Navigating Consent as a Client in Search of Healing

Navigating Consent as a Client in Search of Healing

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This is the second in a series dedicated to addressing consent for members of the breathwork healing community – both clients and practitioners. Part 1 is dedicated to breathwork healers, practitioners, and service providers. (Read it here.)

Note: To assist with this important conversation, I’ve enlisted Anne Hodder-Shipp, a trained and certified sexuality educator, to help edit and offer commentary for this piece. Consent education is a core part of her work and her insight and knowledge of this subject matter is invaluable. For the sake of transparency, Anne and I are married and co-teach relationship workshops together.

As a client, it can be easy to feel like you must reach outside yourself to find healing, and that the healing process is in the hands of the professionals and practitioners you hire. Sometimes practitioners even TELL us that. But healing comes from within, and practitioners are there to guide and work WITH you according to YOUR boundaries. This article is dedicated to clients, empowering those seeking healing to set and maintain boundaries while understanding the importance of consent within a healing space.

Many healing modalities utilize physical touch as a grounding method or to help release trauma from the body, which is why understanding what consent is and how to communicate it is essential. Legal definitions of consent vary from state to state (California is an affirmative consent state – yes means yes), but regardless of law, true consent is when both parties have provided an indisputable confirmation that they’re down with whatever’s about to happen. It doesn’t stop there, however. Either party can change their mind at any time and consenting to one activity is not blanket consent for every activity that follows.

This means that you, the client, hold the power to where and how your practitioner touches you. As we discussed in Part 1 of this series, it’s ultimately the practitioner’s job to uphold boundaries – especially sexual ones – but we know that doesn’t always happen. So here are some tips to make sure you’re getting the kind of care that feels safe, appropriate and healing for you.

  1. YOUR BODY, YOUR RULES

It’s your body, it’s your healing session, and you get to make the rules about how it all happens. You’re paying for a session and that financial exchange is the only thing you owe the practitioner; the person you’ve hired holds the responsibility pf providing a safe, trusted space in which to work together. No matter how open, vulnerable, happy, sad, etc. you might feel or appear during your session, professional rules and boundaries must be immutable.

A good practitioner will explain before the session begins that they may touch you, where they may touch you, and be crystal (no pun intended) clear about the intention and reason why touch may be used. Then it’s your turn – your right – to tell them what you are and aren’t comfortable with. You get to tell them where or how you feel comfortable being touched (if at all). Your practitioner should never argue or counter your boundaries. You have all the power here. It’s your body and if you don’t want to be touched, you don’t have to be.

The healing process can feel uncomfortable. It’s not easy to dive in and start peeling away the layers of yourself.  It can get gritty, which is why it’s essential that you feel safe throughout the process. Sometimes as clients we don’t feel safe, and that’s OK (and not uncommon). A practitioner should be able to establish rapport, trust and safety from the moment you meet them, but no matter how safe, warm or fuzzy you feel with your healer, you still have the right to set the rules for how physical touch is incorporated into your sessions. And you have the right to change it as you see fit!

  1. CONSENT IS ONGOING, AND CAN BE REVOKED AT ANY TIME

As stated earlier, consent is non-transferrable and can’t be treated like rollover minutes on a cellphone contract. Unless otherwise specified (by you), the consent you provide during a session applies to that session only. The healing process can feel like riding waves; something you might feel comfortable with this week might feel the complete opposite next week, so pay attention to what you feel, what you need, and what you don’t need, and feel free to communicate it to your practitioner.

If you’ve consented to having your shoulders opened, it doesn’t mean you’ve consented to having your chest, hips, or feet touched. If a practitioner’s touch feels a little too close to areas you are sensitive about, you have the right to say something. And you can change your mind in the middle and ask for your practitioner to stop and move onto something else. It’s not rude or disrespectful to communicate your needs – even if it means interrupting the session – and a good practitioner will graciously receive it and adjust accordingly.

With breathwork healing especially, there is rarely a reason for a practitioner to go below your belt line with touch besides grounding the feet. Any touch you’ve consented to should be done outside of your clothing, and there is NEVER a time when touching the genitals, or any area that could be mistaken for sexual stimulation, is part of the healing process.

If the healer’s hands have wandered into areas not previously discussed with and confirmed by you, especially if they have touched intimate or private parts of your body, that is a violation of your consent.

“If you’ve found yourself in a situation like this, the first thing I want you to remember is that this is NOT. YOUR. FAULT,” Anne says. “You might rightfully feel triggered, scared, furious, ashamed, maybe even a little exhilarated, and unsure of what to do. Trauma works in funny ways and there’s no ‘correct’ way to respond to a consent violation, especially in the moment. But please know that if a practitioner has wittingly violated your consent, they have taken advantage of the power dynamic in the room. Many of us have been socialized to believe and blindly trust healing and healthcare professionals, and in some cases give our power to them, because they’re supposed to know more or know better than us mere muggles. But any practitioner who exploits the vulnerability of a client is, frankly, a bad practitioner and must be held accountable for their egregious actions.”

  1. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY

Touch can heal, but only if it’s healing touch.  Sometimes the body may enjoy it and want more, sometimes the body is aware of pain, and sometimes the body is telling you that it doesn’t want to be touched in that way. Your body knows better than even the most skilled practitioner, and a valuable part of the healing process is learning to listen to it – and a good practitioner will help you hone that skill at your own pace.

Some deep work can be done with physical touch as a tool, and it can bring up old traumas and issues that need resolution. But there’s a fine line between leaning into your discomfort to heal and touch that sends your body into a fight/flight or freeze response. If the session has started and you start feeling weird vibes, trust your intuition. It doesn’t necessarily mean something bad is happening, but it does mean your body is trying to tell you that something doesn’t feel right.

“Our bodies react to unwanted touch in different ways,” Anne says. “Some of us, due to past trauma, may freeze – an involuntary physical response to fear and danger. In this state, it becomes near impossible to respond with words, movement or other clues to communicate whether or not you feel OK with what’s happening. That’s why it’s so harmful to ask a survivor of assault, ‘Well why didn’t you say something?’ They may very well have been incapable, and now carry immense shame about what ultimately was a reflexive response within the nervous system that they had no control over.”

To reiterate: It is not uncommon for someone who feels unsafe or in danger to find themselves unable to respond, communicate, or vocalize anything at all. And that is not your fault. A good practitioner should be able to pick up on the nonverbal cues associated with the freeze response and respond accordingly.

Unless you’ve signed up for a yoni (aka vulva) massage and know what you’re getting into, a healer’s hands should not touch you in a sensitive and sexual way. And even if you did sign up for a yoni massage, you still call the shots. If you feel uncomfortable or have limits or boundaries, you have the right to make them known and the healer’s responsibility is to respect and follow them. Healing, no matter what form it comes in, can’t happen if you and your body don’t feel physically and emotionally safe.

  1. SET CLEAR BOUNDARIES FROM THE ONSET

As a person seeking healing from the trauma of my past, I haven’t always been good at expressing my needs. Often, we don’t feel safe to do so out of fear of not getting them met, or displeasing or disappointing someone else, or being flat-out rejected or abandoned. All valid fears. But in a session, you hold all the cards. Dig into your own sense of empowerment here.

You get to direct your healing and set the parameters necessary to facilitate it. Be brusque if you need to but be as clear as you can. If words don’t come easy (though it’s important to practice using them) use your hands to direct – or push away – touch and know that if you pull back, that tells the practitioner to back off.

For those of us who’ve suffered trauma in the past, our sense of self often gets lost in the mix. During a session, you get the benefit of setting boundaries in a safe and therapeutic container, which will help you grow more comfortable with setting boundaries throughout your life.

  1. SPEAK UP (WHEN YOU CAN)

Remember: this is YOUR healing session. You might feel raw or vulnerable during and after a session, and you’re not always going to leave a session walking on sunshine. You may have gone really deep and feel a bit tender. All good things! Healing is not often comfortable, but you get to decide the pace at which you do it.

As discussed previously, we aren’t always capable of saying something in the moment, but we can establish our needs and boundaries with the practitioner before the session starts. If you find yourself struggling to find your voice to communicate your needs or boundaries, I recommend asking someone you trust for help. Practice speaking to them as though they were your practitioner, and if you find yourself particularly stuck, bring them with you to the session for support. But remember, part of the healing process is practicing and learning to find and use your voice on your own.

Tell the practitioner what is OK and what isn’t. Let them know anything and everything that you feel would help them provide the best care for you. Not only will a good practitioner hear you and work with your boundaries, they’ll thank you for having clarity around getting your needs met. It makes their job easier. Your voice is a powerful tool in your own healing. Using it to get your needs met and to communicate your boundaries is a big part of healing in and of itself.

  1. ONE LAST THING!
    “This is NOT all on you,” Anne says. “Clients can and should not hold the sole burden of boundary-setting, and it’s quite possible you don’t know how to do it yet – it’s probably why you’re seeking healing in the first place. And if that’s the case, fuck yeah, good for you! As we discussed earlier, trauma often breaks down our ability to successfully maintain these kinds of boundaries, which is why it’s so important to work with a practitioner who understands how to set and maintain their own.”This article is meant to empower you, the client, and provide tangible tools and information to help you enjoy the safest, most effective healing sessions possible. Ultimately, no matter how hard it is to speak up for yourself, finding your voice can be one of the most powerful healing tools on the planet – and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

If you’d like to learn more about the responsibilities that practitioners hold, please read Part 1 of this series and feel free to send me any questions that might come up!

Photo by _Javarts_

How Not to Get Your Ass Kicked by Mercury Retrograde

How Not to Get Your Ass Kicked by Mercury Retrograde

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It’s one of my favorite times of year. No, not the holidays. Not the New Year. Mercury retrograde. In case you don’t know what that is, it’s a time that the planet Mercury, when observed, looks like it’s orbiting backwards. In astrology, the planet appears to travel backward through its path, retreading where it’s already gone. It’s a time that some believe, according to traditional astrological wisdom, that one should not engage in business deals, sign contracts, or travel. It’s also believed to be a time where technology may malfunction and where communication may suffer.

I love Mercury retrograde because I see so many posts blaming this messenger planet for things going wrong in people’s lives. (No one seems to speak of Mercury’s powers when he’s NOT in retrograde.) This is common thread, I think, where it’s easier to blame something outside of ourselves than to take personal responsibility and look within. Not because we’re bad people or doing it wrong, but because it is difficult to do so. And frankly, it’s convenient to have a retrograde planet on which to blame our action (or inaction).

The way I view astrology is the way I view many things in my life: it’s a tool and organization system to help me define/refine and organize my small and myopic view of the Universe. It’s a system of signs where I can easily relate one thing to another and acknowledge that all things are connected and the same, thus enabling myself to having compassion for everyone and everything. In short: the more I understand, the less I am afraid of the unknown and the less likely I am to reject it.

It’s also important to note that Mercury is not the only planet that goes retrograde. Many of the colorful orbs in our solar system (some traveling at 30,000 miles per hour, others at 80,000+) will become retrograde, some for longer lengths of time than Mercury. More infrequently, but still, other-planet-retrograde occurs. In fact, recently, we had Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto (with a spattering of Neptune and Uranus) all in retrograde at the same time. Queue a collective silence about these planets, except for Mercury. He seems to get all the blame.

But when we look at it, it makes sense why Mercury is our whipping boy/planet. Let’s pretend that Mercury only governs communication. And as humans, most of us are terrible at communicating. Awful, even. We yell at strangers over the Internet. We catcall and use racist language. We divide ourselves from others. We react instead of talk about the feelings boiling beneath — because, for some of us, discussing emotions is more terrifying than death. It’s a cultural issue, a social construction, and it’s all happening whether Mercury is in retrograde or not. Yet, He gets all the blame. Cars breaking down. Mercury Rx. Computer malfunction. Mercury Rx. Email won’t send. Mercury Rx. Fights with spouses, friends, bosses, and significant others. Mercury Rx. We forget that we haven’t had an oil change in a year. We forget all that porn (and malware) we downloaded over summer break. We forget to check the mail settings on our smart phone. We forget (or don’t realize) that we never actually learned how to communicate effectively in the first place — especially when it comes to emo stuff. We’re taught (and maybe even prefer) to suppress our emotions rather than feel them.

You might be delighted to learn that Mercury can be used on an archetypal level, to smooth some of these things out. By forming a relationship with this planet on a psychological level, we can increase awareness of so many aspects of life that we fear will get fucked by Mercury’s backward motion. Putting conscious focus on communication will ultimately force me to improve my skills. Paying conscious attention to technology will help me identify potential risks and errors before they end up getting in my way. And making strong intentions to practice mindfulness each day will ultimately enable me to feel instead of react.

Mercury can be a reliable ally in your life. Even if you believe that astrology is a bunch of bullshit, this archetype is a powerful tool. Mercury is our Messenger — no wonder we collectively “shoot” him each time retrograde rolls around.

This is my challenge to you, the reader. If you buy into the whole astrology thing, please, dig a little deeper into what Mercury can mean to you. Find out in what house and sign Mercury is located in your astrological chart. Develop a relationship (a healthy one) with this planet. Read more about what astrological signs it rules, how it got its name, the Mythology behind the God Mercury, and its patterns in the sky.

For those of you that aren’t into that astrology stuff, perhaps meditate on the archetype that Mercury inspires, and then laugh at the rest of us. Learn about the planet and why ancient astrologers chose it to “govern” so many important parts of life. Exchange with it — even if you sneer at the woo-woo stuff — and see what happens.

Mercury retrograde is nothing to fear. It’s a time to refine the way we communicate and show us various areas in which we might be disconnected. It’s a time to take personal responsibility for the way we communicate. We don’t need to shuck that responsibility onto our solar system. Let’s clean up our act instead.

This post was originally written in Dec. 2016

Navigating Consent as a ‘Touchy Feely’ Healer

Navigating Consent as a ‘Touchy Feely’ Healer

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This is Part 1 of a series of blog posts about consent within the healing community. This one deals with consent for practitioners, and the second will be for clients.

Note: To assist with this important conversation, I’ve enlisted Anne Hodder-Shipp, a trained and certified sexuality educator, to help edit and offer commentary for this piece. Consent education is a core part of her work and her insight and knowledge of this subject matter is invaluable. For the sake of transparency, Anne and I are married and co-teach relationship workshops together.

Consent is a multifaceted topic and, for many of us, our understanding of it has deepened over the last year as the #notokay and #metoo movements caught mainstream attention. Consent is essential in all parts of life – not just for those of us in sexual relationships – and it’s especially important for breathwork healing practitioners and service-providers.

Consent violations are prevalent and come in myriad forms. People violate consent, and have their consent violated, every day – often without even knowing it. People’s understanding of consent ranges from eerily absent to confidently secure, and the legal definition of consent varies from state to state, which complicates something so essential to the healing process.

“The state of California, for instance, is an affirmative consent state,” Anne says. “That means ‘yes means yes’ – true consent can only come in the form of a clear, inarguable affirmative response. If a person or practitioner is unsure or hasn’t received a definitive ‘yes’ to something, then they cannot confidently affirm that their client has given consent.

“It’s also essential to understand that consent for one thing does not apply to all the things. If a client consents to having their feet touched, for instance, that does not mean they have consented to having other parts of their bodies touched. True consent means you’ve checked in and received a ‘yes’ response prior to each action.”

Because people’s definitions and understandings can vary so heavily, the lines of consent within some healing communities can be especially blurry because of how intimate and vulnerable clients get with practitioners – and because many modalities involve some kind of physical touch. But unlike many healing professions, there is no universal code of ethics or advisory board to keep breathwork practitioners accountable. This means it’s on us, the practitioners, to hold ourselves (and others) accountable for our actions.

It is our responsibility as practitioners to be crystal (pun intended) clear around our own boundaries while respecting others’. Setting and maintaining these boundaries doesn’t mean a person’s heart isn’t open or that they are closed-off to receiving love; this kind of thinking can be damaging and put pressure on clients to second-guess their boundaries in favor of being more “open.” Something I might find to be healing could be a terrifying trigger to someone else, and it would be irresponsible of me to assume that my boundaries are universally applicable to everyone I meet or work with. There’s only one way to confirm someone else’s needs, wants and boundaries – ask them. And don’t act on your intention until you receive an affirmative response.

It’s important to note that consent is an issue among practitioners, too. I’ve watched healers at trainings and group events get incredibly touchy-feely with new members of the community, and while there’s no way for me to know for sure if the interactions were non-consensual, I do know from my own experiences and those of my close friends that this kind of assumed consent is prevalent in the community:

I’m OK with a spontaneous backrub, so everyone else must be.

Having my hair played with feels amazing, so everyone else must love it, too.

Healers teach about love and connection, so anyone seeking healing should be cool with hugs.

Simply attending a vulnerable, intimate event like this implies consent, so I’m good to go.

And so are the defensive (and blaming) rationalizations if/when someone chooses to set a boundary:

I wasn’t doing anything wrong; I’m a massage therapist, so touching people is how I heal.

I can’t read people’s energy without physical contact. I thought you wanted to connect with me.

I could sense you were tense and thought I’d rub your shoulders; don’t be so closed off to receiving.

“What’s missing from these scenarios is affirmative consent and accountability,” Anne says. “As humans, we are prone to fuck stuff up and, frankly, most of us never learned what consent and boundaries really look like. What matters most here is how we handle the fuck-up, regardless of how uncomfortable it is, and vow to educate ourselves so we avoid repeating the same mistake.”

For those of you who are new to the concept of affirmative consent, or simply want to refresh your understanding, below are some helpful reminders for how to identify, practice, and receive affirmative consent.

  1. THEIR BODIES, THEIR RULES

Every person you work with, whether it’s a client or colleague, owns their body. It belongs to them and them only. It doesn’t matter if they’ve come to you for a massage, a breathwork session, a reiki session, crystal healing, past life regression, or anything else. Their body, their rules. They get to decide what is and isn’t appropriate for them.

Ask them how they’d prefer oils applied to their body, or how they feel about being touched or adjusted during a session. If they want the oils applied, but they don’t want touch, have them apply them on their own body. Maybe they’re comfortable with having their feet grounded but their hips are off limits.

Even if you’re drawn to touch them by your intuition, check in with the person first. If they say it’s not OK, then respect the boundary and move on. It’s not a rejection of your healing abilities, nor is it a personal affront. Even if you are 100% sure that the key to their healing is locked in their body, let them lead. Not only will it keep them safe, it will keep you safe, too.

“Working within your clients’ boundaries establishes trust and rapport, and you’d be surprised how beautifully a person can blossom once they’ve been introduced to an authentically safe, supported and client-centered healing environment,” Anne says.

  1. ALWAYS ASK FOR PERMISSION TO TOUCH

Always. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the client or colleague 1,000 times. Ask permission before you touch another person’s body. Get affirmative consent, which means they acknowledge “yes” to your touch.

“Silence is not consent; a shoulder shrug is not consent; ‘maybe’ is not consent,” Anne says. “If a client struggles to provide affirmative consent, that’s information for you – and an opportunity for them to practice in a safe environment with you as their healer. Empower them, encourage them, remind them that they get to decide what they want without outside pressure. And however they reply, thank them for taking the lead.”

If your client has replied with an affirmative “yes” response to your touch, it’s important that you next explain why you will be touching them and where.  And remember: if they’ve consented to feet grounding, that does not mean you have free rein to open their hips or touch their throat.

NOTE: With breathwork healing, there is rarely a reason to go below the belt line (aside from grounding the feet) with touch. If there’s need to open up the hips or low back, touch outside of the client’s clothing, and only after consent is given. There is NEVER a time when touching a client’s genitals, or any area that could be mistaken for sexual stimulation, is part of the healing process.

  1. PAY ATTENTION TO NON-VERBAL CUES

This is a big one, and a reason why affirmative consent is so damn important. Our bodies are designed to keep us safe, often without our conscious control. The nervous system is designed to react involuntarily when it senses danger.  Normally, we use our communication skills (the social engagement portion of the nervous system) to convey how we’re feeling through tone of voice, inflection, and facial movements. In times of danger, this system can fail, and the mobilizing portion of our nervous system activates (fight or flight) in order to protect us. If this doesn’t work (or hasn’t worked in the past under similar circumstances), the nervous system engages the freeze response. The fight/flight response and the freeze response cannot be active at the same time. Due to past trauma, a person very well may just freeze and be unable to respond with words, movement, or other clues that convey they’re not OK with what’s happening to them.

Let me repeat that: a person who feels unsafe or in danger may not be able to respond, communicate, or vocalize anything at all. This is why practitioners need to be extra vigilant of non-verbal cues. If a client doesn’t respond to your questions or request, don’t touch them. If they pull away from your touch even after they’ve given consent, respect it. Clients have the right to change their minds at any time. Check in with them, ask them to communicate what’s coming up for them, and respond accordingly. If at any time you’re not sure, air on the side of caution and don’t touch.

  1. BE CLEAR WITH YOUR INTENT

We’re humans with human reactions. It’s not uncommon to feel sexual attraction to one another. It’s a normal response to find clients attractive, but it’s important to acknowledge that within yourself, and be very clear with your intentions. Humans are sensitive and pick up intuitive signals, and if your touch is not coming from a genuine place, the client will likely pick up on it. They might not know exactly why, but they may feel uncomfortable or that something is “off.”

If you are touching clients, you must be crystal (pun intended again) clear with your touch and have no ulterior motives. Practitioners should NEVER touch a client in a sexual way. If you find yourself unable to remain objective due to physical and/or sexual attraction, refer your client to someone else. Help them find the help they need.

  1. SET AND KEEP APPROPRIATE BOUNDARIES

Clients come to us in all kinds of vulnerable states and are seeking help and healing. They can’t – and shouldn’t – hold the sole burden of boundary-setting. Hell, most clients likely aren’t able to set or maintain boundaries yet; trauma breaks down a person’s ability to successfully maintain appropriate boundaries, which is why it’s so important for professionals to set their own.

“It doesn’t matter if a client wants to stay in a session longer than the allotted time, or if they’ve literally asked for sexual touch – it’s your job to maintain the boundaries, especially when your client can’t,” Anne says.

This comes down to a simple dynamic of power. Clients are seeking assistance and you are there to provide it. For some clients, you may be the first person in their life who’s ever shown them unconditional love and support; you may even be the first person they’ve ever opened up to. This kind of exchange can often trigger feelings of attraction and desire, which is called erotic transference. This is not their (or your) fault, nor is it an opportunity for either of you to take the session to an inappropriate or unprofessional level.

The client/practitioner relationship is a sacred contract. You are there to help them, not take advantage of their vulnerabilities. Be aware of the power dynamic; honor the position you hold and the power you wield.

 

Photo by Aashish R Gautam on Unsplash