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Taboos, Touch

Why do we think pain is good?

Illustration of the pain pathway in René Desca...Image via Wikipedia

A while ago I wrote an article about misunderstood touch, and how touch becomes sexually charged. Recently I wrote about if a massage should hurt, discussing the misconception that a massage must be painful in order to do any real good.

There are probably many reasons why people think pain is necessary during a massage. Poor education of how the body reacts and functions and a lack of being in touch with our bodies and actually being able to feel the signals. For many there’s a hidden desire to punish themselves, which is supported by a society saying that “you don’t deserve good without going through bad first.”

Personally I think a large part of the blame also lies in how we perceive touch. We often feel guilt over enjoying touch, and if a touch hurts we can’t enjoy it and thereby we avoid the feeling of guilt. We’re often not allowed to treat ourselves well enjoy pleasant things. This is in particular true for women. So if the massage hurt and left us really sore the day after, nobody can tell us that we had a massage because it felt good.

Another reason is that we often only experience two forms of touch. Intimate/sexual touch and violent/abusive touch. Anything in between we can’t quite figure out, as it doesn’t suit one or the other extreme. If we see two men hugging closely on the street, our first thought is often that they must be lovers. If an adult touches a child, we worry about abuse, which has gone to the degree that teachers in some schools aren’t even allowed to hug and comfort a crying child.

This means that we tend to avoid touch all together, unless it’s intimate. We feel uncomfortable with a friendly, pleasant touch which isn’t intimate and we see pushing in the metro as more aggressive than it was intended.

I still recall how shocked I felt when I was introduced to a friend of a friend in France and he gave me two kisses on the cheeks. A strange man so close and so intimate was something I had never experienced before and my entire system became ready to fight or flight.

All these different aspects of how we view touch and what we put into it, means that a pleasant massage-touch becomes linked with intimacy and sexuality instead of natural healing. By making sure the touch hurts, and we disassociate the two and can better enjoy the therapy, or even justify it to ourselves.

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About Pia Poulsen

Pia Poulsen is educated as a wellness massage therapist at Institut FIGARI in Paris, from where she passed her certification exam in January 2008. Since then she has expanded her skills to become the first Advanced LaStone® practitioner in France as well as a certified LaStone® instructor.


3 Responses to “Why do we think pain is good?”

  1. Dear Pia,

    Thank you for the thought provoking articles. I am not sure I agree with everything in your most recent articles about pain – particularly the conclusion that “by making sure the touch hurts” we can better enjoy or justify the therapy.

    I first came across really deep massage when I did the 10 sessions of the Rolfing series – which I did with a fairly uncompromising practitioner. She worked very deeply indeed! The first really deep work she did was on my feet, and I remember being astonished at how painful (in one sense) it was. On the other hand, I was also astonished at how much better I felt afterwards, and how going deeply into the tissues increased my awareness of my body, showing me where the tension had built up.

    After that session, we had a long talk about whether rolfing was right for me, and we discussed a lot of issues around discomfort and the way the body responds to it. Various things became clear to both of us:

    1. The perception of pain depends a lot on speed of massage. If you go quickly in and out of a painful area, the body will react by closing up. The first approach on my feet was too quick, and my body reacted with the fight or flight response you mention above. We repeated the work at the end of the session, going much more slowly (but just as deeply – maybe even more so), and much of the pain I had perceived at first became an interesting exploration, rather than something which the body just tried to avoid at all costs.

    2. The breath is a remarkable tool for helping the body cope with uncomfortable situations – focus on relaxation and slow steady breathing makes almost anything bearable, and allows you to feel tissues letting go and relaxing.

    3. Words and gestures (on both sides) are extremely important. On the practitioner's side, if you are working deeply, you have to be aware that you may be working near the client's pain threshold, and you have to be ready to back off at once if asked. On the other hand, if you are too cautious it may mean that the client doesn't get an opportunity to explore knots, restrictions etc and get in touch with deeper layers of his/her body.

    … Pt 2 to follow

    Posted by Anonymous | Sunday 13 June, 2010, 07:05
  2. Part 2

    From the client's point of view, you have to be honest – there is no sense in just exploring pain for the sake of it (unless you are a masochist!) so you must be prepared to say stop as necessary. But you have taken the decision to let someone work deeply on you, and you should trust them to work responsibly and perhaps take you out of your comfort zone for a while.

    We decided not to talk too much during the sessions, and not to talk much about whether it was painful or not. Rather, we talked about whether there were feelings of release/stuck-ness/lightness/heaviness and whether the speed of the process was right for me. Very often we would stay for an extended period on a knotty point, and it was remarkable how, very slowly, the knots unravelled and the practitioner's fingers (or elbows) could go deeper and deeper into the tissues. At some moments, the sessions became a kind of meditation, with an intense focus on breathing and on the practitioner responding to the body's feedback.

    So I think there is another side to the discussion. Myofascial work is rather specialised, however, and is certainly not for everyone. I had my rolfing sessions about 10 years ago, and still think that they benefitted me enormously. When I look back on them, I remember much more about the freedom & awareness which they gave to my body than whether a particular session was painful or not. Since then I have had occasional very deep sessions, with a practitioner who isn't a rolfer, but works in a similar way. Each one still gives me a lot of food for thought.

    One thought from these more recent sessions is that it can actually be quite useful after a very deep session to still feel where the practitioner has been working. With very deep modalities it is not unusual to feel the points where you have been worked on for a few days afterwards. I see this as positive – it reminds me to breathe into or stretch those areas and helps me to maintain the openness which has been created.

    It isn't easy to let someone work very deeply on your body, and everyone will have areas which are more sensitive than others, but sometimes exploring pain and discomfort in the body can be very useful. Massage isn't the only modality which does this – a lot of yoga stretches, for example, also involve exploring the tight areas of the body, and this can be painful, until the body lets go of the tension. Ultimately, however, these sorts of explorations can also be very rewarding.


    Posted by Anonymous | Sunday 13 June, 2010, 07:06
  3. Dear Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comments and observation. In general I agree with what you've written and said. And to make it clear, I'm not advocating against deep work at all. Deep work can be necessary.

    My point is that deep work doesn't need to be painful and hurt. As you write, going slowly, working with breath and other techniques allow for the therapist to work very deeply without it being painful.

    From my own experiences, LaStone's Deep Stone focuses very much on this. We use ice-cold marble stones and we work very deeply. But only rarely does it actually hurt the client. Exactly because of speed, applying with breath, allowing the body to accept the touch and finally because of the cold which serves to sedate the area worked on.

    I think what we need to agree on is the definition of pain though. The definition of hurt.

    When I say pain, painful and hurt, I mean pain to a level where it's no longer acceptable for the recipient. Pain is when the body's own defence mechanisms go into action, the muscles contract to protect themselves and reflexes try to move the body-part away from the source of pain. Pain is also when the person mentally and emotionally want to get away from the situation and find it intolerable, even if the body might not yet go into flight/defence mode.

    People often say there's good pain and there's bad pain. The good pain is where there's a light discomfort, where you can feel soreness, but it's not at a level that feels intolerable for you.

    This sort of pain, the soreness and light discomfort isn't counterproductive and it can be felt after the massage as well. Just like we can have a pleasant soreness in our muscles after running or exercising.

    The soreness should come from the muscle having been worked and manipulated, and not because it's been bruised by too violent a touch.

    So to sum it up, I'm not saying that it shouldn't be uncomfortable at all, nor that we should avoid deep work. But we need to make sure that we don't cross that line that makes emotions and body react in a negative manner.

    If that type of deep work is needed in the situation, then the therapist must take that extra time to make the tissue relax and not force his way through the pain threshold. The client should never lie on the table grimacing and wincing because they can't handle the pain but think they have to for it to do any good.

    With persistence, patience and working slowly, you can go all the way depth wise without causing any real pain. And if not by hand, then by using other techniques, such as hot and cold stones.

    I'm glad to hear that the soreness reminds you of your body and the areas you need to pay attention to. In an ideal world, soreness shouldn't be necessary. We can reach this awareness of our body through pure gentle and soft touch, though of course that takes much more effort on our side and a conscious decision to do so.

    I hope this clarifies further what I'm trying to say. These things can be difficult to describe when we don't have the same definitions on pain, discomfort and hurt. Each individual experiences them differently and have different levels. It is my strong conviction though that you should never cross the line to real pain, but instead use gentler methods over a longer time to reach the same results.


    Posted by Pia | Friday 25 June, 2010, 08:18