(Photo Credit: Ami Vitale)

Blog Post by Koelle Simpson
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In the tapestry of human experience, it is often our closest relationships that hold the potential for both profound connection and deep emotional wounds. It is not the specter of the wild that we must guard against, but rather the possibility of hurt inflicted by another person—a hurt that can echo long into our lives.

Consider the myriad ways in which trauma can imprint itself upon our psyche. A betrayal or a loss might lead to an automatic, deeply ingrained self-protective response. This response, while once adaptive, can become maladaptive, locking us into a state of hyper-vigilance, robbing us of the present moment and the potential for new connections. We may not be aware of it, but our past pains can cast long shadows over our current interactions, leading us to project old fears and insecurities onto new relationships.

Let us explore these themes through the lens of a therapeutic Equus Coaching session with a client I will refer to as Sam, a pseudonym to honor his privacy.

Sam, a man in the fullness of his thirties, sought my support for challenges in forming a lasting romantic relationship. The initial stages of dating would unfold with promise, but Sam kept finding himself in a familiar pattern of frustration and withdrawal. “I’m tired of this loop that leaves me perpetually single,” he huffed.

I intuited that Sam might gain insight into his relational dynamics through an interaction with a horse—a creature whose responses are unfiltered and honest. In the reflection of the horse’s behavior, we often see our own relational patterns emerge with clarity.

On a day graced by the renewal of spring, I invited Sam to enter a round pen with Cinnamon, a five-year-old Appaloosa mare whose presence radiated calmness and curiosity. As Sam navigated the space around Cinnamon, his movements seemed hesitant, marked by avoidance. It was unclear whether he was seeking to respect her space or protect his own.

A few minutes later Sam went to the edge of the fenceline, turned away from Cinnamon and looked genuinely frustrated. I watched for another moment or so as Cinnamon made her way to the opposite side of the pen. She was in search of a possible morsel of grass to munch on. Sam and Cinnamon were on opposite sides of the round pen and in completely separate worlds. 

“Sam, what are you noticing?” I called out to him. Sam shot me a sharp look of irritation. “Well, she is totally ignoring me. I haven’t done anything to be unkind to her and she is completely ignoring me.” Sam ran his hand through his hair trying to contain his frustration.

“Sam, what kind of bodily sensation and emotions can you become aware of just now?” Sam bristled with irritation. He explained that his body felt as if it was in a vice grip, he felt a sense of contraction on all sides, his heart was racing, he was angry, and he felt paralyzed, not knowing what to do next. 

“Does this feeling feel familiar in any way?” I asked. Sam looked at me with a furled brow. 

“This is what happens to me when I start to shut down in a relationship.” Sam placed his hands on his hips conveying his confusion. I nodded acknowledging Sam’s predicament. With a few more questions I came to understand that Sam found himself feeling triggered whenever the woman he was dating became distracted. 

According to Sam, the most recent woman he dated seemed to be prioritizing other conversations arising on her phone or multi-tasking while spending time together. Sam would feel a similar surge of anger, telling himself, “I guess I’m just not that interesting.” Then he would retreat without an explanation and eventually within the span of a few weeks he would tacitly end the relationship by abandoning it. 

When I inquired further, I learned that Sam came by this hijacking trigger of anger and shutdown intergenerationally. When he was a young boy his father often addressed Sam with a harsh tone anytime Sam tried to share at the dinner table. His dad would abruptly cut him off, intentionally ignore Sam, and shift the focus back onto himself. 

This persistent aggression from his father left young Sam to conclude that he was undeserving of his father’s attention and that what he had to share was uninteresting, unimportant, or unworthy of his father’s time. This early relational template taught Sam that his voice was not valued, and it now colored his adult interactions with an expectation of rejection.

I pointed to Cinnamon, “I understand that when she wanders about and becomes curious about her environment, it can feel triggering to you. I want to point out that you’ve been quick to assume she is ignoring you like your father did, but in actuality what I observe is that she is waiting to see how you want to connect.  When you hold back and don’t allow yourself to interact with her or show her how you want to connect, she feels a void in your presence and proceeds to look elsewhere for connection.”

Sam’s expression shifted from frustration and defeat to curiosity. “Let’s try meeting this moment in a different way and be willing to check out your assumption.” I encouraged Sam to walk over to Cinnamon and see if he could find various non-verbal ways of showing her how he wanted to connect. 

Cinnamon’s ears quickly perked up. She lifted her head and watched Sam’s movements closely. Slowly she began to step closer trying to follow Sam through the circular pen. Her attempt to move towards him was a living metaphor for the power of reaching out and expressing one’s needs.

Sam shook his head. His eyebrows arched up in surprise. “I don’t get it. Why was she ignoring me a few minutes ago and now she’s practically my personal shadow?”

I explained to Sam that the early trauma he faced in the relationship with his father caused him to be quick to assume that others aren’t interested in him. This assumption led him to enter into potential romantic partnerships guarded and looking for the behaviors that would confirm his worst fears. It was better to be defensive and keep everyone at bay so to speak, than to risk opening up to a potential partner and have them turn out to be harsh and dismissive.

“When you hide and withhold your feelings and desires, Cinnamon can’t feel you,” I reminded Sam. I placed a calm, gentle hand on the top of his shoulder. “Sam, in addition to us working together to help address this early childhood wound, it’s going to be important for you to practice checking in with others about your assumptions.” 

I went on to explain to Sam that when he is wanting to share or wants to seek more connection with a potential partner, just like his interactions with Cinnamon, he needs to allow himself to engage and communicate what he needs to feel supported rather than falling silent and waiting for the worst. I guided Sam to be mindful and take notice of the early signals of agitation in his body to help prompt him to take a courageous step to let his partner know what’s happening. I offered a possibility for how Sam could practice checking his assumptions with a partner. For example, I encouraged him to ask her, “When you picked up your phone to respond to a message from your friend, I convinced myself that I was boring you and that you’re not that interested in connecting with me. Can you tell me if that’s what you’re really thinking?”

With continued support, Sam learned to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability, to confront the narrative that he was not worthy of time and attention. This shift enabled him to foster more authentic connections and to experience others as they truly are, rather than through the distorted lens of his past.

Sam’s story illustrates how each of us might cultivate the courage to confront our internal narratives and the assumptions we project onto others. It is a challenging endeavor, one that requires us to be present and mindful of the stories we tell ourselves. By embracing the vulnerability needed to share our stories and seek clarity, we create the possibility for new understanding and healing.

If you find your inner voice narrating a story about what another person is thinking or feeling about you, this can often be a valuable warning signal of your own projections and assumptions. Try seeking clarity by sharing with the person about the story you’re telling yourself. See if you can ask them what they are really thinking and feeling. 

You may be surprised to find that we are not as good at mind-reading as we think. Our relationships may be the place where we’ve experienced some of our deepest wounds, but they are also the place where we can experience healing and transformation. I invite you to heed the call to listen, to inquire, and to engage authentically with the souls we encounter on our shared journey toward restored connection.