When she was 5 years old, Jamie* had brain surgery to remove a benign tumor the size of a golf ball. Her mother brought her to me when she was 11, to address lingering motor-skill challenges. In the 6 years since her surgery, she’d been in and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices constantly, had over 50 MRIs, and countless hours of various types of therapies. Many of these experiences were frightening, uncomfortable, or even painful. Not surprisingly, she seemed rather suspicious when she first met me, and refused to let me touch her. Why wouldn’t she be suspicious? Even when therapy or medical procedures were painful or scary, she had to submit to them because her health depended on it. For more than half her life (and almost all of her conscious memory), she’d never been allowed to set boundaries about who touched her body…or when, how, and where.
It’s easy to forget how medical procedures can impact someone’s sense of boundaries.
Especially for children, who are too young to fully understand what’s happening to them, and are given no choice in the matter. All decisions are made by adults, not by themselves. They experience a long string of involuntary, often unpleasant physical contact. A child in this situation quickly learns that they’re not allowed to say “no,” and that other people are to be trusted with the decisions of what’s best for them and their body.
Unlike other traumas, in these medical situations the parents and doctors are caring people taking vital steps that ensure the child’s survival. Yet it is equally important to consider the resulting impact on the child’s experience of himself and his body, and to make every effort to give the child an additional, opposite experience—one where he’s empowered to sense and choose his own boundaries for his own body.
But how exactly does one figure out where one’s boundaries are?
How do you know when a boundary is approached, or even passed? If your personal history hasn’t permitted you to establish your own boundaries, you are often unable to sense that a boundary has been passed until you’re miles beyond it.
The Feldenkrais Method® offers a safe and tangible way to explore boundaries.
The very foundation of the Feldenkrais Method® is built upon learning to sense—both in yourself an in another—where a boundary first begins in your sensory perception. Not where the maximum threshold is, but where the tiniest, subtlest discomfort first begins. For those who never learned to sense and honor their own physical boundaries, this process is absolutely crucial. Without the ability to sense this level of subtlety, they’ll find themselves far into the “pain” zone before even realizing a boundary was crossed. The key to establishing healthy boundaries is to learn to sense when you’re first approaching a boundary, so you can avoid crashing into it. In a Feldenkrais® session, we create a safe space for our clients to explore their own boundaries, and invite them to sense themselves with greater precision and subtlety.
This was the case with Jamie.
In her first session, she clearly didn’t want me to touch her. Not that she said this out loud. She’d had years of training in “holding still” and “being good” for the doctors and therapists. However, it was clear from her behavior that she wanted to say “no”—even though she wasn’t “supposed” to.
Seeing this, I suggested that Jamie’s mother get on the table first, so that Jamie could both see and hear that it was a comfortable, safe experience. And far more importantly, Jamie could see that her non-verbal boundary would be respected, and that I wouldn’t push her into something she didn’t want.
Eventually, Jamie’s mother coaxed her into lying on the table—but she was clearly still suspicious and still had very defensive, protective body language. Sensing that she still didn’t like this whole idea, I asked her if she’d prefer for me to start with her feet (instead of touching her back, as I’d done with her mother). She emphatically nodded her head “yes”, looking a bit relieved. So I started with just one foot, making tiny, gentle movements that always stayed well within the range of what was relaxing and comfortable—never intense or forceful. After a couple minutes, I could see her whole body relax and become less braced and defensive. She asked me to do her other foot, too. I complied. After a few minutes, I asked if she’d like me to do the same for her lower leg, and she nodded “yes”. She soon asked me to do the other leg, too. Then the session was over. In all, I probably only touched her for 5-10 minutes.
To a parent, it can be hard to believe this was a useful session.
Not much work was “done.” It’s actually common for a child to resist being touched at ALL in the first session. For parents, this often brings up doubts about whether this new “therapy” will work for their child, and whether they’re wasting their money. But during that first session, we established a crucial foundation of trust. Jamie learned that it was ok to say No, that it was ok to make requests, and that not every new “therapist” would do things to her that felt uncomfortable.
Jamie’s second session was completely different.
The second time she came in, Jamie quickly jumped onto the table, and showed no hesitation about being touched. She soon even let me touch her back, and was comfortable being face-down on the table, which she hadn’t wanted during the first session. Having your back to someone is a vulnerable position, which indicates a significant increase in Jamie’s level of trust.
Many children come to me with a long history of being unable to set physical boundaries.
During our sessions together, they finally get a chance to have their boundaries honored and respected in a very tangible, physical way. In Jamie’s case, she even began making requests, and having those requests honored as well.
Even if she had never allowed me to touch her and we never addressed her motor skills, Jamie received something much more important during that first session. She was given the space and time to reclaim her right to set boundaries about her own body.
*Name and details have been changed to protect privacy.