If you’ve lived long enough, you have been hurt several times.
Some of these incidents were seminal because it taught you tough lessons on issues of trust and matters of the heart. Pangs of disappointment might still linger on in your memories and sting you.
Whenever we’re let down by others, whether be it a friend, family member, a spouse or a lover, it’s natural to react by shutting ourselves off from intimacy by building walls around our hearts. The more pain we endure, the thicker and sturdier our walls.
We find solace within our solitary confinement because we’re freed from the risk of forming emotional attachments that could hurt us. We might also attempt to numb our wounds with substances such as alcohol, drugs, or any other compulsive behavior.
As a person who has loved and lost, this is familiar territory. I coped with my pain by drowning myself in work. I stayed away from relationships that required a heavy investment and which could potentially be disruptive.
My stance on this issue took a dramatic turn after I stumbled upon the work of author and speaker, Brené Brown. Her revolutionary work on vulnerability, shame and self-acceptance made me reconsider my approach.
There are many gems of wisdom that I picked up from her teachings, but one that really struck a chord with me was a key finding from her book, The Gift of Imperfection, which I quote here:
“We cannot selectively numb emotions; when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
In other words, if we block out negative emotions, we will also block out the possibility of experiencing enriching and fulfilling emotions such as love, joy and belonging.
Our fear of intimacy will keep us away from all the sublime treasures that meaningful connections offer. Taking refuge in a cold cave might protect us temporarily but without the warm fires of love, we’ll eventually freeze.
We’re wired to have a meaningful connection with others. Within us is a deep, intrinsic need to be seen, loved and accepted for who we are. In fact, research has shown that newly born babies need to be embraced in order to promote healthy psychological development. The lack of the loving assurance that comes from physical touch can inhibit normal development and can even result in death.
Yet even with this intellectual understanding, it can still be daunting to put yourself out there if you’ve been burnt in the past. So this brings me to the prevailing dilemma, which is this: how can we stay open and vulnerable in our relationships without the risk of having our hearts broken?
Here are some measures that you can take to reach this sweet spot:
1. Clear away any past intimacy issues: When we allow pain from past hurts to fester in our thoughts and hearts, we drastically reduce our chances of forming a genuine connection with others. Just as how a runner needs to rehabilitate an injured foot to run again, we need to heal our emotional wounds before we can love again. You can process and assuage your pain by writing about your feelings in a journal, reading information that gives you perspective, or speaking to a friend or therapist.
2. Set clear boundaries in your relationships: The reality is that we can’t be equally vulnerable with everyone – this necessitates the need for building healthy boundaries. We can be vulnerable with those we trust but we still need to take precautionary measures to protect ourselves from any unanticipated changes in others’ behavior. I’m not saying we should be constantly paranoid but that we should maintain a healthy form of skepticism and remove those rose-colored glasses for reality checks.
3. Become a good judge of character: Setting good boundaries requires that we become discerning about who we offer our love, support and trust to. The sad reality is that there are people out there who can hurt us and take advantage of us, and we need to remain vigilant about them. We have to become a better judge of character so that we can spot any red flags that so many people often miss out on in the early stages of getting to know a person. On the other hand, we should also be able to identify the many wonderful human beings out there with whom we can share warm and harmonious bonds with.
4. Don’t invest more than you can afford to lose: Every relationship, both personal and business, is inherently risky because of the unpredictability of human behavior (and life). There is always a chance of being let down or an unanticipated change in circumstances. I realize that this may sound dismal, cold and unromantic but it is a reality that we need to accept. It’s only upon accepting it that can we decide how much of our personal energy we can invest in a relationship.
Committing to a life of vulnerability and open-heartedness may seem like a scary proposition. but I believe that it is one of the most courageous ways for us to live Like a valiant knight armed with the sword of reason and a shield of hope, we possess the personal power to charge ahead into the flames of passion and experience fulfilling relationships.
All my best on your journey,
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