So what are we talking about here? Well, I was having a chat with an artist friend the other day, and she used this expression – wearing your heart on your sleeve – which resonated with me, and we both agreed we tend to this a little bit too much for our own good ie we are too open and thereby can get hurt too easily. The expression ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’, may come from the Middle Ages when young men and women drew names out of a bowl to see who their Valentines would be, and they would wear the name drawn out on their sleeve to match themselves up with their partner. Shakespeare also used it in Othello, but with a different meaning. Here, the villain, Iago, states:
‘But I will wear my heart on my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.’
So he is going to feign openness and vulnerability of heart to appear trustworthy and faithful to Othello.
These days, we interpret it in this sense of openness, where it means to express one’s emotions freely, for all to see. Reacting from the heart, more than from the head. It usually also encompasses sensitivity, where by being open in this way, leaves you far more vulnerable to being hurt. When I began to meet other self-employed artists and crafts people, I found that they, like me, tended to do this. And because we were similar, and appreciated it as a quality, it meant you got to know each other pretty quickly. It was like finding your tribe. I used to find other people who, let’s say, have to work in office-type enviroments and need to get on with their peers within more conventional jobs, with more restraints upon them, are suspicious of very open and honest people. They have, quite understandably, learned to protect themselves and don’t understand those who do wear their hearts on their sleeve.
So why don’t people understand it?
I’ve found people who don’t operate this way, can have a mixture of reactions. They can think you are naïve, stupid and silly for not having learned to keep things to yourself, so as not to lay yourself open to criticism. They can make it ice-crystal clear they think you are over-reacting. Or they can think you are playing a game to trip them up, reacting with suspicion. Or they feed off you, as a kind of source of entertainment without giving back anything of themselves. Or they might be simply repressed to the point where they just can’t cope with it. They might even think you are being rude to them. In these circumstances you are forced to be like them to get along, or you have to walk away.
But being open can be a very good thing if you can control it : Here’s why:
You are being real. You are being true to yourself. What you are inside is what you are on the outside, so you have less inner conflict. You are staying in touch with yourself, you aren’t repressed. You don’t have to carry around different personae to put on in different situations, and because you’re not wearing this type of armour, you can move through life more freely, be less intimidated by things you don’t understand, react with far less defensiveness. The world expands, rather than shrinks like it does if you go around closed off or watching out for potential threats. You can make long-lasting friends. And because you are essentially open, you tune in to others more quickly and may read situations more easily, because of that valuable sensitivity working for you instead of against you.
So it’s well worth having, but it’s a good idea to learn to modify it sometimes, because it does lay you right open to getting hurt by peoples reactions, criticisms, judgments. So here are a few ideas for protecting yourself, making the trait work for you, instead of against you:
1. Self awareness. Learn what your own button triggers are that people can set off within you. Those knee jerk emotional reactions, those repeating patterns of defensiveness that you’ve adopted for various personal insecurity reasons, or have come from your past experiences. You’ll probably have an idea what they are. If not, watch out for them, explore them to find their roots and tackle them to defuse them. Here are a few examples of mine:
‘Haven’t you got a publisher for that novel yet?’
‘Can you actually support yourself being an artist?’
‘Have you thought of getting a real job?’
‘You’re not really living in the real world, are you?’
That last one used to really get me going! So, you learn to expect them, and let the defensive vibes flow through you without reacting. You ‘earth’ them and imagine them flowing away. You learn to give short friendly answers and not get into further discussion. You use your ‘observing self’ to spot these moments to react with less sensitivity. The observing self is that part of you that is mindfulness-based pure awareness and focus, that is consciousness without thought, that is always there with you, that can notice what you are thinking or feeling and can enable you to be more objective. It’s the clear sky above the passing clouds of disturbance.
2. You can learn to keep your own counsel until you get to know someone well enough to trust them with your feelings. In group discussions and workshops, let others tentatively contribute first instead of you charging in. Let others talk while you bide your time, so you learn more self-discipline. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of that.
3. Cultivate being an observer sometimes, to distance yourself from what’s going on inside you. Focus on the outer instead of the inner. The other person, instead of yourself. Most people are inner focused, so you have an advantage here if you remember this. In an awkward group situation, put the focus on the group, what they might be feeling, rather than reflecting on yourself. Instead of it being about you, make it about them – until you feel more comfortable.
4. In the same vein, learn to listen well, so once again the focus remains on the other person. It’s so much more relaxing and when you want to express yourself it comes much more naturally in the conversation and at the right time.
5. Remember that people react negatively and with criticism frequently because of their own hang-ups or inner issues or agendas. They can project/transfer these onto you in their negative responses. Learn to spot this may be happening and it frees you from being hurt.
6. Watch out for those people that may prey on your sensitivity, your empathy. Don’t let yourself be drained by them. You have to protect yourself from their pain, their emotional baggage and walk away. They will probably go on to find someone else to off-load onto, so don’t feel bad.
7. Work on accepting yourself, what you like and what you don’t particularly, because this is the route to more personal freedom. The more you accept yourself the less inner conflicts you will have within you, the less of a strained ego you will have within you to react with painful defences. If you truly accept yourself, you become far less vulnerable.
I’m not saying all this is easy – it’s not, it takes practice. Wearing your heart on your sleeve is sometimes a risky business, but I think the benefits are well worth it with a bit of care and self awareness. I hope you do too.
(image courtesy of pixabay)