Episode 22: Living From Heart Space
Five years ago, I had no idea that there was any such thing as operating from heartspace (as compared to headspace). Now I know that when I am feeling lost, overwhelmed, anxious or untethered, my heartspace is where I will find grounding and guidance. Learn more about the difference between headspace and heartspace, and how to cultivate your connection to your heartspace.
Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode.
If you haven’t been on my website lately, my Running on Empty quiz has been updated!! It has fewer questions, and when you complete the quiz, you can opt-in to receive your results via email along with some tips on combating burnout! Go to boothandrews.com and click on the Take the Quiz button.
So there's this great image I posted recently on my social channels by @haleydrewthis. The cartoon is of a stick figure brain and a stick figure heart talking to each other. The brain says “I have her best interest at heart.” And the heart says back “I AM her heart!”
Isn’t that the way it goes? Our brain is very good at protecting us. That is what it is wired to do. And when we are in danger or perceived danger, our brain takes over. Sometimes completely.
I have shared that I idolized Spock from the Star Trek series when I was young. I learned from a number of role models to respect my brain and my intellectual capacity and to be afraid of the vulnerability (and perceived weakness) associated with my heart and my emotions. My brain ran the show for most of my first 42 years on this earth.
After many years of shutting them down, whenever my emotions came to the surface, which was very, very rarely, they were wild and raging. They took me to places that were dark and deep and angry. I remember not allowing myself to drink too much alcohol in part because I couldn’t trust what would come out of my mouth if the filters came off.
So many of us have been taught not to trust our emotions. We have been told that emotion is weak. That people will exploit our weakness to hurt us. We have been told us that emotions are capricious. That decisions grounded in emotion are dangerous. We have been encouraged to learn to control our emotions. We have been taught to deny them with phrases like, “you shouldn’t feel that way,” “you don’t have a right to feel that way,” “suck it up,” “don’t cry,” “don’t be angry,” “don’t be sad,” “SMILE!” We have been taught that our feelings are not relevant data points. Or that they will misdirect us.
If we are smart, we will keep our thoughts and feelings separate. Right?
Or, maybe not . . .
What we may not realize, and I certainly didn’t, is that when we let our brain have all of the control, when we operate completely in headspace, the survival mechanism that helped us stay safe when we were young can become destructive. In an effort to preserve connection at all costs, we lose sight of the price we are paying.
I have also shared how shocked I was back in 2010 when, during a 30-day meditation series, I became aware that I was operating from a space of fear. Before that realization, I had absolutely no idea that fear was a driving undercurrent in my life. But somewhere, deep inside in a place I could not hear, the drums of “never enough” had been the controlling rhythm of my life for decades.
I have now learned so much more about the contrast between living in headspace and living in heart space.
“When we live in headspace, we have a constant chatter of thoughts that are limiting, loathing, critical, denying, worrisome, insecure, projecting fear or judgment. Sometimes these thoughts are even soothing or empathetic in a way that is blaming someone else for how we are feeling. It’s what we have learned from our childhood conditioning and learned responses to challenges and adversities.
Living in headspace means our self-image is determined by what others think of us; therefore it is constantly changing to adapt to other peoples’ opinions of us. Our sense of Self is made up of all the things others have told us in regard to who they think we are and who we are not. It is very limiting and constraining as we try to mold ourselves into an image that others will like.” When we are operating from headspace, we might feel anxious, stuck, like our throat is closing or our chest is heavy.
And here is the good news . . .
“If it feels constraining or limiting then it’s not the truth of who you are because the truth is not limiting, that’s why it sets you free.”
Operating from heart space feels completely different from operating in head space.
“Operating in heart space means operating from a place of inner knowing. A knowing that cannot be explained, but felt. We feel light, free, expansive and alive. We don’t question why we are doing what we are doing, but we feel pulled to it. Living from our heart space means listening to our feelings and understanding what they are telling us. It feels just right and aligned to who we are. It feels authentic.” If feels calm, peaceful and relaxed. When we are operating from heart space, our chest may feel light, open or expansive.
How can you begin to live from your heart space?
“Begin by practicing awareness of your feelings and how you feel about anything. I like to sometimes put my hand on my heart and tune into the energy of my body and ask myself “How do I feel about this”. Our feelings indicate what’s moving for us and how it is being played out in the body. For example, if you are feeling anxious. Feel for your anxiety. Where do you feel it in your body? What color does it have? Give it a name. Describe it. Creating ways to understand our feelings allows us to better decipher what they are telling us.
When we take the time to acknowledge and feel our feelings, we can learn to make better decisions that are for our highest good. Heart energy is always loving, supportive and empowering. When we live from our heart space we are self-compassionate.”
The answers we hear in heart space do not come from our head. Most often, for me, they come from a place somewhere in the vicinity of my sternum or breastbone.
When we practice listening to what our body has to say, we become more adept at noticing the messages it sends our way through physical sensations.
When I was in some of the darkest days of my mental illness, I went to a restorative yoga class. I couldn’t even do the gentle, heart opening poses. I was so physically locked down that every pose was painful. And as the instructor encouraged us to extend compassion to ourselves, I just fell apart. The tears flowed and I quietly exited the class.
I remember my heart hurting for months. It physically HURT.
When I find myself in a situation that does not align with my well-being, I get sensations of feeling stuck--throat closed, chest heavy and tight. My head starts to churn and spin and ruminate.
When I am in alignment with the greater knowing that comes with stepping into heart space, I feel grounded, peaceful and expansive, even if the decision or action I am taking is a risk.
At the top of my goals document for 2019, I wrote the following:
”When in doubt, go to your heart space. Everything you need is there.”
And now I want to share an email I wrote to a few of my closest on January 6, 2017 (for some context, I had begun an immersive 200 hour yoga teacher training the prior October). The email reads:
“The past two yoga weekends (Nov and Dec) were pretty rough for me. I had a trauma reaction in November that I got to revisit a little bit in Dec. Both weekends, by Sunday afternoon, I was ready to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head. I didn't, I stuck it out, but I really wanted to jump ship.
At the same time, I have been doing work with my therapist on reconnecting with the little girl who "exited the building" long ago back into my present life. The pieces of me that I tucked (or shunted) away for safety . . .eventually unable to restore the connections even if I wanted to.
As part of this process, in September, I stopped by [my sister's] house to try to find a photo of me before the abuse began. For context, I have not been able to look at photos taken during my childhood since Mom died. But I gathered my courage and did it anyway. I could find one around age 3 which was definitely pre-abuse and then I found one around age 6-7, by which time the abuse had already begun.
I went through an exercise with my therapist wherein I invited that innocent three year old girl back. Even so, I still had a block. I knew that at some level, I didn't love myself. My head KNEW that I should, but my heart wasn't feeling it.
Back in therapy, we explored why . . . I stopped loving myself around age 4 because I was "bad." I believe that, when I was young, [my abuser] and I had a connection. Even as an adult (it sounds weird, I know, but it’s true), I could put my head on her shoulder and my body would naturally exhale a deep release of whatever stress, anxiety or other burden I was carrying in me at the time. I have been told that she used to get me out of my crib at night and play with me because we were both night owls.
But around 4-5, she turned on me. She not only withdrew her love whenever I was "bad" but she also started trying to beat the will out of me. Literally.
There came the lesson: "You do not deserve love because you are bad. If you aren't getting love, it is all your fault. If you were 'good'--if you were 'good enough'--you would be safe, and I would love you." As you know, I spent the next three decades plus trying to prove that I was "good enough" and trying to find and then to create safe spaces for myself. We did the work (my therapist and me) to try to lay new connections for me about that little girl and her worthiness of love and safety.
That night, at the launch of another yoga weekend, I found myself rocking involuntarily. Rocking that little girl. And then on Sunday, I had a trauma reaction during the workshop. It took me several days to get my bearings after that--I was emotionally and physiologically exhausted.
Thanksgiving weekend, sorting through photos, I found this one that [my sister] had posted on Facebook:
I'm the one with the deer-in-the-headlights look. When I looked at the picture, completely unannounced, my inner voice said: "That's her. That's the age you were when things started to change."
The next morning, walking through downtown, the voice inside me said, "I don't hate you(?). I love you." It was an incredulous moment. Subtle and quiet but still--defining.
The last days/weeks have been like many other days/weeks--putting one foot in front of the other and doing the best I can do each day with what I have--staying within my limits and making adjustments as needed. I didn't sense much movement along my path.
Then tonight, as we entered meditation to kick-off another yoga training weekend, I was met with an image . . . an image of a little girl, THIS girl, peeking outside the curtain of my center where I carry her now, wanting to play. Peek-a-boo to be exact.
It was an incredible moment.
Afterward, I also noticed "opening" in my heart/chest wall, right between my heart and my left arm/shoulder that has been very tight and very restricted for as long as I can remember being aware of it (the past few years for sure).
Wow. Just wow.
No idea what is next, but oh so grateful for this moment. Wanted to share.”
And that was the end of the email.
Some of us may need the support of a professional in order to restore the connections to our heart space. For me, it also took an immersive yoga program--a program I signed up for precisely because I knew I needed the practice of yoga to support my physical and emotional re-integration.
Hope Knosher, Founder of Hope’s Yoga wrote on mindbodygreen.com about seven ways to consciously cultivate your heart space:
1. Consciously breathe into your heart space.
During your meditation or breathing practice, or just a few times a day when you have a moment, breathe deeply into the area of your heart. Imagine this area expanding and opening with each inhale. When we bring space and awareness to our thoughts, habits and beliefs, we open up the opportunity to choose to activate news thoughts, beliefs and habits.
2. Experience heart-opening yoga poses.
There are a number of heart-opening yoga poses of different intensity. If you are new to the practice, start wish some of the more gentle ones. A restorative yoga class is a great place to experience these poses in a supported way.
3. Practice more compassion than you know what to do with.
Nataly Kogan defines self-care within a framework of treating yourself with the compassion you usually reserve for people you care about. I love this definition; particularly for those of us who may have been taught or just be wired to be incredibly hard on ourselves. Would we say the things we say to ourselves to the people we love and care for? Often, the answer to that question is a resounding NO. The practice of observing our thoughts and feelings, without actually becoming attached to them or judging them, and extending compassion to ourselves during the process, allows us to let those thoughts and feelings to continue on their path without hijacking the plane.
4. Remember that gratitude isn't just a cliché.
There is extensive research on the benefits of gratitude in supporting overall well-being, happiness, health, and performance. When I start to spin in my head with anxious thoughts, I find that listing specific things that I am thankful for is a powerful antidote. It brings me back out of head space toward heart space.
5. Get far outside of yourself.
Even when I was still deep in healing from severe mental illness, as soon as I was able, I found a volunteer position. For a time, the four hours per week that I spent volunteering were the only four hours in a week that I did not spend drowning in my own head.
6. Make connections — consciously.
Connect with people with whom you are able to be REAL. People who love you unconditionally, warts and all. And people who are willing to be real and vulnerable with you. Invest in connection with people who can hold the space for you and for whom you can hold space to explore living, operating and connecting in heart space instead of head space.
7. Get super silly!
Hope writes: “Be that child you once were, before the world told you who to be. Play your favorite music and dance. Sing in the shower. Walk barefoot in the rain. Laugh.
My inner child was walled off along with my heart, before I began my journey. In an unforgettable moment during meditation, I experienced a significant shift and emotional release. In that moment, my inner little girl danced. As a matter of fact, she hasn't stopped dancing and singing and playing and laughing since that moment. That doesn't mean that life is always a dream or that I'm always smiling. It simply means my inner child is alive and well, and once again a part of who I am.”
It would be natural to ask right about now . . . well how do I decide when to operate from head space and when to operate from heart space? I am not sure my boss, team, staff, or friends are going to go for all of this “heart” stuff. I have to have my head in my business for it to succeed!!
I get it. Totally.
I am going to propose a theory that I will admit is not fully tested. In every decision we make in our lives and our businesses, there is room for us to operate from heart space. Heart space is where we need to be grounded when we are taking risks, facing our fears, and navigating difficult emotions. Heart space is where we decide to launch the new business, product or program. Heart space is what grounds us when we are stepping outside of our comfort zone.
Head space is where we execute on the decisions we have made. We gather data, build strategies, make plans, check off the lists. And whenever we start to feel lost, overwhelmed, anxious, or the gremlins in our head start to take over, we use all of the practices and skills we have learned to help us return to heart space.
For more information about the work that I do with individuals, groups and organizations go to boothandrews.com. You can also find me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @theboothandrews.
Thank you for listening. If you haven’t already, please hit subscribe and remember to rate this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts.
I look forward to being back with you next time!