I recently listened to an episode of the Unspoken Podcast where one of my favorite people, best-selling author Mari Andrew, was the guest. If you don’t know her, look her up on Instagram (@bymariandrew) and prepare to see some of your deepest thoughts, feelings, and experiences as simple-yet-wonderful illustrations.
During the interview, they were discussing the need for more genuine curiosity and openness towards people and the world, especially in today’s toxic political environment. Mari offered a great analogy to explain why we are not more open. She pointed out that when we are afraid of the cold, our body’s immediate reaction is to tense up. We fold our arms, shrug our shoulders, and try to curl into ourselves as much as possible. But really, the best way to stay warm is the complete opposite – it’s to relax.
When we tense up, we restrict blood flow. We essentially don’t allow the heart to do what it is meant to do – fill every vessel, organ, and limb with life… with warmth.
I love this analogy because it works in so many scenarios. Think about it, our instinctive reaction to anything that is uncomfortable (or scary) is to get stiff and rigid –
When we’re uneasy in a social setting, we cross our arms.
When we’re nervous, we tense up.
When someone disagrees with us, we posture up and defend ourselves.
All the opposite of relaxing. But maybe the best way to handle any uncomfortable situation is instead to stay soft and flexible… be open and curious. Maybe in doing that, we allow the heart to do its job – fill every thought, scenario, and relationship with love.
I see this analogy play out constantly in my life. For me, it’s not difficult to be curious towards myself (clearly, just read any of my writing). It’s the staying open thing I struggle with. Not open to differences – I’m a rare breed of people these days who can discuss religion, politics, or any other controversial topic without judging or trying to change your mind. I’m both open and curious in those discussions. My struggle is being emotionally open with the people I’m closest to. Fully opening my heart to them. It’s a battle I fight every day.
As much as I want to let them in, I remain somewhat closed off… tense.
My process of becoming closed was long and difficult, so I guess it’s fitting that so too is the process to open back up. It’s like the two mirror each other perfectly. When I was younger, I would jump at the opportunity to open up to someone and give them my all. Then as heartache arrived over and over, I became rigid and guarded. And still, I would look for any reason – any trigger – to open back up… to believe in love again… to fight for love again. But when each opening resulted in only more pain, those reasons and triggers became few and far between.
Now, as I try to get back to that younger, open-heart version of myself, the opposite process is happening. Where there were once triggers that caused hope and promise, there are now triggers to reinforce the walls. I used to grasp onto reasons to love someone; now I jump on reasons to push them away – to go back into “independent-I-don’t-need-anyone” mode.
But I now see that the guard isn’t protecting me from anything… it’s denying me the fullness of life. It’s not letting my heart do what it is here to do. So I’ve been fighting the good fight – trying to stay open – for quite some time. And earlier this year I learned something that was a total game changer…
No one gives me a reason to close… I am the reason. The triggers are my triggers.
In one of my favorite books, The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, there is a chapter that discusses our inner thorns. He instructs the reader to imagine that you have a thorn stuck in your arm and it really hurts when it is touched. Like, an unbearable pain. So you do everything you can to avoid the pain. In doing so, you basically have two options: you can maneuver through life trying to avoid the thorn ever being touched, accepting that you will hurt whenever it is. Or you can remove it.
If you choose the avoidance method, the thorn essentially runs your life – determining what you can and can’t do, where you can and can’t go, who you can and can’t let in – all based on ensuring the thorn is never hit. This is the strategy I’ve historically taken.
I’ve experienced a fair share of heartache in my life and because of that, I have a lot of thorns. And if one of those thorns is hit, it triggers my heart to close – walls up, gates shut – so I don’t feel the all-too-familiar pain.
Case in point: the other week a simple, benign, last-minute change of plans resulted in the following thought process in my head:
This is bullshit.
I don’t need this.
He’s just like the others.
I don’t want to deal with this.
I’m better off on my own.
In other words, I freaked the F out. It really wasn’t a big deal. But as much as I told myself that, I couldn’t stop myself from closing up; from going back into guarded mode.
Luckily, I remembered the game changer… the fact that I had a choice – I could let the thorn run my life, or I could remove it. So I went on my first big thorn excavation expedition… a self-reflection rollercoaster to figure out why I was freaking out.
Turns out the simple change of plans hit two thorns – thorns I like to call “I can’t rely on him” and “I’m not a priority.” Neither of which have been proven true in my current relationship. But those thorns are big – sculpted from promised phone calls that didn’t come, dates that didn’t happen, Christmas’ with no gift, and birthdays unnoticed. For years, I couldn’t rely on my partner and I wasn’t the priority. Hence the thorns.
It wasn’t easy to identify what exactly was triggered. It required a lot of restraint to not do or say anything drastic until I figured it all out. And it required me to get really open and curious with myself – what thorn was hit? What is it made from? Where did my reaction really come from? To answer that, I had to dig through layers and layers of memories and feelings I much preferred not to resurface.
But the biggest – and most difficult – task was taking ownership of all of it. To remember it’s my thorn. I put it there… and I can remove it.
It’s so hard. We live in a society that almost promotes us to blame others for how we feel.
They hurt my feelings.
They offended me.
They disrespected me.
No they didn’t. No one can cause you to feel a certain way. You decide your feelings. As Wayne Dyer would say, “you can’t get wet with the word water.” Unless someone physically hurts you, you are giving them the power to upset you, to anger you, to annoy you – you are doing that. Because you placed whatever thorn they are touching there. You did it to protect yourself, but ultimately, it’s just causing you more pain. Because it’s giving the original pain new life over and over again… allowing it to live on forever.
Instead, you can recognize this and decide not to feel that way… to dig through why you’re really bothered… to identify and remove the thorn. Remove the discomfort.
To do that, I had to recognize and fully accept that my past doesn’t define my present. The change of plans didn’t equate to years of not mattering. And he didn’t just prove he was them.
It wasn’t a quick process and it wasn’t an easy one. And unfortunately, I’m not sure I fully removed the thorns. They run deep. But I know I made progress. I know they’re now a little closer to the surface. And I know I’m better equipped to handle the next hit… because I now have excavation experience.
It’s painful to maneuver through life with all these thorns. Because we cannot control other people – where, when, or how they will trigger them. They hit them in relationships, at work, and in traffic. They hit them with their personalities, their beliefs, and their clothes.
But while we can’t control them, we can control us. We can decide not to let the thorns win. We can dig them up… get curious about ourselves, our thoughts, and our feelings. Be open to owning the real cause of them. Then let them go.
And with each thorn we remove, we become more relaxed… more flexible… more open. And we stop letting the pain from our past stick around in our present.