Five years ago, if you’d told me that the key to a more joyous life was to become more vulnerable; the key to wanting less pain was welcoming more pain; the key to being bulletproof was to strap on a target vest and wander around a shooting range, I would have looked at you with the outrage and disbelief such craziness merits.
And yet, here I am, five years later: strapping on that vest, getting ready to wander.
It all started, as many great and lousy stories do, with heartbreak.
I had just gone through a breakup with someone, and while the end of our relationship was as graceful as could reasonably have been expected, it still reeked sourly of pain and failure. In the wake of the ashes of my happily ever after laying littered at my feet, I made a firm resolution: I was determined to find the way to fix it permanently such that, in the future, heartbreak would never find me again.
Don’t laugh, y’all. I was dead serious, and I spent years dedicating myself wholeheartedly to this work. I was systematic in how I went about it. I started with the most recent relationship and looked at everything I thought was relevant: what went wrong; everything I didn’t like about the relationship, about the other person, about myself within that relationship; and when I was done with all that, I zoomed in even further and looked at everything that I didn’t like very much but tolerated for the sake of love. I carefully, rationally, rigorously dissected everything that I could think of that I thought might have contributed even an infinitesimal amount to pain or why we ended. I was the forensic scientist of my dead relationship, and I was determined that my autopsy would be the most thorough and productive one ever conducted. Once I was done with my survey, I had the most comprehensive collection possible of all my Achilles heels: every single thing that could possibly hurt or even bother me, all in one place. (Kind of like an emotional supervillain’s evil lair, or that place where they store all the world’s deadliest diseases.)
I was dealing with the reasons why the relationship went sour, where my responsibilities lay and the factors outside of my control, and
The next step was to figure out safeguards; this is where I spent the bulk of my time and energy. I worked to understand cause and effect: for each thing X that I didn’t like or want, what was the best way to keep it out of my intimate space? The answer was rarely as simple as doing the opposite of that thing; if you don’t like the color blue, for example, you don’t surround yourself with orange as a hedge against it. It took a colossal amount of time and emotional energy, but again, I was willing to make the investment if it meant the ability to participate in loving relationships without the risk of inevitable devastation and wreckage. In this way I ended up developing extensive, complex, robust systems around relationships. Lots of rules, lots of stylized behavior and language. In this way, or so my theory went, I’ll never be seriously hurt again.
I was fortunate enough to meet someone very special while I was in this process, and I used our relationship as a test case. I asked him to participate in some unconventional relationship processes with me. He had come from his own legacy of relationship challenges, and I think part of the intrigue I posed to him at the time was that, romance and chemistry and fun aside, being with me certainly wasn’t boring! So we went into these unconventional conventions with one another together, and we were both surprised and delighted to find that they worked beautifully well for us, individually and as a couple.
During those years, I didn’t suffer a single heartbreak. I naturally concluded my way was working.
We experienced three powerful, loving, easy, relaxed, non-boring, non-hurtful years with one another. Our communication was top-notch, and we carefully explored our non-conventions with one another to make sure we were firmly on the same page before going into anything with potential emotional risk. We moved slowly but with courage in our lives together, and I congratulated myself often on having landed on the winning relationship formula. We weren’t hurting ourselves, we weren’t hurting each other – we won! And in this way I got to live my new happily ever after all the way up to the day when, playing by every rule and conforming to our usual very high level of communication, he stomped the shit out of my heart.
That was not a part of the bargain.
At the end of my last relationship, it came to my attention that my significant other was fishing around for other company. There was no cheating, but I still felt cheated on; it was this searing pain of betrayal, being found wanting, and being so devalued that I stumbled upon it myself rather than just being told that I became so ferociously determined to avoid. And so my primary focus in my new relationship had become to construct our relationship boundaries so specifically and so widely that cheating became nearly impossible, by definitions. I became comfortable with conversations, adventures, and partners outside of the two of us; I had very specific boundaries, but they were wide, and by setting the fences far beyond either one of our horizons, I felt confident, and later smug, that I would never be caught by surprise by cheating again. It will probably come as no surprise to anyone except myself that it was in the course of one of those adventures that my partner accidentally transgressed one of my boundaries.
Reeling from a sense of betrayal – less against my lovely partner (who was aghast at how what he’d done had made me feel) but rather from all the sturdy, articulate, self-aware, emotional reinforcements I had built – I felt even more shattered than I had before I’d started. Bedraggled and bewildered, I went back to the beginning with my partner, and the following year we slowly retraced our steps. We read a lot, meditated a lot, talked a lot, listened a lot. My partner became a new person to me – by which I mean he grew even more fully into the man I already loved. He was incredibly tender of my feelings. He gave me, unasked, every assurance imaginable. He set Herculean tasks for himself and then outperformed them a thousand-fold just to prove his dedication to me. I never asked him to “prove his love,” but he went out of his way over and over and over again to make sure that I knew that any unhappiness he’d caused was unintentional, and he’d do anything not to let it happen again. I counted myself as insanely lucky to have a partner like him. It let me put the specific event aside extremely quickly, almost as an afterthought and focus on the underlying issues – all of which lay within myself. During this part of the journey, we decided to do a deep dive into compassion through the lens of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s writings. We selected six books to read over the course of a year, which gave us a specific timeframe but lots of wiggle room in which to finish individual texts.
(As an internal postscript, all the books were tiny, more like glorified pamphlets; but I am grateful we allowed a lot of time for each one. As it turns out, deep readings on compassion are tremendously challenging; it was often necessary to put a text away for a week or five to allow the emotional dust to settle before picking it back up.)
The initial idea had been to grow closer to one other through compassion for each other. It became clear extremely early on, however, that if that’s your goal, that’s not where you start. True compassion originates in, and it can start nowhere else, the self. It begins, as Chodron says throughout all those maddening wonderful writings, with unconditional friendliness to myself. It is only through an intimate relationship with my fears, a courageous reckoning with my insecurities, and that unconditional friendliness to which she returns and returns and returns – it is only through the total and loving embrace of self that I can break through to a total and loving embrace of others.
When this understanding first started dawning on me I felt betrayed again. I hadn’t gotten into all this just to unpack my own baggage – and anyway, hadn’t I already done that? I just wanted to be able to embrace people and unpredictability more easily. That was it! Couldn’t it be enough?, I pleaded with myself, the universe, with no one in particular.
What I came to understand (gradually, reluctantly) is that there is no such thing as bulletproof. The only way you can immunize yourself against hurt is by doing the same to all feelings – and I am flatly unwilling to arm myself against joy, laughter, curiosity, and all joyful animation, simply for the sake of fear. All I was doing while building my fortress, unbeknownst to me, was turning the dial up on the sensitivities I did have; this meant that when one was triggered, it went from being a passing breeze to an emotional firestorm. I was pretty frustrated because I had done what I thought was a lot of good work, only to learn that I had built the total opposite of what I intended: instead of a fortress against pain, I had constructed a monument to it.
Through the readings and countless incredible, soaring, aching, productive, difficult, beautiful conversations I had with my partner and other people because of those texts, I came slowly to the conviction that the texts were right: I can only give to others, in depth and genuineness, what I first give to myself. If I desired to give grace, joy, friendliness, trust, and love, then I absolutely must first learn to extend each one of those qualities inward.
In this budding dialog with myself, I grew to learn that I could trust and be friendly with and love the self I am, not because it would never change, but precisely because it would. I love to learn and thrive on growing; if I see this change for the magnificence that it truly is, then I must also necessarily understand that others will embody this, too. The nature of nature is change. I can’t promise never to hurt someone, or reasonably hope that I’ll never be hurt, because circumstances change – people change – and the point of trust and love is not that it there will never be pain, but rather how we respond when there is.
So I took a deep breath, heaped bucket after bucket of unconditional friendliness on my head, and started over. But I started from the work I had originally done (my well-curated collection of Achilles heels) and began to layer the compassion readings on them.
At that point, something funny started happening.
As I moved through these emotional rooms – as I reviewed my vulnerabilities, my insecurities and fears and dislikes – I moved through with a new attitude. Not one of militant banishment, but of tender welcome. I wasn’t trying to fix anything. I wasn’t trying to get rid of anything. I wasn’t trying to ignore anything. Rather, I took time to understand more fully why I was the way I was. Why I did and did not like certain things in my intimate space. What interactions from my childhood or earlier adulthood had been formative. I let all these stories be what they were, without trying to judge or change or fix any of them. I embraced every earlier version of myself, from the most eager to the most awkward. I loved my five-year-old self and my 12-year-old self and my 23-year-old self and my 34-year-old self. I celebrated their joys. I empathized with their sorrows. I recalled their motivations with gentle respect. And in this reverential reverie, I began to feel more whole. I was more integrated with my past and present and felt calmer about the future: not that I wouldn’t get hurt again, but that I am in fact much more resilient than I originally gave myself credit for. Not only that, but the transcendence and joy I am able to experience now is a direct counterpart to the sorrow I have felt in the past. –I want to be careful about this, because this is similar to another experience in which I want no part; that experience of ritual self-harm, whether physical or emotional. When you ask folks like that, Why do you hurt yourself so badly? they reply matter-of-factly, Because it feels so good when I stop. This is not what I mean and not what I’m after. All I’m saying is that, if I put myself out there – if I open myself to the greatest joy imaginable, or maybe even greater than I can imagine – then a possible consequence will be heartbreak. But the other possible consequence, and the more likely and more frequent one, will be that joy to which I aspire. It will be transcendent, meaningful connection with the people around me.
So bring it on, world. You bring the best you’ve got, and I’ll bring mine. Let’s see if we can’t turn this life into a nonstop ride of courage-flavored joy.
Originally Published on Over Pancakes
Photo: Getty Images