When the client says no, the client means no

There’s a little bit more I want to say in response to Jessica Wolf’s article about the emotional release gained from bodywork, which I also wrote about here:

Wolf says she asked her therapist not to touch her shoulder, yet the therapist did so anyway, very lightly. Hazy situation. At the hands of a practitioner that you do not yet know or trust (maybe ever), this is a dubious practice. I hope that the therapist said something like, “I understand your concern, but I’d like to put my hands very lightly around it, with no pressure, to see if I can facilitate some change. Is that OK?” (If the client says no, the client means no. Good rule of thumb for life, yeah? Build trust, communicate well, and maybe or maybe not try again at another session.) Maybe Wolf just left that out because she – or her editor – knows it would make for a clunky paragraph. But we guard our bodies for a reason, and part of my job as a therapist is to communicate clearly with clients so that that guardedness can be intentionally approached and intentionally released in favor of healing.

The day after reading Wolf’s article, I received bodywork as part of trade with a therapist I had recently met. Let’s call her Lydia. She practices thai massage, which involves a lot of stretching, traction, and manipulation of joints. As Lydia pulled my shoulder and shook my arm, my shoulder joint kept subluxing a tiny bit, which it is prone to do. I told her this. She responded, firmly and dismissively, “How about you just receive the work, honey?” A minute later, “But I hear you.”

Boy oh boy, did I not feel heard. Boy oh boy, did I stop being able to receive the work. I went into full emotional and physical protection mode. I knew my shoulders needed release, and there was a moment in the session when I felt a pull to facilitate that release by crying. But no way was I going to let myself do so in front of this person. A needed release, cut off before it could even begin.

Lydia is often busy with clients, so others must get what they need from her sessions. Perhaps other people like her conversational and therapeutic style. That’s great for them. But I’m not going to trade with her again.

Did I say it before? Sure, but I’ll say it again: find the practitioner that’s right for you. And therapists, let’s stay savvy to how our words and our approach, as well as our hands, might affect the particular client we are working with in any given moment.