One of the most significant challenges we face in a relationship with those we love is the occasional misunderstanding or conflict that results in an emotional wound. We are wired to seek connection with others. It feels so good when we find it yet when we feel the rift of disconnection, even if just for a moment, we find ourselves wanting to close our hearts and retreat into ourselves.
Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable means that we allow ourselves to get hurt. It seems like a paradox - we understand we must treat ourselves well and expect the same from others; and yet, we know that by consciously allowing ourselves to be hurt, we often experience our highest growth.
I'm not advocating seeking out people who hurt us, but instead not resisting experiences of hurt when they inevitably arise in our loving relationships.
Every one of us has been hurt by someone we love. When this happens, we use coping strategies that are either productive or destructive depending on who hurt us, the nature of the hurt and the extent to which we feel hurt. Often the degree of our suffering is related to the nature of the assumptions we make in the situation. If our egos use times of conflict to rise up and reinforce illusions like “I am not worthy”, “why does everyone end up hurting me”, or “I should have known better” we will then project that bitterness and disappointment onto the person who has hurt us, often out of proportion to their true intentions. We want to catch ourselves in these emotional states because if we lash out or withdraw, we will just propagate and magnify the hurt for all involved.
So the question becomes, how do we keep our hearts open when we've been hurt?
By harnessing the power of our breath.
It’s so simple and yet incredibly difficult to remember in the moment. Even if you can remember to take slow, deep breaths while dealing with conflict and hurt feelings, it might seem that its actually causing you to feel more pain; but allowing yourself to breathe in the hurt and feel it entirely in your whole being is the first step in letting it go.
Breathe your way through the conflict. Breathe to let it go.
There will be times when you need to delve deeper into the pain to fully process it - when merely breathing mindfully isn't enough to resolve it. In those situations I recommend tonglen. This Buddhist meditation focuses on inhaling the suffering and exhaling happiness and blessings to others who are feeling the same pain. It draws on ancient wisdom and modern neuroscience that shows that a cornerstone of self-compassion is common humanity; recognizing that we are not alone.
Visualizing yourself taking in pain and releasing joy is counter-intuitive, but it really works. The practice gently asks us to confront our suffering and to see it for what it is - not something that will destroy us, but rather something that connects us to everyone else in our shared humanity.
Below are the steps you can use to keep your heart open during times of conflict with a loved one:
1. When you feel the familiar sting of emotional pain, acknowledge its presence.
2. Identity where you feel the pain in your body, and then take a deep breath in.
3. Breathe in the pain, deeply, visualizing it entering your heart.
4. Breathe out from your heart your blessings to everyone feeling as you are right now.
5. Allow any emotions to arise, and any physical reaction you might have to them, such as crying.
6. After several breaths, give thanks for yourself and the courage you showed in allowing yourself to be vulnerable.
As you work towards staying vulnerable and open, especially when you want to close yourself off and retreat from the world, be kind to yourself. It’s important not to judge yourself and your reactions, but to merely observe them. By practicing vulnerability in the face of emotional wounds, you are actually opening yourself up to feeling deeper levels of joy and love. This is ultimately the gift in our pain – it is the key that unlocks the hidden rooms deep in our hearts that have been empty and gathering dust, only because we didn’t know they were there. Keeping yourself open to those who have hurt you will allow you to consciously inhabit your own heart.