The Open Heart – Thoughts about Authenticity, Vulnerability, and Power

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 (lhallberg1@gmail.com) 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.

The Development of an Association

I have been blessed and honored to spend time in Australia, bringing whatever I have to offer to this bourgeoning community of folks hungry for knowledge and really wanting to do it “right”.

At the moment, the questions being asked of me involve the creation of a new equine-assisted mental health and equine-assisted learning association in Australia. Rather than responding to people individually, I thought it might be helpful to share some general information about associations.

What is a Professional Association?

Typically a professional association seeks to advance a specific profession or group of professionals by setting and/or upholding broad and inclusive standards of practice, ethics, and/or a code of conduct for the betterment of the profession and the protection of the public.

Professional associations are commonly not-for-profit organizations or incorporated associations that are governed by a non-biased board of directors who are voted into office by the public or the membership. Typically, a working group is established to assess the need for an association, and do the initial tasks necessary to bring the association into being. As a part of that process, the working group organizes a public process to understand the issues facing constitutes and learn what constitutes would want or need out of a membership association. The working group also publicly announces a call to elect board members. Usually it is considered good practice if the members of the working board step away once the full board is seated.

Elected board members should be either free of any conflicts of interest (i.e. they would stand to gain monetarily if they enacted specific standards, they have a product or service that would be promoted by the actions of the association, etc.), or must remediate potential conflicts before assuming leadership responsibilities and practicing their voting rights. Board members should also recuse themselves from any decisions in which their position of power within the community (i.e. therapist, trainer, educator, supervisor) might illicit influence over the decision.

The association should operate under a set of transparent “good governance” principles that are based upon:

  • Accountability
  • Transparency
  • Responsibility
  • Diversity/inclusion
  • Laws and ethics
  • Participation

Associations must be free from fiscal conflicts of interest, and if the association aims to provide support for a diverse group of professionals undertaking a specific profession, then the board should reflect such diversity and the association should avoid any specific ideological focus or conflicts of interest related to a specific ideology.

Specialty associations may belong to a larger professional association that also sets regulation for an entire profession and thus adhere to the ethical guidelines of the larger association (i.e. a member association designation through the Psychotherapy and Counselling Association of Australia or other examples). This relationship helps to create increased transparency and earns the association a greater sense of public trust.

Questions to ask of any association interested in creating standards for EAMH/EAL in Australia could include (Thanks to Camilla Mowbray for her help with these):

  • How does this association model inclusive and diversity among the many models and ways of practicing EAMH and EAL?
  • Is the association getting caught in the weeds – meaning are they attempting to dictate details vs. remain “10,000 feet” above, setting broadly inclusive membership structure and standards?
  • How is the board constructed and is there representation from different models and practitioner groups?
  • Is the association connected to a larger regulatory association?
  • Does the association adhere to recommended “good governance” policies (see attached example)
  • Are there any conflicts of interest especially related to an ideological focus (i.e. do any of the organizing members also provide training or education in a specific model?)
  • Is the membership structure (or admittance to the association) biased towards any specific trainings or models?
  • Who is responsible for auditing the procedures of this association?
  • Are the fiscal activities of this association audited by an outside source?
  • Is the association legally established as an incorporated association or not-for-profit association?
  • What are the benefits of membership? Could you gain these benefits in another way? (i.e. through a networking group or a method-specific training group?)
  • Will this association represent my unique needs, approach, and beliefs about EAMH/EAL?

The Association

The Australasian Association for Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine-Assisted Learning (AA-EAP-EAL) formed out of the Equine Psychotherapy Institute of Australia (a model-specific training program), and seeks to develop standards for EAMH and EAL in Australia.

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The Questionnaire

The Australasian Association for Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine-Assisted Learning has developed a questionnaire in an attempt to gain industry feedback. Since it is up to the industry as a whole to be actively engaged in developing an association that meets the needs of ALL who are involved, not just those who subscribe to a specific model or method, I urge you to seriously consider reviewing the survey, and either responding directly or emailing the board members with feedback.

SURVEY LINK 

My hope for any membership association in Australia is that it truly is FOR THE INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE.

I would also hope to see such a membership association form with a diverse board who represent the voice of the industry (including those who don’t subscribe to any specific model), and who bring external association experience and expertise (meaning outside of the EAMH/EAL industry).

I urge all of you who are passionate about EAMH/EAL in Australia to step up and take part in this important discussion!

Resources

PACFA Code of Good Governance

Good Governance Principles for Non-Profits 

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due: Ethics & Legalities of Intellectual Property Rights

By my nature I am highly collaborative, and believe that whatever knowledge and wisdom I have gained through life experience is a gift I’ve been given to share. However, I am also keenly aware that there are professional parameters that guide what we do with the information we learn.

When someone is kind enough to share wisdom or knowledge with me, I acknowledge their contribution, and recognize that this information is theirs – as to have something of value to share usually takes a journey, and likely someone has had to work very hard (personally or professionally) to come to realizations that are helpful to others. Therefore, it is only right for me to ask if I can use the information they have shared, and to identify ways to honor their contribution – whether through financial reimbursement, formal citation, or simply by publicly recognizing who offered me this piece of information.

Of late I have been struck by the uncomfortable realization that my belief about intellectual ownership may not be shared by all. And, that unintentional (or intentional) acts of intellectual property “theft” pose a real risk for our industry. Supporting each other’s diverse experience and knowledge is a key factor to the growth and financial viability of this industry.

As such, it dawned on me that maybe writing a brief piece about the legalities and ethics of receiving and sharing information might be helpful.

What is Intellectual Property?

“The law of intellectual property is commonly understood as providing an incentive to authors and inventors to produce works for the benefit of the public by regulating the public’s use of such works in order to ensure that authors and inventors are compensated for their efforts” (Cornell Law School, 2019).

Patents, trademarks, copyrights, and unfair competition protections are the four types of intellectual property rights set in place to protect the hard work and financial investment inherent in developing concepts and publishing, or otherwise making public one’s intellectual endeavors.

Patent

A patent grants the “exclusive right to exclude others from making, using, importing, and selling the patented innovation for a limited period of time” (Cornell Law School, 2019).

Trademark

A trademark grants federal protection for distinctive marks including “words, phrases, logos and symbols used by producers to identify their goods” (Cornell Law School, 2019). Even unregistered trademarks can be protected by common law if the user can demonstrate five years of continuous use.

Copyright

Copyright law protects the writings, concepts, and expressive creations of authors. The reach of the copyright law has extended over the years to include architecture, software, graphic arts, motion pictures, sound recordings, and much more (Cornell Law School, 2019).

If someone has written a book, workbook, handbook, training curriculum, workshop description, blog post, or anything else that is original, copyright laws protect the rights of the author to this material. If someone else wishes to use the concepts or content presented, permission must be gained from the author, or the author must be credited or otherwise cited (see “fair use”).

Unfair Competition

“The law of unfair competition is primarily comprised of torts [a wrongful act or an infringement of a right] that cause economic injury to a business through a deceptive or wrongful business practice” (Cornell Law School, 2019).

Unfair competition “relates to the practice of endeavoring to substitute one’s own goods or products in the market for those of another for the purpose of deceiving [or misleading] the public (Kane, 2019).

Intellectual property rights are violated when people replicate and claim ownership over original concepts, content, designs, or inventions. 

Ethical Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights

Just like laws govern intellectual property rights, so should professional ethics. As professionals, we have a responsibility to model ethical behaviors in our business practices, and also to push ourselves to grow personally. Here are some ideas and questions to ponder.

Originality

Each time I develop a workshop, training, or publication, I scour the internet to learn what others are doing, and I attempt to develop something that is original and unique to my education, training, research, and experience, and that supports the needs of the industry. I am careful not to duplicate someone else’s work, unless it happens that my publications and initial offerings pre-date their efforts.

Question: Is my concept, content, or design novel and unique to my own education, training, research, and experience?

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

If during my market research I find that my idea is not original, but I believe I have a new way to go about sharing my knowledge, or that I could contribute to the body of knowledge already established, I look for ways to include those who came before – potentially collaborating with them to learn more about their concepts and ideas, paying them for consultation time if that is needed, and certainly giving them public credit for what they have already done. Once I have done that, I aim to create an original offering that is different than what they have already done. Sometimes in this process I learn that I can’t create something different or better, and thus I determine whether a referral or collaboration is the best strategy to support the growth and wellbeing of the industry.

Question: Am I comfortable giving credit to other people for their accomplishments? How do I do this in daily life? 

Collaboration

Publicly acknowledging collaboration helps to foster a greater sense of safety and trust in an industry. If the public gets the sense that competing businesses or professionals are actually working together to support each other’s diverse approaches and beliefs, consumers are less fearful and more engaged, which creates a more robust and financially viable industry.

If I discover people whose ideas I appreciate, I attempt to find ways to collaborate. This could include working together on a writing project, developing a training, or simply establishing a referral process between our two services.

Question: Am I collaborative? How do I seek to support diverse ideas and ways of thinking?

Referral

If I realize that someone has already written extensively about my topic, or is offering what I had in mind to offer, and assuming it is of high quality and meets my ethical and safety standards, I refer people to their book or training rather than creating the same or similar product. I also believe that I am NOT the expert of all things – and that what I have to offer might not be the best fit for all people all the time. Thus I look for ways to introduce people to diverse ideas and options, and to support their continuing inquiry and investigation.

If it happens that there is enough market demand for the additional resources, and I have the education, training, and experience to produce or provide a similar product as someone else, I attempt to collaborate with the person or people I would have referred to so as to create a united front rather than an industry of division.

Question: Do I refer out, attempting to expose people to as many new ideas or ways of doing things as possible, or do I hold tightly to those who come to me? 

Conclusion

In a nutshell, if you attend a workshop or training, or read a book, research article, or other publication, and you learn something that gives you a new idea or influences your business practices, give credit where credit is due, look for opportunities to collaborate or refer, and by all means, don’t take ownership of something that someone else has worked very hard to develop or establish.

Our industry is only made richer (in all ways) by diversity. Attempting to be the “best” or the “only”, or to “be everything to everybody” and offer too much will only damage this industry. There is space for everyone, and thus there is no need to try and fill all of it – by doing so you will push out some of the best minds – those with great talent, those who are quiet, those who avoid conflict, those whose gifts may go unnoticed. When you give space, and make room, amazing things happen.

References

Cornell Law School (2019). Intellectual Property. Retrieved from: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/intellectual_property

Kane, S. (2019). The Definition of Unfair Competition. Retrieved from: https://www.thebalancecareers.com/unfair-competition-2164416

Response to the 5/20/18 John Oliver Show

This morning my inbox was filled with concerned emails from people who watched last night’s John Oliver show. I don’t watch television and thus have no personal connection to this show. However, I believe John Oliver, in all his crass humor, pointed out a very uncomfortable truth.

The general pubic, and even some providers offering interactions with horses, don’t understand the critical distinction between “petting a horse” and the clinical practice of equine-assisted therapy. Until the vital differences between therapy and non-therapy services are clearly articulated, understood, respected, and adhered to BY THE PROVIDERS THEMSELVES, we cannot possibly expect the public to take this intervention seriously.

Clinical intentionality and the professional competencies required to design safe, ethical, and effective equine-assisted interactions to meet varying treatment goals for different populations are essential components to differentiating between “just petting a horse” and a carefully thought out and well executed treatment intervention (see the ACA’s Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling Competencies). Simply exposing patients to horses without these components in place is not sufficient to warrant the use of the term “therapy”.

“Therapy” is a protected term used to describe the treatment of physical or mental illnesses, disorders, or diseases that are regulated or sanctioned by healthcare laws and provided only by credentialed (licensed or registered) healthcare professionals. The licensed professionals who provide therapy go through many years of specialized education and supervised clinical experience and must pass board exams before they are allowed to practice independently. They must also receive additional training and supervision prior to including any new speciality area of practice or novel treatment approach (like equine-assisted therapy). This course of rigorous study, supervision, and regulation helps guarantee a certain level of competence that is intended to keep patients safe.

Unfortunately in the equine-assisted therapy industry (especially when talking about equine-assisted mental health), many licensed healthcare providers offer services that include horses without an adequate depth and breadth of education and training. There are no regulations related to what type, or how much, specialty training and education someone needs to have before providing equine-assisted therapy. Therefore, people who offer these services may have vastly differing levels of knowledge and experience. In some cases, the services may look a lot like “just petting a horse”, because in truth, that’s about all the provider knows how to offer.

In other cases, non-licensed individuals offer services that are not therapy, but are considered (and called) “therapeutic” and look pretty much identical to therapy services from a layperson’s vantage point. Some programs even suggest that non-therapy equine-assisted activities can be used as “treatment” for complex medical or mental health conditions or diagnoses, and list all the psychological and physiological benefits that may be gained from engaging with horses. The problems with this are many and multi-faceted, below are only a few of the possible examples.

  1. Based upon the results of research, when equine interactions are provided by licensed healthcare professionals and adhere to the practice requirements of these various professions, they are MORE EFFECTIVE in the treatment of most medical or mental health conditions than a non-therapy service provided by a non-licensed individual. Although this might seem like common sense, for some reason in this industry therapy and non-therapy services are commonly used interchangeably and many people believe that the benefits should be (or are) the same.
  2. Patients seeking medical or mental health treatment may receive unsafe or ineffective alternatives to therapy rather than being directed to the correct service.
  3. Using therapeutic techniques that resemble those used in therapy without an informed consent and an agreement to “treatment” is unsafe and unethical. Clients seeking life or professional development coaching or participating in educational services may be pushed into areas they are not prepared for or interested in delving into. This is unfair to the clients, and devalues the important and VERY DIFFERENT services a life/professional development coach or educator has to offer.
  4. Both therapy and non-therapy services offer valuable and VERY DIFFERENT (can I just say that again?) benefits, but because they are not clearly separated, in many cases providers compete for the same clients (or patients), resources, and funding rather than clearly articulating the important differences and using a referral system to make sure the client (or patient) receives the right services at the correct phase of his/her healing journey.
  5. Research results are seriously compromised because many researchers study a non-therapy equine-assisted activity as a form of treatment. This, coupled with other methodological issues, impacts the results and the overall validity of the research.

As John Oliver points out, there is little empirical evidence that actually shows working with horses is an effective treatment tool for many of the populations currently served by the various forms of equine-assisted therapy. Although there has been a wealth of research conducted, after reading over 350 peer-review published research articles, I can comfortably say that methodological issues severely limit our ability to understand what is REALLY happening when horses and humans connect, or to state with any level of certainty what is or isn’t effective.

To this end, we as an industry need to come together to get clear on some important points including the value of separating therapy from non-therapy services, using correct terminology, and increasing our expectations regarding provider competencies. I believe these three initiatives will greatly improve the industry and maybe even help people like John Oliver understand the importance and value of the horse-human relationship.

Oh, and finally, just so we can all be on the same page about the extent the existing research related to addictions and equine-assisted interactions, here is a list of peer-reviewed papers from 1985-2016. I haven’t updated the list to include the new papers out in 2017 and 2018 – more to come on that front later.

Addictions/Chemical Dependency

Adams, C., Arratoon, C., Boucher, J., Cartier, G., Chalmers, D., Dell, C.A., et. al., (2015). The helping horse: How equine assisted learning contributes to the wellbeing of First Nations youth in treatment for volatile substance misuse. Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 1(1), 52–75.

Cody, P., Steiker, L. H., & Szymandera, M. L. (2011). Equine therapy: Substance abusers’ “healing through horses”. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions.

Dell, C. A., Chalmers, D., Dell, D., Sauve, E., & MacKinnon, T. (2008). Horse as healer: An examination of equine assisted learning in the healing of First Nations youth from solvent abuse. Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health, 81–106.

Dell, C. A., Chalmers, D., Bresette, N., Swain, S., Rankin, D., & Hopkins, C. (2011). A healing space: The experiences of First Nations and Inuit youth with equine-assisted learning (EAL).Child and Youth Care Forum, 40(4), 319–336.

*Kern-Godal, A., Arnevik, E.A., Walderhaug, E., & Ravndal, E. (2015). Substance use disorder treatment retention and completion: a prospective study of EAT for young adults. Addiction Science and Clinical Practice, 10(21), 3–12.

*Kern-Godal, A., Brenna, I.H., Kogstad, N., Arnevik, E.A., & Ravndal, E. (2016). Contribution of the patient horse relationship to substance use disorder treatment: Patients’ experiences. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-Being11, 1–12.

*Kern-Godal, A., Brenna, I.H., Arnevik, E.A., & Ravndal, E. (2016). More than just a break from treatment: How substance use disorder patients experience the stable environment in horse-assisted therapy. Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment, 10, 99–108.

Power, Abuse, and Guruism

A breaking news story reported by the Boston Globe speaks of allegations against Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, best-selling author and world renowned expert on trauma.

The mental health community has been rocked by the idea someone like van der Kolk who has made it his life’s work to study trauma and help heal those who have been traumatized would in turn be accused of harming others.

When I heard the allegations, I thought immediately of the dark history of psychology and the many misuses of power so frequently glossed over. I also thought of the traditional role of the therapist, as a removed and somewhat aloof expert whose life (complete with struggles and joys), emotions, and personality remain a mystery to the patient. This dynamic, whether created intentionally or unintentionally, sets in motion a inevitable power imbalance.

The lack of training about the use of authenticity and humanness in therapy can cause therapists to fear being real with their patients. And rightly so, as understanding how to be vulnerable with patients is a highly advanced clinical skill that requires much more than training to achieve. It requires a depth of personal growth, self-introspection, and self-awareness that isn’t demanded in a therapist’s typical training or by the licensure process.

However, when therapists remain veiled behind this wall their personal lives and relationships can be in chaos, they may experience feelings of helplessness and loneliness, or they might use the power derived from appearing they  “know what is best” or “have it all together” to mistreat or abuse others. And all of this can happen isolated from the eyes of the world.

I believe many modern gurus, which include new age healers, doctors, therapists, and yes, even horse trainers, are naturally set up to misuse or abuse their power. Frankly, it takes a special kind of person to know how to handle being in the spot light, and always being asked (and expected) to be the “expert”. The pressures of this role are immense, and the internal desire for greatness sometimes overrules all else.

I have been witness to many abuses of power in the equine world over the years. I myself have fallen victim to the powers of a trainer whose need for perfection placed my horse and I in an impossible and life-threatening situation. The idea that I would have stood up to him, me, a 14-year old girl who desperately wanted to “make it” in the big leagues, was unthinkable. So I pulled myself up off the ground for the second time, blood streaming down my face from a broken nose and no idea where I was or what I was doing (due to a concussion). I stumbled across the arena to walk up behind my shaking, frightened mare. I touched her, and she kicked. It wasn’t her fault. It was his fault. He over faced her. He asked her to do something she wasn’t ready to do. And I couldn’t tell him no. So she kicked. On that day I experienced a great miracle. For that I suppose I can be grateful. I laid dead on that arena ground for over three minutes. Those minutes changed my life.

One of the lessons I learned that day was how to stand up for myself and those I love. Even to gurus. I learned to listen carefully and be mindful that even well meaning people might not always know what is best for me. I learned to gratefully accept what I can from the wise ones, but never become swept away by their fame or their name or their power. They are, after all, just people.

But, that being said, with great power comes great responsibility and it is up to these “gurus” (including us therapists) to do better. Although we all must learn to “speak our truth” even in the face of greatness, it is clear to me that whoever holds the power must be even more aware, and create safe opportunities for others to confront and provide feedback that is taken with respectful gratitude.