I rolled out of the womb a sensitive creature. From a young age, I had a keenly developed intuitive faculty; I sniffed out emotion like a bloodhound and adjusted my demeanor accordingly. I say this as if this was a conscious choice when it was anything but; when someone was overcome with anger, I slunk into myself and dreamed of disappearing as if by instinct. Likewise, when someone was overcome with sadness, I felt my heart collapse inside my chest and it was all I could do to keep from crying. This empathy allowed me to feel with others, to internalize their emotions as if they were my own. Some say this is a strength but, without proper boundaries or defense mechanisms, it can be the undoing of a person. It was nearly the undoing of me.
Long about my senior year of high school, I began to steel myself off from the emotions of others. I’d become crippled by empathy; I was so concerned about the reactions and feelings of others that I could barely sneeze without apologizing. I looked on as my peers relentlessly and carelessly (without empathy, without compassion) pursued their agendas and came away with the choicest prizes–cars, scholarships, acceptance to top-tier universities, hot or popular boyfriends/girlfriends, and a seemingly endless supply of fluid cash to recklessly spend however they chose. And I was jealous. And pissed. Why couldn’t I give zero fucks and get what I wanted? Why was I so damn aware of my parents’ financial situation, why could I read the reaction in their faces when my sister asked for Hollister jeans as exactly what it was–guilt mixed with insecurity? Why, even though I knew they’d say yes, couldn’t I ask for the same damn thing? Why did I have to care so much!
I was literally exhausted from caring. And when a person gets pushed to the brink of exhaustion, she often surrenders. So I surrendered to my darker nature. I pursued the man I wanted and I got him, but not without sacrificing my longest and strongest friendship. I bypassed asking for things and simply took what was mine, and goddammit, it worked. I’d gotten the things that I wanted, I’d pursued my agenda relentlessly and I’d come away with the choicest prizes. And yet, I felt like crap. I felt poorly about how I’d obtained the objects my desire, so poorly, in fact, that I simply decided not to feel. If I could deny myself everything, I wouldn’t feel as if I needed anything. If I could wall myself off from others, I wouldn’t be able to hurt them and they wouldn’t be able to hurt me. If I completely ingratiated myself in intellectual pursuits, I wouldn’t need relationships, and I wouldn’t have to feel guilty for the sheer fact of existing. This ended fairly predictably–me in an empty room with an empty heart, contemplating how the hell I’d let it get this far.
It seems that we often have to swing between extremes before we find balance, and so it was with me. I’d learned that walking around with a mutable heart would completely overwhelm and paralyze me. Likewise, I knew that allowing my heart to become a desiccated shell would make life meaningless. What the hell was I suppose to do, then?
Finding this balance has been the work of half a decade. So often I’ve failed, so often I’ve almost walled myself off again, so often I’ve become completely paralyzed by obsessive thinking and overwhelming emotion, so often I’ve nearly allowed my persona to be completely consumed, but I’ve never given up. I’ve never surrendered. And I’ve learned a thing or two about this organ we call the heart.
I was listening to a Wonderworker Biz Riff by the inimitable Kelly-Ann Maddox awhile back and she uttered a phrase that resonated with me like thunderous peel of a room-sized gong: “Open, gentle heart. Big fucking fence.” The quote is the title of an amazing blog post by the equally inimitable Danielle LaPorte in which she counsels her son on how to be a champion person, basically:
“Keep your heart open, as wide open as you possibly can. Keep it so soft. Let it be tender. FEEL EVERYTHING. Feel your feelings, share your feelings. Keep your heart gentle, gentle, open, open.
And then… put a big fucking fence around it. Make it tall and make it strong. Ask your angels to guard the gate for you at all times. Do not let anybody past your gate unless their own heart is open and gentle. Only let in people who are respectful, kind, interested and loving. Emphasis on respectful, kind, interested and loving.”
I like to refer to this approach as coeur strength (I’m a clever little cardslinger, no?). A heart can be open yet unprotected, susceptible to being trampled on, high-jacked, and abused. So too can it be walled-off, a condition that suffocates and kills it. But, if we take the time and care to nurture our hearts and construct mindful fences around them (listen to our intuitive feelings, consciously and regularly practice self-love, discern the difference between compassion and guilt), we truly can have our cake and eat it too. The strong, proud heart is one that knows its worth, that pursues what makes it sing, that feels its own emotion so strongly and centeredly that it can’t become consumed by the emotion of others. So too, it can be kind without making itself vulnerable to abuse. It creates boundaries that are designed to maintain relationships rather than eradicate them. And in case you were wondering, the answer is yes–guilt is one of the most corrosive emotions out there.
On November 1, the Witches New Year, I laid my yearly tarot forecast spread on my altar and meditated. Throughout the month of October, the Ace of Cups had been haunting me, begging me to incorporate its archetype into my intention-setting process. It appeared again in my spread, directing me to prioritize my compassion and gratitude practices. It asked me to work on my grounding. It suggested that I actively maintain my fence. And I promised to rise to that challenge.
There’s no such thing as a perfect heart. Sometimes we get hurt, and sometimes we hurt others. But if we remain committed to practicing discernment, to loving ourselves enough to know when to walk away, and to loving others enough to know when to be honest, we stand a pretty good shot of coming through.