I stared up at the large nostrils above me, breathing hot air right into my face. My heart was beating fast and I had a tense grip on the rope which was attached to the side of my horse’s head.
“Get your personal space back,” Koelle said, giving me instructions from the side of the ring. “Let the horse know that you have boundaries and he must respect them. Use your energy, not your physical force, to get him to back off.”
I took a deep breath and looked back at the horse. “OK buddy,” I said in my head, since I had learned from prior attempts that it is quite ineffective to speak English to a horse. “This is my space and you are in it. I don’t want to get mad, I would just like you to back off a bit.”
He was not convinced.
So in an attempt to motivate him to move, I purred at him and stroked his nose. This served to make him to move into my space even more, and he tried to push me back by nudging my body with his nose.
“Getting affectionate right now is not setting clear boundaries,” Koelle said. “What he needs to feel safe is for you to clearly demonstrate that you are a strong leader and capable of keeping him safe.”
With deep breaths and some maneuvering of the rope, I was able to get him to back off a bit.
Koelle debriefed with me. “Something in you is not allowing you to set clear boundaries in your personal space. Maybe it is the stage you are in with your business, where you want to grow, but also want to stay back where it is safe.”
“It reminds me of dealing with my son Josh,” I said.
And I suddenly “got” the dance that he and I do on some mornings, as I am trying to get him ready for school and he refuses to comply. Or when I am trying to talk on the phone or read quietly and he demands attention. My typical reaction is to try to “lovey” him into complying by sweet talking and giving hugs. This nets about as much success as cooing at my giant horse.
So the next day, armed with my new awareness, I was determined to do some child whispering and magically direct Josh with my clear boundaries and authoritative energy.
As if on cue, he awoke with a particularly independent streak and began pushing my buttons immediately. He refused to get dressed, and ran screaming as I tried to brush his hair . He fought every part of the morning routine.
I tried to act calm. I did my best to stand in a clear and authoritative stance. I did not raise my voice.
Like his buddy Obstinate the Horse, he laughed at my attempt to control the situation. So I did the exact opposite of what Koelle instructed:
- I tried to bribe him with a treat
- I pleaded for compliance to no effect which resulted in
- losing my temper
By the time I dropped him off at school, we were both tired. I went straight to Starbucks and got an extra shot in my latte, feeling like those women in the 1950s who began their day with a stiff glass of vodka and a cigarette.
What went wrong?
Or did something go wrong?
When we learn something new; parenting skills, sales skills, or physical skills, we often repeat the old behavior we are trying to avoid. It is so frustrating because we are totally aware of what we are doing, are trying not to do it, but do it anyway.
This is actually a totally natural stage in the learning process.
Awareness is the first step in making a change.
And when the change feels really different or hard or unnatural, we resist it.
Fundamentally, we resist it because we don’t want to feel the feeling that will come when we change our behavior.
We don’t set boundaries because we can’t bear to watch the people we care about suffer.
If we say no when we normally say yes, our kids may be upset. They may cry or rage. If we give direct feedback to a valued employee that the way they treated the last customer was inappropriate, we are afraid they will get upset and not like us.
We don’t want to put the ice cream or Oreo down, even though we know that we are trying to lose weight, because then we might feel the feeling we have been avoiding by medicating ourselves with food.
We may feel really angry. Or really tired. Or really scared.
So the path through the frustrating, awkward stage of behavior change is to try this experiment:
1) Pick one specific behavior you want to learn. This can be skipping dessert, setting boundaries with your toddlers (or pets) or asking for your full fee when you are on a sales call.
2) At the point where you are about to revert to your old behavior (eating the dessert, caving to your toddler, backing down from firm fees), don’t do it.
3) Notice the feelings that come up as you stop yourself from doing the thing. If you have difficulty naming the emotion, ask yourself “Do I feel more mad, sad, glad or scared?”
4) Let the emotion wash over you. Do not resist it, or try to hold it back. If you are in a place where it is safe, yell or cry or whatever you need to do to express the emotion fully.
5) Notice what happens. Do you die? Go into convulsions? Does your toddler require immediate therapy? Do you immediately pass out from lack of strength from not eating one Oreo?
Amazing, isn’t it?
- Find out more about the amazing work my friend Koelle Simpson does with horses here.
- Discover some great tools for getting comfortable expressing emotion in Chapter 9 of Martha Beck’s book Finding Your Own North Star.
- My friend Havi Brooks does amazing work on changing habits. Read her blog at www.fluentself.com