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.
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.
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.
Thanks 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 …
Healing begins in the heart …
Next: Part IV: Anger
©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2015