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The Fence: An Analogy

Three horses standing next to each other behind a wooden fence.

What causes our systems to use dissociation as a strategy? The fact is, it’s all about attachment and trying to preserve it, but also managing the distress and conflict about that very safe drive to attach. There’s conflict. 

As I write this, I am 100% feeling in my bones that I am looking back on a past moment in my own personal work. In the here and now, I look outside my window and see my horses peacefully graze, roaming their pasture. I am struck by the sense of security they experience. The horses are surrounded by a fence I built when we first moved to our property. A fence designed specifically with them in mind. Secure. Stable. Consistent. Predictable. Along with gates that form their way in and out of my property, the fence provides a boundary for them that delineates what their land to graze, roam, and frolic is.  Furthermore, the fence often prevents a safe haven that prevents predatory animals, such as coyotes, from entering their haven. 

I regularly use the metaphor of a fence to teach my clients, as well as my students, about the attachment relationship. Security. Stability, Consistency. Predictability. Gates. Our first relationship with our mother should have provided these qualities, and our survival would depend on it, as well as our ability to later seek and trust in these qualities in others.  As mammals, we needed security whilst dependent on our parents until we can make it ourselves. We needed consistency. We needed predictability. We needed to know, without a doubt, that we could go in and out of our primary attachment relationship and leave, albeit coming right back without hesitation. The boundaries of our primary attachment relationship, just as in the fence that “looks out for” my horses,” is also designed to serve as much as it can as a boundary that keeps “bag things out” and “good things in.” 

The challenge is, what if the attachment relationship was actually an electric fence? Consider the qualities of an electric fence, as well as its variability. The electric fence does provide boundaries, but what if it is inconsistent? 

Is it on, it’s it off? Perhaps I can get close. Maybe this time, I won’t get shocked. Okay, maybe this time it is okay to try to connect. Oh wait, no, I read that wrong. Retreat. Perhaps next time, don’t even try.

Sound familiar? These thoughts echo the internal conflict and battle that our clients with complex trauma and dissociation struggle with. Moment to moment, as we therapists expect them to be able to just “trust” us, the internal experience of what it was like to have an often disorganized attachment is running in the background. 

So, what is a child to do? More on this in part two of this blog….

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Feeling that our internal state, our emotions, were “held” by others, and processed, was a foundational need in childhood. To process it, as children, we needed the presence of an attuning other in the outside world, our caregiver to “hold” that distress to help us regulate, settle, calm, and let it move through.
When we grow up, our brain has a greater capacity to hold our emotional distress, a larger capacity for processing, and a deeper neuro-network of resources. Essentially, instead of an “espresso” size cup, our brain capacity is of a larger cup that is sturdier, can hold more, and can contain it all. And, while the emotions from our childhoods may seem bigger than we are, and the cup may seem unable to hold it, we can.
If we equestrians and equine-facilitated/assisted practitioners don’t get to this deep layer of material, it will show up in our work with clients and let alone in our horsemanship.  It will show up as the “oh oh” moments where we brace against, perhaps seeing our horses’ ear flick back, perhaps a misstep or stumble, move quickly, or even how we see and react in moments in the arena when we are co-facilitating therapy sessions with horses.
We all might have learned what was, or wasn’t, “okay” to be who we are. We may not know that our internal experience of who or what we “are” and our willingness to express it to the outside world “externally” is actually held in the balance by our own tolerance for it internally.