and India. There are many excellent Massage therapists living in villages who have learned their craft from their mother or a friend. They have never seen an official massage school from the outside, what to speak of from the inside.
And they don’t even know the meaning of certification. But they have helped hundreds of people for many years. They have the healing touch, the skills, the experience, and the intuitive knowledge of what to do. Are they professionals or not?

Recently a neighbour of mine came to me asking for help with her excruciating pain in the upper back. I worked on her, but I did not charge her anything. It was just a goodwill session for a friend and neighbour. Her pain subsided greatly and she was very happy. If I would not have had some official paper that certified me, would that have been an unprofessional massage despite its professional results?

You get a session from a licensed therapist, but it does not feel good, it is painful, and the touch just doesn’t feel right. You can’t wait to get out of there and decide to never come back. Was that a professional massage?

You are a highly experienced and qualified long-time therapist. But you let your license expire. What are you now? Are you still a professional, or are you an unlicensed professional? Did your qualification and ability to touch people expire along with your license?

“Unprofessional” does not have to be a dirty word.

“Unprofessional” has a really negative sound to it. It makes you think of a sleazy setup, no official licensing, bad technique, improper touching or many other scenarios that may be valid elements of being professional - without the certification.

But looking at the above examples, it becomes obvious that this initial definition is quite lopsided.

Personally, I have received lousy sessions from licensed professionals, and wonderful sessions from therapists who had no official certifications, and vice versa. So a piece of paper doesn’t seem sufficient as a definition for “professional massage therapist.”

Who exactly is a professional?

What does “professional” really mean? Is it just the fact that you have a piece of paper that says so? Or is it the fact that you committed to following a certain code of ethics?

Or is it the fact that you live in a certain part of the world that recognizes certain standards of certification and ethics?

Then what about very skilled, experienced, and effective therapists who live in countries where different codes of ethics apply, and where licensing might not exist or is not enforced? Can we just write them off as unprofessional?

What are the possible solutions?

The first suggestion is to recognize that the word “professional massage therapist” only makes sense in certain locations and cultural settings.

Once you leave such a geographic location – for example your country – then you need to be open to very different standards, ethics, settings, and definitions.

It does not make much sense to apply the laws, cultural standards and ethical definitions of your home state to the rest of the world.

The second suggestion is that we all need to be careful, even in our home country, how we define these words. It is not a black and white issue, and it takes a lot more than a piece of paper.

Therapists might have to be licensed in certain parts of this planet, but they also need to be experienced, skilled, intuitive, committed to their career, possess a touch that feels good, be able to connect with their clients, have an empathetic nature, and have a sincere desire to help others.

The third suggestion is that although an official piece of paper might be required in certain parts of the world, the true meaning of the words “professional massage therapist” is found in all those characteristics that are listed in the previous paragraph after the licensing requirements.

This directs our focus to the essence of healing arts, and it allows us to include our colleagues from all over the world as equals rather than relegate them to a lower status of non-professional.

It also allows us to travel the world with an open mind without needing to judge others based on our standards. Words do not have the same meaning everywhere. Words and definitions are linked to certain languages, cultures, and laws. They are not universal truths.mOften it can be better to decide with our hearts who is a professional massage therapist than with our laws.

We might need the laws, but as therapists we will not be able to keep our clients based on a piece of paper. We get to keep them if we greatly expand the definition of “professional” to include many characteristics that cannot be mandated or enforced by laws, but only perceived and applied through our hearts and open minds.

i wish all my students and massage therapists well in their practice, and rememeber - it is not all about the study and exam but how you apply it efffectively within your place of work on your own indiividual clients and continue to develop more skills and experience for each individual you treat.

I offer massage training courses, professionally accredited by the Guild, and also amateur workshops for those people who do not require an insurance licence. Please contact me for more details.

Best wishes, Steve