Why Healing Our Hearts Might Be Simpler Than We Think

broken heart

Photo Credit: jeroen_bennink via Compfight cc

I didn’t know the drinking glass was broken until I stepped on it.

My wife had dropped it a day earlier. It had shattered, and she had done a meticulous job of cleaning it up. But an impossibly small shard had wedged itself in the rug in front of the kitchen sink. Sticking straight up.

When my heel landed on it, the pain was exquisite.

It took a while for me to realize the shard was still in there, it took a while for my wife to dig it out, and it took while for the wound to heal—every step felt like I was wounding it all over again.

So, I started limping.

And it helped. It protected the wound from further injury and, within a week, my foot was healed. Because our bodies have been built to heal themselves.

Our hearts have been crafted that way, too.

We get glass in our foot and we get glass in our souls. Sometimes, someone is to blame—we get attacked and beat up and mistreated and abused and neglected and stripped of our dignity in countless ways. Other times, no one is to blame—sometimes loneliness is just loneliness and shame is just shame and pain is just part of being alive.

Either way, the good news is, generally, wounds heal.

With just a little attention and tender loving care, the body does what it’s supposed to do—skin closes up and bones reunite, even harder and stronger than before. And with just a bit of intention and guidance, the heart heals, too—it lets go, releases, forgives, expands, reaches out, and loves again. Our wounds, usually, are temporary.

Unfortunately, oftentimes, the ways we protect our wounds become permanent.

I limped to protect my wounded foot, and it worked. But protecting it had become a habit and, unconsciously, I continued to limp a little, even after my heel was healed. And before long, my uneven gait was causing my back to hurt in strange places. Then my hip started to ache. A week after I’d felt the last of the pain from my heel, I felt a searing pain in the opposite knee. It stopped me in my tracks. The habit of hobbling was wounding me worse.

That’s how heart-wounds work, too.

The limping we do to protect our wounded hearts—the pretending and defending and resisting and hiding and lashing out and faking and façading—can become, without us even realizing it, the gait with which we walk through this life. Then, the pain we experience has little to do with our original wound and an awful lot to do with our methods of protecting it.

When did we first feel the loneliness of shame, and when did we start protecting it with hiding, and how is our hiding making us even lonelier? When did we first get attacked and when did we start protecting by retaliating and how much more violence is it attracting? When were we made to feel small and how did we start protecting by acting bigger than—and better than—everyone else, and how much smaller have our lives become because of it?

We developed our habits of protection for good reasons. We needed them to create space for healing. And it’s quite possible they were completely effective—our original wounds may have healed a long time ago. But we’ve been limping ever since.

And protecting for a lifetime can riddle that lifetime with unnecessary pain.

After I felt the knee pain, I started doing something differently. I started paying attention. I noticed my protective limp, and I realized if I was going to feel better and heal completely, I would need to start walking normally again. The problem was, walking normally no longer came naturally. As soon as I quit paying attention, I slipped back into my limp. So, for the next week, everywhere I went, I focused on walking. In other words, I focused on simply moving normally.

Sometimes, normal is the hardest thing to do.

What if, today, we all decided to do the hard thing? What if we paid attention to all the ways we hide and attack and elevate ourselves? And what if we made the conscious and determined choice to stop doing those things? What if, instead, we got back to normal and started stepping authentically into life and into love? It’s possible we’ll step down and feel a searing pain and realize our hearts still have some healing to do.

If so, do it—find a professional to walk with you while you heal.

But it’s also quite possible the pain you’ve been feeling all along was caused mostly by your protecting. It’s quite possible your original wounds have already healed and your heart is already prepared to do again what it naturally does:

to be open

and courageous

and hopeful

and vulnerable

and generous

and together.

Yes, it’s scary, because you could get wounded again.

In fact, you probably will. After all, there are shards of glass everywhere. But there is redemption in even this, because this is how you find your place of belonging—the one or two people, perhaps more if you were born under a lucky star, who want to dig out your glass with you. Even when it was their shard you stepped upon. Especially when it was their shard.

May we stop protecting against each other and start digging in with each other.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Disclaimer: Kelly's writings represent a combination of his own personal opinions and his professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with him via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Kelly does not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accepts no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Just Thinkin’

    Michael Hyatt said recently that “being brave usually means doing it scared”. I love that. And your blog today reminded me of the fear and sometimes outright terror of letting go of going mechanisms and “faking it till we make it”. The first moments – whether they are hours, days or weeks – after letting go and trying not to have a limp, can be so hard. Scary, because if there is a lifetime of hurt, the knowledge of what is normal is sometimes no longer there. So acting normal is not a return to what we once knew, it is a new journey altogether, with new rules, new unknowns, and no map. Its so easy to bash our shins int eh dark, as we stumble for a sure footing.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I like that, too! My one concern with this post was that folks might think I was minimizing the fear and courage required to “walk normally” again. So, thank you for recognizing that and emphasizing that here. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • Shannon

    Once again, the magic of timeliness is present. I got offered a teaching job, teaching anatomy and physiology to massage therapy students. I was overjoyed, over the moon, the instant answer was yes and with great enthusiasm. I have the education, experience and passion to do so. I don’t start until the middle of June and then my old friends “fear” and “doubt” came knocking at the door and started asking if I was sure I was “smart enough” “knew enough” “good enough” for this job. These are the protective mechanisms that come into place from old wounds and shards. Oh, don’t get me wrong, they are very tender, caring and compassionate. They almost sneak up on me, they are persistent, they want to make sure I’m listening and then they get comfy and stay…… They try to assure me that “I don’t have time to teach this class” “It will get in the way of family” “It will require too much preparation.” I want to jump in, dig in, this is something I’ve always wanted to do. So, I’m working through this process RIGHT NOW. I’ve crafted my conversation, words and response to gratefully decline the job that I have already accepted. Then I don’t do it. I come back over and over and over looking those shards and limps right in the face. There have been plenty of payoffs for keeping those limps in my life. They have kept me “safe” and now I’m ready to work through it all and do it anyway. I love the quote the was shared “being brave usually means doing it scared.” I think I’ll do just that! Thank you again for your words! Shannon

    • drkellyflanagan

      Shannon, thanks for having the courage to share your struggle here. It does, indeed, sound like your heart is ready to live and to step out. And I’m with you, I’m glad that quote was shared. Here’s to teaching anatomy scared!

  • Jon Glenn

    The last few nights, when I was awoken around 2:00am and stayed awake for many hours, I underwent deep reflection and insight into the self. Just last night, I realized the weight I’ve been carrying was not from the wounds, but the various layers of bandages. Bandages that became buildings. Thank you for this well-written and timely piece.

    • drkellyflanagan

      A lovely addition to the limping metaphor, Jon. Bandages. So glad this post came at just the right time to affirm your recent revelations. I hope you are able to shed some of that weight in the weeks and months ahead.

  • Patricia

    Kelly, you have such insight into the human condition it amazes me! I’ve worked on my wounds with your friend and colleague David and I’m currently enjoying the fruits of that labor! It was a long healing process that I was not convinced would ever work but my wounds are finally healed and I no longer limp through life. Thank you for this post and the work you and David do with those of us who are wounded.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Patricia, I’m fortunate to get to work with a friend and colleague like David. So glad you have had that fortune, as well! And so glad you’re walking normally again. 🙂

  • Kevin

    Thanks for sharing this Kelly. I don’t think any of us get through life without being wounded, be it childhood with imperfect parents, or adulthood and the negotiation of life in an imperfect world. Such a great way to illustrate a story of recovery and healing, and an illumination of just how much the maladaptive ways we can engage in keeping ourselves safe actually does more harm.
    I’m going to share this one as well.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Kevin. Thanks for your kind words, and for sharing mine!

  • Jeff

    What a relief to feel normal and know that after these last couple years my healing has begun and I’m just limping and not lame.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Absolutely, Jeff. And “unlimping” can taking a while, too.

  • William Bennett

    Once more – love it!

    “May we stop protecting against each other and start digging in with each other.”

    YES! Restoring lightness and grace with and through each other in “Dig-nity” – so important to have that support – to feel it… to know it… in full trust. And yet, sadly, this seems so rare. Recently, I have had the blessed opportunity to experience this Pure, Divine Love – probably for the first time in my life, and it is nothing short of feeling as a miracle.

    So important is that word – “together” –

    …in “the one or two people. . . . who want to dig out your glass with you. Even when it was their shard you stepped upon. Especially when it was their shard.”

    Because the darkness – the wounds and pain – found within each and every single one of us is the same found within all – it may have a different name, but it is the same – darkness – causing hurt, pain, agony… it is vital to recognize it, acknowledge it, name it – accept it – so it can be freer, lighter – to shine as the brilliant diamonds that we are with our own inclusions, imperfections and scarring…

    A huge part of transformation and healing, I think, is to be recognized.

    • Cris M

      I love this comment from you William!

  • Cris M

    Hi Kelly,
    This one is a recurrent topic of conversation with my therapist, and while each of us knows that being hurt (as the measures to not feel the pain, and as the healing) happens to all of us just for being humans, at times we think and feel we are the only ones in pain… suffering (and healing) is such a universal state of the soul, and what gathers all “human beings” in this journey.
    And reading your blog, I found a profound recognition of 2 main things: one is not feeling as the most silly and weak human being on earth because I am limping… and the other is not feeling as the most coward human being on earth for having been protecting myself…
    And while I know that life is so powerful when the heart is open and the senses are alive, it is scary and anesthesia is such a temptation… But anesthesia also means stealing all the aesthetics from life, all that makes the senses alive… for me, it works to take a deep breath and just trust.
    It is such a joy to have found your blog! you are an inspiration!
    Warm hugs
    Cris

  • Love Lee

    Thank you for your wisdom words Kelly and thank you to all who have said all I wanted to say in the thoughtful comments below.

  • Gordana Lolich

    What about forgiving yourself for being a fool while stepping at the glass although you knew it was there (there are such cases, too). When we don’t believe our own presentiment that something actually doesn’t have future . How can we let ourselves walk normally again, when we are fools who give a chance to anyone , for being desparate? It’s better to limp than to be desparate fool..?

  • kirk smith

    I really appreciate this perspective and acknowledgement that the wounding we carry is often caused by the over-protection of our original wounding. Your metaphor relates integrally to my practice as a Jin Shin Do® Acupressure practitioner,(The Way of the Compassionate Spirit, a heart centered body-mind therapy) I have found that the most common ‘excessive’ associated point with most clients is Pericardium, who’s physical/body function is heart protector and who’s spiritual aspect relates to intimacy(into-me-see) and the betrayal of it. Releasing this point/meridian can often empower the person to chose vulnerability from a place of strength. In order for this to happen the client needs to feel safe and understand that their physical pain is related as much to the original heart wounding as it is to the protection (limping) of that wounding. It’s fascinating to witness the various ways in which we protect our hearts. One of the most common that I see is ‘being nice’. “When I’m nice, I am loved and accepted. I cover up my true feelings because those feelings were not accepted as a child” Another common ‘cover up’ is anger. Once the client feels safe and develops the courage to ‘be seen’ they can begin to heal, (stop limping) and honour their true feelings.

  • Vedran Vucic

    I survived bombings, war, a number of difficulties, very bad car accident in which I was severely injured. I am still happy because there were people with whom I ate apple together. No shame, no guilt. Power of recovery is enormous. Closed hearts cannot guide you on the way of recovery. (Un)fortunately I have had a number of opportunities to learn that again, again and again.

  • Jody Agerton

    wow this is a lot to take in and live with, I will copy your article and keep it and pray on it . I think there is much to receive, thank you Kelly.

  • Rebecca Carney

    Someone posted this on facebook recently, and I have thought of it off and on since the first time I read it and felt as though I wanted to post a response. As a mother whose 19 year old child died when he was broadsided by a drunk driver who was going twice the speed limit, I feel like it’s not quite as simple as everyone would like to think to “heal” your heart following such a deep loss. Our secondary losses – the abandonment by nearly everyone we knew, lack of support due to the physical distance from any family we had, too many secondary losses to name here – also went deep into our raw, freshly broken hearts. I reached out for friends, but felt like I got my hand slapped as they pulled back and were “too busy” for us. I felt like people were waiting until my heart had healed and I was back to normal, back to the person I used to be. The old “me” is gone, though, and my heart bears the scars. I have had to find a new normal. With time has come understanding and I have worked hard on forgiving those who left us so alone, but it has been anything but simple thing to heal my heart.