“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:
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.
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A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of finding your tribe – people who love you just the way you are and who cheer you on as you do courageous things.
Tribe-building is important and valuable, but it only takes you part way down the path to an openhearted life.
This week, I’ve been contemplating what we should do with the people outside of our tribes.
It’s cozy and warm inside a tribe, and the people are supportive and non-threatening, so it’s tempting to simply hide there and close off from the rest of the world. When you’re hurting, that might be the right thing to do for awhile – to protect yourself until you have healed enough to step outside of the circle.
But the problem with staying there too long is that it creates a world of “us and them”. When you stay too close to your own tribe, it becomes easier and easier to justify your own choices and opinions and more and more difficult to understand people who think differently from you. Before long, you’ve become suspicious of everyone outside of your tribe, and when their actions threaten your way of life, you do whatever it takes to protect yourself. Fear breeds in a closed-off life.
Last week, I knew it was time to challenge myself to step outside my tribe. I’d been playing it safe too much lately, so when I saw a Facebook posting for an open house at the local mosque, I decided that was a good place to start. I shared the information with friends, but chose not to bring anyone with me. Bringing friends with me into unfamiliar territory makes me less open to conversations with people who are different from me and I didn’t want that – I wanted to go in with an open, unguarded heart. That’s one of the reasons I’ve learned to love solo traveling – it’s scary at first, but it opens me to a whole world of new opportunities and friendships that don’t happen as naturally when I’m hiding behind the safety of a group.
I have traveled in predominately Muslim parts of the world and have always been warmly received, so I knew that the open house would be a pleasant experience. It turned out to be even more pleasant than I’d expected.
First there was Mariam, a young university student who served as tour guide to me and a small group of strangers. Mariam’s easy smile and warm personality made us all feel instantly comfortable. She lead us through the gym to the prayer room and told us why she’s happy that the women pray in a separate area from the men. “I want to be close to God when I pray, not distracted by who might be looking at me or bumping into me.” Before the tour was over, Mariam hugged me twice and I felt like I’d made a new friend.
Then there was the grinning young man at the table by the sign that read “your name in Arabic”. His name now escapes me, but I can tell you he never stopped smiling through our whole conversation and was one of the friendliest young men I’ve met in a long time. He told me, while he wrote my name, that he’d learned some of his Arabic from cartoons. Growing up in Ontario, he’d preferred Arabic cartoons to Barney or Sesame Street.
At the “free henna” table, I met Saadia, who moved here from Pakistan three years ago because she and her husband wanted to give their children a better chance at a good education. Her husband is a doctor who’s still trying to cross all of the hurdles that will allow him to practice in Canada. Before our conversation was over, Saadia had given me her phone number in case I ever want to invite her to my home to give me and my friends hennas.
What struck me, as I left the mosque, was how much grace and courage it takes, when your people have become the object of racism, fear, and oppression, to open your hearts, homes, and gathering places to strangers. Instead of hiding within the safety of their own tribe and justifying their need for protection and safety from others, the local Muslim community threw their doors and hearts open wide and said “let’s be friends. We are not afraid of you – please don’t be afraid of us.”
I experienced the same grace and courage among the Indigenous people of our community last Spring after we were named the “most racist city in Canada”. Instead of retreating into the safety of their tribes, they welcomed many of us into openhearted healing circles. Instead of being angry, they taught us that reconciliation starts with forgiveness and the courage to risk friendships across tribal lines.
I will be forever grateful to Rosanna, who invited me to co-host a series of meaningful conversations with her, to Leonard who handed me a drum and welcomed me to play in honour of Mother Earth’s heartbeat, to Gramma Shingoose who gave me a stone shaped like a heart and shared the story of her healing journey after a childhood in residential school, to Brian who welcomed me into the sweat lodge, and to many others who opened their hearts and reached across the artificial divide between Indigenous and settler.
The more I’ve had the privilege of building friendships with openhearted people whose world looks different from mine, the bigger, more beautiful, and less fearful my life has become.
This week, I’ve read Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on The Road and there is so much in it that resonates with the way I choose to live my life. It’s a beautiful reflection of how her life has been changed by the people she has encountered while on the road. “Taking to the road – by which I mean letting the road take you – changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.”
Another quote speaks to how much broader her thinking has become because of her encounters on the road. “What we’ve been told about this country is way too limited by generalities, sound bites, and even the supposedly enlightened idea that there are two sides to every question. In fact, many questions have three or seven or a dozen sides. Sometimes I think the only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two and those who don’t.”
We don’t have to spend as much time traveling as Gloria Steinem does in order to live this way – we simply have to open our hearts to the people and experiences in our own communities that have the potential to stretch and change us and lead us past a life with only two sides. Sometimes a conversation with the next door neighbour is enough to help us see the world through more open eyes.
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Yesterday, after dropping my daughter off at the pool, I went to a coffee shop to try to get some writing done. Unable to focus, though, I gave in to the distraction of social media, and when I did, I found myself getting more and more angry. I was angry at the terrorists who’ve torn apart so many people’s lives and instilled fear in so many more. And I was angry at the closed-minded people who are responding to the terrorism by becoming protectionist and prejudiced and not offering safe homes for the millions of refugees running away from the terrorists.
Because I was angry anyway, I started extending that anger to people closer to home – people in the coffee shop and people in my family whose actions were disappointing me at the time. Anger needs to feed itself, so it looks for more victims and more people to blame.
When I get angry (or fearful, or sad, or any of those intense emotions that sometimes feel scary and overwhelming), I’m tempted to shut down, to guard my heart and protect myself from further wounding. I’m tempted to pull away from people and become even more self-sufficient. And I’m tempted to find reasons to hate people and blame them for all of the ills of the world.
Last night, I checked out for awhile (Netflix is good for that), but this morning, I knew I needed to do something that would help me resist the temptation to shut down.
The only antidote I know for this kind of reaction in me is to dare to live with an open heart. It’s the hardest choice to make when I’m angry, but the more open my heart is, the less likely I am to let the anger and fear fester and get bigger.
The poet Mark Nepo tells us to be more like fish. “As fish must keep their gills open in order to survive moving through the water, humans must keep their hearts open in order to move through the difficult and wondrous river of experience. Letting life move through an open heart is how we make medicine out of our suffering.”
This morning I decided to be more like a fish.
I posted this on Facebook: “My heart’s been heavy this week, witnessing so much fear, hatred and closed-mindedness. So… let’s do something different. Tell me how you’ve seen love and openheartedness appear this week.”
The responses were simple and breathtaking. One shared about the friend who showed up to help her welcome her new dog. Another applauded her daughter who’d raised $1500 for a rescue mission that helps women get out of the sex trade. Another had seen an elderly white man help a young black boy tie his tie. Still others shared about kindhearted daycare workers, free clinics, supportive husbands, gracious sign-holders, and smiling grand-babies.
My heart started feeling a little bigger and the fresh air moved through my gills as I let the angry air out. I brought that feeling into my work, and was soon coaching clients who shared their vulnerable and brave stories of healing from past abuse and daring to step into their artist calling later in life. My heart grew healthier and stronger with each story that passed through me.
We build resilience when we respond to fear and anger with an open heart. We have to dare to be open to people’s stories and dare to be vulnerable with our own.
But there’s a harder part to this openhearted living that goes beyond being vulnerable with those people who feel safe, and that’s what I had to challenge myself with once the anger had subsided.
Living with an open heart also means daring to be compassionate with those who think differently from me and those who respond to their own fear and anger differently from me.
It wasn’t hard for me to extend compassion to my Facebook friends or coaching clients or even to the innocent Islamic people who are now facing prejudice and hatred because they are associated with the terrorists. Those people are safe and don’t require me to stretch too much. What I find to be much harder is to extend compassion to the terrorists themselves and to the people who are meeting hatred with hatred, spouting racist rhetoric and closing their doors to the Syrian people.
I had to dig deep to remember that these people are all responding to their own fears in the way that makes the most sense for them. Extending compassion does not mean that I need to agree with them or justify their actions, but it means that I have to dare to open my heart enough to see the hurt that turned them into the people they are.
Fear changes us. It makes us fierce in ways that sometimes surprise and even scare us.
When I was sexually assaulted a number of years ago, I went home to the farm to be with my parents. My pacifist, Mennonite dad, who would never allow a gun in the house and who never physically hurt anyone, admitted later that he was shocked by the realization that he was capable of killing another man. He’d never had that temptation before.
When people hurt or threaten people you love, or even if you simply perceive them to do so, it causes fear to rise up and you are suddenly not the rational, peace-loving person you always thought you were. Suddenly, you can think of only one thing – to keep your family safe at all costs. I get that, and I see it happening on a global scale in response to the terrorism we’ve witnessed. I also assume (though I can’t pretend to understand it) that it must be happening in the hearts of the terrorists. Something has made them so fearful and angry that the only response that makes sense to them is to destroy the people and the culture that pose the greatest threat.
There are so many players in this unfolding drama that I don’t understand, but when I remember how my dad was changed in that moment when he realized that someone had raped and tried to murder his daughter, it allows me to open my heart with some compassion to those who are responding out of their own deep wounds. Instead of opening their hearts and living like fish, they chose to close them and to allow the blackness to grow and consume them.
I wish those terrorists and those who are responding with hatred had all had fathers like mine. Perhaps they would have learned to make other choices.
My dad’s surprising rage was not the most memorable lesson of the day. The wisdom that I received from my dad came in the actions he chose just after learning that I’d been raped and nearly killed. After giving me a hug, and then leaving me to my mom’s nurturing arms, he went outside to feed the pigs. I wasn’t there when he fed them, so I don’t know whether he was crying or screaming or throwing things while he fed the pigs, I only know that he fed them. And, because I know my Dad, I expect he was also praying.
He fed the pigs because he needed some physical activity to dispel some of the rage. And he did it because he needed to do something useful and mundane in that moment when his world had been turned upside down. And he prayed because he knew he could only dispel the darkness in his own heart with the help of a Higher Power.
Once he was done, he came back inside with a calmer mind and a heart that dared to remain open. His God and his pigs helped him with that.
When the fear and rage and pain wash over you, it might feel impossible to remember what Mark Nepo said about living with your heart open to the world. Those are the times when you first need to feed the pigs. Or feed the children. Or go for a long walk in the woods. Or make art or music. Or dance. Or swing a hammer.
Do something to alchemize the pain, and then reach for a Higher Power who can help you change your heart. Once you’ve done those things, come back with a calmer mind and a heart that dares to remain open.
Lashing out in your pain will only create more pain and will never solve the problem. Only living with an open heart will allow you to move on without wounding anyone.
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Yesterday I hosted an Openhearted Writing Circle. It was beautiful. When people dare to come together to explore and share their raw and courageous stories, magic happens.
Before they started to write, I gave them these simple suggestions. I give them to you, too, in case you want to be an openhearted writer.
- Be in love. Write from a deep source of love that wants to flow through you. You are not writing for a critic, you are writing for love. Dare to be in that love.
- Be courageous. Dare to dive deeper into your own truth than you ever have before. Dare to say those things that make you tremble.
- Be honest. There is no point in watered-down truth. If you are lost in a dangerous sea of sadness that threatens to drown you, and you say simply “I’m a little sad”, you’re not telling the whole truth.
- Be authentic. Nobody wants Hemingway’s stories coming out of your pen. Only YOUR stories can come out of your pen, and your stories are as unique and valuable as Hemingway’s, even if they’re never published and are meant simply for your own healing.
- Be messy. You don’t have to get it right the first time. Or even the second. Let yourself get messy and spill all that you have onto a page. There will be time to polish later, but to start with, get it all out there without editing what wants to flow. The most beautiful gems show up when you make the least attempt to edit yourself.
- Be kind to yourself. Silence the inner critic and simply let yourself write. You are not seeking perfection, you are simply seeking a gateway into your truth.
- Be passionate. Dare to show the fullness of your emotion – your love, hate, fear, strength, anger, etc. – on the page. Dare to shout “YES!” to the world through your writing. Dare to live out loud.
- Be generous. Give it ALL to the page (and to your reader), not just a token. If there’s wisdom that wants to flow out of you right now, don’t save it for another day – let it flow. Be intentional about living in the gift economy, where we serve each other instead of seeking a “return on every investment”. You have gained wisdom in your years on the earth and others need it, so share it.
- Be patient. “If good ideas do not come at once, or for a long time, do not be troubled at all. Wait for them. Put down the little ideas however insignificant they are. But do not feel, any more, guilty about idleness and solitude.” – Brenda Ueland
- Be trusting. There are stories in you that want to be told – trust the muse to help you tell them. Trust yourself to have the right words and the right creativity.
- Be shameless. The greatest barrier for people telling truthful, raw stories is often the shame that we feel about that story. “What will people think if they know this about me?” But that keeps us from really connecting and helping other people through our stories.