In every yoga class I do, the teacher tells me to put my shoulders back and open my chest, lead with my heart. And I am sometimes amazed at how hard this is, even at forty. How much the long-ingrained habits of my body still fight against this. How at some point, three decades or so ago, I started to hunch my shoulders forward, to protect the soft female parts of me that were emerging. Which is probably around the same time that I learned to protect my heart.
I’ve been trying to understand what trust means, and every time I think I’ve got it, it turns out to be one step ahead of me and I can’t catch up.
Brene Brown, in her most recent book, Rising Strong, defines trust simply as “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.”
In the past, I would have defined those things of value in terms of physical safety, agreements, boundaries, keeping one’s word, keeping a confidence. All of those things are true. I have mistrusted people with those things in the past. There was a time when I would have – and did – cut off friendships over a broken agreement. My sense of being loved was very precarious then – I defended myself over any perceived threat.
But I have been recognizing lately how often people misuse or misunderstand words like trust or safety. Trust and safety aren’t necessarily about worrying that other people will deliberately hurt us. They are often about not believing that the most fragile parts of ourselves will be handled with compassion.
This may be even more true when we are not treating those parts with compassion ourselves.
When I feel myself shutting off my trust, it’s usually because I am afraid that something of emotional value to me, something that is dear to me – something that feels sensitive, or raw, or hurt, or sometimes beautiful, or sometimes not fully formed – will be mishandled or misunderstood or dismissed. That if I make it vulnerable to another person’s actions, it won’t be in safe hands.
I fear that the world is an abrasive place and there is no room for fragility. I don’t think this is an unfounded fear; it’s based on old experiences and wounds, and so the temptation is to hold the things that are fragile or precious really close, and build walls and barriers and boxes around them.
Sometimes it feels like everything that is most authentic and true is also fragile and precious and I am tempted to guard it all with my life.
And I do think we need to have awareness of when we need to protect ourselves in the world, but perhaps the only way to find out is to keep opening small doors into those boxes and letting people look inside. And even if they stumble and make mistakes in their response, to know that these other people are also usually hurt in some way, to know that we all constantly circle around each other in this dance of defensiveness. That every one of our human interactions is implicated in some way. And that we may need to stop, take a deep breath and try again.
There is also truth in knowing that there are people who will hurt us, and I guess that once we are hurt we are so sensitized to that stimulus that we respond the same way to a small pinprick as we do to being stabbed with a knife. This is what trauma is. I hesitate to use the word, because it’s not necessarily trauma that is measurable on a big scale, not always trauma that can be diagnosed as such.
We are all born vulnerable and honest and then at some point most of us learn – slowly or suddenly – that that is not the right way to be, that we are putting ourselves in danger. And so we find ways to prevent other people from seeing who we really are. We hold close what is most dear to us.
When I put up armour – even in subtle ways – expecting people will hurt me, where does that come from? How can I isolate the causes? Is it from being a child who was easily hurt: was it learning early to keep thick armour over those sensitive parts? Perhaps it is simply growing up in a toxic culture: the cruelty of the schoolyard, the ugliness of the media we consume. We are so many of us wounded from that.
Last week I cut out some words from a magazine article about Thich Nhat Hanh to add to a collage to inspire me for the year ahead. They read: “Each of us must ask ourselves, how large is my heart? How can I help my heart grow bigger and bigger every day?”
A few days later I read these words again, and felt a rush of panic. Can I actually do this? How much will it hurt?
An addendum to Brown’s definition of trust – and what I have been repeating to myself almost as a mantra lately – is to “extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.” Allowing myself this possibility has changed my view of the world, a little bit at a time. Because it is exactly the opposite of the scenario that I acted on – the worst-case scenario – for years and decades.
The idea of extending the most generous interpretation possible has been liberating. It frees my heart. As does reminding myself over and over again that people are doing the best they can in any given moment. That, like my own actions, other people’s actions are influenced by all kinds of factors: their own emotional baggage and anxieties, their own awkwardness. Their own distractions. Their own assumptions. Their own stories. Their own habits. Their own armour. Their own numbing behaviours. Their own pain.
Giving people the benefit of the doubt frees me to keep loving them regardless. It keeps me curious. It keeps that space open. Recognizing other people’s vulnerability gives me compassion for my own. It allows me to lead with my heart.