Friday, February 19, 2016

The Arena

After writing the post The Journey, Yours and Mine, I have received many messages from people who struggle with their journey because it makes them feel so exposed. I am always honored to hear your stories, so please keep them coming (email at the bottom of this page).

In addition, and quite appropriately, I have for the past month studied with Brené Brown in her online course, Living Brave, which has helped me circle back my thoughts as well.

Who is Brené Brown, you may ask.

Brené Brown is a researcher from Texas, who studies vulnerability, authenticity, courage and shame.

Yeah, wow. That's a heavy (and perhaps a bit taboo) subject list, to say the least. And not just heavy, but absolutely critical. Because, after visiting and re-visiting Dr. Brown's work over the past three years, I see that we cannot talk about vulnerability, authenticity, courage and shame enough. And what does all this have to do with horses?

Well, nothing really, and yet everything. I think I could (and actually might) write another post about Dr. Brown's work and tie it closely to what we encounter when we interact with horses. Anybody who has ever wanted to connect - and I mean truly connect - with a horse, has had to go through vulnerability, authenticity and courage, and perhaps even shame, before they got there. But I won't go into that today, because I want to continue talking about the subject of the journey, yours and mine. Because there's nothing like embarking on a truth-seeking journey that kicks up Dr. Brown's research topics big time.

In Brené's first online lesson she reminded her students of Theodore Roosevelt's brilliant quote from his 1910 speech at Sorbonne, in Paris. It, in my opinion, pretty much summarizes her work.

“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 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...”

Why is this quote so important? And what and where the heck is this arena?

Brené Brown uses the word arena as a metaphor for anything we do that leads to uncertainty and emotional exposure. It is the place where we take risks, where we put ourselves "out there" for the world to see. Sometimes our audience is merely a single person (in a relationship, for example, when we talk about our feelings or with a horse, when we struggle with our connection) and other times it is literally the whole world (you publish a book, for instance, or post a video of your work online).

In this blog I talk a lot about the journeys we take with ourselves and our horses and how to cope with feelings of isolation. You have probably guessed that sometimes those journeys take us not only into a real arena or two, but into many, many figurative ones as well.

We feel vulnerable as we step off the beaten path and navigate our way over new, unknown territory of horsemanship.

We are criticized and judged at the barn for the training methods we choose to use with our horses.

We feel exposed and alone for the philosophy we have decided to embrace.

It could be that our journey often IS the arena, over and over again.

Not an easy fate, as you have probably realized by now. Roosevelt knew this first hand, but he had the wisdom to understand the essence and importance of being in the arena. "It is not the critic who counts..." the quote aptly begins. Brené Brown, who brought the Roosevelt quote back into our consciousness in her book Daring Greatly, embraces his idea that if people are not willing to be with you in the arena, their opinions don't count. Especially, if these people have the so called cheap seats. Meaning that they are the people who would never have the courage to be in the arena themselves. In fact, many people do their best to avoid “the arena” to all costs. Why? Because sometimes (ok, let's face it - most of the time) being in “the arena” is one of the hardest things we will ever do.

And, as the quote says, only in the arena can you triumph. Yes, you can also fail, but failure is secondary to the fact that you tried. As long as you know that you dared greatly, that you had courage and you did your best, it was worth every second of it. Because that is what life is really about, doing what feels right, pursuing the things you love and are passionate about. And falling and getting up to do it again. Only by embracing vulnerability - because lets face it, being in the arena is as vulnerable as it gets - you can achieve something bigger than yourself.

This does not mean that we don't listen to constructive criticism or that it cannot be given. It definitely can. But judging without knowledge and questioning with curiosity are two different things. This quote is about the critics who don't stop to think and understand, but who bully and call names to cover up their own shame. Who want to find someone to laugh and point a finger at to make themselves feel and look better.

But remember, the cheap seats are not the only seats in the arena. There are always other seats as well, seats that are reserved to people who support you. If you are lucky, you have supporters close by, ready to cheer you on when you stumble on your path. Or perhaps you have an online community where people understand or better yet, are also going through the same trials and tribulations as you are. It is important to seek support, find others who know about the arena and understand the work you are going. Trust me, no matter how alone you feel, there are always others going through the same thing, it is just the matter of finding them.

And the most important seat in the arena belong to you. Yes, you. You decide who sits in those seats. Is it self-doubt or compassion? Is it negative self-talk or empathy? You can be your best cheerleader, if you learn to understand your own worth. Because, in the end, what should count more: what others think or what you think?

So go ahead, put yourself out there, into the middle of the arena, your arena, wherever and whatever it is. Practice clicker training, horse agility, compassionate horsemanship, riding bitless/ saddleless/bridleless. Have your horse go barefoot, live in an open barn/herd, not be ridden. Dive into animal communication, natural horsemanship or unicorns, if that is what floats your boat. As long as your journey is filled with compassion and you are not hurting others, you are on the right path.

Go on brave soul, go your journey, wherever it takes you! Dare to practice that which feels perhaps exposing or vulnerable. If you receive petty judgment and cynical ridicule, it speaks volumes about the people delivering said ridicule and nothing of you. Because as we know, the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, his face metaphorically marred with dust and sweat and blood, doing what he feels is right, even if he might fail.


  1. I saw her Ted Talk and loved it. The fact is, there are people out there who love to trample on us when we expose ourselves. They are definitely the ones in the cheap seats. I think they are, deep down, self-loathing individuals, but it doesn't make it any easier to be at the receiving end of their criticism, gossip or sarcasm. I think those people are actually few, but they can seem like many in their power to hurt.

  2. Yes, you are right, there is a lot of self-loathing behind judgmental behavior. And at the root of self-loathing is shame, which Brené Brown talks about a lot. We all have shame, no matter how much we think we don't. Shame triggers a lot of unwanted and unpleasant behavior, which Brown calls shame shields. Which is what the cheap seaters are using to avoid confrontation with their own shame. !