I have a photo of myself as a young child, wearing a blue corduroy pinafore made by my mother, a huge smile, eyes literally shining with eagerness. I was naturally open, as most of us are. Unlike some people, I wasn’t abused, abandoned or neglected, and yet I started protecting my heart.
As human beings we have a long gestation time in the womb, then once we are born, follow years of vulnerability. We lack sharp teeth, claws, armour, stingers or camouflage. From necessity, we are hardwired for bonding to our protective parents and carers. Physically and emotionally this makes us helpless and vulnerable.
I was raised by parents who were imperfect, just like me. Like most parents they were doing their best to survive and give their kids chances they didn’t get. A good education being the main one. Catholic school was an endurance test between being bullied by the boys for being too smart and chubby, and the regular cruelty of celibate nuns forced to teach with three kids in desks made for two.
It made perfect sense at the time to hide my soft centre, even eventually from myself. I decided it’s not safe to be open, as it leads to painful feelings. But as I grew and matured, I realised that protecting myself, closing off or shutting down physically or emotionally, is sometimes very necessary, but mostly it is not. While we may actually be safe, we can still close down because of the past.
The Impact of Life Experiences
My family lived in a small house with a front lawn, with bright yellow daisies in the grass. One summer day I was freely running around until I was stung by a bee. It was a searing pain that didn’t last too long. But the fear of crushing another bee under my bare feet made me cautious about running around in yellow flowers for many years.
That’s a garden variety example of how we can protect ourselves, whether the threat is real or imagined. And even if it is real, avoiding it may not be the answer. It temporarily pushes pain away but at a cost.
And then life unfolded its opportunities and challenges, loving others, feeling love’s disappointments, a wonderful career as a filmmaker, spiritual awakenings, the joy of getting married and having a child, and years later the unexpected sadness of divorce.
And through it all, a meandering journey back to my open heart, to meeting life with vulnerability and a willingness to feel.
Are there times that our loving hearts need protection? It is good to take care of our needs wisely and not be manipulated or exploited. Otherwise we can shrink even more. And ultimately this can be done by awareness and walking away to a place where one is safe to be open. It can become a choice.
Choosing Safety Over Protection
Protection is a paradox. It may aim to keep us safe but eventually, it keeps us separate from others and vulnerable to loneliness and despair, or to a feeling of superficiality in our lives and relationships.
The illusion is that we need protection to be safe. The reality is that unless we are facing real harm, protection will keep us from the closeness we need to thrive. It can make us unhealthy, cause sickness and stress. It can prevent us from resolving hurts and issues.
Protection decreases pleasure. If we are contracting our bodies in protection, closing down to receiving, then pleasure is decreased. Pleasure requires openness, relaxation and letting go.
If we are overly protected, we become more reactive to the ‘slings and arrows’ of life. It is like a shell that feels safe but is actually brittle, and cracks with every movement. Without protection we have natural ‘shock absorbers’ to the knocks of life.
Do you know that moment when you do open up and let-go, and realise ‘wow I’ve been protecting myself’? You had gotten so used to it you didn’t even notice it was there. It feels normal, but it isn’t.
Forms of Protection
There are different ways that protection can show up in different people or at different times. And I’ve done most of them at times of high stress, fear or overwhelm. Protection can be criticising others, wanting others to change, or trying to fix them. So that we don’t have to feel, or really love. Withdrawing or isolating to be ‘safe’ or to reduce overwhelm. Being cerebral and analytical instead of raw and vulnerable.
The ‘blame game’ is a form of protection – making the other person wrong – needing to be ‘right’ or ‘in control’ to feel safe and secure. And creating the opposite.
Some people protect their hearts by avoiding commitment in intimate relationships. When mature people still want to keep it light, casual or uncommitted, there may be a good reason but ultimately, they never have to be really open to another in the deepest sense of showing your shadows and less ‘palatable’ side of their personality.
I would tend to take risks to prove I wasn’t afraid. Jumping into relationships, life, projects. But I learnt that my protective identities were there to preserve the status quo, to keep me safe. If we disturb them too vigorously it can create backlash, so we need to honour those protective parts of ourselves. But also, to be aware of what protection serves us and what harms us.
I had to learn how to let go, how to internally soften. Using breath practices and becoming bodily aware of tension or contraction and releasing it. Starting with the catharsis of bio-energetics, created by Dr. Alexander Lowen, and then over the years incorporating dynamic meditation and other Osho meditations and practices, several form of yoga, dance and shamanic techniques to expand through the layers of belief and protection to enter the realms of unity consciousness. Choosing love whenever I was able to. Learning to discriminate between healthy boundaries and unhealthy protections. The latter by experience, feeling, and trusting my feelings. Finally, if something doesn’t feel right or good or clear then no matter what my mind (or other people) is telling me, I don’t go there.
We can also protect ourselves with certain types of clothing, attitudes, words, even holding inflexible opinions. Holding on to past hurts and resisting peaceful negotiations and resolutions. Preferring bitter resentment instead of seeking help. Avoiding inner work to heal hurts from past relationships.
Awareness Opens the Doors
When we first see our own protection, it can be a shock! But over time it is empowering because then we can do the work and trust ourselves to make different choices in the future. Connect with what we really want beyond the protection also gives us the strength to face the fears, insecurity or shame.
Barriers are not boundaries. They are walls of closure, rather than clarity about self-value. Boundaries are self-care, barriers are protection.
I found, and continue to find, the courage to risk letting go of unnecessary protection, letting my guard down and letting life open me in all its wonderful and difficult ways. I have been helped by many wise people along the way. If I can do it, so can you.
With love and appreciation,
[Cynthia Connop has been exploring and teaching transformational work for over thirty years. She is an international trainer, relationship consultant, and the founder of the Living Love workshop programs. Cynthia is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker, which encouraged her fascination with people, sacred sexuality, and relationships.]