We all have our default behaviors to bring some kind of instant relief in times of severe stress. These are often behaviors that are not great for our lives in the l long term, but we do them to make uncomfortable or painful feelings stop. People look for relief in overworking, or by drinking a few cocktails, or over-shopping. Mine used to be binge eating, and it still is if I’m not careful. I can find instant relief in chocolate, Cheetos and carbonated drinks. If things are really bad, I can find myself at the gas station, numbing my feelings with a hot dog that’s had been rolling on the warmer all day — the older the better. I’ve learned better, so I can do better now. These days, I find that the most effective relief comes from standing right in the middle of what is scaring me or stressing me, looking it straight in they eye and not backing down.
But it took a long time to get here. And a wild horse was my teacher.
I don’t know when I started doing it, but since I was younger than I can remember, I lived my life as if there were a gun to my head, making sure I did everything “right” so that I didn’t get kicked out of wherever I’d found myself. Getting kicked out and rejected felt like it would kill me. If I felt like I was going to get kicked out, or that I didn’t belong, I just left before someone could kick me out. I was always in a constant cycle of fear that something was going to come take away whatever was good in my life, and something was going to come and hurt me, and something was going to come and expose the deep flaws of who I was deep down inside. I couldn’t bear the thought of just relaxing and trusting life, because then not just everything would get taken away, but everyone would leave me.
It stings to write this and admit this. But until the last year or so, fear and adrenaline were my greatest reserves of motivation.
It was my core way of being, it was my energy source, it was what drove me almost every minute of the day. I was living with the goal of simply not getting hurt anymore. Or to find vicarious relief in making sure no one in my sphere of influence felt hurt or got hurt anymore.
And I pushed myself to every limit to feel safe in the world . . . but I never got there. The more I pushed the limits of what I thought would bring safety into my life, the more afraid I became, because the more I exhausted every new idea to push into being, the more I realized it didn’t work. And the more it didn’t work to do and be and create everything I thought would make me feel safe, the more I realized I didn’t EVER feel safe, and I didn’t know how I was ever going to feel safe. It was a terrifying realization.
And I didn’t realize how I’ve lived most of my life trying to cope with this deep, clenching fear I felt until I saw myself in the mirror of a wild horse.
For the last few years, I’ve spent most mornings waking up within a few hundred feet of wild mustangs. And with the opportunity to witness true miracles as I watch West Taylor utilize neuroscience, the science of trauma and the vagal nerve, and what can happen when two sentient beings, horse and human, decide to grow together through presence and attention.
I tell you this because I have never had a better teacher of what brings true relief in life than that of these beautiful wild equine creatures.
What is relief anyway?
The dictionary says relief is:
the alleviation, ease, or deliverance through the removal of pain, distress, oppression, etc. a means or thing that relieves pain, distress, anxiety, etc.
Here at the ranch, our home base the last few summers, there are several wild horses that were adopted and rescued. And many more come through to work with West. My husband has been apprenticing with West for nearly 3 years now, and I have watched these horses tame the wild brokenness in his brain that came from his brain injury. I have watched the sacred magic that happens when both horse and human surrender to the only thing that really works. I used to think it was about building trust with each other, now I know it’s about learning to trust yourself, no matter what happens next.
The horse has to find their safety inside. The human has to find their safety inside. They both have to learn this by experiencing their fears and staying still as they learn what will and will not kill them. And the only way you can truly learn that is by standing still AS YOU EXPERIENCE the thing you fear most. And the trick is to not believe the fear as you’re standing right in the middle of it.
The old way was to “break” a horse. Tears fall as I type this sentence. Because we used to be so primitive as a society to truly believe that the way to get people or creatures to do what we want them to do is to literally BREAK THEM. And I think we have all seen the results of this. I think as a society, we are all LIVING the results of this.
The horses taught me that from a time I was a child, I believed that I could finally BREAK MYSELF into doing what other people wanted me to do, by allowing others to break me. By breaking myself. By thinking that I could use fear, punishment and intimidation on myself. And attracting other people who liked to do the same. From my perspective, a horse who has been “broken” is really just submitting to their lot in life, and tolerating their fears until they are too exhausted and defeated to fight them anymore. People are the same. When a person has been broken, their calm demeanor isn’t so much about inner peace, it’s about giving up and giving in to the thing that is trying to control them, the thing they fear the most . . . to the “gun against their head.” They’re just focusing on not getting hurt, not getting killed. That is how you break a person. Or a horse.
I think at some point in life, we all have to learn that it was never the scary thing we thought was going to kill us that was the threat. It’s always been the stories we tell ourselves about what will kill us that actually kill our life. We stay stuck with the false belief that that is what will keep us safe — to play small, to avoid, to play dead — to let the more dominant ones bully us into submission and make the decisions. We don’t really live, we just tolerate life.
People don’t need to be broken. They need to be built. Horses don’t need to be broken, they need to be built. And the building for a horse or a human has to come from the inside of their own choice, their own sovereignty, their own respect for the truth of what surrounds them.
From my observation over the last 10+ years of sitting for a week with lots of traumatized humans at my retreats, and the last 3+ years of witnessing lots of traumatized horses here at the ranch . . . building a horse or a human requires that horse or human look their fears in the face and see them for what they are. It comes from feeling SAFETY inside of themselves. It doesn’t come from being taught that someone else can protect them, but that they can protect themselves. And especially that the threats they perceive are almost always not threats at all. The fear and the stories they tell themselves are the biggest threat to them. The fear and stories that others try to control and manipulate them with are the biggest threat to them.
I’ve watched this over and over again in the “round pen” where West and Marq train the horses. These horses are afraid of sounds, people, paper, airplanes, ANYTHING. Until they learn for themselves that they are okay whether a person is standing next to them, or 100 people are. Whether there’s a tractor going, a dog barking, a river to walk over, a saddle and person sitting on their back. They learn to feel safe by facing the thing they think they are most afraid of, and finding safety inside as they stand calm right in the middle of it.
And they have to learn this by facing their fears for little moments of time, then releasing and relaxing and seeing that the thing they feared didn’t kill them or hurt them after all. There is a period of pressure where horse or human gets in that arena and stands with what they fear for as long as they can take it. And then the pressure is released and they realize what they are capable of. And then after a period of rest and relief, back to another level of facing the stories of what they think will kill them.
And after a while, they find their safety inside. They are built, not broken.
I don’t like to call West a horse trainer, or even a horse whisper. Instead, he is a horse listener. And he has taught Marq and I the supreme power in this magical form of listening. It comes from 100% presence and attention to the horse. To their every move, their every twitch, their every breath. And the only way it can work is also give 100% presence and attention to YOURSELF and your safety, the way you are showing up, thinking and being. To have good results with the horses, you have to learn to regulate your own nervous system, you have to feel the safety inside of yourself.
You have to trust yourself, and you have to learn to be worthy of your own trust.
When these horses are first rescued, they seem to truly believe that EVERY SINGLE THING in their environment is a threat that is going to kill them. And they behave as such. They are twitchy, avoidant and clever. They all seem to have their own personalities and their own way of dealing with their feelings of unsafety. But it’s clear that they’re all very afraid, very on-guard and very ready to fight, flight or freeze. They’re especially terrified of the 2-legged creatures called humans, no matter how much love and respect and affection a human wants to share with them.
So from my observation, a human first shows up to the horse feeling safe in themselves. Only then can they lead the horse to their own safety.
It’s a relationship. It’s what West calls Social Engagement. And he knows the science of all of it as it pertains to the autonomic nervous system and the vagus nerve and all of that science-y stufff. I’m a respecter of science and all, but I just call this whole process LOVE.
It’s actually rooted in safety, though. Can we ever truly feel love for ourselves or others if we don’t feel safe?
The horses have taught me that true RELIEF, unfathomable relief comes from feeling safe. And then the natural state of being can be love, because I truly believe that LOVE is our natural state. But no amount of outside protection can override the internal feelings of safety or non-safety that we deal with inside. No one can convince us that a situation is not going to kill us if we truly believe it will.
And very often, the only way we can overcome the stories that keep that gun to our head is to step right into the story and look it straight in the eyes for as long as we can take it. And then rest for a bit, and then head right back out to that round pen of life and face it again. After a while, it doesn’t scare us anymore at all. But other things do . . ,. so we have to keep getting back out there in the round pen and facing the next thing that scares us.
When you’re in a constant state of fear and spending most of your time and resources trying to just tolerate it, your body is filled with adrenaline. Everything makes you jumpy and on-edge. You’re exhausted and wired at the same time.
When you feel safe inside, you can start to experience AWE. And you can rest and relax and enjoy. And your body is filled with the right hormones and chemicals to make you feel calm and peaceful. And you make WAY BETTER DECISIONS. And you can actually be present with others, because you’re ENJOYING them rather than trying to strategize ways to survive once they decide to try to kill you or hurt you. Because you trust yourself, you finally feel safe to truly trust others. Because no matter what happens next in life, you know you can stand calm inside of it.
So The Road to Unfathomable Relief was a surprise. I didn’t find true and lasting relief in the hiding places. I didn’t find true and lasting relief in the numbing power of food or overwork or endless scrolling on the internet.
I learned that true and lasting relief comes more from showing up and doing what must be done than from hiding under the blankets or looking for the next hero to come and save the day.
Relief comes after the uncomfortable process of lancing an infected wound so the poison can drain. It doesn’t come from hiding the wound under your sleeve.
Relief comes after the painful process of putting a dislocated body back where it belongs. It doesn’t come from keeping the arm in a sling and keeping it from moving.
Relief came from the bloody and painful process of pulling out a thorn that impaled you, not from putting a bandaid over the top of it and leaving it in.
Relief for me came from pairing things down to so few dishes that I have to wash them if I want to eat again, not from going to Target and buying more dishes
Relief came from making the phone call to deal with the things that kept me up at night, not from avoiding and procrastinating the confrontation.
Relief came from telling the truth, and listening for the truth, and finding the truth. Even when the truth hurt devastatingly at first.
TRUE AND LASTING RELIEF only came for me when I stepped into the things I feared most. And not only did relief come, but suddenly I felt my old skin peeling off and the woman I truly am began to wake up, stretch and get herself ready to emerge.
And she wasn’t going to show up until I was ready to stop being motivated by the gun to my head. Her first order of business was to take the gun from my hand and tell me….
“there is a better way….”
And I believed her. Unfathomable relief.
What are your mechanisms to break yourself into submission, rather than build yourself into sovereignty and self-trust? AND
What fears do you need to step into in order to find your own unfathomable relief, after realizing what you’re capable of staying calm through?
Thank you for going down this road with me. Tomorrow, I will take you on The Road Where I Didn’t Want To Be Found.
I love you. Please love yourself.
Please find it inside of yourself.