Between a Rock and a Hard Place


Between a rock and a hard place, it's the best way to describe how we all feel at times. It happens when two voices, often inside our own selves, argue about the best course of action.


Clients arrive in this state often. It's a tortuous feeling, usually accompanied by fear of making the wrong choice. As if life is a choose your own adventure story and you're decision today is going to send you to the chapter where the dragon eats you up.


The truth is, these are often big choices. Whether to stay in a marriage, a job, a friendship. Whether to allow our in-laws to come to Thanksgiving or how to deal with a mistake we have made. These choices feel huge because they have real consequences.


When I begin coaching around this choice, the impulse of the client is to dive into the details. Tell the whole story and assume that in doing so, the correct course of action will be obvious. It never is.


You can't solve a problem from the frequency of it. You have to first shift gears. You have to enter a state of safety and Self awareness. Neuroscience has a new theory to explain this called Polyvagal theory.


In a nutshell, it goes like this: the vagus nerve that runs along the spine determines your state of being. When the lower nervous centers, the dorsal and sympathetic systems, are activated, your brain is in a state of either freeze, flight, or fright. From this state, your higher centers at the heart and brain are shut off. You are literally unable to use executive functions. So, telling the story will do you no good. Not without some more subtle things happening in the process.


The way out is through. The way to our executive function is through the heart center along the vagus nerve through a process called co-regulation. This is where Polyvagal gets fascinating. We mammals require an external connection, one that is in a higher functioning state, in order to create internal safety that soothes the lower vagus nervous system. Once our dorsal and sympathetic systems are deactivated, our higher functions of intuition and creative problem solving become available once more.


When we do it right, we reach out for help during a time of crisis choice like this. Maybe it's a trusted friend, a therapist, a coach. Maybe it's a beloved dog or, most powerful among animal co-regulators, a horse. Whoever it is, we are unconsciously seeking a source to co-regulate with us, to help us unlock our higher thinking and perception.


When clients arrive at the round pen in this state, I often have them groom the horse as they share their conflicting feelings, fears, and worries. Sometimes they take the horse for a walk as they talk. They think this is about catching me up to the decision point. It is, of course, helpful to hear their words because in them are the underlying beliefs driving the fears. But, more importantly, the simple act of standing next to the horse is causing subtle changes in their nervous system. They begin to co-regulate.


When I'm without a horse, the same process is happening, only I am the primary co-regulation source. That's why my personal practices and discipline that cultivate my well-being are 💯 essential for my coaching practice. I cannot be in a lower state and be of service. This is a powerful motivation for me, one that makes coaching an act of mutual benefit, pure reciprocity.


When the state change occurs, it is felt by all of us. The horse shifts and begins to yawn or drop his head, the client's face softens and shoulders fall open. When this happens, the conversation always shifts to what matters most; your own BEING. And there begins the journey of true power. When that shift happens, the questions and conflict melt away and we focus on who to be in this moment and what to do today.


The sanskrit term for horse is Ashva. It loosely means 'not yesterday, not tomorrow.' When we enter the higher states of functioning, we are focused on the presence of our own being. Decision points become simple moments when we know in our heart that we're ready to make a new choice today. Until that readiness is present, we concern ourselves with the step available to take in this moment and the state of being we are taking it in.


So, when next you find yourself between a rock and a hard place, call someone who can offer you co-regulation.

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