If you’ve lived long enough, you have been hurt several times in your life. 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 sporadically.
Whenever we were 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 to protect ourselves from ever getting hurt again. The more pain we endured, the thicker and sturdier our walls.
We find solace within our solitary confinement where we are freed from the burden of forming any emotional attachment that could tug at our heart strings. We might also attempt to numb our wounds from the past with substances such as alcohol, drugs, or any other compulsive forms of behavior.
As a person who has loved and lost, this is familiar terrain of which I have traversed before. I coped with my pain by escaping into a world of idealism and choosing to approach life with an almost child-like naiveté. I was in denial about my feelings and deemed any relationship that required a heavy emotional investment as risky and potentially disruptive to my inner peace.
My stance on this issue took a dramatic turn after I stumbled upon the work of celebrated author and speaker, Brené Brown. Her revolutionary work on vulnerability, shame and self-acceptance sheds light on these potentially awkward yet pivotal topics. It created a seismic shift in my perspective on what it really takes to love myself and receive love from others from a place of wholeheartedness.
There are so 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 can offer. Taking refuge in a cold cave might protect us temporarily but without the warm fires of love and caring, we will eventually freeze.
This is because we are all 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 of the need for enduing and authentic connections, 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 and having our worlds crumble?
Here are some preventative measures that you can take to reach this sweet spot:
- 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 in healthy ways by writing about your feelings in a journal, reading informationthat gives you perspective, or speaking to a friend, therapist or coach.
- 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 if needed. Letting people know what you will and will not tolerate is one of the ultimate acts of self-care.
- Become a good judge of character: In order to set good boundaries, we need to 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.
- 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 for the sustenance for our own wellbeing. It’s only upon accepting it that can we decide how much of our personal energy we can invest in a relationship without the risk of getting emotionally bankrupt in case things don’t pan out the way we expected.
- Create your own emotional “first aid kit”: No matter how careful we are, there may still be times when we choose to ignore the signs and throw caution to the wind. The good news is that now that you are armed with this knowledge, even if Mr. or Ms. Wonderful does blow it, you will have a soft fall instead of a violent crash. I suggest having your own set of go-to coping tools that you can utilize if you find yourself in this position. This is your “emotional first aid kit”, which includes several activities that can get you out of any form of funk you find yourself in.
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 authentically. Like a valiant knight armed with the sword of reason and a shield of hope, we possess the personal power and integrity to charge ahead into the flames of passion and slay any demons that may come our way.
All my best on your journey,
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