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How animal instincts can teach us to be better humans

two people and a horse
Audrey Nowakowski
John Boyd and Beth Anstandig with Buttercup, one of the horses at Hidden View Farm in Mequon, Wisconsin.

For over 25 years, therapist Beth Anstandig has worked to provide people with the tools to improve leadership, corporate culture and well-being programs. What’s unique about her approach is that she uses her relationship with animals, like horses, to inform her work.

Anstandig’s new book The Human Herd gives a framework to tap into what she calls our human animal to learn how to better respond to the increasing pressures we face and develop better relationships. She recently came to Milwaukee to work with the staff at Rogers Behavioral Health, led by Rogers CEO of Hospitals John Boyd.

Anstandig and Boyd met Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski in Mequon, Wisconsin at the stables of Hidden View Farm to talk about this work.

Anstandig begins by explaining her natural leadership concept, and how her book grew from it. "We have a self-care crisis and we also have a crisis around how to lean in to need each other as humans. For me, the animals were a bridge back to myself and my own wellness and they helped me connect with that innate part of me, that wise animal part of me, that is my natural leadership. They created a bridge for me to begin to trust humans again, because I really didn't."

As talking thinking mammals, humans are very disconnected from the instinct part of themselves and the bodily sensations and signals, according to Anstandig, and she points out that humans can learn a lot from horses. Horses are 100% honest with their needs at all times so they're always taking care of what they need and signaling to each other as a group.

"It's not that I want to disregard language or intellect, ... I love thought, partnership. ... The problem is that brain glitch that overrides the signal system, it has us numb to it," Anstandig explains. "So we actually want to be around other humans, mammals that are going to wake that part of us up so we can integrate it into that intellectual part of us."

Through acknowledging and addressing our pressing needs in a more natural way, she believes that we will be more authentic — not just with ourselves, but others in personal and professional settings.

Boyd says he's trying to integrate Anstandig's natural leadership concept at Rogers Behavioral Health to make a better model for health care employees to feel seen and supported in their needs.

He says that it's clear the world is living in a mental wellness moment, and people in the health care field, including those that lean into mental health and addiction support specifically, aren't immune from that same need. Part of Boyd's wake-up call was learning that a physician he worked with at a previous health care system had died by suicide.

"His suicide was felt throughout the organization, throughout the leadership team, throughout all of us caregivers. I knew at that moment, we had to figure out to do something better to support and understand and acknowledge the lives of those that work alongside us to do this life saving work," he says.

From Boyd's perspective, the health care field needs a model to show to its employees that they are serious about mental health. Like many employers, he notes that Rodgers has increased access to mental health support, both on site and virtual.

Still, he points out that leaders across industries and organizations need to make sure that their daily work practices aren't causing psychological harm.

"That means changing the way we work. It means establishing workplace/health balance in terms of the number of hours in which people are allowed to work. It means telling one's own story about how mental health has impacted you in leadership, so that you are you are modeling for others that it is safe to talk about hard things," says Boyd.

Anstandig and Boyd both are confident in their approach in introducing this concept to new environments. "A naysayer is a really important member of a herd and it's a protective questioning, curious, and survival based instinct," Anstandig says.

She leans into that. "I really trust that process and I also know when to not put pressure on that relationship. I learned all of this from my animals," she says. "I think anytime we try to get into selling someone on something, we've gotten way out ahead of them and where they are in their process, and I really believe in walking alongside and then waiting for there to be some natural openness in the relationship."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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