I can’t watch Syrian refugee videos without crying. I can’t hear Donald Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric without my pulse quickening and my heart hurting for the beautiful people he projects his fears upon.
Truth is, I choke up while watching dog food commercials. I am moved to tears on the daily by fog in the mountains or the dance between two trees, I can only be around noisy groups of people for a few hours before I have to retreat and process all I’ve taken in, and I can’t remember the last time I wrote anything without my vision being blurred by emotion.
As a sensitive, open-hearted person, I’m deeply affected by the world.
And though I now know this to be one of my greatest strengths, I haven’t always seen it that way. For most of my life, in fact, I lived with walls around my heart to keep from feeling so intensely.
Vulnerability was the feeling I feared the most.
Little by little, during particularly challenging and heartbreaking stretches of my life, those walls were chipped away at. The past five years of truth telling, soul searching, and perspective from abroad have resulted in their complete annihilation.
I’ve never felt so vulnerable in all my life.
This means that I feel pain much more frequently than I used to (as opposed to disguising my pain as anger, resentment, or disappointment). It’s also allowing me access to depths of joy, connection, and compassion that were previously unavailable to me.
I feel like a once-caged animal, exploring my natural habitat again for the first time since my childhood.
Last month, while hearing the news of the San Bernardino shooting and feeling deep grief for all those suffering, my attention shifted to the killers. A mental image came to me of an expertly-crafted, impenetrable stone fortress around each of their hearts. A wall so thick that not a single one of their souls’ pleadings could be heard or felt through it. How long had it been since they’d been moved by love or joy or beauty? How certain must they have felt that peace and security would never reach them in order to commit such atrocious acts?
I don’t claim to know the kind of pain, disconnection, and rejection that leads people to such hateful, terror-inflicting choices and mindsets. I’ve never experienced the depth of fear that causes a complete emotional detachment from certain groups people in order to dominate, control, or destroy them.
But I do know what it is to live with my heart walled. I know how nice it can feel to claim certainty, to cling tightly to ideals, and to renounce that which I don’t understand in order to feel a little safer in an overwhelming world.
Dare we empathize with them — even the smallest amount — in order to better understand the state of the world, and ourselves within it? Dare we see ourselves in the whole of humanity, and not just the parts we’re comfortable identifying with?
Though walling my heart seemed safer at times, doing so cut me off from the life force trying to move through me. It left me constantly craving. Brené Brown explains why:
“We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
Here’s the thing though:
Being highly sensitive and living unwalled has the potential to completely undo me. If I cry watching dog food commercials, how am I supposed to navigate the complexities of teenager rearing, marriage mending, business building, and life coaching?
Is it possible to be a lightbearer (my favorite name for one who lets her soul be fully seen) AND a high functioning human being?
I’m learning that it is possible, but that we cannot be effective lightbearers without some measure of protection of our own.
Vulnerability doesn’t mean handing our hearts to just anyone or exposing ourselves to a constant stream of tragedy and abuse, it means trusting our hearts to guide us while caring for and watching out for them so they can do their job.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far about living from my heart effectively:
My self-care doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but me. I am often the first to leave a party, the first to call it a night, and the only one eating salad at a burger joint. I don’t watch disturbing movies, I talk to my inner child (sometimes even aloud), and I’d choose bone broth over coffee any day if both were offered. Though it’s not always easier, and my family often (lovingly) gives me a hard time about it, making choices that respect and honor my sensitivities (both emotional and physical) is essential for my strength and ability to show up well with others.
Compassion can be limitless. Given healthy emotional boundaries, I can feel compassion for anyone and everyone, including those whose hearts are completely hidden from the world. I don’t have to hate them back, but I also don’t have to be so disturbed by their actions that in their minds, they win.
I believe we are meant to be affected by the world’s tragedies and suffering — but only for as long as it takes for them to pry our hearts open a little wider. Only for as long as it takes to show us where we still stand to expand, brighten our collective light, and remind us that our light is so very needed.
To those of you who are deeply sensitive, I feel you, I honor you, and I implore you:
Never mistake sensitivity for weakness. Sensitivity indicates a strong heart, eager to be engaged and capable of radical love.
We need you, lightbearer. The world needs you shining.
*Photo credit goes to the amazing Jote Khalsa