What's Your Horse Called?
Do you keep hopping on the back of something that takes you in a direction you weren't necessarily looking to go? Or does it stop you from going somewhere you wish to go?
Do you possibly have a horse called fear?
Fear has it's own agenda when it comes to keeping us safe, and keeping us comfortable. But fear is not great at knowing the difference between DANGER and CHALLENGE.
Today we talk about the wiring within our amygdala (Amy) and how this region of the brain senses danger (or challenge) and causes us to feel fear - to keep us safe (and sometimes hold us back).
How do we stay safe but still get to experience life??? Listen, and let's find out!
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I’ve had horses. A couple of them. One we could ride, and the other we could brush if she decided to let us that day. They were as different as night and day, but that’s because prior to coming to us, they had experienced very different lives. We knew that. And we were ok with that too.
I don’t have them anymore, but I think of them often. I have their pictures in my back room where we go out the door and on with our day every morning, and where we come back through when we get home again every evening.
As I glanced at their pictures the other day and then got in my vehicle to head to work, I thought about them on my drive. I thought about how they recognized their names. You could call their names and their heads would raise and then they’d turn to look at you. And then they would normally start their walk over towards the fence for a visit.
I’d often call Bailey over to the fence because I enjoyed riding him without a saddle. But that meant no stirrups to help me get on him. But if he was beside the fence, I could climb the fence and then climb onto his back from there. I’d let Bailey walk around and I’d just sit and enjoy the view. There wasn’t really any area that I needed to guide him away from, as we were fenced off in a safe area, no matter where he wanted to go. I trusted him. He trusted me. We were good together, wherever we would travel, within our safe space.
Now, my other horse, Amal, which is the Arabic word for Hope, as she was an Arabian horse, she was a whole different story. After a lot of working and trust building, I got a saddle on her a couple of times. I even put my foot in a stirrup once or twice. But Amal, made it quite clear that she was not interested in having me sit on her back. And I respected that. I know that we could have kept working together to get to that place, but at the end of the day, I didn’t NEED to be able to ride her. But I did want her to feel safe enough to trust me. And she did. Sometimes. And that was enough for me. I was ok with her coming as far as she did, and no further, and not in spite of her past, but specifically because of her past.
And that’s all well and good that I earned her trust to a degree and didn’t require anything beyond what she was comfortable with, but I got thinking about how they respond to their names, and then come, and maybe let you ride, and maybe not too.
Let’s just look at Bailey right now. I’d call Bailey and then he’d come. I’d maneuver him over to the fence and then climb up, throw a leg over and let him take me where he wanted to go.
As I thought about that, the lack of control I had, and his ability to lead me, I thought of how important it was that he knew his name, and that who I called would be the one to come over.
If I was looking to be able to ride, I needed to call Bailey over. Not Amal.
I thought about how important it is that we know the name of what is about to be in control
So, here’s my question for you…
What’s your horse called?
What is the name of the horse you get on and allow you to lead wherever it’s going to go?
I think it’s a valid question because whether we actually have a horse or not, everyday we climb on the back of something that will lead us in its direction. A direction it feels natural to take. A path it knows to be the way to where it normally travels.
But depending on the name, it determines where we go.
Do you have a horse named fear?
Do you keep hopping on the back of fear and letting it guide you while you feel like you have no control?
Where does it take you? Or where does it stop you from travelling to?
What path do you keep finding yourself on time and time again?
Because here is the thing about fear…
It’s actually wired in. It comes from a place in our brain called the amygdala. Some people call this the lizard brain, but at our counselling agency, we often call it Amy, when we are working with our client. Amy seems to be a good short form for the name of the region of the brain where it originates, and it somewhat separates it from being US. Fear is not us. It’s wired into each of us, in our brains.
Everyone has an amygdala, or an Amy, and it lives right near our brain stem. Its purpose is to keep us alive, and one of the ways it does this, is to cause us to feel fear, to guide us away from anything that is dangerous.
Amy is why we throw our hands in the air to protect our faces or our heads and duck when something gets thrown at us when we weren’t expecting it. If you toss me my keys before telling me you are tossing my keys, I don’t attempt to catch them, I get out of the way. Amy says DANGER, and I react. No thinking. No processing. No planning. And that’s how she is designed to work. Survival doesn’t often allow for time. It must be a reaction.
Other times, it’s not just a reaction, but an emotional feeling and also with physical symptoms. If I have to walk along the side of something really high, not liking heights, I will feel scared, but I will also feel weak, trembly, lightheaded, and my stomach will flip and twist. That’s Amy saying TOO HIGH… NOPE.
Here is the glitch within Amy’s wiring… She can’t really tell the difference between dangerous risk, and a good challenge. So, she decides to avoid all of it. She tries to steer us away from anything that’s uncomfortable. She wants to stay within the border of the fenced off safe area.
And here’s the thing with that – if you have hopped on Amy’s back, and let her be in control, where she wants to take you – is exactly where you are going to go.
So, we said that Amy doesn’t just know the difference between challenge and a risk to our safety, so she decides that fear is what we need when we face things like change, or transition, or frustrating struggle, or unpredictability, or even learning new skills.
And something else that Amy really dislikes, is uncertainty. Can anyone relate to that? Are any of y’all thinking about any of these examples and seeing reality play out in your memory?
Often times we find ourselves in new situations. Not bad ones, not dangerous ones… just new. And new often means that we aren’t sure how this plays out or what is next because we’ve never been here before in this experience. It’s uncertain and uncomfortable and therefore Amy once again says DANGER – NOPE!
And what do we tend to want to do when we feel fear? Stop. Avoid. Leave. Abort the mission.
Which again is a perfect survival tactic if we were in fact in danger. But what if we aren’t? What if we are just uncomfortable and learning something new – about ourselves, the people around us, or the world we live in?
I think we all agree that learning is really important. It’s how we grow and evolve and move forward.
So yes, Amy can protect me from falling off a cliff, or even being attacked by flying car keys, but she can also stop me from going for that promotion, applying to college, or asking my co worker to go for a coffee with me.
Amy lives in a black and white world. Her decision-making process is a yes or no result. Is this going to be hard and make me struggle? Danger. Is this going to place me in a new and unpredictable experience? Danger. Is this going to push my boundaries and take me out of my comfort zone? DANGER
And while these may be absolutely normal feelings, the problem greatly increases to affecting your day-to-day life when you are on Amy’s back and she’s the only one in control. You are at the mercy of her decisions, which again have been very much yes or no and based on comfort. Not just actual danger. So, while she may continue taking you places to keep you safe, you’re also not getting to see anything beyond the fenced off area of your comfortable, predictable, safe zone. You are essentially stuck behind a safety fence. With a world to explore on the other side, but for the danger of unknown, possible discomfort.
We avoid discomfort on many levels. When we have a report to write, and we know it’s going to take research and a lot of learning and thinking and processing and planning and effort. Do we normally sit and get started as soon as we know about it? No, we don’t. We put it off. But we make ourselves feel better by being busy. So, we can tell ourselves we know we need to get to that as soon as we have time. I just haven’t had the time because I NEEDED to clean out the junk drawer and reorganize the linen closet by pillowcase colour.
We say we are going to get groceries today and buy healthy food and start making healthier meals and get on this path to being more conscious about what we put in our bodies. And on the way home we are so tired from all the healthy food shopping that we go through the McDonald’s drive through and supersize it. Don’t we?
That’s Amy saying but I just want to be comfortable and do what feels better.
And all of this was great and made sense for survival back in the day when we needed to avoid new things that could potentially put our life at risk. Predictable meant staying alive. And when we didn’t know when or where our next meal was coming from, we needed to eat whatever was available to us in the moment and in the easiest way. We actually needed all the calories we could get too.
But the world is different now. These old risks that Amy could see the potential danger in is in fact not the same level of danger. But even though the world has changed… Amy has not.
Even when we know for certain that there is nothing dangerous, like behind the shower curtain. We know there is no monster there hiding in the shower. We know this. But as soon as it’s the middle of the night and we need to shut the bathroom light off and head back to bed, how many of us shut that light off and scoot like crazy to get away from that bathroom and back down the hall and under the covers.
There was no danger! We knew that. But Amy wasn’t totally sure, and she is that powerful.
We find ourselves in an odd relationship with Amy. We love her and need her and are so thankful that she is with us to protect us and keep us safe. Essentially, we brush her and feed her and walk with her and talk with her and just have a beautiful relationship.
But we also know that the moment we climb on her back, she is in control and in charge and we are heading wherever she thinks we should go. And that experience robs us of ever finding out what is on the other side of the fenced area for us to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and just fully explore as new experiences.
How many of you would say that there are definite times when Amy has robbed you of something you could have experienced?
If we are honest, I think that’s all of us. It’s certainly me.
Does this mean though that if I had just pushed past the fear that I would have gotten the promotion? That I would have been accepted to college, or even been able to do the work there? Does it mean my co-worker would have accepted my offer to have coffee and we would have bonded and become great friends?
NO. But the experience is not deemed successful by getting the desired outcome. Let’s just look at the basics of survival, which Amy is supposed to be focused on in the first place.
If I attempt all of things and don’t die, that’s actually called success.
Do you know the learning potential, skill building opportunities, and growth that will come if you attempt all of these things and still don’t get the desired outcome?
They are huge.
So, the question I’ve been asked a million times as a counsellor is this, “How do I get rid of Amy?”
And to me, that’s kind of like saying “my horse wouldn’t walk where I wanted it to go so, I shot it”. Now, that sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? Way too extreme of an answer. Amy has kept you from real danger and kept you alive but when she tries to keep you comfortable and rob you from new experience you just want to get rid of her? You enjoyed grooming your horse and feeding your horse and talking and being with your horse, but when you climbed on it’s back and gave it full control, you didn’t like where it walked while having all the control… so that’s it?
What would be the difference if we put a bit in your horse’s mouth and then connected that bit to a set of reigns, and gave you the reigns so that you were in control? Where could you go then? What kind of experiences could you have then? Well, that would be up to you. You’d be in control.
That means when you approached the gate to leave the safe, fenced off area and your horse wanted to turn away from the gate and head back to comfort, you could use the reigns to guide it right through and into the other side. Somewhere it’s never been before. Somewhere new and unpredictable and uncomfortable. You still need the horse to be leery and careful. Just like you still need Amy to be on alert for what could be dangerous in this new place.
You just need to be in control of the reigns so that you can tell your horse, or Amy that this is not a 150-foot cliff that you could fall from. This is not even a flying set of keys. This is an application for a job that we have always dreamed of having… that we might not get. And if we don’t, we will not die. But we will know that we had the courage to apply. And we can do it again.
Because courage is not the absence of fear. It is feeling the fear and tightening up on the reigns and giving the horse a nudge with our heels and saying we are going through that gate.
We do not need to fight fear. Remember, it’s powerful. If we rise up against it, it will rise up against us. We aren’t trying to fight it to kill it. We are feeling it and saying yes, I know you are here. I can feel you and I acknowledge you. But I have the reigns, so I can’t follow where you lead, you need to follow me where I lead.
We are going through the gate.
We still need Amy. We still need a horse named fear. Because there is a potential that we could really face a life-threatening dangerous situation. We don’t push through that gate. We don’t even get on their backs. That’s more like having a horse named Amal. You have a relationship with her. But she will let you know when you’ve come close enough. And it’s not frozen fear that keeps you from trying to jump on her back anyways. It’s respect, for her experiences that let me know she knows about danger more than I do, and I can trust her to let me know when too close is too much.
So back to that question, “do you have a horse called fear?”
If you said yes, and felt any guilt or shame, don’t. We all do. We all need a horse called fear. We just need to keep a set a reigns on it.
I need Amy in my life. I need to sense her and acknowledge her. I also need to guide her beyond discomfort straight through the gates into new experiences.
I do have a horse called fear. And I am not ashamed of that. Cause it’s wearing a good set of reigns and I’m learning to lead.
Some days I’ll do it well, and some days I won’t. Some days will feel like I feel right off it’s back and on to the hard ground. But I’ll get back up, I’ll climb back on, and I’ll keep trying.
That’s all we can ask of ourselves. That is success.
Celebrate your great days, and on the harder days, just remember… you still at least look really cute in those cowboy boots. So, try again tomorrow.
Take care you guys. Happy trails. Goodbye for now. We’ll speak again soon.