Recently I have been struck by the importance of authenticity and vulnerability, especially for those of us who teach others or provide any type of therapeutic services.
I have been deeply saddened by the stories I am hearing of late about horse trainers, riding instructors, and equine-assisted mental health/equine-assisted learning training program providers using their power and authority to assert their beliefs, advance their personal agendas, and bolster their egos.
The motivation behind this blog post is that over the past few days numerous friends, students, colleagues, and clients have shared stories about feeling powerless to stand up to those they admire and respect in the horse industry. The overwhelmingly similar theme in all of these stories is the fear that if they stood up for a belief, or said something about a concern they have, the person in power would hold this against them and actually retaliate — cutting them off from the community, treating them poorly, shunning or bad mouthing them to others, or withholding services and needed resources.
Each of these people told me that they had a) already tried to talk with the “professional” in question and felt disrespected and/or unheard, or b) were too afraid to reach out. My sense in listening to these stories is that the “professionals” in question likely aren’t self-aware and have no idea how they impact others, and they probably aren’t using effective communication and leadership skills. However, the outcome is nothing shy of bullying.
It also got me thinking about the idea of power imbalances in general, and about how somewhere along the line it became the norm for those in powerful positions to hide their vulnerabilities behind a cloak of “greatness”. There is a direct correlation between power and strength — If you are strong and someone others look up to, you certainly don’t have any problems (or if you do, you sure aren’t going to share them).
Imagine what this has taught us as a society.. as a people?? It suggests that sharing our vulnerabilities, our challenges, and our struggles makes us appear weak. We have been taught to hide, to lie, to put on a smile, and it has led to all sorts of problems — From increased rates of depression and suicide, to an overarching sense of not being seen in the world, to very unwell people ending up in powerful positions and running amok and unchecked.
As healthcare professionals, we are actually cautioned against sharing our personal stories or our lives with our clients. In my opinion, this is the beginning of the power imbalance. If healthcare providers, teachers, and trainers separate themselves from their clients and students, or place themselves “above” the status of those in their care, they can quickly morph from human to deity – someone to idolize rather than a normal human who can be looked up to and respected because of their humanness, their openness, and because of their valuable skills, wisdom, and knowledge.
Thoughtfully and intentionally showing our students and our clients that WE ARE HUMAN and that we have challenges too makes us equal. Equal does not mean the same. Equal means that we all exist on this earth in community, and we all have unique struggles, strengths, skills, and gifts to share. In my mind, this DOES NOT LESSEN MY VALUE TO MY CLIENTS OR MY STUDENTS.
It seems to me that by being appropriately vulnerable and sharing our humanness, we can help to decrease or diminish some of the stigmas and power imbalances created by the ego shield of “greatness”. I can only hope that someday this concept will be more widely valued. But, for now here are some questions to reflect upon when thinking about that power person in your life:
- Do I feel safe saying no, or questioning an idea, assignment, or directive provided by the power person/people in my life? If I don’t feel safe, why not?
- When I have tried to stand up to this person or question this person, how did they respond? Were they authentically open and interested to talk, or were they defensive?
- Do I feel like my voice is heard and respected by this person, regardless of what they say? (meaning, sometimes people say they are open to feedback, but really it doesn’t seem/feel that way at all)
- Does this person actively implement changes because of my feedback?
- Do I feel empowered when I am around this person?
- Does this person build me up and help me to feel big, or do they put me down and make me feel small?
- Am I given freedom to think for myself and figure things out? Or am I told how I should think?
- Does this person hold me accountable while also complementing me and giving me both positive and critical feedback?
- Do I see myself as equal, but different from this person, or do I see this person as greater and more able than me? Do I feel lesser than this person?
- Do I respect this person because of their perceived or self-proclaimed “greatness” or because of how they ARE in the world and because of their actual knowledge and skills?
- If I have a need or a request, is this taken seriously and does this need get addressed?
- Overall, how do I feel when I am around this person?
If, after considering these questions, you believe you may be experiencing an abuse of power, don’t wait — disengage and/or reach out for help.
Feel free to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or find a therapist or mentor you can trust. Life is too short to be bullied and YOU ARE TOO VALUABLE AND YOUR VOICE IS TOO IMPORTANT.
Here’s to open hearted leadership, vulnerability, and authenticity.