Living with a whole heart

January 26, 2011

photo from

People hurt each other. It’s just a fact. And usually, people closest to us inflict the most pain. Family. Good friends. Lovers.

Usually, they don’t mean to, although you’ll always find a few people who are just plain mean. Most of the time, they’re clueless, operating out of their own need and insecurities. Or the hurt is a byproduct of something else going on with them. Something that has nothing to do with the person they hurt.

“Broken heart” is about right. The kind of pain inflicted by people to whom we are connected can hit right to the core. And the reason is pretty simple.

Connection is why we’re here, says social scientist Brene Brown. We’re neurobiologically wired to connect with others. So when something goes wrong with the connection, we’re shaken.

But why would people lash out? Well, here’s a reason:

And at our deepest core, we’re afraid we aren’t worthy of connection. Which makes us afraid of other things. Afraid that if the people we love really saw us for who we are, they wouldn’t love us. Afraid to be vulnerable. Afraid to be seen as we are. We lash out at those to whom we’re connected because we are afraid to be — imperfect.

But of course, we are all imperfect.

Dr. Brown talks about something called “wholehearted living.” Living with authenticity, belonging, love and a resilient spirit. Connecting in a real way. She says that being real means being imperfect and that imperfection, that authenticity, is our real source of power.

“You’re not a ‘fake-it’ kind of girl,” someone I love said to me once.
“Your integrity is unquestionable,” one of my Silicon Valley bosses told me years ago. {I’m not sure he was comfortable with it, but that’s another story.}

I’m NOT a ‘fake-it’ kind of girl, it’s true. And I aspire to integrity. But I am certainly not immune to insecurity and the pain of being rejected by people who are supposed to love us. And like everyone else, I get nervous when I’m vulnerable. Real nervous.

Being vulnerable is not comfortable. But then, it’s not supposed to be. It is, however, necessary for connection, Brown says, and I see her point.

To be authentic, we must be willing to let go of what we think we should be, in order to be who we really are.

That bears a few minutes of thought. Because, we aren’t our stories. Our ambitions. Our jobs. We’re so much more. And to truly connect with another, we have to be authentic. Have to.

“I’m not my car,” I once said to someone I’d just met, who responded, “I’m not my truck.” True, dat, on both counts.

Image management can be either conscious or unconscious. Either way, it means we aren’t letting ourselves be seen by others. Because we’re afraid.

I once had a reputation management client who wanted badly to be a celebrity. They were so much more substantial than celebrity. But they couldn’t see it. And didn’t want to give others a chance to appreciate them for who they really were. Because they were afraid others wouldn’t see their value.

It takes a boatload of courage to be vulnerable in our own imperfections. And even more to treat our own imperfections compassionately, instead of judging them. It’s the judging that keeps us from living authentically. “What will people think?” can be a showstopper.

So what do we do with our vulnerability? We try to numb it. With drugs, alcohol, food, violence. With buying more than we can afford. With acquiring and hoarding. Gambling. Sex. All the vices. With putting people off.

Brown points out that we think we’re numbing a single vulnerability, for example, grief. “I don’t want to feel sad so I drink.” But, she says, we can’t selectively numb emotion. We end up numbing our ability to feel anything: joy, happiness, gratitude–all of it. All affect: gone.

Whoa–but it makes sense. I’ve written before about someone I know who is a flatliner. She’s hugely distressed by the peaks and valleys of life, which is to say she’s uncomfortable with emotion. And so she’s numbed it all and has reduced her life down to a flatline. When she’s numbed something or someone out and it looks like her entire body’s been shot with novacaine. Expressionless. Emotionless. Humorless. Passionless.

It’s heartbreaking. {I miss the woman I used to know, who had passion and was engaged in life.}

So back to Brown’s concept of wholeheartedness. She posits that to live fully, we must fully embrace vulnerability. That what makes us vulnerable, makes us beautiful.

What does she mean? Our willingness to step out into the great unknown. To do something where there are no guarantees. To enter the dating pool at 70 years old. To say I love you first. To invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. To do something risky. Like loving with our whole hearts. Regardless of the risk.

Those kinds of things are fundamental to her concept of wholehearted living, Brown says.

Yes, scary stuff. BUT: look around.

Authenticity is the genesis of creativity, of love and of success. Authentic people are willing to let themselves be truly seen, in their creative lives, in their romances, in their work. Even if it isn’t always pretty. {In fact, it can get downright messy, and who would know better than moi?}

So how do we get there? Just two steps, really. But big ones.

First, we must believe that we are enough. As we are. No need to judge ourselves. No need to outshout others. Or tune them out. Or lash out at them. Or feel insecure. We are enough. In ourselves.

Then, we must be brave enough step out into the world with our whole hearts. Take risks, even though there is no guarantee. And in those inevitable moments of terror, comfort ourselves by practicing gratitude and joy at being alive, alive enough to feel emotion.

Yes, it’s frightening. But why not make the most of life? This is the only life we have, at least right now.

And, because with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is STILL a beautiful world. {Max Ehrmann}

Thanks to Diana Baur for posting Dr. Brown’s concepts on her blog, which helped me flesh out my thoughts on this. Another reason to love the blogosphere.

2 comments on “Living with a whole heart
  1. diana says:

    well said, my friend!

  2. And thank you, my friend!

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