The dangers of over-protecting your heart

by Kristin on June 2, 2011

in Love, family & community

Photo by notahandbag

Do you ever try to talk yourself out of something you want, but know you can’t have?

I do. Take those shoes I love but can’t afford—I convince myself that they wouldn’t be very comfortable, or wouldn’t go with most of my clothes. Or that exotic vacation might spark more stress than relaxation and fun, right?

It’s a healthy response, in many ways—a natural survival mechanism of the mind. We don’t want to pine and mope for what we can’t have, so we convince ourselves we don’t want it anyway. We turn off our emotions toward it, our longing, and fill that empty space with a very rational, practical response.

The sad story of a teenager who shut down her heart

But there’s a danger in that process, too, because in some cases, the thing you want is something good and true—something you should want. And working through the emotions that go with that, rather than avoiding them, is an important part of cultivating your heart and future relationships.

I’ll never forget the first time I recognized I was trying to control my very real emotions in a very calculated way. It was the last semester of my senior year of high school, and I was dating a boy who was a foreign exchange student from Norway. It was a teenage romance of the loveliest sort. We got along so well and had so much fun together. There was a small voice in our minds that even thought “maybe this is the one,” the way 18-year-olds sometimes think such things that later seem silly.

And then it was May—time for prom and graduation. Then it was summer. My boyfriend went on a trip with my family, and I joined his host family for a vacation. We both knew what was next: His departure home to Norway, where he was scheduled to serve his required year in the military. I suddenly panicked at the thought of saying goodbye—that dreaded trip to the airport and last hug began playing on repeat in my mind. So I began to methodically talk myself out of him. It wasn’t a conscious choice, but when I look back I can see exactly what my subconscious goal was: to have no feelings at all for him by the day of his departure.

Difficult emotions are usually important ones

Now I can see what I was doing, and how devastating and harmful it was, but I still haven’t completely cured myself of that self-protection impulse. In the next month, two of my closest friends in town are moving away, and I can feel myself trying, once again, to shut down a portion of my heart.

When the first friend (who I’ve known since our daughters were four and in preschool together) told me they were definitely moving away this summer—her husband’s post-doc had come through—I burst into tears, even though the four of us were having a fun night out at a cocktail bar. By the time the second friend completely surprised me with her news of a job offer in another state, I tried being angry more than sad. I didn’t have time to be emotional, or to lose another friend.

Talking myself out of the grief was harder, though, than I expected. And I’m glad. I’m thankful for the realities of our friendships that have created the deep bonds, and now demand deep sadness.

The decade I’ve lived in this town has been full of challenges and change. Between these two friends and I, we’ve had babies, watched toddlers grow into children ready to start school, bought and sold houses, gone through a divorce and two weddings, gotten new jobs and shared many holidays and celebrations. We’ve seen one another through a lot, which is a beautiful thing. That’s why I’m going to fight the rational part of my brain that wants to shut down my heart. A heart protected and hidden is not much of a heart at all.

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  • Cindy Holman

    It is a real risk to put ourselves out there in love. It is a scary and vulnerable place to be. I know exactly what you’re talking about – had a similar thing happen to me in high school – I don’t know if we ever get over that real first love stuff and I have tried, as you, to rationalize it into something it wasn’t. I recently had a relationship with a man who was like my younger brother and a dear friend. Something happened to the sweetness of the friendship and I knew it could not last and so began doing the same thing – shutting down my heart and trying to stuff the sadness way down inside. I felt guilty for grieving and tried to convince myself that I must not have mattered to him and that he really didn’t matter to me either. But when you deeply care and love – you risk the other – deep sadness and hurt. Is it worth it? Yes. Every time. Yes.

  • sarah louise

    Are you sure you haven’t been reading my diary? This happened to me, pretty recently. I had two friends move, one two years ago, one just at the end of last summer. Plus one friend who started on medical leave at the beginning of last summer. She’s starting to be back. We’ve been to lunch once.

    This morning I was crying in the bathtub, not just over this, but at the way I had dreamed my life and how it will be years before I can do some of the dreams, I have to do some gritty work to get there. And I have a good life, don’t get me wrong.

    The sadness and the anger don’t go away right quick. I am often hot/cold with the friend who moved to Michigan, though we talk a few times a week. The other friend lives in Moscow (yes, Russia) so calling her is a matter of time zones. (She has a Vonage phone, so long distance charges, once a “moving away” nemesis, is now a non-issue.)

    And moving away is different–we have Facebook, which makes it easier and harder. People don’t send letters as much. I’m hurting along side you, K. And praying that we both find some new friends, like the child’s song:

    “…make new friends, but keep the old…one is silver and the other, gold…”
    (and I always picture the playground at the school where I went to kindergarten.)

    and the last verse, which I didn’t know until later in life: “a circle is round, it never ends. That’s how long I want to be your friend.”

  • Paul Merrill

    Reminds me of when we lived in England for three years. We were part of a church that was very popular with expats. One of the locals said to me, “We never invest ourselves in expats, because they are always leaving.”

    I was truly hurt, even though I didn’t want a deep relationship with him and his wife.

  • Roxanne

    About a year ago I moved an hour away. I basically was shedding a whole dysfunctional lifestyle, “friends” and all. I find myself quite guarded, sort of isolating, not really letting people get close to me. I suppose I find it too frightening to put myself out there, to show my heart.

  • The Modern Gal

    I’ve seen this happen with my own family in facing a death and myself. (it’s actually the inspiration for the novel that I swear I’m going to get back to work on when we get back from our honeymoon and settled in). The hard emotions are the important ones, for sure.

  • mksteele

    MAN this is such a hard thing to force yourself to face. It’s so hard to let ourselves be open to this kind of pain. I went through this when I left home for college…and my mother called me out on it. I was fighting with everyone in my family almost all the time leading up to me leaving. My mom pulled me aside one day and said, “Are you fighting with everyone because you know that it will be easier to leave if you’re mad, instead of enjoying the time you have until you go and being sad when you leave?” It was like cold water in my face. I didn’t even know I was doing it. The last couple of weeks before I left, I got along with everyone, but it was much harder to leave. It’s crazy how defense mechanisms can kick in without us knowing it!

  • Susie Finkbeiner

    Thank you for sharing this. I can relate…I’ve done this so many times I can’t list them all.

  • Dorie

    I think I owe Mr. Norway a word of thanks. Not really, that thanks is for you and for not talking yourself out of it. The leaving that was such as adventure many months ago is stranger and less fun the closer it gets. I am glad you’re here. xo

  • Kristin T.

    Cindy, you used so many words in your comment that are right on–risk, vulnerable, guilt. It’s a complex thing, isn’t it? Thanks for letting me know you’ve been there.

    sarah louise, no, I haven’t gotten my hands on your diary yet, but it sounds like good reading. :) I like what you said about how you had dreamed your life and the work it takes to get there. I really get that. And thanks for bringing up the “make new friends” song. I have maintained some very old, important friendships, but God has also always brought new people into my life, just when I needed them.

    Paul, yes, I suppose it hurts to be the unrooted one, too, just as it hurts to be the rooted one who is weary of people passing through. As someone who lives in a university town, I get where the man you mentioned was coming from, even if it isn’t a fair stance to take. I guess that’s part of what I’m trying to ward off in myself.

    Roxanne, I don’t know the details, of course, but it sounds like the move was an important–even necessary–one for you. I would think the key to truly moving on, though, is to learn to trust people again, and develop new friendships. Not easy.

    The Modern Gal, yes! Write that novel!

  • Kristin T.

    mksteele, I love your story about your own experience with this sort of moment. We do all kinds of crazy things to protect ourselves from change and fear of the unknown, don’t we? (Sounds like you have a smart mom. :)

    Susie, for some reason I have been surprised by how many people can relate to what I’ve written about here. I thought it was this inexplicable thing I did—an odd response in me—but it’s becoming clear that many of us have a similar impulse. Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone in this!

    Dorie, I am glad that we’re not teenagers, and that I’ve learned a thing or two over the years, and that our friendship is not expendable just because you’re moving. :) I’m thankful for the years we’ve had living in close proximity, and I’m looking forward to staying close in new ways down the road.