Laine Ashker: My Struggle with the Voices of Self-Doubt
I have a hard time dealing with my failures. Every decision I make can wear on me. I had a hard time with my weight when I was young, and I’ve always dealt with self-confidence issues. I wasn’t comfortable with my body. Even when I was a little girl, I wanted to do everything perfectly. I couldn’t go to sleep until my homework was done. I didn’t want to make any mistakes.
I think, in this lifestyle, it’s very easy to be self critical. When I have people, sometimes even strangers, who have paid my way to be somewhere and compete, I feel the sense of responsibility and I want to perform. I’m a professional, so I have sponsors that back me. If I don’t perform well, I don’t get those sponsorships, so that is an added pressure. And self-criticism comes quickly, if I do something wrong.
Quite honestly, I’m not the most naturally gifted rider. I have grit and a good work ethic, and that’s gotten me to where I am today. But I’m also not the most naturally gifted when it comes to my mental health, and I think that has held me back more than anything, especially in regards to letting the mistakes and the losses slide off. I have a hard time taking my wins and celebrating them. I tend to focus on the things I need to work on rather than what I did well. I’ve just always been that way, and it’s always been a struggle.
Earlier this year, I had a really hard ride. I had two poles down at a 3* at Plantation Fields. I’m a professional, so you won’t see me fall apart on the course. But what goes on in my head is a different story. Driving back to the hotel, my brain went straight to this string of demoralizing accusations.
You’re a joke.
You don’t deserve sponsors.
You don’t deserve to ride that horse.
You shouldn’t even be here.
It was heartbreaking but familiar territory for me. It’s a cycle I fall into every time something goes wrong. I’ll go back to my hotel room and replay my ride over and over, pointing out everything I didn’t do perfectly. As soon as I see a mistake, the voices in my head tell me, See I told you so. You really do suck. You shouldn’t be here.
It’s a dark, ugly rabbit hole that I just kept falling down, and I couldn’t seem to dig myself out of it, at least not on my own.
On the way back after Plantation Fields, my mom could see what was happening because she’s seen it plenty of times before. She looked at me and said, “You have all the riding training in the world. You need to get help with your mental health.”
Nothing was going to change if I didn’t.
Several weeks ago, I called (someone who I rely on for coaching), and I started meeting with him for an hour every Monday. It’s not like he said anything magic to me, but he gave me exercises and tools to work through those pre-ride and post-ride voices that send me down a terrible path of self-loathing. He helped me pinpoint and narrow down triggers. It’s different for everyone; we all have different things that make us tick, which is why sometimes we need individualized help to get through our issues.
"It’s not just about being mentally healthy so that we can perform and be successful when we ride, it’s about living a good life."
Even though it can be hard to make that initial call, there’s absolutely nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. Listen, every person struggles. You just don’t always see it. Michael Phelps had to deal with his mental health and anxiety, and he talked about it openly. So why not me? Why not you? We are no different. Just reach out and start talking about it. We spend so much time perfecting our square turns or leg yields, but what we need to pay attention to is what is going on in our brain. There’s no amount of heel down that’s going to replace that. It’s one thing to learn how to ride a 5* course. It’s another thing to learn how to deal with our failures, with our insecurities, with our anxiety. It’s not just about being mentally healthy so that we can perform and be successful when we ride, it’s about living a good life. Finding happiness. Those intrusive thoughts that were leading me down a dark path after every mistake, pointing out every insecurity, highlighting every flaw, they weren’t just hurting me as an athlete, they were hurting me as a person, as a human being who wants and deserves to be happy.
One thing I’ve tried to do these past few weeks is tell myself two things that I did well every day. It’s something to reinforce positivity…and it has to be something honest, because no one wants to be lied to…to challenge those negative thoughts and fight against the fall down the rabbit hole.
A few weekends ago when I was competing, I had a pole down during show jumping. I started going down the road of You suck, Laine. Why are you here? for about thirty seconds, and then I was able to stop myself and say, You know what? Last year at this time, this horse had just had surgery. I literally didn’t know if he would come back, and he just did his first 3*. I mean, come on. We are here.
That was a big deal for me. From the outside, it probably looked like my accomplishment for that day was completing a 3* with that horse; but for me, it was really stopping that negativity train. That horse just did his first 3*, he did a beautiful cross country, he gave me his all, and I got to be there with him. That single rail didn’t mean that I’m a bad rider, and it didn’t mean he is a bad horse. I have a healthy horse, a sound horse. And we were meant to be there together.
I’m grateful that I’ve been able to get help, so that I was able to enjoy that moment with my horse. Will I be able to stop those voices every time? Probably not. But with work, I’m getting snippets of what that will be like. There will always be something that will throw me off the rails. But I can see that, even if I am derailed, I’m getting derailed for far less time now. Therapy has given me the tools to get back on and get back on track.
"We want to be happy, and we all deserve to work for that. For most of us, at some point, that means reaching out and getting help for our mental health when we need it."
I want to be a good person to be around. I want to be a person that people and animals are drawn to. And I can’t do that if I’m sitting alone in a dark hotel room, analyzing every second of a past ride and repeating lies to myself over and over again. Nothing good will come of that, and it’s not where I belong.
No matter what mistakes I make as a rider or as a person, if I get a wrong distance or pull too much on the inside rein, my horses love me and trust me. Horses see through you. They don’t care that I don’t get regular Botox. They don’t care that my pants are faded. They don’t care that I don’t have eight pack abs, or any other unreasonable expectation we place on ourselves. They don’t judge me for every little thing I do wrong. And really, that’s a pretty sweet deal.
When I walk down the barn, they come to put their head out the window to see me. They don’t have to do that, they offer that. And that’s a confidence boost for me, something I always want to be able to acknowledge, cherish and learn from. I think, deep down, we all want to be the best citizen, the best friend, the best human being we can be in our community. We want to be happy, and we all deserve to work for that. For most of us, at some point, that means reaching out and getting help for our mental health when we need it.
Stay tuned. I’m a work in progress.
As told to Cheryl Witty-Castillo
Illustration by Shayla Bond
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