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.