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Opening Your Heart in an Overwhelming World

flowersOver the last year, I’ve experienced an overall opening and freeing of my heart. This has changed the quality of my life in a subtle but powerful way.

For the past six months I have been doing volunteer work in the prison system, teaching Non-violent Communication to inmates. This is a very challenging environment in which to have an open heart, and yet it allows the most effective thing I can offer them: compassion and connection. It has taught me a lot about how this energetic system works.

What an open heart feels like:

  • There is a softness in my chest
  • My smile feels soft and genuine
  • I feel relaxed, calm, and friendly
  • I have a sense of inward and outward gentleness
  • I feel permeable to the world – that I am affected by my environment
  • I find it easy to feel compassion and affection
  • I stay calmer during conflict
  • I can feel or sense others’ state, including their suffering and their joy

This isn’t just metaphorical – we have an energetic center at our heart, the Heart Chakra, as well as a large nerve center sometimes called the “Heart Brain”. We have another one in our gut. Collectively with various inner parts of our brain, this is our Limbic System–the emotional-relational system of our brain/body.

Why we close our heart

When our heart is open, we perceive information through it–information about the energy and emotions of the people around us.

Sometimes that is quite overwhelming. We can be vulnerable, especially as children, to criticism and emotional overwhelm.

Examples of overwhelming situations:

  • being teased
  • being the “new kid”
  • being in a family system where feelings are suppressed and what people say is different than what is really going on
  • witnessing or experiencing violence
  • being exposed to the news
  • being around people who are disregulated (anxious, up-and-down)
  • experiencing repeated misunderstandings without repair
  • experiencing loss that is not processed and released
  • being told not to cry, or witnessing people shut down their emotional response
  • a parent that is invasive in their attention or anxious around letting you have privacy or space
  • being ridiculed for expressing tenderness or vulnerability

If these situations are repeated over and over in our environment, closing our heart is an instinctual, necessary, and understandable thing to do. It’s adaptive.

My experience of a closed heart feels like this:

  • I relate to things analytically or critically
  • I feel grouchy and irritable
  • I have little patience
  • I want to be alone so I don’t feel pressure to be friendly
  • I find it easy to make fun of people or situations
  • I’m likely to escalate or dis-regulate during conflict

How to open your heart

I think this is an individual process for everyone. Here are some of the elements of my journey.

Understand why you close your heart. In my case, I was a very sensitive kid, and I was overwhelmed a lot. I got teased a lot in school, so I learned to withdraw and rely on my intelligence rather than my heart to figure out how to navigate my world. Having compassion for myself, I can let go of self-blame and realize I was doing the best I could.

Develop a felt sense of an open heart. The body is always practicing a way of being. The more you practice feeling your heart being open, the more you will have access to that state.

Track when your heart opens and closes. A simple self-observation exercise will deepen your awareness of this process. Each night, reflect back over your day and with gentle curiosity, ask yourself these questions:

  • when did I experience my heart being open?
  • when did I experience my heart being closed?
  • what prompted the movement toward an open or closed heart?

This brings awareness to what is already happening so you can learn how your system works.

Do heart-opening practices. A simple one is the Buddhist practice of metta or loving-kindness. You start by saying:

May I be at peace.

May I be happy.

May I be free from suffering.

Repeat each statement to yourself for a few minutes until you feel your heart begin to soften. Then picture someone you love, and say the statements to them internally, changing “I” to “you”. Then choose someone neutral, and then someone challenging.

When you’re uncertain, dip your toe in. If you anticipate you will feel overwhelmed by a situation or person, try on a bite-size chunk of the experience before jumping in.

Take care of your heart. Once you are aware of your heart and what it needs, you can consciously take care of it. Here are some things I do:

  • When I feel myself getting “full” of emotional input, I take a break, center myself, or go for a walk
  • I choose your commitments wisely to be heart-happy ones
  • I stopped watching the news or violent TV shows
  • I make space for quiet heart-centered practices
  • I redecorated my house to make it a more quiet, colorful, nurturing space to return to
  • I regularly internally affirm my value and commitment around living in an open-hearted way.

There is no right or wrong here. It certainly makes sense why we close our hearts. I personally enjoy the gentle softness of being open. I want to protect my most innocent feelings and support my most innocent impulses. I want to let myself love, in an uncertain world. These practices are how I take care of myself while doing that.

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