The Uncorked Heart

IMG_5102 (1)At the center of ourselves, at the very center of our body and our soul, lives the heart. When we allow ourselves to stay in the flow of the feelings of life –  feeling sadness when it reaches out like a child in the dark, feeling jealousy when it pricks the side of the eyes, feeling anger when it scalds like lava, feeling joy when it hums and laughs – the heart remains open and fully alive. In this openhearted state we’re more attuned to gratitude, we feel excited by life, we’re open to creative inspiration, we inhabit our bodies, and we’re more open to giving and receiving love with our loved ones.

But so often we plunge up our hearts like a cork in a bottle. We do this because we learned early in life, from a culture that doesn’t have the faintest clue how to guide its members through big and difficult feelings, to shut down. And when we shut down and cork the heart enough, the energy system of feelings is often forced to go upwards, into the head in the form of thoughts. This is when people often find their way here: when the habit of intrusive thoughts have taken hold to such a degree that the person feels imprisoned by their own mind. As Michael Singer writes in The Untethered Soul (and I’ve quoted this passage before but it so succinctly encapsulates how corked feelings turn into intrusive thoughts that it bears repeating):

If you close around the pain and stop it from passing through, it will stay in you. That is why our natural tendency to resist is so counterproductive. If you don’t want the pain, why do you close around it and keep it? Do you actually think that if you resist, it will go away? It’s not true. If you release and let the energy pass through, and actually dare to face it, it will pass. Every single time you relax and release, a piece of the pain leaves forever. Yet every time you resist and close, you are building up the pain inside. It’s like damming a stream. You are then forced to use the psyche to create a layer of distance between you who experiences the pain and the pain itself. That is what all the noise is inside your mind: an attempt to avoid the stored pain.” (p. 105)

This noise inside your mind probably sounds like:

  • I don’t love my partner enough.
  • What if I’m gay?
  • What if something bad happens to my baby?
  • I’m not attracted to my partner.
  • He’s not intellectual enough.
  • What’s wrong with me?
  • I’m too… [fill in the blank].
  • I’m broken.
  • I’ll be happy when… [I graduate; I take this test; I have the baby; I get married; I find a house.].

Instead of feeling the stored pain, which is raw and vulnerable, we spin up into the safe and familiar refuge of the thought-patterns. Instead of dropping down into the body, which is round and amorphous, we become caught in the illusion that if we could only answer this one question, we would find certainty. So we continue on in the pattern that began as a defense and protection – retreating to the somewhat safe haven of mind – and continue to avoid our feelings.

We become quite masterful at avoiding our feelings. In fact, most people will do anything and everything to avoid feeling the basic feelings of life. Much of this is because we still carry a litany of rules and shoulds about our emotional lives, beliefs absorbed before we even learned to talk. Some of these may sound like this:

  • You shouldn’t be sad.
  • You have a job and a great relationship (or whatever the particular externals), so you have no reason to complain.
  • Feelings are weak.
  • If you’re “overly” emotional you’re doing something wrong and/or there’s something wrong with you.
  • Feelings are a waste of time.
  • Feelings are an indulgence.

Yet if you’re a highly sensitive person – and it’s become quite evident to me that nearly everyone who finds their way to my work is, indeed, highly sensitive – you simply cannot continue to avoid your feelings. You may retreat to your head and the relative sanctity of thoughts for a while, but your feelings will eventually make themselves known. They will, in fact, demand your attention, until you are forced to stop, listen, and attend.

A significant aspect of the transformation from living in your head to living in your body/heart is embracing your sensitivity as the gift that it is. Alongside my work on relationship anxiety, it’s the conversations that I invite on high sensitivity that allow people to begin to quiet the inner critic and see the beauty of their true essence.

For example, I often tell the story of teaching my highly sensitive sons to practice the simple yet powerful practice of Tonglen when we see dead animals on the side of the road. The practice is to breathe in what’s unwanted – in this case grief, helplessness, heartbreak – and breathe out what’s wanted: peace to all beings. The practice teaches us to move toward our pain instead of giving in to the habitual tendency to push it away. For even though my husband and I never shame away emotional reactions to anything in life – and certainly not the true pain of seeing death in any form – our kids still fall prey to the natural response to retreat from pain. In this case, encouraging the practice teaches our kids that every feeling deserves attention.

When I tell this story, my clients will often say something like, “I would have been shamed if I had expressed pain about roadkill. Even if it wasn’t explicit shame, the covert message was to get over it, and that there was something wrong with me for feeling so deeply. I can see how I still give myself this same message: that my pain is too much or too big, which causes me to shame myself, and then I don’t make time to listen to it and feel it.

I then talk about guiding our kids through their grief, to which my clients often respond with, “I didn’t have anyone to guide me through my grief.” Nobody did. We are an emotionally ignorant culture. We focus on facts and left-brained information, on achievement and outcome, and completely ignore the value of feeling one’s feeling. The guidance isn’t difficult, but it would have required having parents who weren’t afraid of their own pain, and then parents before them who weren’t afraid of their pain. And so on, back through the generations, following the ancestral line of well-meaning people who were taught to deny their softest, most vulnerable selves.

How many times have you been shamed for feeling deeply about what others deemed “insignificant”? How often do you still minimize your pain, saying to yourself that you’re too sensitive and to just “get over it”?

The first, and most essential, step to feeling the difficult feelings that live in the heart is making time for it. Grief is like those animals that we see encroached upon by human domination: vulnerable, shy, afraid of the pace and sounds of our fast and loud life. Yet again, the litany of reasons why we can’t slow down:

  • I don’t have time.
  • I should be there for others first.
  • Feelings aren’t important enough (I’m not important enough).
  • It’s self-centered to take time for myself and for inner work.
  • I should be able to handle everything; I shouldn’t need downtime or “being” time.

What many people don’t realize, or forget, is that if you refuse to make time for your deepest self to reveal itself – time to sit with your face upturned to the sun, time to sit and watch the world pass by outside your window, time to write in your journal or be in silence -the Self makes itself known in other ways. And this is when we find ourselves trapped by intrusive thoughts, anxiety or burnout. We go and do and achieve and burn the candle on both ends and eventually we will collapse. It’s not a sustainable model. And then you’re no good to anyone.

When you can move toward your pain, you will find freedom. When you embrace your sensitivity as the gift that it is instead of continuing to buy into the lie that it’s a burden, you will unfold into the truest and most impassioned version of yourself. When you make time to listen to the whispers and songs of your heart, you will discover a renewable and sustainable energy source that will fuel the passions and projects in your life: an enlivened way of doing that is birthed from the fullness of being. When we attend to soul she returns the gifts tenfold. But when we deny her, she rises up like the furious force of the natural world, and demands that we listen.

36 comments to The Uncorked Heart

  • Sheryl, this is a beautiful blog that speaks to me on many levels. I have always thought myself “too sensitive”, coming from childhood messages of course. I found particularly insightful the idea that we need someone to guide us through our pain, and that if our parents, and theirs, and theirs, and so on never learned how to, it’s more difficult for us to find that guidance. That makes so much sense.

    I do have a question though. You write that your sons will succumb to the “natural response to retreat from pain.” If that is what our bodies and minds want to do naturally, why should we go against that? Shouldn’t we listen to our bodies? Why should we force ourselves to experience that pain?

    • Good question. It’s not that we’re forcing ourselves to feel the pain. Rather, it’s that we’re allowing the natural pain of life to be present, to breathe into it, and then to allow it to pass through. To succumb to the natural tendency to protect against pain simply doesn’t work, as the quote from Michael Singer explains. We protect and create walls around it and resist it and eventually the pain has nowhere to go but to come out as symptom: intrusive thoughts, depression, anxiety, somatic illness.

  • ScaredyWife

    In my job as an ICU nurse, I find being highly sensitive is very difficult. I know it seems like an excuse, but I simply cannot allow myself proper time to be angry, grieve, or be afraid when I have patients that depend on me. In a situation like that, how do I make time for these feelings? My job has lately been the source for a lot of my anxiety, anger, and depression. I do feel burned out, and I’m trying very hard to find my spark to make myself feel more alive, but it’s so difficult with this job.

    • Charlotte

      Hi ScaredyWife,

      I am in a similar (but different!) situation. I am a primary school teacher in quite a deprived area. I have worked with children who have had horrible little childhoods and have experienced things no-one should have to experience. This has affected me on so many levels, more than I ever realised until I did ‘burn out’. I stopped allowing myself to feel sad for these children. I told myself ‘it’s part of the job’, ‘I should stay strong for these children’. But now, having seen a counsellor for the past few months and taking time for me I realise that I needed time to grieve FOR these children. I of course need to stay strong in front of the children but when I get home if I need to cry or kick or scream or shout (!) about it, then I will. Then I will be there for them the next day like they need. The other thing I’m doing which really helps things not to ‘stick’ in my mind is to journal, some days I just write and write and write!

      Charlotte x

    • You may not be able to make time while on the job but you can always make time in mornings or evening. We tend to expend unnecessary time and energy online – googling and Facebooking – when we could be spending that time turning inward and feeding ourselves nourishing brain and soul food.

  • Stephen

    Thank you for this awesome writing Sheryl! Such fantastic guidance… Especially for us parents who need it so we don’t repeat the horrible programming we received and is so hard to reject without understanding– and consciousness around what we’re doing. I need to read this every day for myself and my daughter. I often find myself avoiding reading your posts just because I am avoiding my feelings. I will try to read everything you write from now on especially when I feel like I’m not in the mood for self care. Love you and your brilliance!

  • Paul

    So, so happy I stumbled across your blog Sheryl! I have a question that I haven’t seen posted around the site yet. I am on the other side of the relationship-anxiety, meaning my fiance is struggling with it. We have been together for two years, and had a long “honeymoon” period of around 1.5 years. She has dealt with anxiety in the past, but it always involved things outside our relationship. After submitting on offer on a house in early May, the deal fell through. She told me she was relieved, and couldn’t understand why and that it must mean “something must be wrong”. She is now at the point where she is questioning our entire relationship, and says she is no longer attracted to me. She has completely shut me out, and is on the verge of leaving. I am worried if I point her in the direction of your site, or show her some blog posts, she will feel as if I am trying to “fix” or “analyze” her. I know it is an extremely delicate process for people to face, and I am absolutely lost as how to bring this up. Any suggestions?

  • Petar

    Hi.
    When you say Self makes it self known in other ways, what does that mean? Does everything our subconscious mind tell us when we’re still come from our Self?

  • Kate

    This is such an amazing article Sheryl, I burst into tears unexpectedly within the first paragraph. I’m currently seeing a counsellor and he’s working with me to process and feel my feelings and yet I have realised my resistance is to intellectualise everything – i,e thinking. I know i need to do this work and he knows, but the closer we get to it now the more i’m resisting. I now feel embarrassed to just let go, let it all out infront of him – for some reason in part because he’s a man… he said that this is all relevant. But now i feel it’s been so built up I don’t know if i can. It’s the oddest feeling, i want to desperately, and i like to think of myself a quite an open person… I have cried in front of him before, but oddly that was when we first started working together and i felt more comfortable crying then when we hadn’t been working together for very long, than i do now after over 6months of weekly sessions.
    This article just explained everything to me – i’ve been suffering anxiety and now bouts of depression and I fear i’m almost at burnt out as i’m working really hard.
    This has all come from family situations, which has led me to attract and be attracted to unhealthy partners and relationships and stay in them for too long thinking the problems were my fault.
    – intellectually i know all this, and i think the only real way out now it exactly what you’re talking about here.

    The best way i can describe how i feel is like a big wave pulling back, like it’s getting ready to crash…but i’m still pulling back and pulling back… and to be honest i feel really scared to crash forwards!….if that makes any sense…anyone who surfs or swims in the sea will know what i mean!

    Thank you for writing this – your Sons are very lucky boys!

    • Julia

      Kate – your comment spoke to my heart — especially around feeling nervous or embarrassed to cry and let go in front of people – even a trusted therapist. I can sense you almost don’t believe in your own process here… But from the outside, it seems like you’re really actually truly progressing..,. If you can simply notice this stuff in yourself, see it for what it is, and press on – I’d venture to at that is incredible emotional growth… It just might not be coming out the way you hoped t would. I hope that makes sense… I just see myself so much in your comment.

      Sending love your way

  • Karen

    Sheryl, I just want to thank you for your beautiful and insightful articles. I discovered at the age of 54 that I am an HSP and all of a sudden my whole life made much more sense. I love your articles and always look forward to reading them.

  • Sirinetta

    Good morning Sheryl,
    I’ve been following your work for over a year and have purchased and gone through your e-course a few times, since I googled “Do I love my partner enough?” in early 2014, when I had a pregnancy scare at 23 and my partner made it known that he was in it for the long haul. I was so beyond-words happy until I felt this “gut” aversion to the idea of being intimate with him again…what I now see was probably pure fear energy that needed to be felt. Immediately, your words were there to let me know I was not alone, and, miraculously, that I was not that voice! IB helped me meet and squash some other guises my discomfort took after that (What if I’m gay? What if he cheats on me one day?) and their false beliefs.

    Sheryl, I continue to struggle with one – jealousy of his only former partner, who he had been with for 7 years (Knowing how very different our relationship is from his last). You mention that jealousy is a core emotion like anger or grief, but could it be a guise for something deeper?.. as Peck says in The Road Less Traveled, an external to blame things on, an excuse not to keep growing? I breathe into it like an emotion when I remember to and hope it’s been lessening it’s hold. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

    Warm thanks,
    Sirinetta

  • Clara

    Sheryl,

    This was a wonderful post and speaks to what I feel sometimes. I have always been afraid of death and just recently lost my father unexpectedly. I am getting married this fall, so that makes it extra painful. My question is this – how do you separate your grief from others grief? I think I am doing a good job with my own grieving process, moving through all my feelings and crying when I need to. However, I am devastated especially for my mother and being highly sensitive, my natural instinct is to try and take on her pain of losing a husband, instead of just my own pain of losing a father. It really weighs me down and makes me feel hopeless around her {bc i cant imagine losing my future husband} when I would like to be giving her hope. Her and I are very close and I hurt for her very much. Any suggestions?

    Thank you.

  • Stéphanie

    For as long as I can remember, I have always been extremely sensitive, can’t watch the news, can’t talk about animal cruelty, can’t watch movies that involve kids…. I find it hard to fonction in a society where feelings are supressed and where insensitivity helps you climb the social ladder. In my life I try to stay true to myself and not run away from my feelings but they’re so intense sometimes that it hurts, it hurts so much. Also I can feel the pain of the people around me so it makes it hard for me to know which feelings are mine and which ones are from someone else. I can usually deal with mine pretty well but I struggle with other people’s feeling.

  • Rae

    Sheryl:

    LOVED this: “when you make time to listen to the whispers and songs of your heart, you will discover a renewable and sustainable energy source that will fuel the passions and projects in your life.”

    I can see that a nasty side effect of too much intellectualizing to protect myself from “big feelings” has been that I’ve distanced myself from those whispers and songs. It still feels challenging to determine if the whisper or song is coming from a grounded/heart-centered/spiritual place or an ego/fear-based/closed hearted one.

    I think the difference is that in a heart-centered space, the message feels peaceful. There is a sense of “yes” or knowing without a lot of debate or drama. Whereas from an ego place, there can be anxiety, judgment, or unrest even if it is subtle. Still trying to figure it out.

  • Ryan

    Hi Sheryl,

    I loved this post. Just speculating on your generational comment about parents and how they learned to deal with feelings, perhaps it was just evolutionary. Perhaps the older generations could not deal with feelings in order to survive. Perhaps they did not have the deeply complex relationships and stress that the modern world/culture brings and did not need to deal with feelings the way we need to. Smaller tribes, towns and more community provided the emotional care and support we all are looking for without the potential to build up calluses on the heart. We are looking for the quick version of community on facebook or newsfeeds or text chains, which not only do not satisfy but just tend to create more stress and anxiety in our lives. While the world got busier, the levels of stress and blocking the heart just kept building. Perhaps our generation should write the handbook for emotional/mental health, because it seems that culture will only continue going further down the path it’s on. We all will need the tools to be healthy fully feeling people.

  • Ehrina Viola

    Sheryl,
    This one REALLY spoke to me. You know I’d like to thank you for recognizing sensitive people. I’ve been going through my life not understanding and not honoring who I am at the core. In fact, I usually just beat myself up entirely for being “too emotional, thinking too deeply, etc”. I am relieved knowing there are “others” like me 🙂 I am truly understanding and starting to see this sensitivity as a “gift” which you always say (love that). I am also starting to sit back and be in the presence of those thoughts and not be crippled by them. I am starting to let them go through… let them be… being kind and compassionate towards them. It is not easy…but it is worth it. Bless you, Sheryl.

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl, as i was reading this breathtaking blog, i allowed myself to feel the sadness, the honesty, we live in our minds we believe our intrusive thoughts especially on days when we are feeling depressed, angry about things, angry about how the cruel and senseless stuff are happening to good people. Im talking about the violence and racism that is constantly happening with african- americans. Its on the news you hear it on the radio or from people, friends and family. How can we not feel the sadness, the pain is unavoidable. We are all human we feel it. We just not need to judge ourselves. Its easy said than done. Finding the time to practice is the key. I am worth it. We all are worth it.

  • Kimberly

    I’ve read your blog for years and often relate to things you describe in your writings. And I love what one of the above commenter said about avoiding reading your posts when avoiding my feelings – I totally do that too!! But this one was extra special, really hit me right in the gut. I sent it to several friends because I am so grateful that you were able to put into words how I feel and the work I’ve been doing to “uncork” myself in recent years. Thank you for your generous time and thoughtfulness in sharing your knowledge and yourself like this.

  • Pamela Roz

    So beautifully thought out and shared, Sheryl. Some very important reminders. I have a tendency to shut down my happiness when it become the only thing I can feel, if that makes sense. In short…I stop myself from being too happy and force worry upon myself I suppose to avoid…disappointment? Expecting the happiness to end when I have no reason to.

    Thank you as always.

  • Jess

    Sheryl, I have a question.

    Would the thought “I want to date around” possibly be a thought that I created by fear?

    I’ve been dating this amazing guy for three years and struggling with relationship anxiety for one.
    I love him dearly and have over comes a lot but I’m still working on intrusive thoughts and knowing that they don’t have to be how you feel.

    Today I had the thought process “oh I know this dude from high school”
    ” some people find others from high school and end up marrying them”
    “That must be what I want, so I want to date around”
    It just kind of came out of no where.

    Let me add that I’ve been worried because he’s my first boyfriend and I’ve never date anyone else, so I get worried that we can’t get married because of that. But I love him and couldn’t imagine my life without him.

    I’m so scared about the future that I can’t event appreciate the present and what wonderful relationship I have.

  • Julia

    Sheryl —

    There’s just one thing I’d like to add to your list of reasons why we don’t slow down to go toward the feeling…

    Of course it’s fear! The “what if” of going toward some thing … Like “what if it envelopes me” “what if I can’t handle my grief or my heavy feeling”… Of course, in truth, once I give in , it passes through me like you always say, but there is that first major hesitation to keep myself in the false “safety” of suppressing my real feelings.

  • Beautiful blog. It’s so helpful to sensitive and anxious people like myself. I experience a lot of relationship ambivalence with my fiancé, and I wonder if I just have to relax into it and accept the ambivalence as part of the process. It’s so hard to hold ambivalence in my mind while trying to stay present in the relationship. Thinking about letting the pain and ambivalence just exist in my life is helpful.

  • Christina

    When we feel off (scared, grumpy, irritated, depressed, anxious) does this signify we must look within us to see what we need? I’ve been feeling off for six days. Sometimes I want to curl up in a ball and cry. I’m not sure what’s wrong. I’d it the guy I’m dating? Or is it me?

  • Cassie

    Sheryl,

    I’m so afraid that I’m really broken!! I have an amazing boyfriend and he loves me so much and feel so empty!! My doctor put me on anti-depressants and I’ve stopped crying everyday but the intrusive thoughts and just feeling like I should just be alone!! Ugh is this normal

    • Cassie

      I feel like my emotions are all over the place! I just want to curl up in a ball and cry!! But I think the anti-depressants keep me from doing that