Stay Safe or Risk Opening Your Heart?

“When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it’s bottomless.” ~Pema Chodron

As a child I learned boundaries. I learned what I wasn’t allowed to talk about outside of the family. I learned how far I could go with my parents before I faced their disapproval. I also learned that this boundary was unpredictable.

Because it was unpredictable, I honed the ability to sense when it seemed safe to do something, and when I couldn’t, based on the emotions of those around me. It kept me safe for the most part. And, I learned to always be on guard around certain people.

As a result of some of these experiences, I was reluctant to let people into my inner world for fear that I would get hurt.

I used this ability to read others throughout my life, especially in my career. I could walk into a room and read the mood of the group or individual to ensure that I understood how far I could go.

For a few people in my life, these boundaries were appropriate. But I used them almost all the time.

Setting these boundaries also cost me.

It cost me because I didn’t trust others.

It cost me because I learned not to expect things from others or I would end up disappointed.

It cost me because I thought I needed to only rely on and trust myself.

What I saw in other people was really a reflection of my own lack of trust in myself.

All the time that I held firm boundaries, I thought they were about respecting myself. But they were really about fear.

I was afraid of letting others in. I was afraid of letting myself in. And, I discovered that I was main person who didn’t treat myself with respect. This was a difficult lesson.

It is a lesson I am still learning.

On the one hand, the skills that I honed in childhood served me well. They kept me safe. They kept me in what little control I had over my life. I couldn’t control much, but I could control what I let others see about me. I could control whether or not I let people in.

I didn’t let others take advantage of me. I didn’t let others see me when I was vulnerable because they would get the upper hand. I didn’t let others behave inappropriately around me.

What I didn’t realize was that I not only kept out those whom I really couldn’t trust, but also those people in my life that truly loved me and who I could trust.

Instead of using my finely honed sense to ensure I stayed safe around those whose dysfunction was too close to my own family’s dysfunction, I kept everyone out.

The challenge of all of our childhoods isn’t just about the dysfunction we might believe is unique to our families of origin. It is a dysfunction that is embedded in our culture.

We treat children with disrespect on a daily basis. We dismiss their feelings as childish and immature. We dismiss their dreams and passions because they aren’t realistic.

We teach children to disrespect themselves and to disrespect others through the ways we treat them.

We teach children to keep others at arm’s length in order to stay safe.

We think we only teach children to be afraid of strangers.

The reality is we also teach them to be afraid of those who profess to love them while they punish them. Fear, control, disrespect are too often normal parts of childhood.

So my story isn’t about the sadness of having grown up in a family marked by alcoholism. I have come to terms with that part of my past. I am learning each day about the ways those experiences come up as triggers in my relationships today.

The real story here is about the ways we teach all children about respect and disrespect. It is about they ways we internalize the treatment we receive as children and turn that on ourselves. It is about the ways we turn that treatment on to others who are less powerful that we are.

When we are treated with disrespect and disregard as children we learn to guard ourselves to stay safe. We learn to close ourselves off from others.

We also turn away from ourselves because we believe that somehow, something we did caused the adults we loved to treat us this way.

When Martel and then Greyson came into my life, the skills I learned in childhood no longer worked. The children in my life (who I don’t refer to as “mine,” to avoid implying ownership) opened my heart and my soul.

They challenged my intellectual capacity and my ability to learn from my mistakes. They demanded to be treated with the kind of respect I wasn’t used to showing myself.

They showed me what it meant to clearly communicate what one needs. I had to learn what it meant to treat them with respect. Their unwillingness to be treated with disregard, to be dismissed, controlled, and dominated forced me to call into question everything that had served me well (or so I thought) until that point in my life.

I began to question even more than I had before, what I thought I knew about love, especially unconditional love.

I began to question what my values and beliefs were.

I began to question why their boldly and loudly expressed need to be treated with respect triggered me.

And I learned that it was because I had taken all the ways I had been disrespected as a child and turned them into negative beliefs about myself and about all children.

I had internalized the treatment I received from adults and decided that I must have deserved that treatment because I wasn’t good enough. So I needed to perform better to earn respect. And, this was what all children needed to do. Perform and meet the expectations of adults in order to get love and approval.

Martel and Greyson taught me that being treated with respect is not deserved only when you please others.

They taught me that respect and love for oneself comes from honoring your own voice, desires, passions, and needs.

They taught me that respect and love for others is about pausing, listening, and not making assumptions about them.

They taught me that respect and love for others doesn’t come just because someone mouths the words please, thank you, or I’m sorry.

They taught me that respect and love is about opening your heart and responding in a genuine and soulful way.

They broke open my heart and taught me what it meant to trust myself and to trust them.

And most importantly, they taught me something powerful about love:

We need to love ourselves as much as we love others.

Photo by lululemon athletica

About Teresa Graham Brett

Teresa Graham Brett is a coach, consultant, author, and parent. Through her webinars, book, and coaching programs she works with parents to let go of the style of parenting that has harmed us for generations and create relationships with children that are based on respect, trust, and unconditional love.

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  • Amod Joshi

    You are so right Teresa. My 2 year old son is also teaching me so many lessons of my life. The hug that I receive each day when I go back home is filled with unconditional love. As a child they are not programmed. We, adults, program them and then as the child grow, we wonder where did we lose that innocent child? By giving them the unconditional love, care and respect, we would make them into better and happier human beings in their coming life.

  • Just a girl

    my heart’s dead. I don’t think i have a soul because I have never felt happy. I don’t care about people. I can’t tollerate having to deal with others.

  • Teresa, I recently published a counselling article on this subject, called Smothering the Silent Abuse, but I feel you got to the heart of subject that is also so close to mine with gentle simplicity and clarity: thank you for sharing and being honest. I believe this post will touch many.. 🙂

  • Lv2terp

    WOW, this was so moving and powerful for me, thank you so much for sharing your experience, vulnerability, and wisdom!  This is me almost to a “T”, and I am truly grateful to have such amazing insight and clarity! THANK YOU!!!! Very much!! 🙂

  • Harleigh Quinn

    Disagree. This is the road to narcissistic personality disorder, anti social personality disorder, etc. When we make our needs, wants, passions, desires more important above all, we tend to forget there are others around us. Alan Watts stated that to understand the relationship of the self to the other, one could not love themselves without also loving everything that is NOT themselves. And then there is the other side of the coin. I was the complete OPPOSITE of the writer, providing trust and love to everyone, and the end result is that I now have PTSD, trust no one, and suffer from manic depression brought on by the PTSD. And all of this caused by people, especially those I considered the closests, in the last two years, and thier betrayal of the trust that  I had placed in them. We NEED to protect ourselves, especially from the wolves in sheeps clothing, or sheep in wolves clothing, which would be more apt. My betrayers pretended to be everything they were not, some for most of my life, some for at least a decade, and then flipped in the last two years. I feel there must have been something in the water……And to make it more damning, they used the westernized versions of beliefs I have practiced my entire life, the for some reason now accepted versions of those beliefs, which are warped, perverted and narcissistic in the western practice, and gained from the abuse they made me suffer under.
    No, I am sorrym but especially in the world of today, where one in ten people have the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, as of 2010, and RISING, I have to say it is better to be safe than vulnerable.

  • Harleigh Quinn

    Also, it seems that the cause of narcissistic personality disorder is heightened self esteem (Read “the narcissism epidemic”) thus the author truly is directing toward a reality that does not solve the problem, but instead exacerbates it.

  • Guest

    Thank you so much for writing this. My family is not supportive and have always controlled everything I have done.  I feel trapped sometimes and I am 22 years old. I feel as if I don’t deserve anything and that I am not good enough. What steps can I take to feel better about myself and free myself from this? 

  • Hengjoeshen

    Teresa Graham Brett , 

    It’s so true especially in Asian culture where kids are not allowed to cry (although they were extremely unhappy or suffering) and all their opinions or curiosity being dismissed. I remember when I was young, I was so curios to know more about human behavior like why dad came home late? why was he angry? why my mum is crying? All the answers that I received from my brothers or aunt were either “Stop disturbing. Go other places to play.” or “Kids don’t understand.” My mum herself is a strong supporter of ”
    We teach children to keep others at arm’s length in order to stay safe.” This includes relatives and friends. I learnt that parents and brothers could keep secret, and so were permissible to do so as well. We only shared happy moments while hiding all the depression or sadness deep inside our heart. We were not allowed to CRY! Crying is often associated with a loser, and a strong tough guy is expected to never cry. He must be able to endure all the sufferings alone in silence. You are very lucky indeed to meet a very good kalyana mitra, but how about I? Is there any way that I can break out of this chain of misery? I am still worry if I can endure the pain should I being betrayed. Thanks. With metta, Joe

  •  Amod, thanks for sharing. I think the word programming is so right on! When we are open to it, children can teach us so much about love. Teresa

  •  Joanna, I would love to read the article. Where is it published?

  • Joe, like you we could only share the happy moments. Even then, not too happy! In my own journey, it has been a process of allowing myself to feel the feelings that I buried. I was afraid of so many of my feelings. I avoided them when they seemed unacceptable to me (from what I learned from my family). I slowly learned to acknowledge the feelings. Let myself cry when I needed. Let myself feel anger. I still struggle with this. I judge the feelings too often rather than letting them flow. So, sometime I will just go into a room by myself and let myself feel it. Let myself say out loud how I feel as a way to open up.

    As I have come to accepting more of myself, I have learned to love myself and let go of the negative messages I heard about myself growing up. If Buddhism is one path you are on, I found Mark Nepo’s book, Finding Inner Courage to be helpful to me. There were many places in the book that spoke to my need to face what I was resisting or avoiding as a path toward greater freedom and acceptance of myself.


  •  Thanks for commenting!

  •  I can understand given the betrayal you experienced why you would disagree with my post. Having come from different places and life experiences, we each are on our own path to healing from the pain we have experienced. I am sad to hear of the ways you have been hurt and I wish you peace and healing.

  • lynn fux

    Hey,This is way beyond my qualifications even though I have 6 kids but PLEASE someone respond to the distressing comment by just a girl!! please pay attention, this looks serious and in need of an answer ASAP. she is asking for help and this site is a good place to start.
                                             Lynn Fux

  • lynn fux

    your heart is not dead,you have a soul,you are just living in a state of hell (unhappiness) right now,Maybe you have been hurt badly but we can all heal and start again. Love to you ,Lynn fux

  • lynn fux

    Hey,This is way beyond my qualifications even though I have 6 kids but PLEASE someone respond to the distressing comment by JUST A GIRL!!!!!!!!! please pay attention, this looks serious and in need of an answer ASAP. she is asking for help and this site is a good place to start.
    Lynn Fux

  •  You’re right Lynn, we all can heal and start again. Just a girl, I am also sending you love and peace to you. Perhaps connecting to someone near you who would have expertise in healing would be a next step.

  •  My own journey began with trying to listen more to myself. To tap into my gut feelings about what I wanted for life and begin to take baby steps to move toward that. So often adults can instill in children that they are not good enough and not worthy. It can be hard not to buy into that. And you are not alone. Start small. Even if you feel you can’t question the big things yet, begin to question them within yourself. I remember someone told me that I can’t ever fill the hole that was inside my parents. Not matter what I tried, I could not make it right. But I could begin by being a parent to myself and loving myself.

  •  Just a girl, I also wanted to add that in my own journey, I have felt like my heart was so closed it felt dead. I needed to reach out to others, a counselor and other healers that help me to move out of the darkness I felt. When I was suicidal, I began see a counselor who used cognitive behavioral therapy and it was a tool I could use to move myself out of the a downward spiral of thoughts and pain. Seeking out professional help when I couldn’t help myself made a huge difference.

  • Tahirah Powell

    Thank You. You articulated so well what I suspected and have come to realize- and am now trying to change- are the reasons for my “safe” behaviors, almost as if you’ve been inside my heart and my mind all along. All my life I’ve built these ‘walls’ of protection around me to keep pain and disappointment out; and if I was to hurt, it’d be better by my own devices than those of another. However, I’ve come to realize that I’ve also kept out the love and beauty meant for me to have while trapping myself in with the real source of my fear- ME. Under my ‘affable, competent and independent’ demeanor exists a scared person afraid of not living up to the expectations of others, a person also lacking the self-confidence and faith to believe I am truly and genuinely how people perceive me to be without trying to be. Opening up to feel, embrace and live my authentic self is very scary. Also understanding the extent to which I’ve buried myself deep away from others and myself breaks my heart, though I am learning to let go of that judgmental ego that has kept me oppressed. Love, kindness, forgiveness and tenderness toward others first starts with me and I am beginning to love and value myself endlessly. 

  • lynn fux

    hi Just a girl,Are you alright? I will keep checking back here if you want to write more and need someone to talk to. Love,Lynn

  • lynn fux

    To : JUST A GIRL; let me just stress here I am a practicing Buddhist but in no way a professional ,just someone who cares sincerly,

  • I just saw your comment, and my heart broke a little for you. Can I help you in some way? If you’d like to get in touch, you can reach me at email(AT)tinybuddha(DOT)com. You are in my thoughts!

  • Tahirah it is scary. There are times when I am still scared and then I remember that I can live through the fear. I can even love the fear that I feel as just another part of me. When I invite the fear in and acknowledge that it served me when I was a child and now I am done with it, I can appreciate the fear for the role it played in keeping me safe when I didn’t have much else and then fear moves through much more quickly.

  • Harleigh Quinn

    See, this entire thread is and its comments have turned into the pity party that is the earmarks of nacissistic personality disorder. MEMEMEMEMEMEMEMEMEME!!!!This has succeeded in making the exact point I was attempting to make. Punishment is actually within buddhist thought. The concept of loss, cause and effect. If we do not punish for wrong doing how does one know it is wrong doing? Arbitrary punishment is wrong, but this reminds me of my wife, who ran away form her family in poland, had them worried to death, and resents them for punishing her for making them worry that she had been kidnapped or stolen. She has not let go of that childhood resent, but refuses to see the cause and effect that her action brought that on.

    So, by this logic, we should not punish thieves, liars, crooks, murderers….all those stock brokers that lost retirement funds were just doing what is natural to them. Iceland is wrong for convicting those bankers. it is humourous how we are so arbitrary in our views, how we elect to say that only those people are wrong and deserves what happens to them, but we do not deserve to face the music for our actions. This is known as spiritual narcissism. Read Ken Wilbur’s boomeritis or even his integral spirituality sometime.

    What is stated in this entire article is boomeritis buddism, and not true buddhist dharma in ANY way. It is the westernized, self absorbed, self help, bastardization of buddhism, or any type of spirituality, really.

    I wonder if anyone here has ever heard of sanghe? It’s the buddhist word for the art of apology. Why would one apologize if they have not had to recognize wrong doing?


  • Harleigh Quinn

    This is from a buddhist monk I converse with often:
    “The Law of Cause and Effect
    Spiritual laws are fair and just and based on not hurting others. Perhaps that is why some verson of the Goldne Rule has been found in almost every culture throught the ages. When spiritual laws are violated, the life force gets twisted and is prevented from regenerating and revitalizing the violator. A self-realized person takes responsibility not only for adopting spiritual laws but for disavoing incompatible societal values and social mores.
    the law of cause and effect, the first spiritual law we will discuss, is succintly stated in the seven hermetic principles as follows:
    Every cause has an effect; every effect has it’s cause; everything happens according to the law; chance is but a name for the law not recognized.
    In other words, law and order prevaisl throught the universe. This is a relationship among everything that has gone before and everything that follows. Every act as its consequences. Newton’s third law of motion states, “for ever action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This is the scientific restatement of the principle of cause and effect. In the case of  jet plane, the plane is thrust frward (the effect) by the gases blasting rearward (the cause).
    The law of karma parallels the law of cause and effect but ecompasses multiple lifetimes. Even negative karma can be undertaken with tranqquil acceptance once one recognizes the much greater value of living in a just and trustworthy universe. It is always easier to know the reason one has to endure a certain experience than to not know.
    Often we mistakenly assume tht certain things are inevitable. With such an upside-down world viw, we can see the cause as the effect. For example, viewing death as an unknown, inevitable fact we conclude tht our fear of death stems from this unknown state. In actuality, this fear of deat is an effect of the belief (the cause) that change leads to an unfamiliar state which, because it is unknown, must be ngative and fearsome.
    Wherever your personal rays agree with th spiritual laws, you fulfill your life ad you are in harmony and bliss. Wherever your personal rays deviate from spiritual laws, you find yourself in disharmony. This causes the difficulties whish you so often, and so erroneously, believe to be blows dealt to you by fate. The more you remove yourself from the roots of the difficulties by covering them up up and pushing them into the unconscious, the more difficult it will be to perceive the connections ad to dissolve, or pull out, the flawed roots. If you wish to be happy, you have to go to the flawed roots within yourself.
    May your ability to connect cause and effect grow ever stronger and your faith in a just universe expand accordingly.

    The above is precisely what has NOT been happening in spiritual practice, and we have found protection, in numbers, herd mentality, to shield ourselves from the repercussions of what SHOULD be occuring. One of the traits of narcissism is to only associate with like minded people, which is a way to protect our egos and not ever have to face the possibility (certainity, actually) that the false illusion that is our ego, may be (is) wrong, and leading us astray.

    In tibetan buddhism there is a practice called “self cherishing”, which we as westerners do not see as a bad thing (“love yourself first….”) This practice is actually the tibetan buddhist term for narcissism, and seen as the path to the demonic state of egohood (chogyam trungpa rinpoche, “cuttting through spiritual materialism”, 1973) As I stated earlier, spiritual practice and westernized buddhism has “jumped the shark”, to become egoic and self absorbed, and the exact opposite of what it is intended to be, due to the “narcissism of feelings”, as portrayed by Ken Wilbur.

  • Abhi

    i feel the same a lot of times..i am a pessimist and really find it hard but the trick is to never give up..keep on hoping that ur life will improve because it will..!

  • Great article Teresa. 

    Really nice one.!

  • Anna Puchalski

    Also coming from an family affected by alcoholism I only learned boundaries very recently. I am absolutely grateful for learning this lesson yet still am afraid that the pendulum swings both ways and something that can keep me so safe can also lock others out because of fear. There is beauty in the process, though. Good luck to you and thank you for sharing your very heartfelt and raw story!


    I thing you did the right thing. I have open to people all my life, and all they wanted was to fuc* me up. Don’t trust nobody, everyone can be ur enemy, and not many people are your friends. Don’t please people FU** them, be carefull coz everyday people are just waiting for you to put your hands down and dominate you. IT’S HARTBREAKING but it’s real. People use their brain not HART.

  • Eric Hisler

    Pure ego talk based on fear Harleigh.

  • Shiva Bodhi Dharma

    And that, my friends, is known as “Gaslighting”

  • Ann

    Great article, thank you! helped me a lot 🙂
    p.s this might be a typo (or just my bad English)
    It is about THEY ways we internalize the
    treatment we receive as children and turn that on ourselves.