“You open your heart knowing there’s a chance it may be broken one day and in opening your heart, you experience a love and joy that you never dreamed possible.” ~Bob Marley
A few months ago I was visited by my mother in a dream; my deceased mother who took her own life thirty years ago.
In my dream, I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom thinking about my teenage daughter, who is around the same age I was when my mother died. I felt like my daughter was in distress, and I wanted to help her.
As I sat and pondered, I looked up and saw a blanket coming toward me. I knew it was my mother trying to comfort me, but I could not see her. I only felt her. I was confused and uncomfortable with her presence and why she was there.
She then became visible in her ethereal form, beautiful and healthy as I once remembered her long ago. A victim of mental illness, she had fought her own demons for years before making the decision to end her life.
Her exit from this world shaped the path of mine. I had not dreamt of her in many, many years.
From an early age I was her confidante. She shared her fears with me, as well as her insecurities and her deep depression. I took on the role as her caretaker and emotional support. She was desperate to be loved, and I was desperate to help her feel it. I felt I had to. If I didn’t, I might lose her.
She opened her arms to hug me in my dream, and I instinctively pulled away. This was not our relationship, and I didn’t trust it. It was not her job to comfort me. I was the one who comforted her. It didn’t feel safe.
She waited in silence with her arms wide open as I resisted. I was curious, but cautious. I slowly leaned in and felt her embrace… and then, I let go.
I let her hug me. I released my fear, leaned in even closer, and let my body go limp as I wept in her arms.
I have never experienced anything like it. A feeling of complete surrender and letting go into the care of someone else where I did not have to be strong. I did not have to fix anything. I did not have to make anything okay. I let myself be embraced by a love so powerful and comforting… just for me.
When I woke up, I felt an enormous wave of peace and contentment. Scribbling down insights and details at 4am so I wouldn’t forget.
I spent the next day enamored with the aha moments that followed. I saw the patterns that began early on that I couldn’t quite grasp. The fear of attachment and commitment. The danger I felt getting close to people. How giving love was a survival tactic to get my basic needs met and how receiving love felt dangerous and unknown.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to fully experience being loved by others, I didn’t know how. I saw the push and pull in my relationships. I wanted to get close to people, but it felt risky. The closer they would become the more I would internally retreat in protection.
I had a strong desire to be connected to others, but the resistance that came with it was fierce. So much fear.
I married in my mid-twenties feeling I had a strong connection with my husband and I would comfortably ask for what I needed. Yet the more attached I became, the more my anxiety around loss intensified.
I feared arguments would lead to the end of the relationship. I was convinced that if I didn’t shape myself to meet his expectations I would no longer be welcome in his life. I felt the pressure to assess his needs while ignoring my own, which eventually led to long-term resentment and the disconnect of our relationship.
Instead of telling my husband, I withdrew enough to deem the relationship no longer working. I was too scared to ask for what I wanted, assuming rejection and defeat. My biggest fear was that he would leave. Instead of waiting for the inevitable end, I chose to leave him before he left me, which led to another debilitating fear—that I would hurt him.
I always felt I had to be tough, the one who took the hits. Because my childhood experiences with an emotionally unavailable parent positioned me as the caregiver, I believed that was my role in relationships. I did not think I had earned the right to support my own emotional needs.
And due to the fact that I’d failed to save my mother when she was in the most pain, an unwarranted, yet longstanding guilt created a fear of hurting others. I would rather put their needs over my own and “suck it up” so they didn’t have to experience what I had become an expert at—enduring pain.
After spending significant amounts of time with myself, comforting the wounds of loss from my twenty-plus year relationship, and getting to know who I was independently, I began to nurture my vulnerable heart. I realized my lack of love and compassion for myself was keeping me in a cycle of dysfunctional and unhealthy attachments.
As my heart strengthened and healed, I was introduced to new friendships with those who were willing to be open and vulnerable, and slowly began to do the same.
I noticed the more comfortable I became in my own skin, the easier it became to expose my true self. Yet, this didn’t elevate my trust in relationships, their intentions, or how long they would last. I continued to keep those I loved at arms length in fear that they could be gone at any time.
Although I practiced trust, and even teach ways to move through fear in my career as a psychotherapist, it did not make trusting relationships any easier for me. I trusted myself and my own decisions, but when it came to interpersonal relationships I continued to fear connection and loss of love.
As I began to allow in healthier connections, my real challenges began to unravel. I wanted more intimate relationships equally as much as I feared them.
I started to notice how quickly I wanted to bail if things felt uncomfortable. I felt the inner sirens blare in alert when any kind of threat or disagreement began to brew.
My desire to run is almost instantaneous, like a reflex. I keep my shield up as I find the quickest way off the battlefield to protect my heart. It is a true challenge to not react based on fears that I developed long ago, despite the fact that my life is completely different, as am I.
This self-awareness combined with a consistent practice to respect my fears, has allowed me to make the changes I know are necessary. I now choose to change my patterns by doing the opposite of what I normally do. If I want to run, I stay put. If I want to shut down my emotions, I give myself the space to feel them so they move through me and dissipate.
If I want to pick a fight because I’m scared and want out, I practice sitting with it, or even better, I calmly verbalize my needs. I practice the pause to make sure I am not sabotaging something that is “normal” and will pass with space and calming of my internal wiring. I allow myself time to listen to what my fear is saying to me and question if it is real or imagined.
I’m learning to say how I feel out loud instead of hiding my irrational thoughts. The more I express them and work through them, the more I am realizing they’re just the way I’ve protected myself, but I don’t need them anymore. They are outdated, but still need the comfort of being heard and not dismissed.
The more I’ve changed my response to allowing love in, the more loving relationships and friendships I attract. With people who talk through difficulties and don’t threaten to leave. People who know my tears are normal and don’t criticize my skittish reactions to life. People who somehow inspire me to believe, maybe I really am enough.
I believe my mother’s message to me in my dream was really rather simple. My fears have been under the guise that love can be taken away, but my mother’s embrace showed me that love does not die. It changes forms. That each experience in my life has been a lesson of love, whether an opportunity to feel more love for myself or compassionate love toward others, knowing their own fears of loss of love are the same.
Every time one door has closed in my life, another has opened. Each person who has showered me with love and left has made space for more love to come in. And this is true for all of us.
Most of us are carrying around insecurities in relationships due to our experiences growing up. We’re scared of being hurt or rejected, and it’s tempting to close down—to shut love out so it can’t be taken away. But we need to trust that opening our hearts is worth the risk, and that even if someone leaves us, we can fill the hole in our heart with our own self-love and compassion.
The night after my dream, my independent, headstrong adolescent daughter asked me to lie down with her at bedtime. This is a rarity, as she has grown to not need me in her self-sufficient ways. I melted with the chance to put my arm around her as she released tears of pent up stress and fears of change. I recognized her sadness; I have felt the same.
My dream had come full circle. I am the mother I always wanted; the unconditional love and support I craved. And I am here to teach my daughter that she, too, is not alone and love will never leave her.
Although I know my own work of self-love and acceptance will continue, I see now the rewards of opening my heart won’t cease. To let love in we must practice not shutting it out. In the end, it’s all we really want, and we can have it, if we open up to it.
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