Exercise: Breaking Down Anthropomorphizing

In the blog Speaking for the Silent, part 1, I discussed our tendencies as humans to anthropomorphize our horses. Here is an example of a stressful situation that may cause us to anthropomorphize, and a few of the steps we can take to identify the patterns at play and return to neutrality.

When your horse breaks the crossties for the umpteenth time and parades down the barn aisle at a full gallop, you might be inclined to have a few uncharitable thoughts: “That ungrateful %*#&@….. you’re going to get us kicked out!” By insulting your horse and making assumptions about his motivations, you are anthropomorphizing him. We’ve all been there. Sometimes just recognizing that we’re doing it is enough to help us stop, but other times we get well and truly caught in our reactions to the situation. To find your way out, start by letting yourself have your emotions, and acknowledging them. Then use the steps below to break down the thoughts and beliefs that are causing your emotional response.

  • Just as the horse’s behavior is giving you valuable data about his state of being, so does your reaction help you understand yourself. Be willing to hear what comes up, and put some names to your feelings. Ask yourself why you are having each feeling. Writing your emotions down will help diffuse the energy so that you can become clear: “I am feeling a lot of anger toward my horse because I am sick of this happening. It just feels like we’re not getting anywhere despite all of my efforts, and he’s to blame for that. I’m terrified that we might not be able to stay here, because someone might get hurt and I don’t know where else to go. I am overwhelmed because I don’t know how to fix this, and nothing I do seems to work. There’s no one I trust to help me handle this. I am also afraid he might hurt himself, and he could either be lamed or have huge medical bills which I can’t afford right now.”
  • When you’ve identified what’s going on inside, you can start to become more objective in evaluating your beliefs. Beliefs are different from emotions; they are the thoughts and truths you hold to which cause you to have emotional responses. Identifying them helps you determine mental and emotional patterns you have running about this situation. Writing your beliefs down will also help you distance yourself from their power. Beliefs are not necessarily true just because they feel so, and this is the first step to changing them. For example: “I believe my horse is doing this on purpose. I believe he’s doing it because he doesn’t respect me. I believe my horse knows better than to behave like this. I believe my horse is breaking these crossties even though he knows I don’t like it. I believe my horse is consciously choosing to misbehave. I believe he is dangerous because of his choices. That’s why I believe he’s a jerk.” You may want to work through all of the emotions you identified in the first step, or just the parts about your horse for now. Do what ever feels right so that you don’t get overwhelmed.
  • If you want to take the extra step and use the opportunity to look in the proverbial mirror, ask yourself what your beliefs and emotions are telling you about yourself. These are the thoughts we usually hide under our reactions so that we don’t have to look at them. We protect ourselves from what’s really going on because it feels so awful to contemplate those thoughts that we would rather believe our horse is just a jerk. Write down these introspections. Ex: “I feel like my horse is in control of our relationship. We don’t trust each other. I can never trust him. I don’t have the relationship I want with him. I really wish we could get along, but I am really scared of being walked all over. I think I am a terrible horse owner because I can’t even teach him ground manners. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m in over my head. I believe everyone hates me here. I believe that my horse is causing stress to everyone. I believe that his behavior is a threat to our success, and since I can’t get over it, we’re doomed.” When you’re willing to face them and see what’s below the surface, you have a chance to change them. Even seeing the beliefs will help diminish their power over you.
  • Now is the important part. Ask yourself the question, “What if none of these beliefs are true?” What if the horse isn’t doing it on purpose, and he does respect you, he’s not dangerous, and he’s not a jerk. What would that mean in your relationship? How would you handle the situation differently? If he’s not a bad horse, why would he be doing this? How would your approach about the situation change? Do you still feel doomed, or is this just a puzzle to solve then? Write down some possible answers. “My horse may be reacting to something I don’t know about. Maybe there is a pattern I haven’t seen here. Maybe I can keep a record to try to identify what’s setting him off. If he’s not being bad, then maybe I just wasn’t using the right approach to train him out of it. That means there still might be a way to fix this. I wonder if anyone in the barn has noticed him reacting to other things like this, and they could help me sort this out.” In a few sentences, you have regained some perspective and stopped anthropomorphizing.

You don’t have to have all the answers yourself, but now you’re starting to think clearly and objectively. You’re not making up stories about what happened, and you can begin to evaluate your horse’s actions neutrally. That is to say, you’re thinking in horse terms instead of human terms. Now you can begin to evaluate the facts and piece together the roots of this unwanted behavior.

As for the beliefs that came up during this introspection, it may be time to address them if you find that they are inhibiting your relationship. Therapy, sports psychology, affirmations, or other personal development techniques may help you change your beliefs, and of course ReBOOTs will eliminate the associated patterns completely. Which ever method you pick will help you use these incidents as springboards of change in your life instead of as harmful quagmires. You have the ability to operate beyond the emotions and patterns of your conditioning. Choose to be better for your own sake and that of your horse.

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