Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve

To do it or not

Wearing your heart on your sleeve

Its your heart, your call.


Wearing your heart on your sleeve refers to someone who openly expresses their emotions. I’ve heard it used in both derogatory and laudatory contexts, which is not surprising given how loaded the expression of emotion is for many of us. I find that many of us would like to freely express ourselves and we have learned to avoid it. Sometimes its because our emotions haven’t been respected, with people using our feelings to manipulate and hurt us, taking advantage of what becomes perceived as a vulnerability.  Other times we feel judged for our emotions, “that’s silly, its just an animal.   .   .” or “aren’t you over that yet”.

Or we are taught that it is wrong, weak, unprofessional, fill in the blank, to express emotions. “Big boys/girls don’t cry” and all that. So we learn to muffle our emotions, our expressions. If we are lucky, we remain aware of what we feel, even as we may limit our expression. Other times, things get so shut down, that we are unaware, and then look outside of ourselves for what we “should” be feeling, what is an acceptable way to be reacting. I find this particularly dangerous because when this occurs, there is a loss of awareness or trust in ones self and sense of what is okay and what is not, leaving one ripe for manipulation.

The costs of unexpressed/unacknowledged emotions are high. Suppressed anger, hurt, fear and resentment often come out sideways, expressed as an outburst of rage, generally targeted at something or someone a long ways from the original source. Scapegoating is easy under these circumstances, as is “kicking the dog”, where one is unable to express anger to who they are actually mad at, say the boss, and then comes home from work and kicks the dog (or spouse, or child, etc, etc). Not healthy. There are many that say that anger is a “secondary” emotion, developing in response to something else, such as fear, hurt or sadness. For men in particular, anger is acceptable, while the other emotions are not, which explains a number of strange behaviors, like yelling at someone who is hurt because the yeller is frightened.

Other times, when the heart is walled off, often for protection from what is too unbearable to feel, or in the case of circumstances where there is not opportunity or support for feeling, what results is emotional shut down, numbness and depression. In avoiding the hard/painful stuff, one is also shut off from the good stuff. There’s lots of this going around these days.

What to do? Learn to listen to yourself, your heart, your emotions. Respect whatever is there, as there is not a right or wrong feeling to have. Learn that you can feel whatever you feel, even as you also learn that it isn’t necessary to act on everything your feel. Tell yourself the truth about what is going on and what you are feeling. Sometimes something is not okay even as you wish it was.

Know that what is in your sleeves (your arms) are in line with your heart. How you use your arms, reaching out or pulling back may well reflect the state of your heart and emotions. Consider if you are doing things the way you want to be doing them. There is no “right way” to be in the world. Sometimes we do want/need to openly express and feel our feelings, and at other times and under different circumstances, being closed and carefully guarding our hearts is a very healthy choice. To me, it is important that we be aware of what we are doing and why. Along with that, giving ourselves permission to reassess and change our decision is also important.

In one of my professional training programs, I was introduced to the concept of “bracketing”. There are times when something that I have an emotional response to will happen, and because of the nature of my work (physician, therapist), going into my emotions in that moment is not appropriate, I have work to do, such as caring for this person in a serious circumstance. This is also true for many first and emergency responders.  In those circumstances, I notice and (bracket) my emotional responses. Then, when the crisis has passed, or I am off duty, I can deal with my bracketed feelings.

While its very important to be able to bracket one’s feelings at times, it is equally important to go back and attend to those bracketed emotions as well. This has been recognized at long last by the military and first responder communities, and the beginnings of support for dealing with these responses are occurring, such as  providing critical incident debriefing and support for those with PTSD. There is still considerable stigma attached to these issues, as long held traditions and habits of not dealing with emotions are changing slowly.

Courage comes from the latin word for heart. It is indeed courageous to attend to deal with what is in one’s heart. I believe that each effort in this direction, however small it may seem, makes a difference in the world. Every little bit helps each of us and our world to heal. Perhaps you don’t want to wear your heart on your sleeve all the time, but know that you can listen to your heart and live more from your heart. It will make a difference.




6 thoughts on “Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve

  1. I can see the bracketing part. I was a deputy sheriff for 25 years and I did a lot of bracketing. Now that I’m retired I do what I want. I wear my heart on my sleeve with my great granddaughter. Can’t help myself.

    Have a fabulous day. ♥

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I bet you know way more about bracketing than you would like, and also a culture that doesn’t always support addressing that which has been bracketed. Lovely that now you have the counterpoint of a great-granddaughter so that you can let it flow. I see that often with grandchildren–the heart comes out of hiding. Enjoy!


  2. I come from a long line of “cowboys” and cowboys suck it up. I’m not one of them. So…my mom was in the hospital messed up and demented from mysterious causes. The doc did a brain scan and found a couple of things. One, tons of calcium. Well, not tons, but too much. Two, lesions from years of alcohol abuse. The calcium we figured out — she’d pretty much been living on Tums (she had an undiagnosed ulcer) and from that I learned it’s possible to OD on Tums (which I find grimly funny). The other? No one knew. She was a successful secret drunk. ONE of her sisters had figured it out, but not for certain.

    It was Montana, February, 20 inches of snow, cold. I was at my Aunt Jo’s house when the doc called to tell me his findings. I was shocked, like someone had hit me. I said, “Are you sure?”

    “Absolutely,” he said. “Your mom has been an alcoholic a long time. She’s got so much brain damage, she can never go home again.”

    In that moment I understood (dimly, it took years to fully get it) something I hadn’t. I also felt desperately sad and began to cry. My beloved and loving Aunt Martha said, “Quit yer crying. You have work to do.”

    My style is to cry first, clear my mind, get to work, but for them? I understood. I went outside, grabbed a snow shovel and started to clear the driveway. I COULD work it out. But my sweet Uncle Hank (Jo’s husband) came out to help. He’d had open heart surgery only months before. This couldn’t be. I said, “That’s enough. I’m beat,” and we went in the house. But I wasn’t OK. I need to discharge all those feelings, so I went out the back door, to the pasture and ran across it to a huge cage where a local vet kept raptors he was rehabbing. I turned back toward the house and saw my Uncle Hank coming toward me.

    I never felt more loved in my life. He was determined to be my companion in whatever I was feeling. He knew — as I knew — that I’d do what I had to do. Find my mom a nursing home, all of that. I would do it, but I couldn’t do it at that moment anyway. I wish I knew WHAT in my mom’s and her sister’s background made them so afraid of their feelings. They were all like that. Maybe it was growing up in the depression, maybe it was my grandparents, but I will never know.

    Sorry for all this, but your post struck a chord. Feelings give us information that we need and though I know it’s necessary sometimes to bracket them, it’s also important to feel and identify them. It took me therapy to understand what information my emotions had to give me. ❤ Your clients are lucky.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the cowboy and pioneer culture largely valued works over feelings. Understandable on one level, when there is so much that need be done, and on another level, as you recognize, it gets really toxic. Leading to all sorts of stuff, including alcohol (and Tums) addiction. So glad you had your Uncle Hank who could see you and support you in doing it your way. As you note, you were going to get all the details attended to, but first you needed to have a good cry. Its the balance that makes the difference. In my professional life, to some extent its work first, and I”ve also discovered that sometimes showing my emotion by getting tears in my eyes is powerful for clients–they can be surprised and it breaks their long held belief that “their stuff doesn’t matter, or someone else has it worse, so my stuff doesn’t count”. Being sad for what their child self had to go through can be powerful. Course, I still have to (mostly) keep it together, as its their session, not mine.
      Good for you on breaking the family trance on feelings–its not easy to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. ‘Bracketing’ – I really like that concept.

    I am definitely a ‘heart on the sleeve’ type person. At times, I’ve wished I could be a little less so, but maybe all I really need to do is start bracketing 😉

    Thanks Steph ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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