Vulnerability: An Open Hearted Life

“I just seem to be crying at the slightest thing recently. I’ll be sitting at a café reading the paper and come across a story that sets me off. Or I’ll see something on TV that gets to me and I’m off again. I’ve just become so sensitive.” This was Amelia talking, a client who had come to see me for therapy. She was a woman in her mid thirties who wanted to deal with some issues that had arisen at her work.

Amelia had come from a rather harsh family background and over the years she had toughened up so that she didn’t have to feel how hurt she was by what had happened. The trouble was, this was leading to a rather heavy-handed management style on her behalf and this wasn’t going down well with the people she worked with.

As I sat with Amelia and talked about her family background, it became clear that she had closed her heart to some degree to protect herself from the family dysfunction. However, this self-protection strategy was no longer serving her, in fact it was making life more difficult. She was constantly getting friends and work colleagues offside and she wasn’t feeling that people liked her.

During the course of therapy Amelia was gradually beginning to let down her defences and was letting herself become more vulnerable – in a good way. This vulnerability meant that she could feel her responses to things and could feel when others were having emotional reactions too. She was no longer impervious to the outside world.

What this meant however was that she was now going through a phase where she acutely felt her response to things happening around her. So if she read in the newspaper that someone had lost family members in a car accident she ended up in tears. If she saw the plight of refugees on television, more tears. I had to reassure her that this was just a phase she was going through as she adjusted to being open to feelings again. She wouldn’t always remain so easily moved to tears.

What it did mean however was that Amelia was also softening towards herself. She could treat herself with more care and tenderness. And then this in turn flowed on towards others. So over the months she noticed there was less friction around her in the workplace.

Our interconnected world

What is interesting about all of this, is to notice that when someone opens their heart after having been in protection and defence, then they begin to feel the world again. They are touched by what is going on around them. Anecdotally, if the people that walk into my therapy rooms are anything to go by, then people are actually very concerned about the events going on around them and the state of affairs in the world. “I just need a glass of wine to shut it all out, its just too much to deal with”, says one. “There is just too much bad stuff going on, where are we supposed to start?” asks another. They may be referring variously to the state of politics, the plight of refugees or environmental degradation. Even when events happen thousands of miles away from us we are still deeply affected.

It is actually an illusion that we can be separate from what happens in the world. Environmentalists also talk about the interconnection on our planet where everything interlinks and effects everything else. Colloquially this is called ‘the butterfly effect’ where it is said that if for example a butterfly flaps its wings in Mexico, then a hurricane happens in Asia. This is not literally the case but environmentalists are just pointing to the fact that nothing exists in isolation and each facet of the environment interconnects and affects everything else.

This is the same in the human realm too even though we may not be consciously aware of it yet. What this means is that if something happens somewhere on the planet, good or bad, then we all feel it at some level; underneath it has an impact. It is like there is a world wide web of human energy that we are all plugged into. Its not an internet web, its an energy web!

This composite ‘field’ connects us all so that something happening in one country can affect the inhabitants of another country and then this trickles down into individuals’ personal lives affecting their wellbeing and mental health. This interconnection became very apparent and very literal during the Covid epidemic where the whole world went through similar difficulties all at the same time.

We can carry on as if there is no such ‘human web’ but our hearts do feel the suffering of others; this is healthy and means we are open to other human beings, not dissociated and shut down. In fact, when people start to wake up to themselves and dismantle the armour around their heart as Amelia did, then they naturally start feeling the impact of the world. They do get upset. They do cry. They are disturbed. Understandably so.

Opening Our Heart

It is actually very healthy to begin to open our heart to the world. It is not a painless process but it is necessary. If we don’t open our heart then we can continue to avoid facing the issues around us. And when we avoid facing things, then we avoid taking responsibility for making a difference. We can stay in the ease of our material comforts and dulling distractions.

What Amelia was learning was that we all have the capacity to feel what is happening to all of us. We can ignore this by getting lost in our own comforts and security. But this is an illusion as Amelia was beginning to discover. Once we open our hearts we begin to be touched by others’ pain. Inside everyone’s heart, when you take away the layers of defence, there lies a compassion and care for other human beings. We actually want the best for each other. We want others to do well; we don’t want them to suffer.

As we begin to open our hearts, yes we do go through a stage where we feel the world’s hurts very deeply. But there is an even deeper place to go to than this. We don’t have to keep weeping at the TV! As we go deeper into our heart, we find a place or state of stillness where everything is held in love. Yes, there is suffering, but there is a greater context than this. This suffering is always held in a deep unwavering love.

This is not the love of a soft-hearted sympathy or everything-will-be-excused bleeding heart. There is no excuse for what we have let happen to the world. And we are all responsible for what is going on here. But this inner source of love reminds us that we have within us everything we need to heal this planet.

As we open our heart, we can learn to hold the pain of others without having to crumple into tears. We remain open and vulnerable but after the tears there is a call to action. We can’t just leave things as they are. We need to contribute in some way.

This responsibility is not a burden or a load we have to carry. It is just a simple response to the need we feel in the world. We all have a unique combination of capacities and can bring these into our particular areas of work and community endeavours. In so doing, we can gradually transform our workplaces and our communities. We can transform the work practises and community functions making them more humane, more equal, more compassionate and more honest.

Our Call to Action

This responsibility called Amelia into action. Some months down the track she was asked to give a talk to a large group of women at her company. She wasn’t keen on public speaking but she decided that the best way to approach it was to just be herself and to be open and transparent in her delivery.

Amelia chose to speak about how hard she had let herself become in the past and how this hadn’t served her or her colleagues. She said that she realised that everyone had vulnerabilities and that if everyone walked around hiding this then it fostered a hard-nosed work culture that didn’t actually serve anyone. She spoke a little about how she had dismantled her protective attitude and how she learned to approach people with more compassion and consideration.

After the talk Amelia was amazed by the response she received. People were disarmed by her presentation. They completely identified with what she spoke about and so appreciated her honesty. It gave them permission to be honest themselves. In this way a ripple effect can happen where one person’s openness ignites another’s and another’s, and then this in turn leads to more openness in our institutions.

This is the way we heal the world. There are very few leaders lighting the way at present. We have to do it ourselves. We are the leaders. We are responsible. And we can be the ones to make a difference.

This transformation is a long-term project of course. It is not going to happen overnight. Or even in a decade. But in my twenty-five years of practise as a psychologist I have seen a change. These days I see so many more people making a difference in their particular field of work compared to when I started. They are stepping up and speaking out and not letting the status quo stand. As one person wakes up to their responsibility so it inspires another to do the same.

Amelia continued to work to bring compassion to her workplace. It wasn’t easy since upper management were not interested in such things. So she was sometimes disheartened by the inhumane and disregarding changes initiated by executive management. But all the while she was learning to stay connected to her own heart and to claim this as her foundation.

When Amelia got knocked down she could come back to this inner fire to steady herself. There was a simplicity and ease within, that she had never known before. She was becoming wise and she was on her way to becoming an elder in her workplace.

And Amelia isn’t alone. There are elders stepping up all around us. You might be one yourself. They may not be the ones running the corporations or the countries – yet. But nevertheless they still have the power to make a difference. As do we all if we choose to take this responsibility. And why wouldn’t we? We’re all in this together so we might as well make a go of it. Connect within and we connect with the all. Then we can respond to the call of the human heart.

Ten Steps to Opening Your Heart

  • Ponder – Were you hurt by things that happened in your background?
  • Ask – Are there protective attitudes and behaviours that you now carry?
  • Awareness – Notice times throughout the day when you might be triggered into a feeling underneath the protective shield.
  • Trust – Could you try to trust yourself to hold vulnerable feelings now?
  • Breath – Breath in and out gently as you feel what you feel.
  • Acceptance – Practise focusing on feelings and accepting how they feel in your body.
  • Engagement – Begin to observe troubling situations outside of yourself. Imagine what it is like for the people involved.
  • Focus – Focus on your heart as you ponder the situation.
  • Compassion – Have the courage to feel the pain in the world around you.
  • Contribution – What are ways you can bring your heart into your everyday life?

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