Poipu beach, Kauai | Mary Licanin Photography

Does emotional vulnerability lead to suffering?

“Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve,” my mom would tell me in an attempt to protect me from myself, when I asked her for advice about feeling like person x didn’t return my openness.  “You’re too sensitive,” she’d say, because I’d feel such a deep emotion about things, mostly in private, but sometimes it would slip out publicly, and I always wore it in my expression. She said I had ‘Bette Davis eyes’, meaning I couldn’t hide the way I felt from anyone. Of course, she was right on all accounts.

It seems now, long after mom is gone, I still hear her advice in my head. What’s more, I recognize that I still feel in the same deeply sensitive and emotional way I always have, often toward people who will never return the sentiment. I can’t turn it off, and even if I could, I don’t think I want to.

I am emotional. I am sensitive. I love easily. I’m an open book to anyone who’s interested, and so yes, I wear my heart on my sleeve. These are not qualities I’m ashamed of. Most of the time I feel fortunate because of it.

As an ‘older and better’ version of myself, I have gotten to a place where I believe life is too short not to share love whenever I have the chance. When I feel something positive toward someone, I am no longer afraid to let them know.

Some people accept kindness welcomingly, but others recoil. Maybe it’s just unexpected, or they question my authenticity, or maybe they’re unfamiliar with my kind of kindness. Maybe they don’t want to return it, or think it inappropriate. I know I shouldn’t get stuck in worrying about this part of the interaction, but I often find that I do.  Sometimes I reach out and when I get the “cold fish” in return, I feel rejected and wish I hadn’t been quite so open with my heart. Sometimes, I regret having worn my heart on my sleeve.

Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable seems to lead to suffering.

I was having a conversation with a colleague recently who, in response to my dissatisfaction with something that happened with another colleague, said, “You shouldn’t take it personally.” It was a welcome answer, as it was a deviation from the less-invested polite smile and nod response. I felt it was thoughtful. I thought about his reply for a minute, and answered (as you might guess), “but I’m not taking it personally.” “Yes, you are,” he kindly insisted. I returned to myself to think about it more, and after some quick reasoning in my head, decided he was probably right. I just hadn’t realized it.

In this same way, I offer my compassion, love, good will — but not without at least a small hope that it will somehow be returned in kind. When it isn’t (at least, according to my internal compassion barometer), I take it personally. I question my worthiness, and I feel exposed. I feel silly, rejected, hurt, or unloved. Their reaction (or lack thereof) isn’t what I expected in return.

Through meditation, I have come to understand that:
Being vulnerable isn’t what causes suffering. Rather, it’s the expectations we carry alongside the vulnerability that causes suffering.

Motivation often comes from a promise of reward, so even though it may be quite subconsciously, we constantly look for rewards as payment for good deeds – a chocolate dessert comes for successfully finishing your dinner, promotions and medals are awarded to recognize completion of a task, you get to heaven for being a good Christian. Our brains are even standing at the ready, to release dopamine as a reward for certain behaviors (here enters the drive behind addictions). So many things are goal-oriented. Do this so that.

I believe we need to unlearn thought patterns that support extrinsic motivation in order to find true happiness.

  • If I hold the door open for someone to pass through it, without pausing briefly to wait for the acknowledging ‘thank you’ to be returned, I wouldn’t feel a little hurt if it doesn’t come.
  • If I help someone without marking the deed in my ‘little black book’, the next time I seek help and it isn’t returned, I won’t feel anger.
  • If I stop looking for acknowledgement (reward) for my actions, then the absence of acknowledgement will not affect my sense of peace or dull my happiness.
  • If I stop acting with even a subtle interest in acknowledgment, then my actions will deepen my sense of peace and happiness.

In other words, once we stop equating happiness with a reward for our kindness, compassion or love, we free ourselves from the burden of a continuous struggle to do this so that. Then, we can just do this, so … nothing!

Do this because it is loving.
Do this because it is kind.
Do this because it is compassionate.
Do this simply because.