An open heart is not an unprotected heart

protected heart

“But it hurts if I open it too much.”

That’s what I hear, in some form or another, every time I teach my Openhearted Writing Circle or host openhearted sharing circles.

People show up in those places hopeful and longing for openness, yet wounded and weary and unsure they have what it takes to follow through. They want to pour their hearts onto the page, to share their stories with openness and not fear, to live vulnerably and not guarded, and yet… they’re afraid. They’re afraid to be judged, to be shamed, to be told they’re not worthy, to be told they’re too big for their britches. They’ve been hurt before and they’re not sure they can face it again.

And every time, I tell them some variation of the following…

An open heart is not an unprotected heart.

You have a right, and even a responsibility, to protect yourself from being wounded. You have a right to heal your own wounds before you share them with anyone. You have a right to guard yourself from people who don’t have your best interests at heart. You have a right to keep what’s tender close to your heart.

Only you can choose how exposed you want to make your tender, open heart. Just because other people are doing it, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for you.

Yes, I advocate openhearted living, because I believe that when we let ourselves be cracked open – when we risk being wounded – our lives will be bigger and more beautiful than when we remain forever guarded. As Brene Brown says, our vulnerability creates resilience.

HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean that we throw caution to the wind and expose ourselves unnecessarily to wounding.

Our open hearts need protection.

Our vulnerability needs to be paired with intentionality.

We, and we alone, can decide who is worthy of our vulnerability. 

We choose to live with an open heart only in those relationships that help us keep our hearts open. Some people – coming from a place of their own fear, weakness, jealousy, insecurity, projection, woundedness, etc. – cannot handle our vulnerability and so they will take it upon themselves to close our hearts or wound them or hide from them. They are not the right people. They are the people we choose to protect ourselves from.

Each of us needs to choose our own circles of trust.  Here’s what that looks like:

circles of trust
In the inner circle, closest to our tender hearts, are those people who are worthy of high intimacy and trust. These are the select few – those who have proven themselves to be supportive enough, emotionally mature enough, and strong enough to hold our most intimate secrets. They do not back down from woundedness. They do not judge us or try to fix us. They understand what it means to hold space for us.

In the second circle, a little further from our tender hearts, are those people who are only worthy of moderate intimacy and trust. These are the people who are important to us, but who haven’t fully proven themselves worthy of our deepest vulnerability. Sometimes these are our family members – we love them and want to share our lives with them, but they may be afraid of how we’re changing or how we’ve been wounded and so they try to fix us or they judge us. We trust them with some things, but not that which is most tender.

In the third circle are those who have earned only low levels of intimacy and trust. These are our acquaintances, the people we work with or rub shoulders with regularly and who we have reasonably good relationships with, but who haven’t earned a place closer to our hearts. We can choose to be friendly with these people, but we don’t let them into the inner circles.

On the outside are those people who have earned no intimacy or trust. They may be there because we just don’t know them yet, or they may be there because we don’t feel safe with them. These are the people we protect ourselves from, particularly when we’re feeling raw and wounded.

People can move in and out of these circles of trust, but it is US and ONLY us who can choose where they belong. WE decide what boundaries to erect and who to protect ourselves from. WE decide when to allow them a little closer in or when to move them further out.

How do we make these decisions? We learn to trust our own intuition. If someone doesn’t feel safe, we ask ourselves why and we trust that gut feeling. Sometimes we’ll get it wrong, and sometimes people will let us down, but with time and experience, we get better at discerning who is safe and who is not.

We also have to decide what to share in each level of the circle, but that’s a longer discussion for another blog post. For now I’ll simply say…

Trust your intuition. Don’t share what is vulnerable in a situation that feels unsafe. Erect the boundaries you need to erect to keep your tender heart safe. Let people in who have your best interest at heart.


This article has been voluntarily translated into Farsi.

If you want to explore your own open heart, you’re welcome to join an Openhearted Writing Circle, or consider booking a coaching session. For a self-guided journey to your own heart, consider The Spiral Path, which remains open until the end of February.

Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my weekly reflections.

Finding hope in the middle of the tough spots

Yesterday, Ronna Detrick and I (and the women who’d gathered in circle with us) had a heart-opening conversation about pilgrimage, community, story-telling, and feminine spirituality. (You can listen to the recording here.) I love having conversations like this because, even if I’m the one doing the teaching, I always end up walking away with more clarity than I had before.

At the end of the call, after I’d shared several stories of the “hardships, darkness, and peril” along my own pilgrimage, Ronna asked me to talk about how I hang onto hope in the middle of the dark times.

It’s a timely question for me, and it’s been on my mind since our conversation. As much for myself as for you, the following are some reminders of how to reach for hope when life knocks us off our feet.

1.) Find community. I can’t stress this strongly enough. You NEED community. You need a circle of people who will support you and who won’t judge you when you’re falling apart. You need to let yourself be held when you’re not feeling strong enough to walk on your own. There is no weakness in admitting that you need other people.

2.) Find wild spaces to wander in. When I’m falling apart and hardly know how to articulate the depths of the pain, I head to the woods or the riverbank. I find the Goddess there, in the most unexpected ways – in the wind, in the waves on the river, in the twinkling light reflected off the water, in the eyes of the deer who stands and stares at me. I think the Goddess is especially comfortable showing up in wild spaces because she has a wild heart herself. I feel comforted and more alive when I step out of the woods and return to my hope.

3.) Rest. It’s always important to rest, but when you’re going through especially difficult times, you need to find even more rest than usual. Deep, soulful rest that replenishes your strength. Take naps and hot baths, curl up with a good book, let people do some of your chores for you – just rest.

4.) Give yourself permission to cry. A social worker once told me that tears are the window-washers of the soul. It might sound a little corny, but it’s true. The tears help clean us and they help improve our vision. Let those deep sobs erupt from your belly and don’t try to keep them inside. Tears held in for too long will drown you.

5.) Find spiritual practices that sustain you. I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it again – spiritual practices are especially necessary when your pilgrimage gets difficult. Your spiritual practice can be as unique as you are – dancing, singing, walking, painting, praying, meditating, yoga, or photography. These practices shift us out of our left-brain thought processes that want to fix our problems or find logic in them or rush through them to the next easy place on the journey. Inside the practice, we rest in the unknowing space, where the problems serve as our teachers rather than our adversaries.

Gratitude practice – letting the light through the crack

I won’t pretend that things are easy right now. It’s not the way I walk in the world. I won’t dump every sadness on you every time we meet, but when it comes to my writing, I choose not to plaster a shiny happy mask over a broken life. I believe that’s what you come here for – a tiny light that struggles to shine even when the dark clouds roll in.

No, life is not easy. There are some really good days now and then, but mostly life continues to be hard and I continue to cry a lot of tears over a lot of wounds and disappointments.

BUT… that doesn’t mean that life is not beautiful. Beauty is not dependent on ease or perfection. Beauty emerges through (and because of) the pain and the brokenness, the storm clouds and the rain.

We wouldn’t value light if we didn’t see shadow. We wouldn’t know joy if we didn’t understand sorrow. We wouldn’t have flowers if we never had rain.

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen

And so, in the middle of my darkness, I look for the crack that lets in the light.

To add another metaphor to Leonard Cohen’s wisdom, my rock balancing has also taught me that there is a rough edge on everything – it’s what helps it keep its balance.

Exactly 12 years ago this month, I was in the hospital hoping my son would survive a compromised pregnancy. In the first few days, when the surgery failed and I had to resign myself to weeks in bed away from my busy career-driven life and my two beautiful little girls, I gave in to despair, fear, and anger. WHY couldn’t the doctors have taken me seriously the week before when I told them something was wrong with my pregnancy? WHY did they have to botch the surgery? WHY was I stuck in a bed when other people were walking around blissfully enjoying their pregnancies? WHY was I being yanked out of my life at the pinnacle of my career when my staff needed me most? WHY, WHY, WHY?

Then one day I realized I had a choice to make – I could continue to stay mired in the despair and bitterness, or I could accept what was happening and begin to see the tiny specks of light shining through the crack.

I chose the light.

It all started to shift the day I started a gratitude journal. At first the journal was simply a place to keep track of the things I’d need to send thank you cards for – the flowers sent from a friend in Ontario, the pyjamas sent from my sister-in-law in California, the food delivered by family, the care provided for my children, etc., etc. Soon, though, it began to take on a life of its own. It was my life-line, holding me close to shore when the storm threatened to toss me out to sea. The simple act of recording all that I was grateful for shifted my attitude from despair to hope and reminded me what I still had to live for.

Because of that gratitude practice, I was more prepared to handle my son’s death a few weeks later.

I think it’s time to start recording my bits of gratitude again. I need to reach for the specks of light seeping through the jagged ugly crack that is consuming my life. I need a life-line to hold me close to shore.

Here is my beginning…

I am grateful for:
– a river that runs within a block of my house
– the discovery that balancing rocks on the riverbank brings me peace and comfort in this time of imbalance
– a husband who sees my tears, sends me to bed, closes the door, and promises that he won’t let the supper burn that I’ve left on the stove
– the 46 years worth of love I’ve received from my Mom
– the little bit of wilderness I can find in the park down the street from my house
– the circles of women (both physically near and far away) who give me safe places to fall apart
– the early signs that a diet change and the supplements from my naturopath are beginning to address my fatigue
– green tea with ginseng and honey
– a make-it-yourself kaleidoscope from a friend
– butternut squash soup
– a long, meandering conversation with a friend at the river’s edge
– endless games of dominoes and rummicube with my mom and her husband
– siblings and siblings-in-law who love Mom as much as I do and who are so easy to get along with in this time of grief
– daughters who are grounded and wise
– a laundry room that’s clean enough that I don’t feel waves of failure and guilt every time I walk into the room
– you, my readers, clients and friends

Let’s stop trying to fool ourselves. It’s not going to be easy.

As my children will attest, some days it takes only a minor stimulus to illicit a rant from me. Today it was this booklet that made its way to the top of our piano – How to Get Good Grades, in Ten Easy Steps.

Easy? Really?

Now, let’s be honest, if you’re not academically inclined, there is nothing easy about getting good grades. And if you ARE academically inclined, well then you wouldn’t be picking up this little booklet, would you?

Do you think the publishers of this book are doing the students any good by putting the word “easy” in the title? I don’t think so. You’re not going to fool a kid who’s ready to give up on school by telling them there’s an easy fix. If they’ve failed a few courses and their self esteem is in the toilet because of it, setting them up for one more failure by calling it “easy” is just cruel rather than helpful.

And here comes the rant…

Most of the things in life that are worth their weight in gold are most definitely NOT going to be easy.

Let’s stop trying to pretend they are. Let’s stop trying to sell ourselves on the idea that there’s such a thing as “easy weight loss” or “easy relationship fixes” or “easy steps to physical fitness”. Let’s toss “ten easy steps” out the window for once and for all, shall we?

The marketers who are selling you those easy fixes? They’re lying to you.

Good things take work. And practice. And perseverance. And blood, sweat, and tears.

My oldest daughter was struggling through her first high school math class last term. After a disappointing start, she was determined to improve her grade. After weeks of studying, extra homework, meeting with the teacher, re-doing her homework, and studying some more, she did just that – improve her grade. Was it easy? Not a chance.

Several years ago, my husband decided that, after 22 years in the transportation industry, he wanted to become a teacher. He’d never even finished high school, and yet he had this dream. Five and a half years later, he had two university degrees and a teacher’s certificate. There was very little about that journey that was easy, not even for those of us who supported him through it. But was it worth it? Of course!

I’m in the midst of becoming a runner. This morning I was very proud of the fact that I ran six miles. That accomplishment couldn’t have happened, though, without nine months of practicing and sweating and hurting and practicing some more. Yes I may love it and want to keep doing it, but… easy? Not one minute of it.

I am also writing a book. Sure there may be some days when the writing flows and it feels like it requires no more effort than breathing, but there are other days I feel like l’m slitting open a vein and letting the blood pour. And even those pages that showed up without much effort will still require hours of editing and rewriting and agonizing before they’re ready for prime time. Nope, nothing easy about that either. I want it more than almost anything else in the world, though, so I’ll stick with it.

Anyone who’s developed a meditation practice or yoga practice or dance practice or any other kind of practice can tell you that it requires years of dragging yourself to the mat or cushion or floor, working through heaps of resistance and pain, and persevering through all of those times when it just feels like nothing is happening. Easy? No way. Worth it? Oh yes.

Anyone who’s worked through depression or eating disorders or anxiety disorders or mental illness of any kind will tell you there’s nothing easy about that either. Worth it when you’ve worked through to the other side? Yes. But easy? Don’t ever insult them by implying that it is.

Anyone who has committed themselves to social change – protestors in Tahrir Square, people committed to peace and justice working in Darfur, front-line workers in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods all over the world – will tell you that it’s terrifying and hard and discouraging and only occasionally exhilarating, but easy? Never.

You get my point. Growing, learning, changing, improving, transforming – all of those things take years of effort and pain and frustration and surrender and practice and agony.

Sure, there are things that fall within your gifts that might feel easy from time to time (eg. I once had an article published in the Globe and Mail that took no more than 15 minutes to write and not a single edit), but perfecting anything – even if it comes naturally – is hard work. Just ask any Olympic athlete or world class musician.

Let’s stop trying to fool ourselves. It’s not going to be easy.

Worth it? Most definitely. But easy? Not a chance.

What’s your practice?

This morning, I increased my running time and programmed it accordingly into the timer on my ipod. When I run, gentle Tibetan bells ring in my ears to tell me when my running interval is over, and then (when my 2 minute walk time is over) when it’s time to kick it into gear again.

On my second ten minute running interval, it seemed to be taking forever for the bells to ring. I was getting pretty tired, and a cramp started under my rib cage.

“Oh my gosh!” I thought, “surely it shouldn’t be this hard to add just one minute to my time!” I kept running though, determined to complete the interval.

Eventually, I started to wonder about the timer. I took my ipod out of my pocket. Surprise, surprise! The bell hadn’t rung and I’d run right through my rest time and all the way to the end of the third interval! Twenty-two minutes without stopping!

Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised that I had much greater capacity than I thought I did. Apparently, I’m not running to my full potential.

When I started running back in June, I could barely survive the one minute run, two minute walk intervals. Now I can run 22 minutes and not pass out at the end! I felt great!

Lately a few people have asked “what are you training for?” – as though there’s no good reason to take up running other than training for a specific goal. Others ask about weight loss – as though it’s only about accomplishing some improvement in my body.

In answer to the first question, I have been known to say, rather sheepishly “well, I’d like to run the half marathon in June, if possible.” It seems to satisfy their goal-oriented mind-set. In answer to the second question, I have – equally sheepishly – said something about “every little bit helps”. Neither answer feels like my full truth though.

What I’d like to say is, “I’m training to be more fully alive. I’m training to be more fully myself.”

THAT’S what it’s about. When I run, I am energized, alive, and full of creative, spiritual energy. I am present in my body and my mind. I delight in the sweat and adrenalin and I feel like I am coming more fully into what it means to be me. I am connected to God and to nature and to what it means to be alive in the universe.

That’s why I like the word “practice” rather than “training”. Training is about achieving a goal. When my running becomes my practice, on the other hand, it isn’t about reaching goals, striving to be an award-winning athlete, or becoming a thinner version of myself. It’s about adopting running as one of the practices that helps me grow and learn and stretch and meditate and think and create and just be fully alive.

I love the word “practice”. I especially like it when it’s attached to the things we do – running practice, yoga practice, dance practice, writing practice, photography practice, meditation practice – even medical practice and law practice. It’s not necessarily about perfecting these things (though we do strive to get better at them), it’s about being present in them and growing more fully into the person they help us to be. It’s about doing them because we love them and know the value they bring to our lives.

Our culture (especially our masculine-driven business world) tends to be goal oriented and product oriented. We need to see evidence of success, production, completion, victory, and graduation. But most of the time, completion is the least important part of the process. Often (perhaps always?) true success is in how well we commit to the practice and how much we are committed to being life-long learners and practitioners.

Practice is a perfect Sophia word. Feminine wisdom helps us separate ourselves from the outcome and sit more comfortably with the process. It helps us be more present with God and with nature and let our practice change us and change each other.

It’s not that outcomes aren’t important – it’s just that often the process IS the greatest outcome.

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