How we learn – and why it matters to our confidence

“Why is MY confidence in bits?  I have friends who lose their confidence – but they just bounce right back and get over it, never think about it again – whereas I just can’t do that!  I have tried!  And my friends have tried to help me – but it just gets worse when I get back on and try again – I end up avoiding my horse altogether!  I did go to someone once and they went through some stuff where I had to remember scary times as a film – but all that did was make me worse too – am I a lost cause?”

I hear this question a lot – and I think it’s because we don’t always realise how our learning style affects how we handle knocks to our confidence – and the options we have for rebuilding it.

One way of looking at how we learn is to see how we tend to take in and process information.  Of course we all do this using our five senses: Vision, Hearing, Touch, Taste and Smell.

Most of us have a primary sense we use, and this influences how we interpret things.

I can give you an example, but it’s easier of you actually do this as you read this.  Find an object – an apple, an orange – something like that. And come up with ten words to describe it. I did this with a group of people using an apple recently and here is what happened:

Someone who is primarily Visual – will use words mostly about how the object looks: green and red, round, shiny, brown stalk, red patches, on the table, 3 inches around, bright,

Someone who is primarily Kinesthetic (thats the word used for the touch sense) – will use words mostly about how they FEEL about the object, or how it would feel to their touch:  smooth,   hard,  crisp, juicy, spikey stalk, hairy bits near the top

Someone who is primarily auditory would use words referring to sounds or noise, although other common words will be present too : crunchy, loud,  chomp

The taste and smell systems are usually secondary.

Now – why does this matter?

For two main reasons

The first is, how our processing affects how we experience things.

Have you ever caught a whiff of a smell and been transported back to a place or moment in your memory?

Or had the same happen with a taste?

This is because of something called ANCHORING:  where a memory gets linked to a smell, taste, sound (or song), view or feeling so strongly that when that smell, taste, song, view or feeling happens again – we are taken right back to that past experience.  And these experiences can be good – or bad.

Those of you familiar with NLP will recognise this……it’s all about how our brain works.

Now, if you are primarily visual, if you have a bad experience, it is usually anchored to the view, or what you saw during the incident.  In these cases, simply re running that movie in your head, and making it black and white, or playing funny music to it – can have a huge effect in making that memory a separate past event – and stop it looming large in your mind, so you can get on with things again without this bad memory affecting you or your confidence.

However, if you are primarily Kinesthetic,  if you have a bad experience, it is anchored to your whole feeling at the time – the fear, anxiety and stress of the experience is attached to the experience – so if someone asks you to rerun the event as a movie – instead of seeing it as if it’s up on a screen and you are watching it (which is how it usually is for visual people) – as soon as that film starts running you are INSIDE IT and experience ALL the bad feelings ALL OVER AGAIN!  No wonder this process can make you feel worse about things!

So what works for one person – and helps them move on from their confidence blip – can actually cause you to feel worse about yours – and its all quite logical and just about how you process things.

The second reason it matters is in how you can move forward.

One approach that works well for many people is “positive visualisation”.  This is where you think of what you want to do, that is perhaps causing you to feel a bit unconfident – and visualise it happening easily and well.  You imagine yourself being confident and run a movie of things going really well which then releases the tension and fear, allowing you to be confident with that activity.

This approach works really well with people who are primarily visual.

If, however, you have tried this – and sat down to do your positive visualisation – and partway through the process you have felt a part of you say a rather sarcastic “yeah right” – and change the movie to what might NOT go right – then its highly likely you are primarily kinaesthetic, and no amount of positive visualisation will make that part of you feel happy about going ahead.

If you are primarily kinaesthetic then what works for you (or US I should say as I am primarily kinaesthetic myself) is what I call “Constructive Negative Visualisation”

This sounds counterintuitive as it involves thinking of all the BAD things that could happen – and we are so often told not to go there, not to think negative.  However, you don’t just think of them and feel frightened – you think of them and come up with PLANS to deal with them.  By doing this, and feeling when you have a good answer to the potential problem, the part of your unconscious mind that has those unconfident feelings attached to it can relax and allow you to move forwards.

An example of this was a friend who was scared of jumping over a little log out on a ride.  The thought of taking that route made her feel sick and she avoided it.  She had tried positive visualisation but that hadn’t worked and she admitted to me that yes, she had that part of her that, when she was working hard to visualise jumping smoothly and easily over the log was saying “yeah, right – -like THAT’s going to happen!”.

So we did the Constructive Negative Visualisation process. In the dialogue below I am C and she is V:

C:“What’s the worst that can happen?”

V:”My horse will bolt after landing”

C:”hmm – so what if she does?”

V:”I’ll do the one rein stop – in fact I;ll be ready to do it as we jump”

C:”ok, what else could happen?”

V:”she might do a massive leap and unseat me…..”

C:”so what if she does?”

V:”well actually I can make sure she is going slow as we come up to it – if we trot I know she won’t do that, so that’s ok”

C: “what else could happen?”

V:”she might trip and fall over!”

C:”so what if she does?”

V:”I don’t know!”

This comment was said in a high, loud voice so was an emotional response – if there is no easy answer, it’s time to help:

C:”so what can you do before you get to the log to make sure that doesn’t happen?”

V: “ah, yes – I can do some flexions to make sure she is calm and relaxed – and I could actually ask her to just STEP over it the first time – then go back and forth a few times……”

From here V went on to make several plans which she felt very comfortable doing

If you are primarily kinaesthetic, and find that positive visualisation is not working for you – then going through a dialogue like the one above will be very useful for you….

So to the original questioner — you are NOT a lost cause, you just need a different approach to one that works for many other people.

so far about 90% of the people I work with have been primarily kinesthetic learners!

So here’s a challenge for you all:  find something you have concerns about, where positive visualisation is not working — and give this process a go: let us know how it works for you…..

Yours, in confidence



4 thoughts on “How we learn – and why it matters to our confidence

  1. I like this approach and am going to have a go but the only trouble is the worst thing that can happen to me and that I fear so much is coming off and breaking something which makes me think I should not be riding anymore…………………

  2. Hi Lynda – well in a way you are right — as long as you are this worried, then getting on is not a thing I would have on your to do list — yet.

    This is like when V said “I don’t know”– if you don’t have a good answer, then its time to move on to the second question: “what can you do before you get on to make sure that doesn’t happen?”

    and the answer to this depends on what you think has led to this fear:
    sometimes the fear is based on the fact that we are not able to read our horses well enough to predict their safe behaviour — and we can plan for that by learning more, doing groundwork and so on
    sometimes the fear is based on realising that our riding knowledge is not enough to keep us safe — and we need to learn more — in which case having lessons can help with the fear
    sometimes the fear is because we HAVE had a fall, we HAVE hurt ourselves and really do’t want that to happen again – -this often benefits from an approach using both the above (reading the horse and riding knowledge) together with some work on getting our mind to work WITH us

    In a case where you are thinking of giving up riding altogether I would be looking at going through a process with you that I wrote about in the blog post Confidence Kidnappers — as I think that would be very helpful! Here’s the link:


  3. Soooooo interesting and yes the visualisation stuff never works for me because I feel deep down that I don’t really believe it! Lol! I can never just watch the film, I’m always in it.

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