To begin with, I think it’s easy to make category errors in confusing the metaphorical and the physical heart. The heart sounds warm and fuzzy while the brain sounds gushy or “head-y.” So it’s tempting to ascribe heartfelt feelings/inclinations to the physical heart even though it’s actually the brain that (still somewhat mysteriously) constructs those feelings and inclinations as experiences in our field of awareness.
As to the physical heart and the brain, there is interesting research on heart rate variability from Dacher Keltner, Heartmath, and other sources. I think sometimes there is an overemphasis on the heart’s influence on the brain and thus our experience of things like warm and loving feelings. Still, clearly there are feedback loops in which cardio-pulmonary processes regulate neural and thus mental activity. In effect, through Heartmath or related methods (e.g., metta practice in Buddhism, devotional practices in Hinduism), one can use the mind to affect the brain to affect the physical heart, which in turn affects the brain, which causes the mind to feel more peaceful/loving/happy. I have not seen research to this effect, but it is certainly plausible that changes in a person’s mental state – such as becoming more loving – involve functional and structural changes in the neuro-fabric of the heart.
Polyvagal theory is also a tremendous resource that indicates linkages between the heart and lungs and the “social engagement system.”
We can have desires for love (in many forms, including simple decent treatment of us by others) that reach all the way back to infancy. Sometimes these desires – wishes, hopes, needs, wants, longings – are tended well by others even if not perfectly. And sometimes they are not – perhaps traumatically, though more often by lots of little disappointments and mistreatments that accumulate over time in emotional memory. Naturally, the brain associates the longing for love to the pain we feel when it is not given appropriately to us.
So then when today that longing is stirred up, even in simple ways like meeting someone who might become a friend, the brain/mind quickly associates that desire to the (understandable) expectation of pain…so then we withdraw in one way or another – unless we are conscious of this process, and with self-compassion and insight can “step in” inside our own mind to remind ourselves that this is now not then, and that we can indeed open a bit and see what happens and if it goes well, keep opening a little more, step by clear seeing step.
The distinction between 1 and 2 blurs in practice. The main difference is that 2 is more deliberately and planfully sequential, and is a road map for therapists and also for people in general.
You get at a big issue, how to keep the heart open without getting overwhelmed and burned out. So relevant in so many situations, from caring to young children or aging parents, to fighting the good fight for social justice and a world without war.
I don’t have all the answers, for sure. Personally, I let myself disengage when it’s too much, fuel myself when I can, and try to see the big picture. I think of this saying (close paraphrase) from Nkosi Johnson: “Do what you can where you are with what you’ve been given in the time that you have.”
Meanwhile, I also keep trying to let go of the experiences washing through awareness, not sticking to them or them sticking to me.
First, I try to develop my capacity to sit in both compassion and equanimity, opening the heart to pain while also being undisturbed in my core about it. A long-term project in my case, to be sure!
Second, I try to see the whole mosaic of reality, which includes both beings that will be harmed and beings that will be loved. Recognizing the good (using that word loosely) does not mean not recognizing and feeling moved by the bad; and seeing the good can help us bear and sometimes improve the bad.
“Off-line,” when you do not feel threatened, deepen the sense of feeling connected by routinely taking in experiences of feeling cared about. Then, at times you do feel threatened or anxious, call up the body sense of feeling cared about. Stay strong with this, being a good friend to yourself, helping your mind stay focused on the sense of having allies, being part of a group, feeling included, liked, and loved.
I really hear you about the risks in trying to think of someone who loves you. That’s why I try to always speak in broader terms of looking for ways to feel cared about, and usually list five aspects of being cared about: being included, seen, appreciated, liked, or loved. I stress that it is important to look for mild, everyday moments of being cared about in one of these ways, such as your dog wanting to go for a walk with you, coworkers appreciating your idea in a meeting, or a moment of friendliness with someone.
In other words, even if someone has not been loved or has been but can’t feel it, there are still many other ways to feel cared about – which is indeed very important to us as the most social species on the planet. We need to feel cared about in the psychological sphere as much as we need water in the physiological sphere.
I also suggest that people open to feeling caring, since caring is caring whether it is flowing in or flowing out.
Compassion can live alongside discernment, performance expectations, and assertiveness. You can have compassion – the basic wish that they not suffer, usually with feelings of sympathetic concern – for your colleagues, and you can restrain and release any ill will toward them (including any righteousness or disdain), while also making skillful choices about what you might say and how you might say it.
It is natural to continue to be bothered by negative thoughts and feelings long after a loss and psychological injury that’s as large as the one you experienced. In my model of the three ways to engage the mind – let be, let go, let in – sometimes it take many months, or even several years, to get through the first two of these. Try not be overwhelmed by the pain.
Then, on the basis of truly letting be and letting go, you can now let in most effectively, such as internalizing positive experiences of feeling cared about by others (e.g., friends, children), and feeling worthy and good in your own being. Then the linking step of holding both positive and negative in your mind will be most effective.
More generally, it helps me get free of my own suffering in relationships when I can see the suffering in others and have compassion for them. This does not mean I approve or let them off the moral hook, just that I also recognize their own pain and difficulties. Besides being benevolent, this seeing of the suffering of others paradoxically helps me feel less upset.
I suggest you get a good therapist and work through these issues. You describe what sounds like “body dysmorphic disorder,” a catch-all term for irrational beliefs that some or all of one’s body is ugly, broken, tainted, etc.
Also, under their exterior, many young men have the same self-doubts as you do, including about intimate parts of their body. I know I did.
I also suggest, with respect, that you think in terms of connecting with young women as a kind of ladder, let’s say twelve steps, with a happy marriage at the twelfth step and casual conversation as the first step. Take it one step at a time. Get comfortable at one step, and then gradually open to moving just one step higher. Don’t focus on steps way above you.
In this context, notice and allow young women to have a positive response to you at the step you’re on. Take in this positive response and the good feelings it creates in you. Use this ‘taking in’ (see my book, Buddha’s Brain, for more on this practice) to fill you up gradually, bringing confidence and slowly healing your old pain and insecurity.
In my model of the ladder, here are the steps (don’t take this too seriously, I don’t):
This is about wise view, seeing reality clearly and not being deluded by the legacy of beliefs from childhood. And it’s about being receptive, receiving the gift of women being drawn to you. And they are drawn to you already even if you don’t see it.
Many reasons. Sometimes the longing for closeness led to pain in the past, or we saw this happen to others, or we simply worried that it could happen to us.
The trick now is to risk the dreaded experiences related to intimacy in thoughtful, appropriate ways that are likely to succeed. Then, when things go well (as they usually do), really take in the good of this experience, to help your brain gradually learn that it is OK to get closer to others.
First, I would suggesting pushing yourself into situations in which you can form new good relationships of various kinds. Some of the best settings are low-key classes such as introductory ceramics and service projects in which good people come together in common cause. I’m a shy person myself and I get what is hard about actually taking this advice, but there is no replacement for it.
Second, there are many sources of resilient well-being that do not depend on relationships. My programs and writings get at this in depth, and I suggest you check out Hardwiring Happiness in particular.
Third, even with limitations in human relationships and relative isolation, you can feel related to the natural world, and you can feel and focus on your own naturally warm and caring heart. Even if love is not flowing in, you can be fed by love flowing out.
The key distinction is between “craving” – as problematic forms of desire – and “attaching” in the ordinary healthy sense of companionship, friendship, love, and parent-child bonding. In the sense of the words I am using here, in a nutshell, attaching is beneficial and craving is harmful.
Humans evolved a highly social brain that naturally attaches in healthy ways. Check out “attachment theory” and “social brain theory” in general and my chapters on “Intimacy” and “Courage” in my book Resilient in particular. And, sometimes healthy forms of attachment go awry, as in jealousy, over-reactions to rejection, or vicious us-against-them conflicts.
These are deeply important questions. We cultivate compassion along with equanimity, keeping the two in balance. Equanimity is the frame of our experiences, so we can experience anything in principle with equanimity (though calm pleasure is easier to maintain equanimity for than enraged pain!) . . . including heartbroken compassion. And as to trying to influence others wisely (as the Buddha did in many ways, including through his teachings and exhortations), that, too, can be done with equanimity . . . . and then those others do what they do, which we can also have equanimity about.
All this is a cultivation, a path, a process over time, of course.
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Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.
The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.
She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.
Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.
In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.
Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.
Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.
He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.
Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.
Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.
Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.
Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.
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