Guarding Your Heart in an Age of Overload

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And everyday, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this!” And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, “No, this is what’s important.”

“Every Word You Cannot Say”

Iain Thomas

A friend of mine posted the above quote on Facebook a couple of weeks ago and it gave me a few ideas about what it means in today’s world. Every Word You Cannot Say is on Amazon Unlimited and is worth the reading. So is Thomas’ work on Sappho, which is up on his website. 

Each of us must know our limits, set our boundaries, and live life to the fullest within the boundaries we’ve set for ourselves. The problem comes in when we’re constantly dragged around by conflicting obligations and we have no sense of what it means to guard our hearts. 

We live in an age of overload. The fast pace of the internet, the overwhelming number of options, and the constant barrage of marketing messages are everywhere. If you try to ignore it, play catch-up to break into certain markets. If you go with the flow, you’re in danger of losing yourself. 

How do you “yank your hand back” when everyone is reaching for it? I think we have an innate fear of saying “no” because we fear it will limit our options, deny us room for growth, or it will make us seem selfish. But saying “no” is necessary. So is guarding our hearts against the people who would rip it out without a second thought. 

Revisiting the concept of “guarding your heart”

If you came through the fundamentalist movements that made families like the Duggars and the Plaths (along with TLC) famous, then you may have heard the phrase “guarding your heart” from the rigid purity culture those movements fostered. If not, then congratulations, you get a much less rigid explanation of what “guarding your heart” looks like. 

In short, “guarding your heart” is setting boundaries. With EVERYTHING. It’s not about some arbitrary spiritual practice you must do or dare damnation. If you make guarding your heart a spiritual practice, then I’m all for that. We are not only bodies, after all. But neither are we spirits who inhabit bodies. We are both. 

Which means you have to work in both realms. Spiritual and physical. Physically guarding your heart means stopping before you reach your physical limit. That means kissing hustle culture goodbye and actually taking that PTO you’ve earned. Or allowing yourself that 10-minute freewrite, the journaling session you keep putting off, or start reading that book you always wanted to. 

Spiritually guarding your heart is as simple as not spending time or energy on people or issues which drain your energy or push you into depression. Especially if you have depression. Don’t even try to poke that bear. We all know the final symptom of depression and the cardinal rule of having depression is AVOIDING THE FINAL SYMPTOM. 

Trust me, I’ve had depression for most of my life at this point and survived to tell the tale. So far.

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Knowing your own limits protects you and everyone around you.

If you don’t know your own limits, then someone else almost certainly will figure them out. And they may not have your best interests in mind. In fact, I can almost guarantee you that unless you are extremely fortunate, they won’t. And, if you’re extremely independent and strong-willed, the last thing you want is for someone else to put limits on you.  

Knowing your limits involves some very uncomfortable scrutiny and even more uncomfortable truths about yourself. Sometimes, “no” doesn’t just protect us, it protects everyone around us. When you succumb to the pressure at work, do you realize just how much damage you can cause to other people? 

You hurt yourself, yes, but you hurt people around you, too. Sometimes without even meaning to. Trust me, I’ve done this. I’ve been there. And the only thing that is worse than breaking down is realizing how many people you’ve hurt during your breakdown. 

It’s the rottenest feeling in the world and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. So, if you think you’re being selfish by taking a little time for yourself before you have that breakdown, you aren’t. 

We all have a breaking point whether we want to admit it. I think most people don’t like to think about their limits, because no one enjoys being told “no.” Unless we’re introverts and the “no” is to going out one evening. 

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Setting Boundaries is Protection

Part of being strong and authentic as a person is setting and protecting your boundaries. If you don’t stand for yourself and your principles, then anyone, and I mean anyone, can simply run ragged over you. Is anyone else out there going to protect you? 

Setting boundaries with yourself and with other people isn’t always pleasant. But protection doesn’t involve pleasant things. We forget that protection sometimes involves violence. And it involves doing things which revile us on some level. That’s why veterans and first responders have PTSD. They have to do horrible things to protect others. 

You will have to cut people off, leave money on the table, exit social platforms, and even shutter some of your endeavors at some point to keep your boundaries strong. You will lose followers, subscribers, family, friends, and even old patterns of thought. There will even come a point when feel completely alone. 

This will cost you, so be prepared to pay the price. FOMO “Fear of Missing Out” is a genuine fear, but it’s one you must overcome if you’re going to take responsibility for your own well-being. Because yes, setting boundaries is limiting. But it’s necessary to protect your well-being and everything that rests on it. 

Other things outside of yourself rest on your well-being. If you volunteer for an organization, those people rely on you. Your family relies on you. If you have children, they rely on you. Your business and employees rely on you. 

So protecting yourself is perhaps one of the least selfish thing you can do, particularly if your intention to ensure others can rely on you. 

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Do everything you can within your boundaries

Once you have boundaries and you’ve successfully kept them, don’t remain dead center. Live at the end of your boundaries as often as you can without breaking. Why? Because the people who are worth keeping in your life will recognize that you aren’t just staying in your comfort zone for the sake of being there. 

You may even find that you can expand your limits after a while. 

It’s not the opposite of a growth mindset, but it’s not the “improve every day by 1%” maxim either. Some days, you may only keep the status quo. That is all right. It may not be the trendy business advice out there, but it comes from a place of long, hard-earned experience. With a few breakdowns along the way.

If you suffer from mental health problems, constantly pushing yourself to get that 1% improvement per day doesn’t always work. Some days, you’re lucky if you can get out of bed. Others, you may be lucky if you can at least keep it together throughout the day. 

There’s nothing wrong with the status quo from time to time. If it gives you the rest you need so that you can improve that 1% the next day, or the day after, then so be it. Who knows? You may end up improving 2% that next day, or 10%, or more.

We’re not machines that can just get recalibrated. We’re human beings, body, soul, flesh, and spirit. There’s a far more delicate balance to keep. You can’t just say, “if you aren’t improving every day, you’re failing.” That’s extremely short-sighted and graceless.  

I hear there are some Puritans in the 1640s that may like that kind of attitude. Although, a word of warning, they also enjoyed burning witches, beheading kings, and forcing people they didn’t like into indentured servitude. So, good luck with that. 

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Protecting your heart is just as painful as giving it away.

We have the romantic notion that giving away your heart is the most important risk you will ever take. As the old saying goes, “it’s better to have loved and lost.” I think Iain Thomas is challenging our assumption on that point. Because what’s more painful, loving and losing or loving, but recognizing the person or entity you love will not love and honor you in the same way?

We create a false dichotomy when we only give ourselves the option of either getting hurt or keeping strong boundaries in place. Because it is possible to put yourself out there without leaving your heart unguarded and unprotected. 

And you shouldn’t just throw your heart away. That is madness. And it’s not an important risk—it’s a foolish risk. When in doubt, yank your hand back and protect your heart.

It is possible to keep your limits in place and your boundaries strong. It’s also possible to expand your boundaries so that one day you can move farther than you thought possible at one time. 

Loving and losing are painful. Putting yourself out there professionally, socially, and romantically is painful. Protecting your heart from people who would tear it apart without a second thought is just as painful. But if you look back and realize you could have done better for yourself, the regret that you didn’t hold out for something better is even more painful.

So, how will you protect your heart this week? Let me know in the comments! 

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