Emotion as Messenger: Part III … Vulnerability

Why are we so afraid of emotions? Why do we stuff them down and mask them in self-deception? What is the real role of emotions in our lives and how can we honour it?

In this 12-part series I attempt to share my understanding of how our much-maligned emotions are programmed to relay important messages to help us live more abundantly.

My reference is The Messages Behind Emotion: An Epona Emotional Fitness Program by bestselling author, teacher and horse trainer, Linda Kohanov; The Language of Emotions by award-winning author and social science researcher Karla McLaren, and Horse Spirit Connections.

Part I … Fear
Part II … Sadness

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Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to the feeling of worthiness. If it doesn’t feel vulnerable, the sharing is probably not constructive.
Brené Brown

~*~

Every day, to one degree or another, we feel vulnerable.

Any change, transition or shift in our lives leaves us feeling as if we’ve lost some aspect of control over our experience. We may not like it, but it is so.

Many, if not most, people do not cope well with feeling vulnerable and, as a result, resist change.

The challenge is that every moment of every day, whether we’re aware of it or not, features some kind of change ~ in our surroundings, our mood, our cell biology, our experience. If we persist in our resistance to the natural unfolding of life we do ourselves the greater harm. We become stuck in dysfunctional life patterns that keep us emotionally incapacitated and make us more easily manipulated, preyed upon, conned and abused. This, in turn, puts us more on the defensive. We either lash out to protect what we perceive to be our everlasting truth, or curl up in an even tighter emotional ball in the shadows where we hope no one will find us. Either way, we are, to put it bluntly, screwed.

Resistance is futile

Is it possible that it’s not, in fact, the fear of change that keeps us stuck, but our resistance to our feelings of vulnerability?

If we feel we are in a rut, surely we want to get out of it. If we have a dream, are we not willing to do what it takes for it to come true? If we feel unhappy, don’t we want to find a way to embrace happiness? All of this requires change. It requires us to step into the vulnerable transition … and every transition presents uncertainty.

Uncertainty, spawned by triumph or tragedy, can leave us feeling powerless, upsetting our emotional equilibrium and knocking down our carefully constructed walls and perceptions. It challenges our beliefs and boundaries and forces us, often kicking and screaming, into opening our minds and hearts to new ways of thinking about, and being with, ourselves and the world around us. To most, this is a frightening proposition. Emotionally exposed and feeling helpless, we retreat to our preferred, and mostly unwitting, escape mechanisms, usually some form of addiction. This could be anything from demeaning self-talk, self-harm and repetition of negative life patterns, to binge shopping, alcoholism, gambling or any other form of unconscious self-flagellation we adopt to beat ourselves up for some perceived personal failure.

As an example, a father abandons his young family and, feeling somehow responsible for his departure, his daughter grows up feeling like she must do something to win and keep the affections of a male other (usually a man as emotionally dysfunctional as her father.) One day way down the road of life, an emotionally intelligent man walks unexpectedly into her life and simply accepts her for who she is. He tries, without much success initially, to help her see that she doesn’t have to do anything to win or keep his affection. The concept is so foreign to the woman that her initial response is to resist and shut down emotionally to protect the old belief system. Her perception of her Self and an old, dysfunctional life pattern is being challenged and even though it represents a positive change, it’s a scary prospect. Relationships with men, as she’s known them, no longer make sense.

“What do you mean I don’t have to do anything? What does that even mean?”

After years of running herself ragged in a repetitive and destructive cycle of perfectionism while seeking validation in the eyes of men too much like her father, she has found herself in unfamiliar territory with a loving, committed man whose only desire is for her to be happy. The woman is caught between two realities ~ the old lie that she’ll never be enough, and the new truth that she is, in fact, enough as she is. In the end, she seeks professional help to release the old destructive life pattern and reconcile the new, healthier reality she believes to be her truth but cannot seem to integrate.

A life-altering experience, even a good one, can leave us feeling profoundly insecure about who we are for a while. Being open to the change and willing to work with it, however, is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves.

MeditationThanks to a horse

As prey animals horses are, as Canadian horse trainer, Chris Irwin, describes: ” … victims waiting to happen.” Their hyper-vigilence is their protection. Whether a white plastic bag is flapping in the breeze 50 feet away or a more obvious predator is entering their environment, horses are able to identify a threat instantly and take care of themselves as necessary, meeting energy with energy.

This ability to reflect different energetic stimuli in their environment and capacity for non-judgment is what makes horses such valuable teachers in the arena of personal growth and self-discovery. In the presence of a horse we find the mirror of our truth. This can be uncomfortable, but more importantly, it can be revealing … and healing.

Horses reflect back to us the energy we emit. If we feel overwhelmed and mask it with a smile, it’s the energy behind the smile to which they respond. For a horse to feel comfortable in our presence we need to be our authentic selves, coming out from behind the mask and laying bare our true feelings. By doing this we demonstrate empathy for the horse’s own vulnerability and a bridge of mutual understanding and respect is built. Knocking down our defensive walls to allow ourselves to live fully in the moment, however, is key.

A personal story to illustrate:

For most of my life, due to early childhood trauma, I’ve felt vulnerable about speaking up. To avoid the threat of “feeling exposed” it was easier for me to hide behind the opinion of others; to linger in the shadows unseen; to put up with the bad behaviour of others at my own expense, and to blend in with the crowd than to stand up and say how I felt. When I did speak up I was usually shamed in some way, so I learned to keep my mouth shut. I fell into the role of “perpetual assistant” backing (and leading) other peoples’ causes, instead of championing my own. When it came to speaking up for my Self, I felt daunted and doomed.

In my middle years, I started working with an objective third-party to explore the emotional trauma that had kept me stuck in this debilitating cycle. While on this journey, I enrolled in the Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning (FEEL) certification course offered at Horse Spirit Connections in Tottenham, Ontario. It was while I was engaged in an exercise with a horse named Paris that my healing journey was taken to a profound new level.

An epiphany occurred during my first reflective round pen experience. Part of the exercise is to identify, without thinking about it too much, a heart’s desire to share with the horse. What immediately came to mind was: “To be able to speak freely and without judgement.”

Upon entering the large round pen I stood in the middle and waited, feeling totally exposed and vulnerable. Interacting with Paris in front of a group of strangers, albeit a lovely group of supportive women (and a man), felt totally uncomfortable. Lovely Paris stood patiently some 15 feet away, waiting. I couldn’t speak. Eventually, she rattled the gate as if cueing me to “make noise,” but I didn’t get it. I was wound up in the pain of not being able to freely express myself. Frozen in an old pattern I just wanted to hide; be invisible. I started walking the round pen, feeling aimless, hoping Paris would follow. Of course, she didn’t.

After a few minutes I left the round pen, disappointed in myself. Feeling like I’d failed, the tearful, emotional self-flagellation began. During a supportive 10-minute de-brief a facilitator asked, “Why didn’t you talk to Paris?” I couldn’t say. She asked if I would be willing to go and try again. What had I to lose?

Returning to the round pen, I stood in the middle once again and gathered my courage. I did my best to ignore the observers and forced myself to talk aloud to Paris who was, again, standing by the gate. I said whatever came to mind: told her she was named after a beautiful city; explained that being unable to express myself was old; mentioned her black coat and how beautiful she was. And then I told her how her colour reminded me of the shadow I’d been living under all my life and how I so desperately wanted to shine; to be heard.

Incredibly, as soon as I gave voice to this vulnerable piece of my Self Paris began licking and chewing (a sign of acknowledgment). Then she turned and deliberately walked toward me. I couldn’t believe it. She’d heard me. I doubled over in sobs. This gentle, non-judgemental being was acknowledging the connection I’d made to my vulnerable Self.

She stopped beside me and held space for several minutes so I could embrace this pivotal moment. “It’s time to step out of the shadow and shine,” she seemed to say as she stood there, comfortingly. She allowed me to stroke her neck and then, after a few moments, moved away, her work complete.

This time as I thanked her and left the round pen I felt calmly empowered. Paris had shown me I could speak my truth without judgement ~ mine or anyone else’s. It was a magical experience that transformed my life in so many ways. Whenever I feel vulnerable about speaking up, I remember Paris and find my courage to speak/write again.

In summary, life by its very nature feels vulnerable. The sooner we learn to accept this fact and work openly with it, the sooner we’ll find the courage and strength to stop self-sabotaging with old negative life patterns and start finding the confidence to live and speak our truth.

And the horses can show us how …

Be well,

Dorothy

~*~

Healing begins in the heart …

CorEquus

~*~

Next: Part IV: Anger

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2015

Emotion as Messenger: Part I … Fear

Why are we so afraid of emotions? Why do we stuff them down and mask them in self-deception? What is the real role of emotions in our lives and how can we honour it?

In this 12-part series I attempt to share my understanding of how our much-maligned emotions are programmed to relay important messages to help us live more abundantly.

My references are The Messages Behind Emotion: An Epona Emotional Fitness Program by bestselling author, teacher and horse trainer, Linda Kohanov; The Language of Emotions by award-winning author and social science researcher Karla McLaren, and Horse Spirit Connections.

~*~

“The fastest way to freedom is to feel your feelings.”

Gita Bellin
Facilitator, Mentor, Coach

~*~

Recently I was at the barn with a client facilitating a session of Wu Wei ~ the Taoist practice of “non-doing.” The purpose of this exercise is to spend a prescribed amount of time simply “being” in the environment and going with the flow. It is a wonderfully grounding and stress-reducing exercise, providing a way to escape the confines of our chaotic minds to dwell more solidly and knowingly in our bodies, in the moment.

I had assigned my client 15 minutes to sit on a picnic table located on a berm beside the paddock and observe, without judgement, the horses as they went about the non-doing business of grazing. Why non-doing? Because the horses don’t think about it, or make it happen … it just is. As the sun rises and sets effortlessly in a day, so too the horses wander the paddock in search of sustenance … effortlessly.

There were, actually, two paddocks within view ~ the closest with two horses (including my own horse, Bear), and the paddock beyond with four horses, all peacefully grazing by the fence beside the quiet country road.

Within moments of starting the exercise there was a commotion in the far paddock. The horses, spooked by a cyclist sprinting past on the road, galloped as one across the open, descending terrain to the gate, bucking and leaping and squealing in fright, their flight instincts kicking in full force and carrying them to a place of safety. Once down by the gate, there was much head tossing, pawing at the ground, trotting in circles ~ a general shaking off of the incident. Then, in a matter of moments, the horses had settled again and were going about their quiet business of grazing.

For my client this was a great opportunity to watch the change in energy as it went from grazing to flight to grazing again. A flow of non-doing. Nothing calculated; no judgement ~ just the horses going with the flow of energy as it moved in and out of their space. The horses felt the fear associated with the perceived threat, fled to a position of safety, shook off the stress of the experience and then, relieved of their anxiety, went back to life as normal.

This lead me to wonder, how good are we at processing our own emotional disturbances?

~*~

My MuseHorses, with their finely tuned nervous systems and focus on self-preservation, can teach we silly humans, who have drifted away from listening to the body’s innate intelligence over the centuries to focus on the mind alone, much about processing our emotions.

Over Millennia most of humankind has been conditioned, by a variety of influences, to deny what we feel and to stuff our emotions away where we think they can do the least amount of harm. The only trouble is the more we stuff them down the more damage they can do ~ to us and everyone with whom we come in contact. Emotions left unaddressed in the moment ~ feelings not felt and processed ~ live inside us indefinitely, creating another kind of physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual debt which we eventually must pay.

From my own experience and observation the mid-life crisis in all its guises marks the tipping point. In our middle years, when our physical body starts to show its wear and tear, old emotions rise to consciousness. Stored emotional energy must play itself out; must be respected and released. When it isn’t a crisis of identity can occur. We feel stuck. We panic for no apparent reason. We get sick. And we delude ourselves with the notion that if we just work harder and appease the unforgiving ego, all those unprocessed emotions will simply go away and we’ll be okay.

Sadly, for most us, it isn’t until we are forced by circumstances beyond our control, i.e. some form of personal tragedy or “wake-up call,” like a chronic illness, accident, death of a loved one, etc., that we are forced to take a good look at our lives and, if we are wise, take the necessary steps to release old, negative, stagnating emotions and the events attached to them. Events and feelings which have had a hold on us, perhaps for a life time, and influenced all of our decisions and how we’ve lived our lives, without us even realizing it.

Through my many years of personal therapy and from working with wise teachers, I’ve learned to understand that emotions are, essentially, energy messengers on a mission to bring us through an event or experience so we can come out the other side of it feeling whole again. Emotions and feelings, pleasant or unpleasant, give us the leg up we need at any given moment to move forward with life. When we ignore or disrespect their messages inner chaos ensues and we become stuck in patterns of negative, debilitating behaviour that get in the way of our ability to thrive.

Evidence is being gathered by organizations, such as the HeartMath Institute, to demonstrate how heart resonance i.e. the electromagnetic energy generated by the heart that creates a powerful energy field around every living being, allows the body to experience incoming information a split second before the mind understands and puts meaning to it. That is to say, we feel through heart resonance first and then the mind interprets the message of the feeling according to its pre-conditioned responses as determined by environment, upbringing, and life experiences. This is why we can see and experience the same thing as someone else and yet have such a different reaction to it.

So, what about fear?

By definition, fear (and we all know what that feels like) is an “intuitive, focused awareness of a threat to one’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual well being.”* Fear is a warning bell; an alarm; a siren signalling a need to seek safety.

What happens when we ignore this important messenger?

Consider, when was the last time you were afraid? Did you think fear first, or feel it?

Everything happens in a split second, but if we’re in touch with ourselves and with the visceral, we are aware of the fear energy ~ subtle or tsunami-like ~ as it waves through our body. The thumping of the heart; the sweaty palms; the racing pulse; the nervous system energized to run. The body feels the emotion ~ the energy as it moves in ~ before the mind knows what’s in the environment that creates that emotion.

Once we feel fear the mind searches for the source; asks the questions: What is the threat? What must I do to move to a position of safety?* What are these feelings telling me? Once we receive the answer, usually by way of an intuitive thought or gut feeling, we must honour it or suffer the consequences. The trick is to be in touch with those gut feelings.

A Tsunami of Fear

In late October 2012, my husband and I were in Waikiki for a four-night stay to break up a long trip from Toronto to Sydney, Australia. At the time I was deep in adrenal fatigue mode and long-distance travel was hard on my nervous system. On the second full day we rented a car and toured beautiful Oahu, ending the day at a restaurant across the street from our beachfront hotel. The place was busy, but we were fortunate to get a table with an ocean view and, after taking our order, the waiter returned with a basket of bread before getting our drinks. Moments later he returned, somewhat pale, and said with alarm:

“I’m sorry, you have to leave. There’s a tsunami warning for the islands and … .”

I didn’t hear anything else. A tsunami-like tidal wave of fear whooshed dramatically through my body landing electrically charged in my feet telling me it was time to move. We didn’t panic, but we certainly didn’t waste any time getting back to our 24th floor hotel room where we ordered room service and awaited the worst.

With visions of the the Japanese tsunami of only 18 months earlier crashing through my mind I ate little, saving the rest in case we were to be holed up for a few days. I filled the bath tub. Put on my most comfortable clothes. Washed my face. Brushed my teeth. Basically tried to get comfortable for an event over which I had no control and which was forecasted to unfold at 10:27 p.m. We had the TV on to follow reports. Regular announcements from the hotel manager filtered into the room through the hotel sound system every half hour or so. I played Angry Bird to channel my angst. My husband hung out on the balcony, filming with his iPad the bright sparks standing at the end of the wharf waiting for the first wave to arrive. Car horns honked. Whistles blew. Sirens wailed. People yelled. We were all in it together. The anticipation was jarring. The wait interminable.

As it turned out, there was no tsunami at 10:27 p.m. Only a one-foot wave lapped the shore line bringing with it a collective sigh of relief. Still, the fear response had been activated, and my experience with adrenal fatigue had made me aware enough to know that to release the fear energy I would need to find a way to shake it off. The next morning I booked an early (and wonderful) lomi lomi massage to encourage my body and mind to release the stress of the night before. It was wonderful and it worked!

The bottom line ~ within the experience itself there was only so much I could do: get to higher ground and wait it out. Had I not taken action my initial fear response might have escalated to more intense feelings of worry, anxiety, confusion, numbness, panic, terror or dissociation.

Feeling the fear of that evening was not a pleasant experience. Still, by being present with the emotion and taking care of myself, I was able to flow with it and shake it off when the danger had passed.

In Summary

Learning to be more horse-like in how we deal with disturbances that create fear can help us to deal with our fears more effectively. Being present enough in our bodies to ask the appropriate questions during a time of crisis instead of over-reacting and creating unnecessary panic is crucial if we’re to maintain our equilibrium and promote long-term health and vitality.

By working with the horses, who so naturally reflect back to us our energetic truth, we can begin to learn about our own patterns of crippling behaviour and create awareness for change. We can learn to be “in our bodies” and allow its too oft ignored messages to help us function more fully in a modern world all too willing to de-sensitive and exert control over us.

Horses don’t lie. They know when we carry fear around with us. When a fearful person puts a brave face on and approaches a horse, the horse doesn’t see the face, he feels the fear. The horse doesn’t understand that he’s the source of the person’s fear. His awareness tells him that there is something in the environment of which to be afraid, and he feeds off of that energy.

It isn’t until we acknowledge our fear, thus releasing any accompanying tension, that the horse can relax and be with us. Simply acknowledging our fear allows us to experience our authenticity. Horses perceive the energy behind a lack of authenticity as a threat and will always move away from it. Conversely they will always honour the intentions of those who move in truth.

Learning to honour our emotions and their messages will, no matter how unpleasant in the moment, protect us in the long run. What we don’t face today we inevitably face tomorrow in a more amplified way. Fear, when honoured early allows us to act without over-reacting, and gives us the opportunity to take care of ourselves without bringing harm to others and perpetuating bad feeling.

Confront and release fear and feel your freedom.

Let the horses show you how …

Be well,

Dorothy

~*~

Healing begins in the heart …

CorEquus

~*~

Next: Part II … Sadness

*The Power of the Herd: Guiding Principle 1: Use Emotions as Information (Linda Kohanov)

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2015