Self-Compassion for Equestrians – The Plaid Horse Magazine
BY LAUREN MAULDIN
If you’re like me, you’re pretty hard on yourself. In fact, it’s a trait I see that’s quite common among horsemen. We always strive to do better. We work exceptionally hard. We are quick to forgive our horses and just as quick to blame ourselves.
These typically common character traits are something I love about riders. That’s why most of my closest friends ride bikes. But I recently realized that “tough love” isn’t always the best way to treat yourself when it comes to general mental well-being.
Kristin Neff, researcher and Professor of psychology at UT Austin, has devoted much of his career to the study of self-compassion. The basic premise is that most people believe their happiness and sense of worth comes from high self-esteem, primarily driven by accomplishments, but research actually shows that being able to be compassionate is which has the greatest positive impact on your total well-being. to be.
If that sounds woo woo to you, I get it. I thought the same at first, but here are a few science-backed points that stuck with me in Neff’s book, Self-compassion: the experienced power of being kind to oneself.
- Studies show that high levels of self-criticism are linked to depression and dissatisfaction with life.
- Strong self-criticism is often used to mask the desire for control.
- Extreme self-criticism is linked to suicide.
- Self-criticism signals a stress response in your brain that creates cortisol (the stress hormone). Over time, high cortisol levels lead to depression by depleting the neurotransmitters that experience pleasure.
- Self-criticism triggers the part of your brain associated with error processing and problem solving.
- Being kind to yourself triggers the part of the brain associated with positive emotions.
- Perfectionists are at a much higher risk for anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.
- The illusion of control encourages self-judgment and blame.
- When something bad happens, we tend to jump into the logistics of resolving the crisis. It causes exhaustion because we spend all our energy trying to solve external problems instead of refreshing ourselves internally.
- Research shows that we have a negativity bias, which means we react more to negative facts than to positive facts.
- Compassionate people have better emotional coping skills.
- People with high self-esteem tend to be more narcissistic than those with low self-esteem, but self-compassion is definitely not associated with narcissism.
- Studies show that compassionate people are more geared towards personal growth than self-critical people.
So what does all of this have to do with horseback riding?
Think about the last time you showed, taught, or even had a productive training session on your own. Was there a bad distance, a failed lead change, or an “epic mistake” that burned into your brain? Did you get off the horse thinking, Ugh. I can’t believe I tipped for this long spot! How many times am I gonna screw this up? I’m not good at this sport!
I don’t know about you, but I had a lot of thoughts like that at the barn. My voice of self-criticism is strong. Traditionally, I’ve always viewed my inner critic as something that drove me to work hard and be better. This may be partly true, but it can also depress me. It’s like throwing kerosene on the fire of my stress and anxiety. I don’t know what good it did me.
In her book, Neff discusses how people fear compassion because they fear becoming weak or complacent. But this fear is a real obstacle to treating yourself with kindness. It exacerbates self-judgment and feelings of inadequacy.
When we teach proper riding, we essentially train riders to have compassion for our horses first and foremost. Try to see things from their point of view. Be fair in what we ask and consistent in our communication. Remember they are living, breathing creatures. They will make mistakes. They will have holidays.
But here’s something we need to remember – the same goes for us.
One of the most important things that stood out to me in Neff’s writings on self-compassion is this: When we constantly try to improve or maintain high self-esteem, we are denying ourselves the ability to be accepted for who we really are.
I love my horse. His tall, long body is not easy to control. He seems to stare and pretend to scare things away when he’s cool. He does do not have an easy lead change. His trot requires much stronger abs than mine to sit properly. But I see it as it is and I love it. Flaws and all. I’m trying to learn to do the same for myself.
Self-compassion hasn’t made me a lazy driver who doesn’t want to progress. I do not jump off a horse or declare myself God’s gift to amateur hunters. But it allowed me to make mistakes and not be ashamed of them. It made me remember, Hey, it’s your fun hobby and you’re still learning. You don’t have to be perfect. It has helped my horse, my trainer and most importantly myself to accept me as I am.
This self-acceptance, love really, is something I would like to see be as common in our community as tenacity and courage. We’ve accomplished so much by being hard on ourselves, but that’s not the only way to live.
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of California, Riverside, and is a lifelong equestrian and writer. She writes as a way to explore life. She is interested in the impact of horses on our lives and discusses body positivity, mental health and addiction through a personal story. She enjoys showing up on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, TX.
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