“For years, I acted like I didn’t care what people thought. But I did.” – Mustang Maddy
My Lifelong Dream
In March of 2015, Stacy Westfall kindly shared the video of my bridleless freestyle from the 2015 Extreme Mustang Makeover to her nearly half a million fan base on facebook. For the first time in my life, what I had been practicing in a dark, dusty old barn was put in front of thousands of people. I was of course ecstatic.
I had people asking me to come to their place in Hawaii to put on a clinic, fans crying from Dubai, and admirers from the Netherlands. I was flattered and ate up all the feedback like a starving child. Here’s the thing–I had never really believed in myself and always listened to my ego, which told me I was deficient in some way. I actually originally went to school at Colorado State for their equine science program to pursue my lifelong dream of training horses full time. However, after one semester I transferred to pre-pharmacy at Purdue University, back in Indiana, because I doubted I could ever make it training horses. I had given up on that dream for a while… Until Terk, that is. But that’s another story in and of itself.
Comments & Criticism
So because I was feeding off the newly received external approval, I was prone to what happened next. I could look through a hundred comments saying how amazing we were and see ONE that ridiculed us in some way and be bothered by it for days. “She’s wearing spurs, she must be cruel/forceful/traumatizing,” “the training was ok, but her dress is hideous,” “she didn’t train that horse on her own, I’m not buying it,” “she’s cruel and selfish, that horse should be released back to the wild where he belongs.”
On December 22, 2015, I posted a video of a horse that I had picked up from our local sale barn and trained to re-home over the holidays. I never could’ve guessed what happened next; Sonya’s video racked up 1.7 MILLION views over the course of just a few weeks. My inbox blew up as I received a flood of people asking to adopt Sonya or wanting me to come teach a clinic. And my phone rang off the hook (I had put my personal phone number in the video, which I had to end up changing!). And as I looked through the scores of comments, there it was again. “Not buying that’s one week of training.” People said I was being dramatic, misrepresenting myself, seeking attention, and most of all, downright lying, presenting “bull shit.” Seriously, the idea this horse had no training or even ridden is down right laughable and mildly insulting to people who know anything about horses.
“I desperately posted counter arguments showing the recent mustangs I trained, including Takoda, who had learned to ride bridleless in one week as well. But that was a lost cause; the people who believed what they wanted to believe simply said the mustang was made up as well. There was no changing their mind through arguing, they only clung to their statements more tightly.”
Hiding My Pain
I was incredibly hurt by these claims, although I tried not to show it. There was something about me putting myself out there only to get torn down. With every fiber of my being, I tell you–The work I do with horses is my passion and consider it to be my life’s purpose to do my part of bringing more good into this world. To have something you have dedicated your entire life towards be torn down like that was disheartening to say the least.
At the same time, I am now grateful for such experiences. There was another reason I became so offended.. Seeing how my hands shook as I read the comments and how rattled I became revealed the trap I was falling into: Doing this work to get outside approval.
A Little Story To Explain
A child who paints for love. Consider a child who makes paintings because she loves to paint and because she believes she is helping to making the world a prettier place. Something else you should know about the child; she is also starving for love.
Someone comes along one day and says to the child, “if you make me a painting, I will give you love.” So of course, the child says says “I can do that!” And eagerly paints them a painting. Then more people come and the same bargain is made. The child begins frantically painting as many paintings as she can to keep receiving the love she is starving for.
But then some people come along and say, “that is a crappy painting. I won’t give you love for that painting.” So the child desperately runs after the people, showing them her painting and pleading them for their love. The child keeps painting in hopes that the next person who comes along will give her the love she so desperately desires. And so she keeps trading her paintings for love.
After a time, the child begins to almost resent the paintings she had loved so much in the beginning. And then something sad happens to the child: She loses sight of what made her start painting to begin with.
Break The Cycle
The only way to break out of this viscous painting-for-love-cycle is to understand that the love must come from the inside–from a connection to something greater than ourselves. When you seek love and approval externally, you will never be satisfied. You will be trying to fill a void inside of your heart that always seems to be leaking faster than it can be filled.
Fast forward from my year as a 21 year old. It is now the summer of my 24th year. Willie is here with me in Colorado. We just got back from Arizona. We had filmed nearly every day when we were in Arizona so that our members could watch his progress. During that time, we worked through particularly tough issues. Willie bolted off while riding for several days in a row. On camera I appeared calm and collected, but deeper down I was wondering if I had what it takes to help Willie and the voices returned. “You can’t do this.” “You’re making a fool of yourself.”
I had started to develop anxiety around filming or being on camera as the voices grew louder.
During this time in Colorado, I didn’t spend a lot of time training Willie. Instead I focus on training myself. A kind of warrior training in which I discover the solution towards breaking the cycle and dive in to exploring it. The solution for me was twofold:
- Find an inner source of love.
- Remember what I loved about working with horses to begin with.
This was no small undertaking, but I worked on myself everyday like I was the toughest horse I’d ever had to train. I also tried to understand a few other faucets of my sensitivity to the criticisms.
4 TIPS ON WARDING OFF NEGATIVITY
01 | FIND A SOURCE OF INTERNAL LOVE
This is the biggest one and probably at the root of most issues, as explained above. So don’t be surprised that if you can address this, you will probably heal your life in multiple ways. This is a lifelong journey, but one that I started this year. One of my favorite resources for this has been A Course in Miracles Made Easy, by Alan Cohen. I realized that the source of internal love, “self love,” is really about remembering your connection to something greater than you, however you want to define that source. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” There are so many pathways in life to remembering this and a host of different religions to lead you there. But in some cases, the original pure messages of love coming from these religions have been tainted by human’s fears and desires to control out of that fear. I was raised Christian, but the focus was on how we are all born sinners and don’t deserve to be saved. That we are born bad.. There was so much guilt and shame I associated my religion and spirituality that I had avoided it altogether for a long time and fell into the generalization trap.
02 | DON’T TAKE ANYTHING PERSONALLY.
When criticism comes out, it’s really hard to not take it personally. Why is this? From a young age, we were raised by parents or other adult figures who, at one time or another, couldn’t take responsibility for their own shame and projected it onto us. Remember, they were doing the best they could with the knowledge they had at the time. But it was easier to make the child the wrong one than take responsibility for their own feelings. As we grow up to be adults, we believe we carry the responsibility for anything that is negative. We grow up into adults that take everything personally; whenever anyone reacts to anything negatively we instantly think its our fault, that we are ones to blame. But we must realize the truth: Whatever is said is oftentimes a reflection of where that person is at and has nothing to do with you. A great resource for mastering this is The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz, a teacher of Toltec tradition. “Don’t take anything personally” is the second agreement. Here are some of my favorite quotes from his book that summarize this point well:
- “Taking things personally makes you easy prey for those predators who try to send you emotional poison. They can hook you easily with one little opinion, and feed you all their emotional garbage. When you take it personally, you eat it up, and now it becomes your garbage. But if you don’t take it personally, you are immune to their poison; you will not eat it. Immunity to emotional poison is the gift of this agreement.”
- “When you take things personally, you feel offended, and your reaction is to defend your beliefs and create conflicts. You make something big out of something little, because you have the need to be right and make everybody else wrong.”
- “In the same way, others are going to have their own opinion according to their belief system. Nothing they think about me is really about me; it is about them. If I understand this, then when you get mad at me, I know you are dealing with yourself. I am the excuse for you to get mad.”
Something I’ve also been working through this year is finding self responsibility without self blame. Responsibility is about having choice and taking responsibility for your current conditions in life. But when responsibility becomes extreme, it becomes toxic. It becomes self blame, which would include taking things personally.
I realized that self blame is actually a way for survivors of different forms of abuse–especially sexual assault–to feel a sense of control over what happened to them. The hardest thing to get an abused person to do is to convince them that the assault wasn’t their fault because self blame is the only thing that separates the survivor from complete victimization. If you can hold yourself accountable for the abuse you went through it gives you some sort of control over what happened to you versus being totally at the mercy of the world. I saw this in myself and tried to find patterns of all the different ways I had taken things personally beyond the internet critics.
03 | UNDERSTAND JUDGEMENTS ARE REFLECTIONS OF ONE’S OWN SELF
This is still about not taking things personally, but this is such a big one that I made it it’s own point. When someone judges something as good or bad, right or wrong, should have or shouldn’t have, they are rejecting a piece of their own shadow and projecting it onto you. Whatever they are judging you for is a piece of themselves they are rejecting. Whatever we dislike in another person is a reflection of what we dislike in ourselves, representing a deep wound we are not willing to heal. The solution is to look at the fear and bring its shadows into the light. One of the best books I’ve read this year about judgments is Judgment Detox, by Gabrielle Bernstein. Her book inspired me to keep a list of of my own judgments about other people or situations. Doing so, I’ve found, is one of the quickest ways to identify your shadows and fear stories and find patterns that lead to awareness and ultimately more compassion for yourself and for others.
04 | IDENTIFY THE CRITICISM AS TRUE OR FALSE
False. Words lose their power to hurt you if you know they invalid. If someone told you that you had blue hair, but you know you have blonde hair, then that wouldn’t necessarily make you feel bad about yourself would it? Rather, you would ride off their ignorance because you know your hair is blonde and not blue! You would see the judgment for what it was, a reflection of that person’s perception. If someone attacks you for lying, etc. and you know this to be false, the same thing happens: The words lose their power. But when you are left questioning the claim’s validity, and in turn your self worth, is when their words can gain power over you.
True. Perhaps the criticism really does have some aspects that are true, but you don’t want to face them. If the criticism is directed at apart of your shadow you have not been willing to face, it will most certainly trigger you and you will find the need to defend it. The trick is to learn to embrace your duality. If you are able to reclaim the parts of yourself that have been rejected, when criticism is directed at these parts, you can honestly say, yes, there is a part of me that be like that. But perhaps you choose not to act on it. Either way, because you have faced your shadows when others poke at them you no longer feel the need to defend. So again, the more you are aware of your shadows, the less power they will have over you. Here is a post I wrote about embracing your duality earlier in the year:
“Man and woman, yin and yang, rain and drought, sun and moon, light and shadow. Life is full of dualities 🌚🌝 One of our greatest lessons is learning to embrace the duality within ourselves. This is what it means to go from “broken” to “whole” again. Putting back the pieces… and in the process you’ll find they have been within you the whole time.
Here’s how it works. As we grow up we are praised and rewarded for some values or ways of acting, and punished or humiliated for others. We learn through this process of rewards and punishments to build some parts of ourselves up while disowning other parts. We are strong and not weak. We are quiet and not loud. We are hard working and not lazy. We are independent and not dependent. We are this and not that.
The parts of yourselves you disown are called your “shadows” that drown in the subconscious. Why would you want to go digging up your shadows? 🧐 Here’s why. The less you are aware of your shadows the more they will rule your life and have power over you. You will find yourself easily triggered, judgmental and reactive. As soon as you shine the light on them however, the shadows disappear and their power over you immediately lessens. Understanding your own shadows allows you to understand the shadows of others. And with understanding comes compassion ❤️ Doing this work is an especially important obligation we have to our horses if we want to stay calm, quiet and grounded, even when they have reactions. If you react back to a wild horse’s reactions, the fear cycle is fueled. If you respond back with compassion, you break the cycle. Same with humans 🙃 Being aware of your shadows will help you stay grounded when others around you react.”
The above tools have all helped to give me strength in the face of criticism and to put my work out there, real and raw, even if it means some people won’t like it. You see, my journey with Willie was about how I was going to get the results I did. And although I’d like to think my horsemanship has always been focused on the process, videoing and publishing his rehabilitation took this to an entire new level.
There were certainly plenty of times where, looking back, I would’ve used different tools I learned later in the journey (namely, more positive reinforcement and ideally a liberty re-start). But I wanted to keep these things in his case study, because although these scenes weren’t perfect, at the same time, they were perfectly real; and what a lot of my followers had been going through themselves.
A lot of clinicians try to show only the perfectly edited scenes that make them look great, all the time, and their horses like star students. And I had made a vow from the beginning of my career to always be real, no matter what it would take or how it would make me look. The world needs more of that, I believe.
We all struggle. We all experience hardship. We all run into walls, regardless of your accomplishments or experience level. And by sharing this, we can use our own struggles to empower others. Thank you, Willie, for showing us this important lesson.
I will close with one of my favorite quotes about criticism that gives me strength when I am feeling the weakest:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” -Brene Brown