Vulnerability can be a tricky thing. On one hand, it can bring us closer to our ultimate happiness. On the other hand, which is less appealing, it can lead to the deepest of heartbreaks.
So what’s better? To have loved and lost—while experiencing the excruciating pain of that loss—or to never have loved at all?
That depends on who you ask.
Regrets of the Dying
In her book,The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departed, Bronnie Ware describes her work in palliative care. Over the years she discovered a commonality in the regrets held by almost all the dying patients she worked with including, I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one,” writes Ware. “Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice.” Out of a sense of familiarity and comfort, she says, they stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. “Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
Another common regret was I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“When I talk with clients about allowing themselves to be more emotionally vulnerable, they often insist that they don’t wish to get hurt,” says psychotherapist and author Karen R. Koenig, MEd, LCSW. “I ask them if that is really possible in life. Of course, it isn’t, and that’s what most people don’t understand. We may get hurt by being vulnerable, but we also cause ourselves harm by being well defended and refusing to show our authentic self.”
In this process of hiding ourselves behind our well-built walls, we may think we are protecting ourselves from pain, and perhaps to some extent we are—at least in the short term. However, there is another—some say even greater pain than that of loss—that life throws our way. And that is the pain of regret, of knowing that we missed out on an opportunity due to our own fear, including the potential for love and connection.
"When I look back on my past and think how much time I wasted on nothing, how much time has been lost in futilities, errors, laziness, incapacity to live; how little I appreciated it, how many times I sinned against my heart and soul—then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute can be an eternity of happiness." —Fyodor Dostoevsky
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
There is a wonderful parable within the Buddhist tradition that speaks of two arrows that come our way when we are hurt. The first arrow is the painful event itself, a loss or an injury. These are the inevitable hurts that come along with life—the ones that are beyond our control. The second arrow, however, is the hurt we inflict on ourselves. We do this through our reactions to the event when we react in ways that include anger, endless rumination, or self-pity.
So in the case of heartbreak and loss, how do we avoid shooting that second arrow, or at the very least, reduce the pain it inflicts? According to Koenig, we can take steps to reduce the intensity of the hurt, such as learning to not take everything personally, and strengthening resilience by learning the life skills needed to handle rejection, abandonment, and loss. “As we build our self-esteem and self-worth, we become less vulnerable to what others think of us because we don’t need to be perfect and have a more honest sense of ourselves,” says Koenig. “And then being vulnerable hurts less.”
Practicing with a therapist is another way, says Silvia M. Dutchevici, LCSW, president and founder of the Critical Therapy Center. “Through the process of critical therapy, the notion of love and mutuality emerges slowly in the clinical relationship. Communicating, learning how to be with an Other in the therapeutic hour is the blueprint of the art of loving; the art of being with someone, of accepting the perfect imperfections of an Other and Self, of being together.”
“Authenticity and vulnerability take practice,” says psychologist Michele Leno, Ph.D., LP. “Practice with yourself, those you trust, and new acquaintances. Be yourself, love yourself, represent yourself ... and the circle you are meant to have will form.”
The truth is, all relationships will end, whether through a breakup, death, or other separation. Nothing in this world is permanent, including ourselves. Does that mean we should stop living our life to the fullest just because one day that life will end? Or is it better to have tried and fallen, then to have never tried at all? Again, it depends on who you ask.
For those of us who aspire to a life of few regrets, perhaps instead of being afraid to fall, we should be afraid not to.
Ware, B. (2012). The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departed. Hay House