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I Have Excessive Guilt

Posted Sep 11 2009 10:12pm

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!

This is exactly the Reverse Narcissism I constantly tell my clients to scrutinize. 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. And it didn't come from my friends, as I've heard Dr. John complain multiple times about a dearth of Happy Endings at his massages. 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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