Helena Clayton | ‘Never let your heart get small’



‘Never let your heart get small’

07 Sep 2020, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

Some years ago, I was working with a coaching/OD practice supervisor.  She was over 70,  and had a fabulously eclectic life and career that included being a mother, a nun and an academic.

She taught me a lot.  But one thing in particular sticks.

‘Never let your life get small’, she said. ‘It’s so easy, as you age, to say no to things, to shut down options, to close things off.  We get more timid and fearful and over time we build a cage for ourselves and end up living such a small and conscribed life. Keep saying yes to things, keep expanding.  Never let your life get small’.

It was what she said.  And it was also the fire and energy she said it with.  She really wanted to me to hear her.  And I did.

It comes back to me from time to time, because I know I have a tendency to play small and make my life small and I try and work against that.  But right now, I am also super-aware that I can very easily make my heart small.

Why now?

Over the last few months, there’s been a situation in my life that has challenged me in my capacity to be loving.  And means I am now in very regular contact  – inextricably linked – to someone who I find it hard to love.

This has invited out the part of me that’s unloving.  I say ‘part’ but there will be several parts, let’s be honest!  The poet Walt Whitman said ‘do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes’   So this is just one such part but one that’s vivid and vocal right now.

I know this part well.  She’s always been around but through workshops and intentional exploration over many years, I have come to really know what she looks like, sounds like, what she represents and how she feels.

Let me introduce her.  She doesn’t have a name, but she’s a vivid presence when I bring her to mind.  She looks like a little old witch from traditional fairy tales, but she’s not that old.  She’s small, physically shrunken in on herself, hunched shoulders and clenched arms with a pinched face and mean expression.  Almost spitting with venom.  She’s tight all over.  There’s not a soft bit anywhere – she’s all sharp edges.  She’s mean and vindictive and controlling. Tight and withholding.  Spiteful.  She says no a lot.

But I also know her history and why she’s part of me.  I know her backstory.  And I know she’s mostly scared … of scarcity and not having enough, of being rejected. And I know she only wants to keep me safe and protect me, as counter intuitive and warped as that may sound.

I could tell you a lot more about her.  But the point is that I know this unloving part of me well.  I’ve come to accept her and even welcome her.  But I don’t want her running my life. I’m happy to have her around but I don’t want her making decisions for me.  I especially don’t want her showing up right now.

Who I DO want around is the part of me that’s generous and expansive, joyful and open, who has soft edges, who trusts that there will always be enough and that all is well. That sees abundance and not scarcity.  The part of me that says yes…the part of me that has an open heart.

I have to work at that, at times.  And I certainly do right now, in this particular relationship.

So what do I do when I know I want to expand into love?   How do I keep my heart as expansive as possible?   For me, it takes intentional practice .  It’s a choice that I have to make all the time.  In the moment.  And currently, what’s helping me is:

Listening to poets and philosophers

I know I need the wisdom of others  – sages and seers, poets and philosophers.  David Whyte often brings everything back to love and his Poetry of Self Compassion is especially heartful.   And maybe you already know John O’Donoghue who similarly speaks and writes about ways to open to life and open to the deep and mysterious workings of the heart.  His To Bless The Space Between Us is beautiful place to start with his work.

The science of positive psychology  

I also listen to what science tells me, especially the work of the positive psychologists and their thinking on ‘broaden and build’ and what happens to our physiology when we ‘focus on the good’ and actively bring in positive emotions.  Barbara Fredrickson’s Love 2.0 is good on this and also Dan Cable and the ‘seeking system’ in Alive at Work.  I get Rick Hanson’s Just One Thing Newsletter in my Inbox too and that one thing always feels like what I need to keep learning.

And TV helps too

I’d much rather watch Harlots than Once Upon a Time in Iraq.  Better a sentimental box set than a programme on food banks.  But watching the latter keeps front of mind the stories, plight and experiences of others who struggle – and I know I need to intentionally keep looking at that to keep my heart open.  The more I hear the stories of others’ lives, the more it helps me.  The more I understand  what people have lived through, the more I am likely to find compassion.

For me, all of these things are like buying and using a door-stop for a door that always wants to naturally close but I want to keep open.  The door to my heart often needs helping hand 😊.  And even from my sofa,  these stop my heart being small and when my heart is bigger I can say yes more often to love.  And I can find ways to love that person.

Questions for us all

  • What makes your heart contract? What makes it expand?
  • What’s happened to you that gets in the way of your capacity to feel and ‘do’ love? What helps you bypass that today?
  • What practices do you know you need to keep your heart open?

And for anyone who wants to work with the multitudes within, take a look at Shadow Work or Focusing as way in to that.

Helena x

As at 5 September, I have two spaces remaining on my new Leading from Love programme, a 6 week online exploration of love in the context of leadership.  What do we mean by love and how can we make it a useful, robust and pragmatic resource for our organisations and workplaces?  Details here, if that sounds interesting. We start on 18 September …

And you can sign up my monthly Newsletter exploring love and leadership here

  • Steve T

    Yet another thought proving (and for me, timely) piece. Have you been peeking into my mind when I’m not looking.

    And, a very personal reflection. I too have followed the ‘big life’ path and would, in general, advocate that approach – particularly in what Richard Rohr refers to as the ‘first half of life’. But one of my learnings has been that, in this phase of my life, continuing that is at odds with finding and pursuing what I need for the expansion of my heart space. For me, right now, the metaphor is more about depth than it is about about size – which may just saying the same thing in a different way.

    Thank you Helena – and much love

    • Helena Clayton

      Thanks Steve … and reading this makes me think of our Map of Meaning training together and how we started to explore some of this territory around the same time.
      And for me, I am also exploring what sort of courage it takes for me to actively step away from what no longer serves me … and step more fully into living from the heart #workinprogress
      Much love to you, H x


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