It’s Like Pulling Teeth

by Mark Goldwich

Today, my 13-year old son is getting 4 teeth extracted to make room for wisdom teeth and braces, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t really know all the reasons why, that is just what both the dentist and the oral surgeon say needs to be done, so I am trusting their advanced degrees.  I have no doubt it will be an extremely unpleasant experience for all involved, especially for my son. We have known about it for some time, it has even been postponed at least once, yet everyone is still nervous, anxious, and dreading this day, and the next few days to follow.

So it got me to thinking about the origin of this phrase. My research suggests the earliest found uses in the 1830s, and generally means “extremely difficult” or “stubborn”, and referred to the difficulty found in people giving up information or money. An example from 1831 published in the Foreign Missionary Register of The American Baptist Missionary Magazine (Vol. 12, October 1832, No. 10), in the 23rd October 1831 entry of Mr. Judson's Journal: “When any person is known to be considering the new religion, all his relations and acquaintance — rise en masse; so that to get a new convert is like pulling out the eye-tooth of a live tiger.” Or in 1836 Knickerbocker: “And for this service to the sons, what did I get from the sires? The pittance of a few dollars, which came like pulling so many teeth.” 

Image courtesy of
For as long as dentistry has been around, pulling teeth has been a painful and distasteful experience.
And so the same is true for many people when it comes to rendering money or information. At least nowadays, there is nitrous oxide and other forms of anesthesia to ease the pain (at least during the teeth-pulling process). Unfortunately, as my son can attest now that the teeth are pulled, there is little that can be done to make the whole teeth-pulling ordeal completely free of discomfort. On the way home from the dentist, while still feeling the effects of the nitrous, he asked if we could come back tomorrow because “it was fun” and “only took 5 minutes” (it was an hour). Well, it has all worn off, and he has absolutely no interest in going back tomorrow for more “fun”. Or ever.

But what in the world does this have to do with insurance? You see, it has long been my theory that insurance companies deliberately want to make the claim process as difficult and distasteful as possible, mainly because it often ends with the insurance company making a payment. Even if they don’t make a payment, they certainly don’t want you to leave with the notion that, “Hey, that was great, I can’t wait to do that again!” This only makes sense, especially when you consider that every dollar they pay out on a claim, is one less dollar for the bottom line. And again, even if no money is paid, simply considering a claim comes at a cost for the insurance company, which also negatively affects the bottom line.

When you think about it, they have to walk a pretty fine line. They want their claim service to be highly regarded, for claim personnel to be friendly, knowledgeable and accurate, and to have (relatively) few complaints. Yet they don’t want people beating a path to their doors (premium paying doors yes, but not the one where claims submitted ).

So what do they do? They have trained people to practice smiling while they answer phones, because they have been told by consultants that “smiles can be heard over the phone”. Their people are trained in customer service to have numerous word-tracks at their fingertips to keep customers calm, patient, and understanding as they are being “handled”. They set up numerous layers (agents, desk examiners, field adjusters, independent adjusters, supervisors) such that each person can say they are doing what they can for the customer, even when the end result is negative. It’s like a bullet-proof vest that is made up of very thin layers of material, each of which on its own could not stop a bullet, but when combined together are able to diffuse the energy of the bullet, and stop it cold.

Receive your FREE copy by filling out the form below.

In this way, extracting money, and sometimes information, from an insurance company is a lot like extracting teeth. It can be an emotionally charged, painful process, which even if successful, leaves a bad taste in your mouth, with no desire to repeat the procedure anytime soon. The process also tends to get people frustrated, particularly if they were not prepared for the ordeal.  This makes them much more likely to exit the process with less money, or no money at all, just as suggested in an 1855 quote from Godey's Lady's Book for October, 1855: "Some people it's like pulling teeth to collect from; they dodge and shuffle, and ask me to call again, until sometimes I am quite out of patience."

In my years of helping people with insurance claims, I have had several who were not just willing, but eager to accept less money, sometimes a lot less money, just to be through with the claim process, or “ordeal” as they would call it. In most cases, I could get the policyholders to stick it out with me, letting them know I would not give up on them, if they would not give up on themselves. A few times, nothing I could say would change their minds – their will was broken.

One such case in particular was a woman who lost not only her home of over 40 years to a fire, but she lost her husband of over 45 years to that same fire. With the home a total loss, the insurance company had no choice but to pay her policy limit on the structure. But when it came to her (and her husband’s) personal belongings, they required she detail each and every item the two of them purchased, collected, and possessed during the past 40+ years. It was a painstaking and emotionally painful process, and they offered no assistance, even considering her state of mind. When all she could do was recall about $50,000 dollars worth, they depreciated it all and paid her about $35,000, or about half of her $75,000 limit for contents.

They were nice enough about it, even telling her that if she could think of more items, all she would have to do is submit that as well, but now they would require proof of ownership of any additional items. I assured her she would not have to prove everything as they were saying, and that I would be willing to sit with her and help her remember and document additional items, even those over her policy limits so she could claim those amounts on her taxes as an uninsured loss, but to no avail. Basically, they presented her with the idea of having more teeth pulled, and my offer of anesthesia was not enough to dull the pain.
Image courtesy of

Sometimes in life you have to go through things that are not pleasant. Whether it is having teeth pulled, or dealing with an insurance claim, try to keep in mind you’ll survive both. And in either case, I recommend the laughing gas.

Mark Goldwich is president of Gold Star Adjusters, a group of public insurance adjusters dedicated to helping citizens get the maximum settlement for any insurance claim.  


  1. Just shameful, no other word for what many insurance companies do.

  2. Until I read your blog I didn't think anything could be as painful as a trip to the dentist.