Treat Your Client Like a Wild Animal

Today’s post is inspired by a brief story told by my excellent Feldenkrais trainer Richard Corbeil. Richard was explaining to our class how we should approach a client in pain (or any client really) if we want to gain their trust and prevent activation of their protective mechanisms.

I’m probably not getting all the details of the story right, but here’s the gist.

A chiro, accupuncturist and Feldy walk into a bar …

Years ago and far away, Richard shared an office with an acupuncturist and a chiropractor. For some reason an injured cat was brought into the office and there was some sort of contest to see who could successfully treat the cat. (I know, it sounds like the set up for a joke.)

Of course, the therapists soon learned that the cat wasn’t very interested in receiving treatment. It basically attacked them if they got anywhere near the painful area.

But Richard was eventually able to win the trust of the cat by approaching very slowly and progressively. He started with interactions that were the least threatening – ones that didn’t involve any touching at all. And then he moved on to some very gentle contacts in areas far from the site of pain. Eventually some sort of good thing came of that, such as the cat being happy, or Richard winning the bet. I forget. But the point is that wild animals don’t like getting poked and prodded where it hurts.

Soothing the savage beast

We tend to forget this, but humans are animals too. Even if we aren’t so wild anymore, we certainly have the same basic operating systems as wild animals, including the ones that determine threat, activate stress responses, control muscle tension and create pain. We just have better manners than wounded cats, and don’t hiss at therapists when they approach our sore spots.

Or maybe we have even been convinced that pressing on sore spots is therapeutic, and that we need to grin and bear it until the treatment is done. But just because a client is grinning and being a good sport doesn’t mean there isn’t an angry cat hissing and scratching under the calm exterior.

Humans don’t get to decide what they find threatening, stressful or painful any more than a cat does. That decision is left to ancient unconscious systems that can’t really be reasoned with. So when you are working with a wounded animal, wild or human, make sure you communicate with those prerational systems, and not just the surface ones that know how to make polite conversation.

Ironic footnote – Richard mentioned that he originally heard the phrase “treat your client like a wild animal” from one of his trainers – Frank Wildman.

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7 Responses to Treat Your Client Like a Wild Animal

  1. I can relate. I’ve written of this from an evolutionary perspective in a series of blog posts titled “Epoch.” We have brains formed in the pleistocene yet we (all of us) live in the anthropocene. Reconciling the behavior and expectations of both is what your instructor did, and, hopefully, what thoughtful therapists do as well.

  2. Although it is a true story, it is indeed a very good metaphor. I use the wild animals metaphor a lot, but didn’t think of it using it for this particular approach (that I use a lot too). Thanks for sharing.

    By the way, injured people can also learn something from injured animals regarding health promoting behaviour. Our modern/neolithic/anthropocene lifestyle often prohibits the ideal path to recovery.

  3. Great reminder of how important it is to take time and not get caught in the ego desire to get results as quicky as possible. What you’ve described is basically Linda Tellington Jones’ TTouch method. This a way of working with animals based on Feldenkrais principles.TTouch also incoporates slow movement exercises and body wraps to increase body awareness. Its extremely effective.

  4. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the links and ideas. I knew many people had probably touched on similar ideas before. I definitely remember the “critter brain” phrase now that you mention it although I haven’t seen the epoch series before.

    • In the Motor Systems module (post grad neuro progarm through the Carrick Institute) we had discussed the basal ganglia and its role in motor control and in OCD, ADHD, addiction, impulsivity and how lack of inhibition of the basal ganglia from the neocortex causes a wind up of the basal ganglia and limbic system similar to hyperkinetic movement disorders (forgive me if my neuroscience is not spot on regarding language and pathways, etc.) Looking at the basal ganglionic pathways and seeing how motor control and emotion regulation has a similar mechanism, I could see how using slow mindful novel coordinated sensory motor exercises could have some beneficial neurological carry over to inhibition of emotion/compulsion etc. Pretty fascinating stuff.

  5. Thanks Todd, for this, it’s important not just for bodyworkers or movement teachers but medical staff too. A few years ago my mom had a health scare and I noticed how negatively the doctors reacted to her being a “bad” patient (cranky, not wanting some painful tests and refusing to take a medicine which gave her brain fog, questioning the doctors). She was terrified, in pain, hungry all the time because of poorly scheduled/delayed tests, and confused about what they were doing. I joked with her later that a vet wouldn’t treat his/her patients like that – vets aren’t surprised if a dog snaps at them, and they don’t take it personally. You can communicate with the “critter brain” by being calm yourself, moving slowly, light touch etc, but I think it also helps to tell a client in this mode that it’s very common for people to be nervous about touching here/be very sensitive in this area/etc; sometimes when people have an “animal” reaction it makes them even more anxious, they start thinking, what’s wrong with me or the therapist will think I’m crazy/difficult/etc, why can’t I enjoy this process which is supposed to be enjoyable, why can’t I take the pain, etc. If someone is very nervous/sensitive, in addition to listening to them (whether body cues or what they say) & backing off, I feel it also helps to give them control by outlining clearly what I will/won’t do/touch at each interval and see if it’s OK, and set a threshold on pain/discomfort, e.g. with a 1-10 scale where we agree to keep it below a 3 or whatever). And as a patient/client, I can say it really helps if the therapist doesn’t get defensive (e.g. this person is implying I don’t know how to do this) or feel or communicate via body language that there’s something wrong with the client (e.g. everyone else loves this technique, why doesn’t this person).

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