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

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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

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Healing begins in the heart …

CorEquus

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Next: Part IV: Anger

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2015

Thaw

 

Every hidden, blocked feeling is like a chunk of frozen consciousness. Until it thaws, you are saying “I am this hurt” even as you refuse to look at it: it has you in its grip.

Deepak Chopra

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Perhaps the most hope-filled time of year is during the spring thaw.

With the frigid winds of winter behind us we look forward to a time of colour and creativity; of the warmth and joy of feeling fully alive again.

The transition between freeze and feel, however, is a messy one.

As the snow melts a dirty, barren wasteland is revealed. Ugly. Colourless. Neglected and abandoned remnants of a time now past and never to be repeated.

For a while we wonder when the landscape will start to change and reveal to us the hope for which we have yearned for so long. March winds blow through stirring up and removing the remaining detritus of the dead season. Spring storms clarify the air bringing with them rains to cleanse and replenish the earth. Sunshine blankets the landscape to nurture the precious new growth beginning to germinate away from the unseen eye.

And still we wait.

And then one day …

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Have you ever felt stuck? Do you feel stuck now? Frozen in a way you don’t understand and don’t know how to change? In the grip of a virtual winter of personal discontent that constricts your life experience so much you almost physically can’t breathe?

You want to be different; feel different. Welcome the spring of new growth, but the weight of your life experience, much with which you can barely connect, has you snowed under to the point of emotional, physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion. Even to hope for the spring is overwhelming.

For much of my life I knew this feeling only too well, but I didn’t understand it. I thought numb was normal. Snowed into a dysfunctional life by avalanches of trauma from a variety of sources and from which I could find no way to dig myself out.

Occasionally a helping hand, as a stalwart soul stumbled upon my predicament and recognized a way they could draw me out. Gradually, the cold constricted space around me began to melt, but in my heart I was still frozen. Emotional self-preservation the only thing I knew.

Then the BIG one. The wake-up call at age 48 that told me it was time to claw my way out of the frigid snows and begin the serious business of thawing. It was that or suffocate to a slow and painful demise.

Do … or die.

It took one week in beautiful Bosnia-Herzagovina in 2009 to shift my awareness. Three major panic attacks for no apparent reason all but paralyzed me. I saw my Self in the trauma of that war-torn country. The devastation still visible in areas of Sarajevo and Mostar resonated so deeply with my own overwhelmed internal landscape I was forced to look at this unlikely reflection and make an important decision.

It was time to change. Time to dig out. Time for the trauma to be released. Time to heal; to rebuild; to thrive.

At the time I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but it didn’t matter. Something had to shift. I had to move if I was to have any hope of prospering in the spring of middle age and beyond.

Within weeks I put myself in therapy, and the serious business of thawing began.

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The transition from freeze to feel is, indeed, a messy one.

Like the spring thaw it happens gradually and in stages so as not to overwhelm and re-traumatize the fragile landscape. With emotional release comes physical liberation. Planes of the body frozen in time find their way back to life, too. Some change with a seismic shift while others trend more gradually to renewal.

It is heave and hell and hope in one. It is the frozen life force re-awakening and moving beyond limiting beliefs and behaviour patterns to find a new vitality. It is the germinating seed seeking the warmth of the sun and the nourishing rains to the fullness of its potential. The evidence of what is past will still exist, but its power will have changed from destructive to creative. Our true nature revealed.

The Self.

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Enter the horse … a sentient and majestic being who has partnered with humans over millennia in the building of civilizations, in the playing of sport and as valued companions.

Our modern society doesn’t need them the way our forebears once did, but we still need them. And they still need us. As French author and philosopher, Antoine de Saint Exupéry famously wrote in his book The Little Prince:

“We are responsible forever for the things that we tame.”

Horses are still considered valued companions to many. We still partner with the equine in sport and recreation. Some still toil on farms or serve and protect while on police duty. Still, within the last several years, a new and perhaps the horse’s most profound role yet has been added to his repertoire ~ that of healing partner.

Horses have been my saving grace … and one horse in particular ~ Shakespeare.

Shakespeare
Shakespeare

A big horse with enormous heart, I call him “Bear.” He’s the horse who rocked my world ~ who invited me to thaw. The blow torch to my frozen heart; the one who helped me find, recognize and live in my truth.

Horses read us like books; our body language the words inscribed across our energetic page. They read between the lines we don’t even know we’ve written to understand the heart of our intention. They are fooled by no one. They reflect back to us the truth and nothing but the truth. They show us a mirror image of ourselves we’d often rather not see but which, if we accepted it, would put us in a position to change our lives forever … and they would help us with that, too.

How do they do this?

Well, that is the subject of this blog.

Heart lessons learned through horse wisdom.

In this blog and on this website I plan to help expand awareness on the subject of heart-based living, through my own experiences and through the expertise of practitioners in the field of equine experiential learning and other relevant therapeutic modalities.

It is my pleasure and privilege to deliver the lessons I and others have learned, and will continue to learn with the horses, in a personal and dynamic way. Whether through my own healing experiences with them or those I have facilitated with others (names changed to protect their privacy) it is my intent to demonstrate another way to “thaw” and reclaim our lives.

In his book It’s Not About The Horse, Wyatt Webb, therapist and founder of the Equine Experience at Miraval Life in Balance™ inTucson, Arizona, quotes Logan, the counsellor who helped save his life, his mind and his very soul …

If you’re to achieve the peace, joy, and spiritual fulfillment that you want so badly, it depends upon one thing and one thing only–your willingness to simply do something different.

Being stuck, frozen, traumatized is not a life sentence, yet so many of us treat it that way. We have the power to make decisions that help us to thaw and move to a new, fluid way of being. And the horses are here to help us.

And I am here to help share their wisdom.

From my heart to yours …

Dorothy Chiotti
Practitioner, Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning

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Healing begins in the heart …

CorEquus

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Copyright Dorothy Chiotti 2014