“It’s the hard things that break; soft things don’t break. The hard things are the ones that shatter into a million pieces.” This quote by C. Joybell C., poet and author, was the starting point for my thought in this post. I have been sitting on this one for a long time, too long or perhaps the right amount of time if the depth of breaths measured time. What matters is that one timely inhalation and exhalation recentered me and opened the door out of the cage. An open door does not automatically translate into wanting to cross the threshold. The awareness that it opened is the first signal of a choice to be made: staying in the cage, which became safe though it never was, or stepping outside into freedom that is unfamiliar though not wholly unknown.
For as long as I can remember, I have been wearing emotional armor. My visualization of such armor went through stages. As a child, it was a flimsy patchwork of barriers made of sticks and leaves, so to speak, adding maybe a blanket and a teddy bear. As a young adult, the armor was sitting on a windowsill, staring through the glass panes and focusing on nothing. A temporary optical redirection to distract the heart from the turmoil of the mind, resisting the impulse of self-harm, succeeding often. Through the years, that armor underwent various upgrades, from a shy and misaligned “layers of an onion” setup to a piece of abstract complex machinery made of wheels, levers, nuts, and bolts right underneath the skin but invisible from the outside. Eventually, I realized that wearing that armor kept me from living authentically.
Most of us wear some variation of emotional armor as a defense mechanism against things outside of us: other people’s opinions about who we are or what they may think of us, in short, judgment. The other side of that defensive device exists to protect our inner selves. We are separating ourselves from our thoughts and feelings by disconnecting and repressing them because we do not want to be hurt or cause hurt. No matter the reasons or the fine-tuning, the armor ends up turning us into someone we are not, losing touch with our sense of worth, often presenting as displacing, projecting individuals, and, in some cases, due to our unwillingness to face our issues, to behave imprudently and mindlessly. Those around us only see and hear what is visible, not who wears the armor.
I thought my armor had reached its highest degree of outward toughness and could withstand almost anything it encountered, keeping the core, who I am, as safe, equitable, and mindful as possible. It was not until I awoke from an odd dream that everything changed. I do not remember anything except for one part, a sentence: “Matter and antimatter particles are always generated as a pair, and when they come in contact, they destroy one another, leaving behind pure energy.” Over a cup of coffee at breakfast, I tried to extrapolate the sense of that sentence in my dream (as one does, and my mind works in unconventional ways). Is wearing armor ultimately an exercise in futility? Is “armor” then a misnomer, complicated, and unwanted “equipment”? The wrong word and concept? Yes. Boundaries replace armor. Boundaries keep both parties safe – armor becomes irrelevant.
The more one hurts, the more one fears. More fear leads to thicker armor. Thicker armor means more weight. Inevitably, the armor will crack and lead to a total breakdown of what it was supposed to protect: oneself. The armor is gone, the core exposed, and the realization materializes that real strength lies within and not in an ill-manufactured enclosure. The hardness, toughness, and strength that that armor seemed to embody snaps by its inflexibility and discomfort, leaving the beating, pliable, natural human core exposed and marked by the dings, scrapes, and scars the armor left behind while worn and come to light when it breaks down. It is a shocking discovery. The armor failed. Now what? Avoiding authenticity and vulnerability by wearing that emotional armor conceals and alters who we are – we do it to fit in, not to belong.
Roshi Joan Halifax wrote, “All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open… How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly – and letting the world see into us.”
As I stretched out my back from having sat too long immersed in reading and reflecting, my mind reeling even more, still trying to recover from a disproportionate number of emotional and physical storms this last year brought about, I had to smile. My back hurts, but my spine is fine, and it still squeaks and doggedly murmurs determination, resolve, and strength of character. Brené Brown writes, “When strengthening our back is our particular challenge, we are often driven by what people think. Perfecting, pleasing, proving, and pretending get in the way of the strong back. One way to strengthen our courage is to put BRAVING [as an acronym] into practice.” The following is a list of what that work looks like, according to Dr. Brown.
- Boundaries: Learning to set, hold, and respect boundaries.
The challenge is letting go of being liked and the fear of disappointing people.
- Reliability: Learning how to say what we mean and mean what we say.
The challenge is not overcommitting and overpromising to please others or prove ourselves.
- Accountability: Learning to step up, be accountable, take responsibility, and issue meaningful apologies when we are wrong.
The challenge is letting go of blame and staying out of shame.
- Vault: Learning how to keep confidences, to recognize what’s ours to share and what’s not.
The challenge is to stop using gossip, common enemy intimacy, and oversharing as a way to hotwire connections.
- Integrity: Learning how to practice our values even when it’s uncomfortable and hard.
The challenge is choosing courage over comfort in those moments.
- Nonjudgment: Learning how to give and receive help.
The challenge is letting go of “helper or fixer” as our identity and the source of our self-worth.
- Generosity: Learning how to set the boundaries that allow us to be generous in our assumptions about others.
The challenge is being honest and clear with others about what’s okay and not okay.
I have done and continue doing the work because the armor does not serve me. I want to invite you to do the same. I invite you to remove the armor – if not entirely shedding it – and show up as you are. What have you got to lose that you have not already lost by fitting in instead of belonging? Lighten your heart, mind, and soul — braving connection with oneself and one another.